The Practice of Creativity

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I heard about Shannon Page and her new edited book, The Usual Path to Publication: 27 Stories about 27 Ways in from a podcast. I immediately thought, what a brilliant idea for a book—one that pulls back the curtain on “breaking in”. I picked up The Usual Path soon after and finished it in one sitting. The book is poignant, funny, heartbreaking, inspiring and much more. The authors, many who write speculative fiction, share intimate experiences about the writing life and the often nonlinear ways that one becomes published. The stories clearly demonstrate that there is really no one secret path to getting published, especially in this current moment of change in the publishing industry. This book provides useful insights for both established and emerging writers about building community, dealing with rejection and interacting with editors and agents. I’ve been pressing it in to the hands of many writer friends.

This book evolved from a panel at the Cascade Writers Workshop. Intrigued by that fact, I decided to reach out to Shannon and learn more about her experience as an editor.

Shannon Page’s work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Interzone, Fantasy, Black Static, Tor.com, the Proceedings of the 2002 International Oral History Association Congress, and many anthologies, including the Australian Shadows Award-winning Grants Pass, and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. Her books include Eel River; the collection Eastlick and Other Stories; and Our Lady of the Islands, co-written with the late Jay Lake. Our Lady received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2014, and was a finalist for the Endeavour Award.

I’m delighted to welcome Shannon Page to the Practice of Creativity

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-Tell us about your recent edited collection, The Usual Path to Publication: 27 Stories about 27 Ways In. What are you hoping this book will provide readers?

I definitely hope folks will have fun reading it, but I hope even more that writers (newer and otherwise) will find it inspiring and encouraging. Writing can be a lonely, frustrating endeavor, especially after the first time you show your golden words to someone…and get a rejection. I truly believed that the first novel I ever submitted—a giant, overwritten doorstop of a thing, mailed over the transom to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, because I was that delusional—was going to result in a gushing acceptance letter and a fat check. Well, it did not, and my efforts for a few years thereafter to get an agent met with similar results.

But in the process of gathering rejections, I started meeting other writers and sharing stories, and that was what kept me going. I learned that “overnight success” never came overnight at all: that it took years of persistence, of honing one’s craft, of not giving up. I learned that we are all in this together, and that there is no one true path to making it—despite all the how-to-get-published advice I devoured every chance I got. Yes, there is random lucky chance involved in a lot of publication stories, but that random chance will not find you if you are not out there, open to it, working on it.

-This is your first nonfiction project as an editor. What did you enjoy about being an editor? What did you learn about yourself while editing this project?

I love editing; I learned that when I edited the anthology Witches, Stitches & Bitches for Evil Girlfriend Media a few years ago. I love gathering all the pieces and assembling them into a compelling whole. There’s a lot of the same creative joy that comes with being a writer, except with editing, you get so much more diversity. I can write a dozen stories—dark and light, fantasy and science fiction and horror, long and short—and put them together in a collection, but they will still all be by me; my voice, my themes, my sensibility will come through. With an edited collection, you can range so much more widely.

And I just LOVED it when the stories came in. I would squee with delight each time a new one hit my inbox. It was so cool and generous that so many wonderful authors were willing to share their stories.

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-You knew some of the writers prior to this project and maybe even some of their publication stories, but probably not all. Which essays were a surprise to you?

I actually didn’t know most of the stories, or not in any detail. Chaz Brenchley is one of my best friends—he was my Best Person at my wedding, in fact—but I didn’t know his story, or, well, his three interwoven stories. Though I knew there were lots of odd tales out there, I was perhaps a little surprised at how few writers followed a “traditional” path to finding their way in (make your name with short stories, then leverage that into a novel deal). Even those who did so did not follow that path in any straightforward way. So I would say almost all the stories surprised me in their particulars, even though I’d expected a variety of unusual paths.

 
 -What kind of advice about pursuing publication would you offer to a younger writing self?

I’d say keep trying—and not just trying to get published per se. Learn your craft, and hone it. Join critique groups, and listen to the feedback. Write a lot, a lot, a LOT. And read a lot. Persistence in all these things is the answer: make your work as brilliant as you can, and keep sending it out there. You will find your audience.

 
-What’s next for you? What are you working on?

I’ve got a few things in the works. Next up is a SUPER fun project, a cozy mystery/romance novel I wrote with my good friend Karen G. Berry, set on remote Orcas Island, Washington. We’re publishing it under the not-secret pen name Laura Gayle (our middle names, sort of); it’s called Orcas Intrigue, it’s recently released and you can find it here.

Beyond that, I’d like to do another few “Usual Path” essay collections, because I love people’s personal stories, and the first volume was so much fun. My ideas for future volumes include The Usual Path to Love and Romance (relationship origin stories) and The Usual Path from Here to There (moving stories—why do you live where you live?). But I am not allowed to work on those until I get a few unfinished novels out of the pipeline. Plus volume 2 of the Orcas mystery.

 
-What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Sort out your space and time needs. What I mean by that is, none of us have enough time; and the vast majority of us do not live in palatial mansions with endless rooms. But writing takes focus; it’s very hard to write in the midst of chaos and interruptions. Everyone’s particulars will vary, so you need to figure out your way of carving out your writing time and place. When I had a full-time day job, I wrote right when I got home; my then-husband had a longer commute, so he got home an hour later. That was my hour, every day, and I used it diligently. A friend who lived in a tiny apartment with her spouse converted a closet into an “office”. By which I mean, she just stuck a desk in there and took off the closet doors—voila, writing space, and when she was in there, her spouse knew she was working. Figure out what your obstacles are and do what you can to fix them. Get up an hour early in the morning; meet a friend in a café on a regular basis; turn off the internet; get noise-canceling headphones or a room with a door that locks or whatever it takes. And write as regularly as you can. If you’re working on something every day or nearly every day, it starts to come alive in your head. Pretty soon, you won’t be able to not write.

