Writer Round-Up: A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft
The UNO Press Authors : Moira Crone, Rob Magnuson Smith, Teresa Dovalpage, Steven Church, Skip Fox, and Leonard S. Bernstein
Interview by Cynthia Reeser
For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 6.4, December 2012
In this issue, the publisher spotlight is on UNO Press. Some of their authors answer a handful of questions:
What part of the process do you find most daunting when beginning a new novel or collection?
Moira Crone: I think, selection: selection of what things I am going to work on for long periods of time, what kinds of work will engage me and engage readers. I don’t really “begin” a new novel or collection—the stories or the novel evolves, and then I put it aside, and pick it up again. Eventually, sometimes serendipitously, I have a book or a novel that is ready to show to publishers. At the present, I have a lot of different plans, one contract (for a book of stories about the city of New Orleans, all set post-Katrina)—and a novel to revise that is now in the drawer, as well as ideas for new projects, including a sequel to The Not Yet. The issue I have right now is selection—where I want to put my energies, both in writing and promoting my writing. Today a lot of effort goes into the promotion on the internet in many blogs and online materials, and in person, at all kinds of fairs, conferences, and venues. It is hard to know which of these many opportunities is really going to work out—so, selection is an issue, again. And, another question: Will I continue to promote the novel I already wrote, or go forward and write
Steven Church: I rarely have a sense that I’m beginning a book but rather I’m always working on several different essays at any one time, each one of which has the potential to expand into something larger. When it comes to putting together a collection of essays or writing a memoir, I’d have to say that structure and organization of the individual pieces is perhaps the most difficult part for me. It’s also the most exciting.
Rob Magnuson Smith: Most of my apprehensions at the beginning of each new project revolve around the very real possibility that nobody will care, nobody will read. I have to delude myself into thinking I am not Sisyphus.
Teresa Dovalpage: Putting together the plot in my mind. I may change it later, but before I start writing I need to have the story more or less “mapped out” in my head. Sometimes it is difficult, particularly when there are too many characters or subplots. But this also helps me; if I have trouble keeping track of the storyline, it means that I need to make it simpler.
Skip Fox: I have no sense of the daunting with new openings, not even with major projects. Perhaps a sort of anxiety with individual works when I can’t immediately find the form of what is coming through, though that seems rare. More commonly I have a sense of excitement; I feel as though I am an explorer after a good meal and a deep night’s sleep, setting out once again, well-equipped and looking very much forward.
Leonard S. Bernstein: I come from the school that believes you wake up in the morning or sit down in the evening and you start writing. If you are uninspired you write a grocery list or a list of artists: Picasso—Monet—Botticelli. This gets the creative blood flowing and lo and behold you start writing something good.
So the daunting part of my day might be getting out of bed, but after that it’s like any other job: you show up and get it done.
I appreciate that this is not exactly what writers want to hear.
Do you feel that your previous publications inform your work in progress, and if so, how?
MC: In many ways, as a short story writer, I have a certain amount of experience and ways of encountering situations and characters in my stories that are natural to me—that my readers would recognize. So, ways I have figured out how to solve certain issues in a story in the past, give me some ideas about how to write a new story. A great deal of the power of, and hard work in, short fiction goes into the ending. Certain ways to end a story that have worked for me—I think about them when I am writing something new. But this is the fact of it: every story, every novel, requires a lot of thinking, re-thinking, and revision. There is always true invention in these stories—or at least I hope there is—and though it is hard to work out everything new every time, that is also what it means to live a creative life. You are going to struggle to make something that works, that has beauty. It doesn’t come easy. You are holding on to the hand of a creative entity you don’t control, you are working with your own inner life, and its natural renewal, and its natural ebbs and flows. It is a complicated process: not always pleasure, sometimes struggle. But the rewards are marvelous; I wouldn’t do anything else.
SC: Sure. I think most writers traffic in the same emotional and intellectual commerce for most of their careers. Some of our most famous and cherished writers basically told the same story over and over again. Though I’m by no means a great writer, I have learned to trust my consistent obsessions and preoccupations, learned to let the stories that bubble up from the past show up on the page. I suppose I’m also always trying to do something different, even if some of the emotional material is similar, always trying to find a new way to talk about old things. I don’t ever want to write the same book twice, even if I’m often telling the same stories over and over again.
