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* — Incomplete in the sense that, at various points, I forgot to take pictures. I did manage, however, to make it to Missoula and back safely, which was my prime objective.
Tuesday, April 19, I left Billings for the 345-mile drive to Missoula, where I had a reading scheduled for Fact & Fiction that night. The next morning, I headed back home. In between: visits with friends, road food, inclement weather and alcohol.
Join me, won’t you?
What did I leave out? Lots of stuff: pictures from the reading in Missoula, hosted by Fact & Fiction’s wonderful owner, Barbara Theroux; my reunion with old friend Robert Meyerowitz, the new editor of the Missoula Independent; my kind hosts, Lisa Simon and Jason Neal and their wonderful home in the woods; cats Maynard and BeBe, who tolerated my intrusion. During the best parts of the trip, I put the camera down — which says little for my photojournalism skills but does commend my ability to fully live in the moment. I’ll take that trade.
I spent yesterday afternoon at the combined conference of the Montana Library Association and Mountain Plains Library Association here in Billings. I was on a panel with Ruth McLaughlin (Montana Book Award winner! Woot!), Montana poet laureate Henry Real Bird and Dan Aadland.
Somehow, when I was recruited for this panel some months ago, I got it into my head that we were to deliver speeches. Well, no. We were there to read from our work (which, frankly, is a way better deal anyway). I was happy to make the switch, and I realized that I could just post the speech and PowerPoint presentation I prepared here at the blog.
So here goes: recycling!
THE PUBLIC LIBRARY: AN ESSENTIAL
I’d like to thank the Montana Library Association and the Mountain Plains Library Association for inviting me here today. I’m proud to be able to speak with folks who are doing a job that I consider absolutely essential to a well-rounded community and an informed, engaged populace. Thank you, sincerely, for all that you do.
I came to book writing relatively late. Although I’ve been involved with writing and editing as a journalist for nearly a quarter-century, it was just two and a half years ago that I wrote my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward. And while I sometimes retroactively kick myself in the pants for waiting so long to get going, in some ways I’m happy to have a nascent career at a time of such upheaval and rapid change in the business of words and publishing. You see, I have no time to sit around and pine for how it used to be, back when publishers were proliferate, writers were given three or four books to become overnight sensations and a fella could wear an ascot without getting funny looks. I have to figure out how to make it work with conditions as they are, not as I wish them to be. And if you’re here today, you have the same challenge.
This is just one guy’s opinion, but it’s an enthusiastic one: I think we’re going to be okay. Yes, it’s true: Never have so many things competed for people’s time and attention, and even when reading happens on a cell phone screen rather than a typeset page, it’s a decidedly old-school endeavor against the allure of game consoles and 3-D movies and video on demand. Like you, I hear this sullen phrase more than I wish to: “I just don’t have time to read.” And yet, on the other side, good news blooms: There’s more reading going on than ever before. Everybody and his dog are buying one of those fancy new e-readers. There’s a revolution in reading that certainly does threaten less-than-nimble publishers, but on the flip side, more power to create and bring books to market has fallen into authors’ hands. And we authors are eager to work with you. My friend Dee Ann Redman at Parmly Billings Library need only call and I’ll be there for any program she cares to put together. (Okay, truth be told, she’ll have more luck by pinging me on Facebook, but my larger point stands.) I’m dead serious about this, and I walk my talk. Any library group that wants to work with me will find that I’m a willing partner in presenting timely, informative, entertaining programs. I consider it vital to my self-interest as an author and a library’s role as a community pillar.
In this new world of reading, there is an essential role for librarians to play. We will forever need people who curate books, who put them in the hands of readers, who love them so much that their infectious enthusiasm lights the fuse of patrons young and old. That these tasks are performed in a place that is uniquely positioned as a community gathering place makes your role all the more important. My great hope for you falls along two lines: First, that your local governments and voters will give you the capital you need. (This, I’m afraid, is where my optimism wanes a little bit. It seems that the public arts are too easily considered expendable when tough economic times come along. On the contrary, I believe they’re needed more than ever.) Second, that publishers who adopt a penny-wise-pound-foolish approach to new technology see things in a more rational way. As you have no doubt gathered, I’m speaking here of ridiculous rules regarding limited licenses for e-books. It’s madness, and I sincerely hope that more reasonable people prevail here.