 

Shannon Page was born on Halloween night and spent her early years on a back-to-the-land commune in northern California. A childhood without television gave her a great love of the written word. At seven, she wrote her first book, an illustrated adventure starring her cat Cleo. Sadly, that story is out of print, but her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Interzone, Fantasy, Black Static, Tor.com, the Proceedings of the 2002 International Oral History Association Congress, and many anthologies, including the Australian Shadows Award-winning Grants Pass, and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk.

Her books include Eel River; the collection Eastlick and Other Stories; and Our Lady of the Islands, co-written with the late Jay Lake. Forthcoming books include The Queen and The Tower, first book in The Nightcraft Series; a sequel to Our Lady; and, writing with Karen G. Berry as Laura Gayle, Orcas Intrigue, the first book in the Chameleon Chronicles. Edited books include the anthology Witches, Stitches & Bitches, from Evil Girlfriend Media; several well-received novels from Per Aspera Press; and the essay collection The Usual Path to Publication.

Shannon is a longtime yoga practitioner, has no tattoos, and is an avid gardener at home with her husband, Mark Ferrari, in Portland, Oregon. She has a tiny office made from a toolshed in the back yard, where all the magic happens. Visit her at www.shannonpage.net.

 

 

I am so happy to participate in the blog tour of new author, Audrey Mei. I’m grateful to Quanie Miller, a wonderful writer and blogger who helped bring us together. Given Audrey’s amazingly diverse creative practices that run the gamut of music, writing, health and science, I knew she would be a great person to interview. In our correspondence, we’ve discovered that we have many overlapping interests.

Audrey Mei grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area before studying cello and biological psychology/pre-med in Boston (New England Conservatory of Music/Tufts University). Following graduation, she received a Fulbright Grant for graduate studies in cello performance at Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland.

Since 2006, Audrey has been dedicated to writing prose and poetry and has been published in Gangway Literary Magazine and Glimmer Train among others, as well as participating for several years in the Berlin English language literary scene. She is a world traveler at heart.

I’m delighted to welcome Audrey Mei to The Practice of Creativity.

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-Tell us about your recent book, Trixi Pudong and the Greater World. Why did you want to write this book?

Trixi Pudong and the Greater World is a family saga that follows a Shanghai family through four generations, beginning in 1937. Alongside the family’s history of war, revolution, addiction, and migration, there is a twist of magical: a fairy, a fortune-telling goatman, and two brothers who never step off a rusty container ship.

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The inspiration for this book came as I was researching my dad’s family history for fun. At the time, I was also living as a dirt-poor writer in Berlin. The ironic juxtaposition of everything my Chinese family had survived and the “privileged”-yet-poor artist life I was living in modern, cushy Germany gave me the impetus to write a book about how unpredictable the waves of history can be.

Also, my father is a natural storytelling genius. I felt that integrating his tales from Shanghai into a work of historical magical fiction would be a way for me to remember his stories as well as a way for them to potentially reach a wider audience.

-You have explored many wonderful professions in addition to writing including, being a classical cellist, a holistic healer, and a scientist. How have these other creative and intellectual pursuits contributed to your writing?

The single most important thing I’ve gained is the discipline of being a classical musician. Someone recently pointed out to me that classical music is the one artistic field which requires the highest investment in time, energy, and money for the least return in today’s economy. Where else do little kids practice hours a day, take expensive music lessons, take the “audition of their lives” to study at pricey conservatories, and spend five figures on an antique instrument… just for the slim chance at earning all that back in the vanishing classical music profession? It turns out that many music school graduates have taken their skills to innovative non-music jobs. A surprising number of tech workers in Silicon Valley, for example, are actually classical musicians.

Discipline is the greatest gift. I can’t say enough about it. Yet it is the one area where the most people fall short. Discipline is required to write, solve problems, continually improve, and mentally deal with the pain of critical feedback. Discipline is required to keep the mind free from destructive thoughts and to keep yourself focused on the highest level of quality you can manage.

The second skill I’ve gained through my experience is emotional awareness from working in holistic therapy for sixteen years. I listen to people’s stories, traumas, insecurities, and griefs. I follow their healing and their growth. I can’t be judgmental and I can’t be afraid of deep emotions otherwise my clients would stop seeing me. Therapeutic experience has also given me the “roadmap” of human motivations. Writing-wise, this helps me to create a stories that interweave motives and relationships that are rooted in true human psychology.

-Your book is being marketed as multicultural fiction. Can you share what this term means to you and why that’s an important distinction for this book?

It didn’t dawn on me that the term “multicultural” would be important in any way until I researched agents and realized, Wait, these agents would never, ever in a million years represent me. They all claimed to be interested in all genres of literary fiction, but early on, I got a strong gut feeling when I browsed agents’ client list and saw only your garden-variety white male (or female). And the only non-white authors being represented were invariably prison-camp survivors, Nobel laureates, or writers on “What it means to be [fill in ethnicity/disadvantaged class] in America.” The next stage of this realization came as I read agent interviews where they unabashedly declared their risk aversion to selling to an audience that they couldn’t relate to. In other words, there was a near-zero chance for a person like myself who is just telling a story.

But, as my writing teacher always emphasizes: The readers are out there. Unfortunately, as the traditional publishing industry has changed, world literature has fallen victim to the budgeting ax. It remains a question of reaching the right audience, but at the indie book level. Hence I saw how critical it is to designate a book properly to attract my target readers.

-What’s been the biggest surprise thus far in being published?

I’m astounded at how supportive other indie authors are. I’m also floored by how impossible it is for anyone with kids to write, publish, and market a book with no child care. I started writing Trixi Pudong in 2009, pre-parenthood. My daughter was born in 2014, and my writing screeched to a complete standstill. Without my mother-in-law donating 20 hours a week of babysitting, I simply wouldn’t have a book out. Period.

– What do you say to yourself on days when the writing feels especially difficult?

Just wait. What goes down must come up again. 