RMS: Not really. Each piece brings its own fresh narrative demands. Other writers remain on one postage stamp and cultivate a style. I roam. I’m comfortable being lost. And I cultivate my characters.
TD: In a way, yes. I used to write only about Cuba because I was born there and lived in the island until I was 29 years old. My first four novels were all about life in Cuba, which put me in the literary niche of ethnic fiction… and it was not a bad place to be, at least in terms of marketing. But I have not visited Cuba in more than ten years and I did not want to recycle the material I had already used. That is why in Astral Plane I began to write more about the Southwest, where I live now, and my last novel in Spanish takes place in Barcelona. So I feel I am moving on, leaving behind a space that was becoming too comfortable, and somewhat boring, and venturing into a new, more exciting world. I even wrote a sci-fi story!
SF: I look back on forty years of writing, the first twenty to no effect (save my own enhancement), and realize just how complicit my work has been as a continuum, no matter how apparently diverse the work. My assumptions and abilities may have changed, but the work reflects a source or conduit which, if somewhat protean, is also somewhat stable, in an essential way the same. I have joked about writing certain works by the holographic method, but there is a sense in which I can see shadows of the entire corpus in each shard as I turn it over in hand, my completion in every word. Some people speak carelessly about finding a voice as though they might then drive it about like a sports cars through all the major cities of Europe, or themes, or obsessions, or whatever they call them. Whatever distinction I have comes from myself which is, of course, informed by the thousands of pages of poetry I have read but also by whatever I have ever written. “Inform” is the proper word here.
LSB: My previous work includes six books having little connection with each other. There is a collection of poetry, a collection of short stories, and four books on unrelated subjects. I am now trying a children’s book. I bring very little background to my next venture.
What provides the most inspiration for your writing?
MC: Sometimes I write from things in dreams. The Not Yet came from a dream I had in the 1990s about a woman who looked about thirty-five, and very well turned out, and a young man about twenty, flirting together at a café in New Orleans. As I woke up, I heard a voice say, “The woman is two hundred years old.” So I began imagining his world. Sometimes I write from images I have seen that I couldn’t explain. I encountered a strange light one night when I was renting a house that looked out over the Hudson River. It was huge, and it bobbed up and down over the water. I wrote a story about it—I decided that a man in a boat had been sent for the woman in the house. It’s like a ghost story. Some of my pieces come straight from events and elements I remember from childhood or that others have told me. An example is the story I am working on right now, for my new collection. A man recently told me about what happened to him during Katrina that caused him to stop drinking and change his life. He told me this because he was explaining how he had reacted to my novel The Not Yet, which includes scenes where the city is flooded and abandoned. For the book Dream State, I created a journal with elements from my everyday life—observations, events I heard about, snippets of conversation, and conflicts people close to me were going through, including political upheaval. I just put in the lives that I myself and the people around me were living at the time—and the book was the result.
SC: Language, sentences, the odd juxtaposition of words and ideas. My children. The sublimely beautiful and violent world where they’re growing up. News, music, books, and more books. My students and friends, and this crazy city, Fresno, where I live all inspire me in some way. And lately it’s been Mike Tyson, Blue Velvet, bears, earthquakes, ears, loitering, and Elvis.
RMS: Most of my inspiration comes from everyday life—the overheard stories of drunks in pubs, the absurdity of our short and unexplainable existence, the plight of the repressed. If I need inspiration from fine writing, I read poetry.
TD: The places where I live or visit, and the people, particularly the quirky ones… there is a great deal of quirkiness in Taos, which makes it a great place for a writer. Traveling also inspires me. I just went to the Gutenberg Museum and left it thinking of a story.
SF: For me, few things are not the potential source of inspiration, such as repetitious work of a quasi-mental kind and listening to committees willfully, even gleefully, slaughter my time, etc. I consider these my failings. Since most other things qualify, let me list just a few of my more prominent sources for inspiration: mortality, age, nature, dementia, the nuances and intricacies of the so-called banal, science, thought and sound in language, animal life, the multiplicities of valance and torque in every thought, literature–especially British and American literature from the Renaissance to the present, a disdain for those who would make life meager for others physically or mentally, and a distress at the current nature of unconsciousness, including the unconsidered investment in binary thought.