Back in January, my second novel, The Summer Son, was published. To have written and published two novels since November 2008 has changed my life in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I sat down and finally pursued my writing dreams with an appropriate vigor. Among other things, it has afforded me the opportunity to talk about the influences that shaped my decision to pursue a career in letters.
In this regard, teachers and librarians – and, of course, my parents – loomed large in my upbringing. Some of my earliest memories of family outings involved going to the public library in Hurst, Texas, and taking home a stack of books. In my high school years, the library was an invaluable source of information and a quiet space for study. In my early twenties, when I could barely afford my rent, let alone books, the public library was a place I could feed my voracious appetite for free.
All of these people – parents who actively encouraged me to read, librarians who shamelessly fed that habit, teachers who helped me shape my thinking and my interests – worked in concert to make me a lifelong reader and someone who loved books so much that he wanted to write them. And while it’s been a long time since I’ve been in school, making me a candidate for viewing that part of my past through a kaleidoscope of nostalgia, I have a hard time believing that times have changed so much that these roles are no longer needed. Again, I have to think that they’re needed more than ever.
So, again, I thank you for lending your considerable talents to the communities that so badly need you.
And here’s a PDF version of the PowerPoint presentation I prepared:
* — The world being significantly downsized, what with the price of gas.
Tomorrow — Thursday, April 7, for you calendar clutchers — I’ll be giving a speech to the combined conference of the Montana Library Association and the Mountain Library Association, right here in Billings. (See, I told you it would be a small world, after all.) This happens at 2:15 p.m. at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center.
I was told that I didn’t have to prepare a speech on any particular theme, which frankly is an alarming and possibly dangerous amount of latitude, but I’ve managed to celebrate libraries and librarians without even noting the time that my college roommate had an amorous adventure in the Fort Worth Public Library. In any case, I think that sort of thing is entirely inappropriate, especially considering it didn’t happen to me.
Tomorrow’s gig launches a flurry of activity on the whole be-out-in-public front. Here’s the rundown:
Saturday, April 16: I’ll be at Parmly Billings Library, 510 N. Broadway, at 11 a.m. for a talk and presentation on 600 Hours of Edward as part of its selection for the One Book Billings program. This will be the culmination of a week’s worth of conversations around town about the book, so I predict a spike in drivers making right turns and spaghetti-eating in greater Yellowstone County. If you’re interested in taking part in any of the community conversations, please call the library at 406-657-8258. The library is providing copies of the book.
Tuesday, April 19: I need no good excuse to visit Missoula. Luckily, I have a great one: I’ll be at Fact & Fiction, 220 N. Higgins, at 7 p.m. to read from my new novel, The Summer Son, and sign copies of it. Please come.
Thursday, April 28: I point the car west again and head out to the University of Montana Western in Dillon for a reading as part of the school’s Dances With Words program. I’ll be reading selections from both books, taking questions, doing rope tricks and all kinds of other fabulous stuff.
Monday and Tuesday, May 23-24: I’ll be in New York, baby, for Book Expo America. Forty-one years into my life, I finally visit the only city in the world worth seeing, to hear New Yorkers tell it. I’m expecting an interesting collision of literary and tourism-intensive pursuits. In other words, I’ll be the first person in history to wear an ascot and a fanny pack simultaneously.
This will be a clearing-the-decks post. That’s what happens when things go silent for a couple of weeks. My bad. I’d say it won’t happen again, but … well, you know.
Last week brought the excellent news that 600 Hours of Edward, a book that I wrote more than two years ago and one that continues to find new fans all the time (for which I’m very thankful), has been selected for the One Book Billings program this spring. The book will be talked about at a series of community conversations the week of April 11, and I’ll be giving a presentation at Parmly Billings Library at 11 a.m. on the 16th. I’m really looking forward to this.
For more information, you can call the library at 406-657-8258.
But wait! There’s more!
The Western Writers of America recently released the results of the Spur Awards voting, and I’m proud to say that Carol Buchanan’s Gold Under Ice, the first book published by my little literary house, Missouri Breaks Press, was a finalist in the long-novel category.