I’m very strict about this, to not put pressure on myself. I don’t work well under pressure. I would just produce garbage. But when inspiration comes on its own, it really flows and the process is nearly effortless. It’s therefore more important for me to find ways to let the inspiration flow. A meditation practice — being able to empty my mind to allow for ideas to emerge, aka “listen to your heart” lol — has been my best resource.

– What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

This is going somewhere, I promise: My dad is a retired professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. For a while decades ago, UCB topped even Harvard as the country’s best university, and this was because of his department. So he’s a pretty esteemed individual in his field (just don’t ask me anything about it!). At conferences and events, fellow professors and former students flock around him. I’ll never forget what some of his former grad students related to us at his 80th birthday celebration. According to these students, my dad always told them that, in the face of doubt:

Never compare yourself to anyone else.

Remember that no one else can do what you are doing.

 

Thank you to Michele for giving me the honor of guest-posting on your blog! You can find the rest of my blog tour schedule here.

 

One of the most amazing things about attending The Room of Her Own Foundation writing residency, in August, is that I got to meet extraordinary women writers. Before attending the retreat, the organizers set up a private Facebook group so that participants would have a chance to connect. And, connect we did. I noticed Jennifer Steil right away. She seemed charming, funny, helpful (often answering questions about hiking in the desert, acclimatizing to the altitude of Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, etc.), and passionate about writing. I saw the cover of her new book, The Ambassador’s Wife and was immediately intrigued. I love thrillers. At the retreat, I discovered that Jennifer possessed all of the above qualities and was so much fun to be around. And, she was also a great encourager, generous with her time and an enthusiastic hiker.

Jennifer Steil has lived an interesting life. She’s been kidnapped once, has traveled extensively and has authored The Ambassador’s Wife, a novel that is currently being adapted for a limited TV series. Anne Hathaway has signed on to play the starring role.

She is an award-winning American writer, journalist, and actor currently living in La Paz, Bolivia. Her first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (Broadway Books, 2010) is a memoir about her adventures as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a. The book received accolades in The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Sydney Morning Herald among other publications. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune called it one of the best travel books of the year in 2010, and Elle magazine awarded it their Readers’ Prize.

Jennifer’s second book and debut novel, The Ambassador’s Wife, was published by Doubleday this summer and is receiving rave reviews. Marie Claire named it one of the ‘9 Buzziest Books to Read This Summer’. The Ambassador’s Wife won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award.

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Jennifer has lived abroad since she moved to Yemen in 2006 to become the editor-in-chief of the Yemen Observer. After four years in Yemen and four months in Jordan, she and her husband Tim Torlot and daughter Theadora Celeste moved to London. She moved to Bolivia with her family in September 2012.

Her work has appeared in the World Policy Journal, Vogue UK, The Washington Times, Die Welt, The Week, Yahoo Travel, and The Rumpus.

I’m delighted to welcome Jennifer Steil to The Practice of Creativity.

Tell us about what inspired you to write The Ambassador’s Wife?

Well, I suppose the fact that I am an ambassador’s wife is partly to blame for the inspiration! But if I may backtrack for a bit of context? My first book was a very different kind of book, a memoir about the experience of running a newspaper in Sana’a Yemen and the wild journey I took with my Yemeni reporters. That first year in Yemen was the most challenging, hilarious, and rewarding year of my life. Writing my first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, felt very much like a continuation of my journalism career. Though it was the longest story I had ever published, I was just as exacting in my research. Al Qaeda experts read my pages on Al Qaeda, Arabists reviewed my transliterations, and I triple-checked all statistics and quotes.

By the time I had written the 79th draft of that book, I was pretty tired of telling the unvarnished truth. I wanted the freedom to fabricate. Also, I had just moved in with the man who is now my husband, who was then the British ambassador to Yemen. I went from living alone in the old city of Sana’a to living with Tim in a vast gated mansion we could not leave without bodyguards. We traveled in armored cars, had hostage negotiators in our guest bedrooms, and regularly dined with the foreign minister. It was surreal. Over our four years there I heard a thousand and one stories I was dying to use in a book. Only because I didn’t want to wreck my husband’s career so early in our relationship, I thought I had better fictionalize everything. I could place an entirely fictional narrative in our odd and fascinating context.

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The result is my new novel, The Ambassador’s Wife. Anyone who knows me will recognize certain autobiographical details. Like me, my character Miranda is an American married to a British ambassador. She is a vegetarian obsessed with exercise. And she has trouble keeping her mouth shut. But the rest is all made up! Miranda is an artist, a talented painter. I cannot draw or paint. She comes from Seattle, I was born in Boston. She is an only child, I have a sister. I have also never nursed a stranger’s child, been kidnapped for a prolonged period, or put my husband and students in danger.

There were a number of inspirations for the book. The opening scene, in which Miranda is kidnapped while hiking in the fictional country of Mazrooq, is based on my experience being taken hostage in Yemen. It happened in nearly the same way, though of course with a (happily for me) different outcome.

I was also thinking a lot about parenthood, as I had just given birth to my daughter when I began writing the book. I wondered what would happen if one parent wanted to adopt and the other didn’t, and then a child was dropped into their lives. What would happen? Which bonds would win out?

The more I wrote, the more issues came up. I have spent a great deal of time pondering the hazards of westerners trying to transplant their culture in radically difference countries. This is a key issues in the novel. While Miranda has the best of intentions in teaching a group of Muslim women to be artists, she ultimately places her students in danger. Her passion for her work and her white savior complex blind her. I also became interested in hostage negotiations, diplomatic crises, and the role of artistic expression in societies.

I also wanted to explore the power of Muslim women. Westerners often view Muslim women as powerless. I wanted to reveal some of the ways these women do have power. They have the power of their connections with family, with each other, power in the anonymity of their dress. It is the Muslim women who propel the plot of The Ambassador’s Wife. The ambassador ends up being the least powerful person in the book.

