Wyoming native Ron Franscell is a literary adventurer. The longtime newspaperman has three published books to his credit and three more working their way through the convoluted pipelines that lead to publication. Along the way, he has told stories of brothers forged by war and common experience, a journalist’s attempt to clear a man’s name no matter the cost and a shocking crime that affected Franscell in the most personal of ways.
He’s also a contributor to In Cold Blog and a man generous with advice and fellowship with up-and-coming writers. Many thanks to him for taking part in this Q&A:
Q: Your debut novel, Angel Fire, was picked by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century West. How many times was it rejected on the road to publication?
ANGEL FIRE was rejected 38 times before it was finally published by a small publisher in Alabama. Editors tended to say they loved the plot, the characters, the writing, the voice … but the book simply wasn’t commercial enough. By that, I now know they meant “we can’t justify the risk of publishing a first literary novel by an unknown writer.”
One of the rejecting houses was Berkley. So it was pleasantly surprising after ANGEL FIRE’s first printing of 3,000 sold out within a month and Berkley swooped in to buy the paperback rights to a book it had rejected in manuscript.
At writers’ conferences, you’ll hear editors say they yearn to sign the next Hemingway. Nice line. But in fact, they would likely reject the next Hemingway, since the first Hemingway changed everything. Publishing is a risk-averse business, despite its carefully tended risk-loving façade. If those editors were more honest, they’d say they want somebody else to take a risk on the next Hemingway so they can go out and find somebody who writes just like him if he becomes a bestseller.
Q: Your books — Angel Fire, The Deadline, The Darkest Night — fall into many genres, among them literary fiction, suspense and true crime. How difficult is it to move from genre to genre?
I accept that each genre has its unique conventions, but a story is a story. In fact, I believe deeply that every great story contains the same literary DNA, bits of every other story we’ve ever told.
In my books, I didn’t start out by choosing a genre; I chose a story. I didn’t set out to write a literary novel, a mystery and a true crime. To me, in the beginning, ANGEL FIRE was merely a story about two brothers in a close, necessary relationship; THE DEADLINE was inspired by a dream that caused me to ponder my own cynicism as a newspaperman; THE DARKEST NIGHT rose from a post-9/11 flight back from a reporting assignment in the Middle East, as I suddenly remembered another day, another time when my world changed in a single moment.
My upcoming projects continue this odd anti-trend. I just finished a nonfiction about an extraordinary road trip with my son to the Arctic, where we sipped a cocktail containing a mummified human toe and spent the longest day of the year under a sun that never set; an exploration into the lives of 10 survivors of mass killers; and a fun guidebook to more than 400 outlaw-related sites all over Texas. There’s also a screenplay haunting me.
But a word to the wise: genre-jumping is not the path to riches. Agents and editors will publicly advise writers to write what’s in their hearts, but publishing is a risk-averse business and they’re most interested in what has already succeeded for somebody else. Those same experts will sternly warn that there’s very little chance of publishing anything anyway … so it seems to me a writer should do what he wants to do and hope his agent is versatile and devoted. If I fail at publishing, at least I fail telling stories I want to tell.
Q: Your book-writing career sprang from a newspaper career. How did journalism help prepare you for the literary world, and in what ways did you have to make adjustments?
The transition has been made by so many writers, such as Hemingway and Twain, it might seem natural, but it isn’t. I believed it would be like shifting gears in a car, where the transmission is set differently for shorter and longer trips. I saw book-writing as just a longer trip. No problem, just shift into gear and settle back.
I was wrong. Much of what we learn in journalistic storytelling is anathema to longer writing, especially fiction. In a newspaper, we’re taught to distance ourselves from the material, to put our emotions in a box, to write short, fabricate nothing, write fast, and put the most important thing first. A novel would be very short if we put the most important thing first! But everything is fabricated, the revision is endless, and the story would be empty if it wasn’t filled with an author’s emotion.
Think about it: a poet, a songwriter, a news anchorwoman and a technical writer are all wordsmiths and each tells a kind of story — but none of a news anchorwoman’s skills make her a natural poet . . . none of a songwriter’s talents suggest he could write a good technical manual. We have many storytelling modes, and each requires special proficiencies.
My fiction has benefited from the authenticity of my newspaper writing, and my newspaper writing has benefited from my development of a more distinct voice and confidence in long fiction. They are blended most inextricably in narrative nonfiction like THE DARKEST NIGHT, where I Tell a true story with some of the tools in a novelist’s toolbox, such as foreshadowing, dramatic pacing, dialogue, and a more literary flourish.