This honor, of course, is Carol’s alone, as everything that’s good about her book — and that’s a whole lot — is entirely the result of her own industry and talent. I’m just glad I was able to be associated with such a fine work and such a fine person.
And finally …
The aforementioned Missouri Breaks Press will be releasing its second book-length work this summer, a collection of essays and stories by Ed Kemmick. It’s called The Big Sky, By and By, and it tells the stories of some ordinary/extraordinary folks who give this wonderful place flavor and light.
I’m thrilled to be working with Ed to bring this book to the marketplace. I think it’s going to find a lot of eager readers among Montanans and the many people who love this great land from afar.
More details coming soon …
I love getting to know other writers, particularly those who work in a literary area other than mine. (That sounds really bad, doesn’t it? This is my area. That over there is yours. Stay out of here.) I love hearing about their work habits, the way they cultivate ideas, how they sharpen their stories. In general, I find more similarities than differences, although the differences can be stark.
Take today’s guest, Jamie DeBree. Like me, she’s an author who lives in Billings, Montana. Like me, she’s holding down a day job and pursuing her novel-writing dreams in her off-hours. Like me, she doesn’t sleep (very much). Unlike me, she writes sexually charged romances. In, uh, doing research for this interview, I read her novel Tempest and was impressed with how well she developed her characters (and, yes, she certainly brought the heat, too). Romance is not my preferred area of reading, but I enjoyed Jamie’s book very much. More than that, I had to find out what led her down this particular path, as a romance writer and the proprietor of her own publishing house, Brazen Snake Books.
Here’s her story:
What lit your fuse for writing? Do you recall an a-ha moment where you thought, “OK, this is what I want to do”?
I think I’ve always “felt” like a writer — it was back in high school that I first voiced my desire to write books. To which my parents very logically responded, “You’re gonna need a real job first.” Turns out, they were right. It was only a few years ago that I really decided to get serious and try to make some money with my writing, but I don’t remember any specific moment, because writing has always just been there, a constant in my life, even during the years I wasn’t writing anything.
You came into the business as a committed independent, even though your genre is certainly well-covered by traditional publishing houses. What was behind that decision?
When I was young and dreaming of being a writer, I always thought I’d self-publish my writing. I’ve always tended toward the control-freak side of things, and I’m kind of an outsider anyways, so doing it myself fits my personality. When I finally decided to actively work at publishing my books and joined the online writing community, I was hit on all sides by the “self-publishing is bad and self-publishers suck” stigma, and bought into it for a while. But the whole process of trying to write for a specific line, the hoops (that had nothing to do with writing) required to even get a manuscript on an editor’s desk and the fact that as a new author I wouldn’t be making much money anyways was just so overwhelmingly against the idea of building a successful career that I nearly quit writing altogether. It wasn’t what I wanted from my writing experience. That’s when I hit that question I think all writers eventually have to come to terms with: “Why am I doing this?”
I decided that the reason I wanted to write was simply to entertain people. And to do that, I didn’t need a publishing contract with a house, I just needed a venue. I started posting a draft on my blog, I got some nice comments, and at the same time, self-publishing was starting to be a more acceptable option (the stigma is still there, but it’s far easier to deal with these days). Excited that finally I could do it myself, I jumped into the self-pub pool and haven’t looked back since I made my first sale.
You and I have talked a fair amount about characterization. Why is it so important to your sexually charged stories?
Characters are the heart of any story, in my opinion. My characters drive the plot, and what they’re thinking and feeling at any given time is what keeps that all-important sexual tension high, and determines what happens next both in the story and in their growing relationship. To that end, I do my best to get deep into my character’s heads and pay attention to what they would logically be thinking and feeling from moment to moment and write from that, even if it doesn’t fit the plot I originally envisioned. I think this makes the entire relationship more realistic than if I try to make it fit a certain “box,” though it does get pretty messy sometimes as far as fears, insecurities and stubbornness go. Unlike real life though, the relationships in my books always work out in the end — usually without any extra help from me.
What’s your personal aesthetic for a sex scene?