What’s been the most surprising aspect of being a published novelist?

Hate mail. I found it so shocking when I got my first hate email after publishing my first book that I couldn’t eat. I take everything personally, even notes from people who are clearly insane. I wasn’t prepared for the attacks. And the people who sent me hate mail after my first book came out took issue with me as a human being rather than with the book itself. That can be hard to take. And might be another reason I turned to fiction. At least with fiction perhaps people are more likely to attack the book than the author. Though I haven’t gotten any hate mail since The Ambassador’s Wife came out. Who knows what will come!

When I sold my first book, I had dinner with my friend Tom, who helped me find my (brilliant) agent. “You think your whole life will change when you publish a book,” he told me. “But it won’t. You’ll be amazed by how little it changes.” This is true. Publishing a book isn’t like starring in a film; you aren’t suddenly hounded by paparazzi and you don’t usually become an instant household name. You still have to get up in the morning and make your family breakfast, dress your daughter, and then go back to your keyboard and do the work. Keep doing the work.

I read in your bio that in 2012 you were a finalist for the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award. And, the next year, you won this award. Can you say something about what you learned about revising the novel between those two years? And, what gave you the determination to submit again?

Yes, I owe a lot to Rosemary James, who runs that contest! The first year I entered my novel, it had an obscure Italian name and was only half-finished. I entered it in the Novel-in-Progress category. By the time the contest rolled around again, I had completed the book and revised it several times. Largely thanks to editing from my agent and others, it had grown and changed immensely, so I entered it in the Novel contest. This is how the revision process goes for me. 1) I write what I think is a brilliant draft. I then rewrite it four or five times before submitting it to my agent. 2) My agent says that while this will someday be a brilliant draft, it isn’t there yet. She asks me questions, points out problems with the story and characters, and sends me back to work. 3) We do this a few more times. 4) We give the book to my editor, who asks questions, points out problems, and sends me back to work. 5) We do this a few more times. Each rewrite gets me to a new level. And I don’t think I could get there on my own. My editor and agent are essential. They drive me to produce better work. There are many days where I feel like I will vomit if I have to rewrite one more time. But I do it anyway.

I am a big fan of entering contests. If you don’t enter you can’t win. I try not to keep track of which contests I enter, so that when I win something it’s a happy surprise. But at this point in my career, rejections don’t bother me too much. Everyone gets rejected from literary magazines, even brilliant writers. Everyone gets rejected from a writing residency at some point. When I was an actor I read a book that said actors usually receive about 50 Nos for every Yes. “So go out there and collect your 50 Nos,” it said. So you can get to the Yes. I have collected a lot of Nos—and gotten to some Yeses.

Your novel explores global feminist ideas in some fresh and complex ways. Can you tell us about some of the tensions and contractions you played with in The Ambassador’s Wife?

When I first moved to Yemen in 2006, I met a Maltese woman at a dinner party who was raging against western feminists who came to Yemen with naïve ideas about how to “free the women.” You cannot simply take our western ideas about feminism and force them onto Yemeni women. (Or anyone else). You need to consider the context of these women’s lives. What kinds of things will actually help them and make their lives better/easier, and which things might just get them killed? You have to start with a basic respect for the culture, and an interest in learning all you can about it. Only armed with that knowledge can you begin to help anyone who lives in a very different world.

I lived in Yemen for four years, and spent time in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and the UAE. While running the Yemen Observer newspaper I became very close to my reporters, particularly the women. They taught me so much about their world, their limits, their aspirations. I let them tell me what they needed from me. I also discovered a lot about the things I take for granted in my own life.

One day when I was on my way to work, my taxicab driver began masturbating at the wheel. Horrified, I leapt out of the moving car in the middle of an intersection. I was in tears by the time I got to the office. But when I told my female reporters what had happened, they shrugged. “Oh yes, that happens all the time to us,” they said. “That is just what men are like.” There was a lot of information about the culture in that response.

My female reporters were the inspiration for the artists Miranda mentors. From them I learned how important their families were. That they would never move away from Yemen because they couldn’t imagine living far from their mother or sister or cousins. We Americans move around so much we assume that switching homes is an easy thing. But it isn’t for many people. It isn’t easy at all. This is another thing Miranda fails to understand. She sees a brilliant future for her star pupil Tazkia, but this future could only happen outside of Mazrooq, and Tazkia has no desire to leave her home.

Clearly, I could go on.

What three living writers would you want at a dinner party you were hosting? And why?

Oooh, Elena Ferrante! Because then I would find out who she really is! I am dying to know her entire life story and how much of her books is true and what her writing process is like. Oh, I could question her for days! Definitely Elena.

Caitlin Moran, because she just lets it all hang out. I love people who have no filter, who just say and do whatever the hell they want. She seems fearless to me, and fearless is good at a dinner party! Keeps things interesting.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, because she would call all of us on our bullshit.

What guidance can you give aspiring novelists?

There is no better training for becoming a writer—of fiction or nonfiction—than journalism. Reporters must write every single day, they must write to deadline and to word count, and they learn more about the world with every story. You will develop empathy for people very different from you. You will visit neighborhoods you would not ordinarily explore. You will do things that scare you. What could be better? I say skip the MFA (you don’t want to be in debt the rest of your life) and get a job at a small paper. You will learn which details are essential to your story and which are not. Your writing will improve with daily use. And you will, if you are any good, provide a useful service to the world.

Would you share with us your best writing tip?

Go away. Go far, far away. The best thing any writer could do for herself is to go out into the world and have adventures that will give her something to write about. Take risks. Go to difficult places and do impossible things. If you want a guaranteed fantastic story, give up a comfortable life and move to the most difficult country in the world. Stories will find you. In abundance. Of course, if you already have an uncomfortable and crazy life where you are, you’re all set!