My heart will probably always be in newspapers. I got into this business in the salad days of newspapering, the Seventies, when reporters conducted themselves like knights and readers trusted us to speak truth. Newspapers can do what books have seldom done: Change communities for the better. The pendulum has swung to a different height now, and the craft sometimes is its own worst enemy, but I still believe people want honest, good people to tell them what’s happening just beyond their view. In the Cyber Age, we might see the death of newspapers-on-paper, but there will always be a need for honest, good people to observe and report what is happening. The Internet, as it exists now, can be a seedy and untrustworthy place, and I believe readers will eventually seek out the farthest corners of that vast “library” for information they can trust.
Q: The West is a common bond among all your works. What is the West to you, and how does it shape your art?
The West is heart-earth to me. Out here, the landscape shapes us as much as we shape it. Landscape — and by extension, weather, seasons, space and climate — makes Western literature unique, and often plays a role in any story. These things are all part of the algorithms of our simplest decisions, from going to the market to planting a tree. And how come we never hear something in Manhattan described as “weathered”?
I grew up and have worked in small western towns, and I love the texture of a place. The simple image of a small-town water tower on the cover of ANGEL FIRE piques the memory banks of anyone who grew up in a place where the water tower loomed over everything.
West Canaan and Winchester (the setting in THE DEADLINE) are composite places, cobbled together from memory, imagination and reality. Everywhere and nowhere. They bring together many of the things that characterize small, high plains towns, from the courthouse lawns, to the balky back doors of rural movie houses, to the intimacy of this tiny settlement surrounded by nothingness. I seek familiarity when writing about a small town, and in small towns I find the most resonant memories and emotions.
Q: It’s safe to say that publishing is a bit chaotic these days. How can writers, particularly aspiring writers, best prepare themselves for what they’re facing?
It’s impossible to predict what the book industry will be doing next week, much less next year when a newbie will finish his first book. All a writer can do is improve his odds by making all the right moves. Too many variables go into the process of writing, pitching, contracting, marketing and selling a book. You cannot time the market, you can only get lucky.
But you can improve your odds, first and foremost, by writing a good book. Without a good manuscript, you lessen your odds of publication significantly. And every move you make after -30- [the newspaperman’s traditional symbol for “The End”] will improve or lessen your odds. The right agent, the right proposal, the right editor, the right time … on and on. If you did every single thing right, then your odds of publishing your novel are slightly better than 1-in-1,000. Woo-hoo!
Persistence is probably the most valuable quality a writer can have. One must persist in the writing, even when the Muse is off masturbating. One must persist in the process of finding a home for the book, in spreading the word, in showing up time after time (even when the bookstore didn’t prepare), and keeping the tiny spark alive so you can start the whole process again tomorrow. If you’re a would-be writer who isn’t up to the literary equivalent of an iron-man triathlon, stay on the porch.
Q: What is your ideal environment for writing?
At home. In my office. At my desk. In my chair. Usually morning.
Q: Any writer who has done an event or a signing has a story of abject of loneliness at the table. What’s yours?
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. In dozens of book events, I’ve only had one skunking. This small-town bookseller put the wrong date in the calendar, posted no signs or calendar listings, and left a teenager in charge of the store for the entire weekend. Nobody came in the store for two hours … and when I say nobody, I mean not a single soul crossed that store’s threshold that day. I left feeling that it wasn’t a lack of popularity on my part, but an impending bankruptcy on theirs. (Writers are exceptionally talented at such rationalizations.)
Q: How do you define validation as a writer? Is it the process itself? Holding the book in your hands? Reviews?
It’s when a reader comes up to me or writes letter and tells me how one of my books touched her in a memorable way. For me, this has always been an intimate contract between me and readers. Agents, editors, booksellers, publicists, reviewers, media are all necessary in delivering the book to a reader’s hands, but when the reader completes the circle and tells me something marvelous about one of my stories, that’s when I know I told a good story.
Q: Someone tells you he/she wants to write novels. Your advice is?
Write. Just write. Until you have written, nothing else is important.
Ron Franscell’s Web site: www.ronfranscell.com
The Darkest Night on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Darkest-Night-Sisters-Brutal-Innocence/dp/0312948468/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1253297486&sr=8-1