Hot, but not crass, if that makes any sense. A sex scene without emotion is porn, and that’s not what I write. I like frank language and I want to feel what each character is feeling throughout. I think a lot can be learned about characters in the heat of a very sexually charged moment. I try to invoke a physical response in the reader, to bring them right into the story with the characters so they’re just as invested in the relationship. Emotions are often invoked or magnified by the senses — touch, taste, sight, smell, sound. I try to use all of those to make the scene very real, and show the reader the emotions that my characters are going through at that point in time. If it makes things more complicated when it’s over, all the better.
You and Carol Buchanan — two writers who are working entirely different parts of the literary universe — have teamed up to write a series of blog posts on sex scenes. How in the world did that partnership come about?
Actually, it was Carol’s idea. She e-mailed me last fall, having read one of the draft sex scenes on my blog, and asked if I’d like to collaborate with her on a comparison in styles for writing sex scenes. Naturally I couldn’t turn down an offer like that. It’s been a lot of fun to study the angle from our very different genres and perspectives. I think we’re both learning a lot from each other, and clarifying our own processes as we explore the subject in blog articles.
You’re a transparent writer, in that you post weekly your progress on a story. Why do that, as opposed to rolling it out when you’re done?
Motivation, mostly. I’m a writer who needs an audience — while many writers claim to write for themselves first, I write predominantly to entertain others. While I do occasionally work on drafts that aren’t serialized, I’m happiest when I know someone’s waiting for the next installment.
There are a lot of other benefits I get from it — my drafts, while still rough, have improved immensely because I’m very conscious that people read them as I go. I tend to plot on the fly (i.e., I don’t really outline), and serializing forces me to maintain a linear plot and pay very close attention to continuity while I’m drafting — which means less work for me on the revision side. I also have to re-orient readers quickly at the beginning of each scene, and entice them to come back for the next one at the end, so it’s helped me learn how to keep readers turning the page (or so I’ve been told, anyways). It’s basically my practice arena, and I invite readers to watch just exactly how a story is “born” in my world. I see no reason for it to be some mystical, secret thing we writers hide away. Nearly all creative endeavors are messy in the beginning, and I don’t think we should be afraid or ashamed of that.
Like many (most?) other writers, you have a day job. How do you balance your time among that, the writing, your husband and home life, etc.?
I like quiet when I’m writing, which means my normal writing hours are between around 11 pm and 1 am (2 am if the scene of the day is particularly frustrating), after the dogs and my husband are settled for the night. I can’t edit that late (the analytical portion of my brain tends to fade out earlier), so a lot of revisions/editing take place while I’m watching TV in the evenings and on the weekends. I’ve been known to load my draft on my Kindle and head to the break room at 10 am and 3 pm for 15-minute editing sessions at the day job too. Writing is basically a second job for me — in the evenings after dinner I’m writing blog posts, updating my web sites, socializing on various online platforms (ie, marketing), and watching TV with my husband. Luckily, I’m a very good multitasker and also very disciplined (I love routines and keep fairly strict schedules), so somehow it all gets done. Although I’ve been trying to remember to order more business cards for three weeks now … and please don’t stop by without calling, so I have time to vacuum and pick up the dog toys.
What do you read for pleasure?
Whatever I can get my hands on, really — I generally have 2-3 books going at any given time. My parents always encouraged reading widely across genres for a well-rounded experience when I was young and I’ve kept that habit. So while romance (all sub-genres), erotica and thrillers are the genres I read in most, I also read mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, urban fantasy, westerns and literary novels as they come my way. The only genre I really don’t read much of is young adult — I have nothing against the genre, it just doesn’t hold my interest (and didn’t really even when I was young).
What’s next from you?
I’m nearly finished with the serial draft of The Biker’s Wench, the first book in my Fantasy Ranch series scheduled for release this coming July. Monica Burns is running from a forced marriage and ends up at a ranch outside Reno, Nevada, that specializes in making adult fantasies come true. Her father finds her there, but before she can run again she gets an unexpected offer of help from Harley Majors, the owner of the ranch. She reluctantly accepts, but her father turns the tables on them and dangerous chaos ensues as they work to outwit her father and win her freedom once and for all.