Jennifer Steil completed an MFA in creative writing/fiction at Sarah Lawrence College and an MS in Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Since 1997, she has worked as a reporter, writer, and editor for newspapers and magazines in the US and abroad, while continuing to perform when in a country where it is legal to do so. In 2001, she helped to launch The Week magazine in the US, and worked there for five and a half years, writing the science, health, theater, art, and travel pages.

To find out more about Jennifer and how to purchase The Ambassador’s Wife, visit her website.

I met author Clifford Garstang a few weeks ago at Marjorie Hudson’s literary salon. His craft talk on the ‘story cycle’ captivated the audience. In listening to his journey from young writer to lawyer back to writer, I knew that I wanted to ask for an interview and share his wisdom here.

Garstang identified creative writing as one of his primary goals in college. He nurtured writing for many years while having a distinguished law career. He worked in international law in Singapore, Chicago, and Los Angeles with Sidley Austin, one of the largest law firms in the United States. Subsequently, he earned an MPA in International Development from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and worked for Harvard Law School as a legal reform consultant in Almaty, Kazakhstan. From 1996 to 2001, he was Senior Counsel for East Asia at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where his work concentrated on China, Indonesia and Vietnam.

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Garstang received an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. His award-winning collection of linked short stories, In an Uncharted Country, was published by Press 53 in 2009. Press 53 recently published his second book, What the Zhang Boys Know. Garstang’s work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, BlackbirdVirginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Cream City Review, Tampa Review, Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere and has received Distinguished Mention in the Best American Series. He won the 2006 Confluence Fiction Prize and the 2007 GSU Review Fiction Prize, and has had a Walter E. Dakin Felloswhip to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and scholarships to both Sewanee and the Indiana University Writers’ Conference, as well as residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts.

He is the editor of Prime Number Magazine and currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

I’m so happy to welcome Clifford Garstang to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

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1) Where did the idea for your current collection, What The Zhang Boys Know: A Novel in Stories come from?

In previous interviews I think I’ve given various answers to that question. The truth is that the book arises from several sources of inspiration, all of them important to one aspect or another. The setting—a condominium building in Washington, DC—comes from the building where I used to live. Even though I wrote the book after I moved away, the building’s design and location stuck with me. The main characters—a Chinese immigrant family—come from the extensive travel to China I was doing at the time that I conceived the book. The theme of loss comes from a number of directions all at once, which is probably why it manifests itself in so many different ways in the stories. A secondary theme, that of witness or observation, probably comes from my previous profession as a lawyer.

2) What’s compelling to you about the ‘novel in stories’ form?

For me, the form is more organic than the typical story collection, in that it grows and builds momentum as it does so. Each story usually stands on its own, but then also adds information that may impact the reader’s interpretation of other stories. So the whole is really greater than the sum of its parts. Put another way, short stories—which I love—are limited, usually, in time and space. By using other stories to fill in the blanks, the author can let some air into the book and enhance the reader’s experience. And yet, unlike a novel, the book can be consumed in pieces that should provide their own satisfaction. Best of both worlds, for me.

3) David Long in an interview said that endings should unlock “the energy” in a story. What does a good ending, in short fiction, accomplish, and how do you arrive at your endings?

I like Long’s way of putting it. For me, a good ending resonates with the reader. That is, the reader will recognize that there is more to the story than is revealed on the page. Life goes on, and I think it’s a good thing if the reader is curious about what’s next for the characters. That said, endings are very hard. Ideally, there is a central conflict to the story and that conflict should be more or less resolved. But once that is accomplished, the story can be something of a launching pad, suggesting, but not exploring, new worlds. I’m not sure I can really articulate my own process of ending a story, but in theory I’ll have the narrator or point of view consciousness look forward in some way that suggests both an ending and a beginning, often, but not always, by having the narrative focus on a concrete detail.

4) What does your writing practice look like?

It’s a mess! But, honestly, because writing is the focal point for my day, that’s what I begin with. That may be composing or editing, but I get to my desk first thing and keep going as long as I can. I generally do first drafts on the computer but for editing I often shift to a hard copy so I can see the thing on the page. That also allows me to escape the internet during the editing phase, in theory. I generally use afternoons to do all the other things that writers also have to do—submissions, arranging readings, blogging, book reviewing.

5) You manage to pack a lot into your day! You are an editor for Prime Number Magazine, and you blog at Perpetual Folly, and are working on two novels. How do these different activities feed into each other and you?

You forgot the play I’m writing! And the teaching I do! Really, though, I’m generally only working on one writing project at a time, so I have folders on my desk that represent each one and it’s not that hard to shift gears. All the other activities—the blogging, the magazine editing, the teaching—mean that I’m always thinking about literature, seeing other writers’ styles, having to articulate what works and does not work in a given technique. And of course all of these things give me additional exposure to readers, which I like to think may encourage people to take a look at my own work.

6) What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Something that I have to remind myself of from time to time is that the writing comes first, because that’s the only thing in your control. You can’t do anything about how readers will react, or what an agent or editor will say. All you can do is write the best story or poem or book that you can. So I’ve got a little sign on my desk to help me keep this in mind: Only Write!


Clifford Garstang, Author of In an Uncharted Country and What the Zhang Boys Know

Find out more about Clifford at http://cliffordgarstang.com/

 

During an open mike segment of a reading hosted by Marjorie Hudson, I heard M. Todd Henderson read from his new novella, Shifting Sands, about a mentally ill husband and father. I’m always eager to understand others’ insights about mental health issues. Depression and anxiety are challenges that many Americans face daily. I’ve had close friends struggle with various mental health crises. And, as a creativity coach, I’ve worked with clients who struggle with depressive cycles. I also recently interviewed Eric Maisel about his new book on depression. Intrigued by Henderson’s reading and also impressed that he is donating 10% of the profits of the novella to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, I got a copy of Shifting Sands. After reading it, I knew I wanted to interview him about his experience with depression and exploration of mental illness through narrative fiction.

How did you come to write the novella, Shifting Sands: His Hell. Her Prison.?