But inspiration also comes in the very activity of writing itself. For instance, I my start writing (often in conjunction with one of the sources listed above) with little more than the delight of seeing words falling on the page as they echo in the mind, ear, and eye, and eventually come across a trail which I follow to whatever consequence I might.
LSB: Inspiration: Someone once said, “Inspiration merely knocks. Writers expect it to break down the door and pull them out of bed.”
I don’t argue that flashes of inspiration never happen. And indeed, when they do happen it is exhilarating. But I believe that inspiration most often visits when you are working at the typewriter.
This is a bare knuckles approach to writing but this is what I believe.
Moira Crone has published the story collections, Dream State, The Winnebago Mysteries, and What Gets Into Us, and the novel, A Period of Confinement. Publisher’s Weekly has hailed her most recent work, her first speculative novel, The Not Yet, an “impressive genre debut with a strong literary voice.” It was selected as one of Times Picayune/Nola.com’s Best Ten Books of 2012. She has received fellowships from the NEH, the NEA, Bunting Institute at Harvard-Radcliffe, and the ATLAS program for Louisiana artists. Her fiction has been selected for the annual prize anthology New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best five times. Her stories and essays have appeared in two dozen anthologies and in The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, TriQuarterly, The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, New American Review, Southern Review, Image, Oxford American, and many other journals. In 2004, she won the Faulkner Wisdom Prize for Novella. She has been honored as one of Image Magazine’s Artists of the Month. The former director of the MFA program at Louisiana State University, for many years she edited the fiction series for the University Press of Mississippi. In 2009 she received the Robert Penn Warren Award from the Southern Fellowship of Writers for the body of her work.
Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, and The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst. His essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Passages North, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Brevity, AGNI, and many others. His essay, “Auscultation” was reprinted in the 2011 Best American Essays. He’s a founding editor of the literary magazine, The Normal School, and teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.
Rob Magnuson Smith won the William Faulkner Award for his debut novel, The Gravedigger. His work has appeared most recently in Fiction International, The Greensboro Review, Notes from the Underground, The Reader, Playboy, Projector, The Istanbul Review, and The Guardian. In January 2013 he was named Contributing Editor at Playboy. He earned an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where he won the David Higham Award. Currently he is Lecturer and Doctoral Research Fellow in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.
Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana and now lives in Taos, New Mexico. A bilingual author, she has published six novels, four in Spanish and two in English, two collections of short stories in Spanish and one in English. Her English-language novels are A Girl like Che Guevara (Soho Press, 2004) and Habanera, a Portrait of a Cuban Family (Floricanto Press, 2010). Her collection of short stories, The Astral Plane, Stories of Cuba, the Southwest and Beyond was published by the University of New Orleans Press in March 2012. In her native Spanish she has authored the novels, Muerte de un Murciano en La Habana (Death of a Murcian in Havana, Anagrama, 2006, a runner-up for the Herralde Award in Spain), El Difunto Fidel (The Late Fidel, Renacimiento, 2011, that won the Rincon de la Victoria Award in Spain in 2009), and Posesas de La Habana (Haunted Ladies of Havana, Pure Play Press, 2004). Her sixth novel, La Regenta en La Habana, was just published by Edebe Group in Spain in 2012. She has a PhD in Spanish literature and currently teaches at UNM Taos. She also writes a weekly column for the local newspaper, Taos News.
Skip Fox has written four chapbooks and six books, including a scholarly bibliography and a book of selected poems. Four books constitute part of an ongoing set of nine volumes, Dream of a Book, an epic-length, multi-genre and multivalent work with a variety of concerns and styles. He dedicated his life to poetry in 1969 and after working a series of menial jobs received, a PhD from Bowling Green State University in 1981. He began teaching at The University of Louisiana at Lafayette that same year where he remains, now as a professor of English.
Leonard S. Bernstein is a New York City businessman—a manufacturer of children’s apparel. He is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, most recently The Man Who Wanted to Buy a Heart, a collection of short stories.