I’m also working on revisions to Her Private Chef, a novel I wrote a couple years ago about a split-personality food critic and a popular TV chef with the power to ruin her career. I plan to finish that up and release it sometime next fall. It’s a fun story, and I’m excited to finally be working on it again.
Jamie DeBree’s website: http://jamiedebree.com
Purchase links for Jamie’s books: http://brazensnakebooks.com
Jamie’s blog: http://varietypages.jamiedebree.com
Jamie’s page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/NovelistJamieDeBree
Jamie’s Twitter feed: http://www.twitter.com/JamieDeBree
Jenny Shank’s winning debut novel, The Ringer, comes out this month, and readers will be treated to a fine book that uses baseball to delve into issues of family and class.
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about it:
Shank debuts promisingly with the dramatic story of two families upended by an accidental police shooting. Denver police officer Ed O’Fallon is wracked with guilt after he guns down a man during a drug raid; Patricia Maestas, meanwhile, is instantly made a widow and single mother. Their narratives are equally engaging: as Ed’s marriage buckles under the weight of his feelings of guilt, Patricia struggles to keep her 12-year-old son, Ray, out of trouble. What keeps Ray off the streets is baseball—the same sport Ed’s sons are devoted to. When an investigation reveals the warrant for the fateful raid had the wrong address, Patricia and her family become a symbol of the wrongs suffered by the Latino community. The novel comes to a full boil after Patricia and Ed discover one another’s identities through their sons’ baseball teams.
Shank, the book blogger for New West and an active reviewer, was kind enough to take a few questions on how her book came to be, America’s pastime and how her day job keeps her focused on her own writing dreams.
Where did the idea for The Ringer come from?
I enjoy novels that give the reader an inside look at a particular subculture—for example, you learn a lot about the atmosphere of an advertising agency in Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End or you learn about John Henry memorabilia enthusiasts in Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days. The intense world of competitive youth baseball is a subculture I knew well.
In 1999, when I was just beginning to contemplate writing a baseball novel, the Denver Police raided a house in north Denver on a no-knock drug warrant, and shot and killed Ismael Mena, the Mexican immigrant that they encountered inside. Later it came out that their informant had given them the wrong address of the house, and they’d killed someone whose house they had no business entering. I was shocked and moved by this incident, and I watched it all unfold. In the aftermath, there was a lot of racial tension in the city between whites and Latinos. The part of this story that interested me most as a novelist was the fact that the cop who killed the wrong man was not responsible for the mistake on the warrant—he was doing his job, carrying out orders. I imagined the guilt he felt must be incredible.
I was also interested in writing about Denver, because there aren’t many novels set in my hometown. So I combined these ideas of writing about baseball and Denver with this growing feeling that I had to in some way address the shooting of Ismael Mena by the Denver police, because it seemed to me to be an important, elemental story, one that could tell us a lot about Denver if we’d listen to it.
Once you had the basic idea, how much cultivating did you do before you started writing? In other words, what is your work process like?
I started to keep a folder with press clippings on the Ismael Mena shooting. I did a lot of research on police, studying what it’s like to be involved a shooting. I spoke to cops and families of cops that I happened to know or meet. My cousin is married to a police officer in Omaha, and he told me in smaller cities, patrol officers often train for SWAT work, and then are on call when SWAT situations arise. (Smaller cities can’t afford to have SWAT officers sitting around, because there isn’t a need for them every day.) So I decided to have this be the case for Ed.
Somewhere in the middle of this research, I started writing a draft, working forward from the scenes I could envision easily. When I realized I was beyond my depth, I’d do more research. I made an informal outline of scenes I thought should be in it, and I gradually refined it. It took years of rewriting drafts and getting stuck and getting unstuck to produce the final version. I rewrote the first fifty pages more than anything—it took me years to figure out the right tone and perspective.
The workshop of this novel happened in public, with it being an Amazon Breakthrough Novel and James Jones First Novel Fellowship semifinalist. How much did the feedback you got along the way affect the version that was submitted to The Permanent Press?