 Other than the ABCs, my first taste of writing was when I was 10. I wrote and edited The Local News, which my Mom, a school teacher, mimeographed copies at the high school for me to distribute. That was before Xerox. The newspaper was actually a combination of school, church, weather, and sometimes international news. It ran sporadically from December 18, 1969 to October 1, 1972. Yes. I keep copies of all the issues and most everything I’ve ever written. They are a big part of me and I can’t seem to part with them.

In high school I mostly read American classics (e.g. Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, etc.) and learned the mechanics of writing. Then I took a creative writing course my freshman year at Indiana University. I won the award for outstanding freshman essay for a story about my Granddaddy’s house. It was a thrill and it compelled me to continue writing throughout college and to submit to creative magazines, including The New Yorker. I failed to publish, but appearing in The New Yorker is on my bucket list.

The next several years I journaled some, but concentrated on my advertising career. Over my almost-thirty-year career I worked for five different Midwest ad agencies, a non-profit, and an international corporation. I wrote extensively – mostly memos, plans, research papers, and direct mail. I also travelled quite a bit internationally (Australia is a must see.) and throughout the US.

The advertising business is definitely exciting, but it’s also extremely intense and high stress. After I got married to Lori and we had our two sons the stress doubled and I ended up with high anxiety and low depression.

Ultimately, I left the advertising business, resumed journaling, and published my first book. Just. Like. That. Well, maybe it was slightly more involved. Much of my journaling was while I was in the dark- unrelenting- clutches of depression and anxiety. I wrote extensively in blue and black Moleskin journals about the effect of mental illness on myself, my family, and our friends. It was the lowest part of my life.

Then my novella emerged. Shifting Sands: His Hell. Her Prison. was born out of my journaling, yet it’s not autobiographical. I chose to write fiction for a few reasons: fiction is my forte, fiction provides room to speculate and embellish, and fiction is simply fun.

Why did I write Shifting Sands? In the end I wrote this story to assure my family, my friends, and my readers that when in the depths of despair they will always have hope for a better tomorrow. Perhaps I was also trying to convince myself.

What is your favorite scene in the book and why do you love it?

I love this scene from the book and really enjoyed writing it. At the lowest point of depression, the main character Scott T. Walters, runs from his responsibilities and drives to the North Carolina Outer Banks.

“Scott hitches up the pop-up camper to his ‘91 Ram pick-up, and heads east on Highway 64. He plans to stay at the KOA in Rodanthe for a few days. Maybe take a drive to Buxton. Or on to Ocracoke by ferry to see the wild ponies. Salty, clear air welcomed him at Whalebone Junction where the truck turns south onto Bodie Island, and crosses Oregon Inlet on a narrow, high-flying bridge alongside gliding pelicans and gulls and onto Hatteras Island.

Scott pulls into the KOA, eases the camper into its site next to the twenty-five foot dunes, and settles in. He has brought along seven bottles of cab, two six-packs of PBR, chips, cheese, salsa, eggs, and bacon. Scott takes his customary first-day-back hike over the dunes and up the beach toward the new Rodanthe pier. It’s a three-beer journey. As it is early in the season, prime sea gifts that waves have tenderly carried and placed on the sand—angel wings, sand dollars, sea stars, and a rare intact horseshoe crab—remain scattered along the beach long after high tide. Amongst all the loot ghost crabs scurry to and fro rearing back with front claws raised in defensive mode as Scott approaches.

This is a familiar stretch of beach for Scott; he walks it at least three times a year. And three times a year the sea oat-topped dunes have a new story to tell. On this go ‘round the dunes tell tales of Hurricane Dennis. Dennis came ashore two times. On the first visit, he danced a slow graceful waltz with the dunes. They inched this way and that till they all rested fairly close to where they took their first step. The second visit was a herky jerky two step. Moving this way and that, the dunes found themselves uncomfortably closer to the breakers with their sea oats tossed to and fro like a bad hair day.

From a front row seat on the dry side of low tide, Scott scans the waters for live sea critters. Out a bit over the water, a grouping of three brown pelicans in a row skims the valley of a swell, looking beyond their reflections for a meal underneath. The most famous pelican to fly over these waters was black and larger than life. Legend has it that the black pelican scanned the shore and the sea from the Core Banks to Corolla, searching for those in peril. Many a survivor described a Black Pelican guiding their ship to safe waters. The savior hasn’t been seen in recent years, but most ship crews and locals believe he will return one day.”

This is my favorite scene because my soul can be found in the Outer Banks. In its salty perfume, its sea oats waving to me from atop dunes, its sand pipers scurrying to snag sand fleas, its breakers washing the top of my bare feet, and so much more.

What does your writing practice look like?

My writing practice starts with journaling. Most days I journal off and on in my pocket-sized Moleskin.  Mostly I journal about interesting people or events as well as dialect and interesting word uses. At the end of the day I rip pages from the small journal and tape them into my large red Moleskin (my color of this month). Then I usually journal more about pocket-sized entries. Since I fill one to two large Moleskins a month, I spend some time in completed journals adding notes, highlighting key thoughts, and entering the best ideas into my current project.

When I’m on a specific project I spend the majority of the time on my Toshiba until the book is in the editing phase. Then the cycle starts all over again.

 Will we see more of your main characters? What’s your next writing project?

Without a doubt, Scott T. Walters will be front and center for my next two works. We’ll follow him and his family as they face new challenges and old foes.

 What’s been your experience of being a self-published author?

I would never have had the opportunity to publish and sell my stories if it hadn’t been for online publishers. So, I’m very grateful that they exist. My publisher, iUniverse was very professional and helpful during the editing and production phases. The process was flawless.

 However, after Shifting Sands was published, iUniverse began to push their added-value services, like marketing, printed copies, promotion kits, design, and publicity. Frankly, I found them to be too aggressive in their approach.

In the long run I consider self publishers to be another tool available to me, like my Toshiba, The Chicago Manual of Style, and my Moleskins. I can use some or all of iUniverse’s service depending upon the project.

 What’s one piece of advice you would give aspiring authors?

In my case the key to success is actually two: observation and recording. Look so you can see. Listen so you can hear. Taste. Smell. Pick up on the nuances because it’s often the smallest of observations that are the most telling and interesting.

And, record them into your handy dandy journal (or, sometimes take a photo) for further observation.

M. Todd Henderson was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. He graduated from Indiana University’s School of Journalism in 1981. His career includes nearly thirty years in the advertising and marketing business. In addition he served as an AmeriCorpsVISTA volunteer to help fight poverty in his adopted North Carolina. Todd and his family live near Raleigh, North Carolina. Currently Todd is working on his second book which will continue the story of Scott T. Walters.

He invites your questions and thoughts on writing, your work, and his work at mthtodd@earthlink.net.

Find out more about Todd and Shifting Sands through his Amazon page

Steve Mitchell is doing his part to keep readers fascinated by the craft of short stories with his new collection, The Naming of Ghosts recently published by Press 53. One reviewer described his prose as “lyrical” and how his richly imagined stories in Ghosts “haunt the reader long after the final pages.” Steve has been a construction worker, cowboy, substitute teacher, chef, and has developed and managed a mental health program for the chronic mentally ill. His work has been published in the Southeast Review, Contrary, Glossolalia, and The North Carolina Literary Review, among others, and has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize.

And aside from these great credentials, I can say he’s generous and kind toward emerging writers. I met Steve while assisting my writing teacher, Marjorie Hudson (another Press 53 author), at a workshop she gave. He made me and other aspiring writers feel welcomed and encouraged. I’m so happy to connect him with this wonderful community of creative folk.

What drives your creative work?

Curiosity and doubt.

In the end, writing for me is about wonder. Even if the particular work doesn’t reflect it immediately. It’s about the wonder and mystery of living; the necessity of questions, the beauty of not knowing, the wonderful impossibility of ever understanding another person completely. Uncertainty provides a beautiful space in which to meet one another.

I pretend to be another person, pretend to see the world through their eyes. I’m searching for patterns in our experience, I guess. The things which draw us together and pull us apart, the things which make us want to reach out for another or the moments when we have no choice.

Also, I think all writers revel in a love of language. The thrill of it, the way it tastes and sounds and forms itself around the tongue. It’s a tactile, sensual obsession we share.

How do you decide what point of view a story will be in? Do you experiment a lot or just get a sense right away? Has there ever been a story you had to completely rewrite in a different point of view?

Generally, the point of view comes with the story. I write predominantly in the first person, from the point of view of the characters themselves, so that’s usually where I begin: with a particular person in a particular situation or state of mind. They form together, story and point of view, from an amorphous blob of frustrations and associations.

The voice, however, can take quite a while to develop. I do experiment a good bit with voice and I have started a piece again from the beginning with a new voice more than once. The voice requires patience.

Tell us about your new short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts. Is it held together by a set of recurring themes?

These are stories written over a number of years and the idea was simply to collect stories which held together, got along with each other somehow. It was more of an intuitive process, not around themes, more as a certain kind of ride or journey. It’s always about people, what happens within or between people and how that changes the world around them.

With that said, the themes present are those that always intrigue me. The tension between intimacy and safety, between intimacy and community, the ways in which we all constantly change shape to negotiate that tension. The way tiny moments or insights in our lives can bring about lasting shifts in who we are, changes in our world. The way the past and future are constantly sifting into our present as active forces

Robert Olen Butler, in an interview, said that developing a character is about understanding yearning. He differentiates between a fully rounded character who yearns (“for self or for connection”) versus a character “who simply has problems.” He feels that the “yearning dictates every other choice.” When you’re writing, how aware are you of the essential yearning of your main character?

I think this is the essential human condition; we are creatures who imagine, envision and yearn. It’s the foundation of empathy and empathy is the key to writing.

As a writer, I feel I must love every character. That’s my job. To love the inarticulate or the unlovable; to understand something about them which makes them human.

There may be characters who can’t articulate their own yearning. This doesn’t mean it isn’t there, it only means it isn’t spoken.

Yearning is the driver, superseding other concerns, because yearning speaks to the shadowy, ill-defined ways we actually see the world around us. Yearning is always idiosyncratic; it means we make choices which comply to an internal logic or mythology, but aren’t necessarily understandable to anyone else.

And I love the gaps which occur between our personal mythologies, between what we accept as a given which, possibly, no one else sees or understands.

What’s changed for you since being published by Press 53?

Well, it was a year and a half between acceptance and publication, during which I was always vaguely anxious, certain that some crisis or tragedy would prevent the book from coming into being. It was scheduled for 2012, so I secretly believed the Mayan calendar would end the day before publication and the universe would blip out of existence. I was relieved when that didn’t happen.

There is a sense of completion, the ability to take a deep breath.

But I’m really just beginning. It’s only been a month or so. I’m looking forward to going on the road and reading in bars, on street corners, maybe even in bookstores. I’m looking forward to meeting people and introducing them to the stories, beginning a dialogue. That should be fun.

It’s also released a good bit of energy. Suddenly I have five or six projects going at once.

What’s on your bookshelf, next to your bed? What are you reading right now?

Jen McConnell’s Welcome, Anybody. She was published in the Press 53 Spotlight Anthology 2011 with me and I enjoyed her stories.

Mindscreen, by Bruce Kawin, a theory and study of first person film. I read it years ago and hadn’t realized what an influence its been.

Roberto Bolano’s 2666, a re-read. A beautiful, mysterious, relentless book.

Final Acts, Death, Dying, and the Choices We Make, edited by Nan Bauer-Maglin and Donna Perry. Research for a novel in progress.

Just as important, I’m currently watching Alex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus and the second season of Treme; I’m listening to Bruce Peninsula, Foals, Osvaldo Golijov, and Jon Brion.

What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Cultivate a sense of beauty. Because if the world isn’t beautiful it’s not worth saving and all writing is about saving the world, if only from the wear of time.

Be curious; not only about the things that interest you, but especially about the things that frighten you, make you uncomfortable.

Work beyond your reach.

Writing is life; life is writing. There’s no other way.

Sorry, I couldn’t stop at one.

Steve Mitchell is a writer who has also worked in theatre, film and multi-voice poetry. He is currently completing a novel, Body of Trust. Find out more about him and his cat, Mr. Zip at http://www.thisisstevemitchell.com/

MaryLynn Bast is rewriting the rules in paranormal fantasy romance and erotica. Her ‘Heart of a Wolf ‘series has electrified readers with No Remorse, the first novel in the series, released earlier this year. Her newest novel just released May 18th is called One Bite to Passion, an erotica paranormal romance novel published by Renaissance E Books. Her strong and complex female characters, seductive erotic scenes, and productivity (producing two novels and short stories in a year!) are gaining MaryLynn a strong fan base. She also is an exemplar for writers to learn from as she is navigating both traditional and self-publishing routes.

A friend of mine on She Writes, I’m delighted to welcome MaryLynn to this community of readers.

1) How did you get interested in writing about Amber, a dominant female werewolf, in your new novel No Remorse?

A friend recommended that I enter a short story contest writing about werewolves. I had always written contemporary romance, so I figured what the heck, so I gave it a shot. All the werewolf stories I had read were predominately male. I wanted to change it up and created Amber’s character. I felt that she had to be independent and strong to live up to being a werewolf.

I wrote Amber’s story as suspense but never entered the manuscript into the contest. I put it aside and continued working on Softest Touch, the story I had been working on. However, Amber kept calling to me. When I started working with her again, her story just flowed Amber’s character was created. Since I write romance, No Remorse turned into a paranormal romance.

2) When a story idea comes to you, how do you decide what point of view to use?

 I generally like to write third person because I find that first person is limiting. However, there are a few stories I have written that are in first person. Sometimes you just want the mystery that goes along with not knowing everything that is going on around the character we get in a third person view.  For the most part my opening paragraph is what determines how I am going to write. I don’t really think about…the words usually just as I type them and it happens.

3) When you get stuck what do you do?

 When I get stuck I usually put the story aside and work on another story that I have worked on. When my brain just won’t wrap around writing, I try to step away and read a book. Sometimes that helps to me to work through the writer’s block or the issue I am having in a scene.  When all else fails, my aunt Peggy is my go to person. I talk through the scenes with her. Generally just talking about it and getting the thoughts out of my head helps me work through it.

4) Tell us about your most rewarding experience since being published.

 The most rewarding experience was when I was received a message from a reader that they absolutely loved my story and that I was moved to the top of their favorite author list. That made me smile and just made my day. When I am wondering what I was thinking in pretending to be an author, I look back through those kinds of messages and remember that my stories are being read and bring joy to others. It makes it all worthwhile.

5) What have you learned about being a writer in public (i.e. dealing with reviews, managing the promotional aspect of publishing, finding time to write, etc.)?

 Dealing with my first negative review was really hard for me in the beginning. I had to remind myself that not everyone is going to like my style of writing. I even picked up a book by a famous author that I had read before and liked. In my opinion, the book I had read really sucked and I just could not read it any further. I realized then that it was the frame of mind I was in when I started reading. I went back later when I wasn’t having a bad day and read the story and I liked it.

Managing the promotional part of writing takes a lot of time and effort. It is really hard to juggle the time spent promoting and find that it takes a lot of time away from writing. Especially having two different books come out within two months of one another gets a little harrowing when you send the info for one book to the web host and they were expecting the other.

I have lost A LOT of sleep over promoting and worry about doing it just right.

I have learned though, that there are some great bloggers out there who are willing to step in and help an author out. Like Michele and so many others. They have taken time out of their day to help promote an author’s book. I for one appreciate how much they have helped out.

 6) If you could invite three living writers to a dinner party that you’re hosting, who would you invite and why?

 Of course I would have to invite my favorite authors Sherilynn Kenyon because I absolutely love her Dark Hunter Series. Christine Feehan, her Dark Carpathian novels are one of my favorites. And I could not forget to invite Laurel K. Hamilton. The Anita Blake Series is hot and steamy and shows that a girl doesn’t have to just have one lover or be stuck with loving just one being. Getting these three authors in the room would make my day, hell, my year! With the three of them, I could only imagine the ideas that would be flying around the room.

 7) What’s the best writing tip you’d like to share?

 Editors are all knowing. That is what I thought when I first started. I have since learned that there are three different kinds of editors, Content, Line and Proof.

Content editors look at the story as a whole to help insure that the characters are well developed and the story is strong and concise.

Line editors help with sentence structure and word flow.

Proof editors fix grammar, typos, punctuation, etc.

Most people who call themselves ‘editors’ are usually a proof editor and know very little on how to work with content and line editing. Before I realized it, I had spent a lot of money with my first editor to get proof editing only.

I later found out about beta readers. After the editing fiasco, an author offered to beta read for a fee. I had no clue and once again paid for services that were less than par. Later, I found out that most beta readers do this service for free.

Plus, I had done the process backwards. Beta reader first, and then editing would have saved me a lot of re-writes and a lot of money.

There are so many people out there who are willing to help. And just as many willing to take advantage. Talk to authors, bloggers and book reviewers. Most are very willing and able to point you in the right direction. I can’t stress enough…research and ask as many questions as you can if you want to become an author.

MaryLynn Bast resides in Las Vegas when she is not traveling the world with her job as a contractor with the US Military. Bast enjoys writing paranormal fantasy romance erotica stories because she can allow her imagination to run rampant, her characters can obtain abilities not possible in the real world…or are they?

Go visit her http://heartofawolf.com/Blog/


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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