Actually, those contests didn’t involve much public workshopping, but they inspired me to continue working on this bear of a project. I entered the beginning of the book in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship contest in 2005. I hit a low moment of frustration and difficulty in drafting the novel about then, but when I heard it was a semifinalist, I thought, “Well, they saw something in it,” and that gave me the courage to continue. I entered it in the first Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest in 2008. There were something like 10,000 entrants and my book made it to the final 100. They posted two chapters online, and I received all kinds of positive feedback, and some of it wasn’t even written by my relatives. Reaching the semi-final round in that contest gave me the final push I needed to revise it one more time, and after that revision I was able to find an agent.
The real workshopping of this book happened with my writing buddies. I traded novel chapters with my friend, the writer Paula Younger, and we helped each other through the process. Poor Paula has read so many drafts of this novel, she deserves combat pay. I also have a writing group I meet with once a month.
It seems to me that some of the characterizations in the book — a cop sidelined from coaching baseball because of an anger problem, immigrants — could have ended up being caricatures in the hands of a lesser writer. How did you manage to pull off making everyone, be they main characters or supporting ones, three-dimensional and real?
Thank you. And believe me, I am about as “lesser” as writers come. Early drafts were full of melodrama and caricature, but after you work on a book for eight years, it’s possible to beat those problems out of it. The plot of The Ringer is dramatic, and dramatic plots all sound like movie-of-the-week specials when you read a description of them. There were scenes I knew I had to write because they belonged in the arc of the story, but that I was afraid to approach for just this reason.
For example, in one chapter Patricia has to give a speech to a rally of supporters at the state capitol. There was so much potential for caricature in that—I mean, it just seems like a set-up for an eventual Jennifer Lopez Oscar clip. After worrying for a long time, I finally just wrote the scene, and it was bad, and I rewrote it, and it was still bad, and I took another angle on it, and it was still bad. I kept rewriting that chapter right up until the time I had to turn in the manuscript to The Permanent Press, and finally I think it at least seems plausible. I mean, real people do end up in situations like this. I told myself not to try to be cute, coy, or clever and just try to get the big drama of this story onto the page as clearly and honestly as possible.
Let’s talk a little baseball. What’s your background in the game? Your love and knowledge of it certainly came through in the book.
I was raised in a house of sports fanatics. My older brother was a great baseball pitcher and home run hitter. He was offered scholarships by many colleges and even was invited to tryouts for pro teams when he was in high school, and he was named to the all-state team for Colorado. But he hurt both of his knees, and three or four ACL surgeries later…he’s a fantastically successful sales executive for a software corporation. My cousin Tommy Hottovy is a left-handed pitcher. He played ball for Wichita State and he’s been in the Red Sox minor league organization for many years. He currently pitches for the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox. So growing up I had an inside view of the feeder system for big league teams—the intense competition starts early, and there are many, many road trips. I also played a lot of softball. I was a catcher, not quite as good as my brother, though I wasn’t terrible—I made Denver’s all-city team several years.
I loved writing about baseball because I knew I didn’t have to worry about getting those parts right. A few parts of my childhood worked their way into The Ringer, such as how my brother would make me help him sort his annual complete baseball card set, the rules of our backyard baseball games, and the July trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the regional baseball tournament every season.
Books that have the sort of arc found in The Ringer generally need a means of bringing disconnected people together, and baseball certainly does that in your book. What were the challenges of using a game to illuminate racial divides and divergent viewpoints?
So far most of the fiction that I’ve written has been about race in some way. When I was growing up, Denver’s public schools had court-ordered busing for racial integration. Beginning when I was six years old, I rode the bus to schools that were thirty minutes or more away from my house, schools in which whites were in the minority. I spent part of my childhood attending schools that were mostly Mexican-American, and part of it at schools that were mostly black. I think because of this, it has always seemed natural to me to tell stories from two perspectives at once. It seems to me that all stories have at least two sides to them, if not ten!
I often write about situations in which people of different races are forced to be together, and sports are one area where that happens consistently. I played sports in school and because of that I made friends with people of all different ethnicities—people who didn’t play sports didn’t tend to mingle as much. I’ve also written stories about football, track, and basketball, stories that are really about race. Though the challenges in writing my book were gargantuan, I never worried about using baseball to write about race. That felt natural, maybe in part because the history of Major League Baseball is inextricable from the history of the Civil Rights movement.
The designated hitter: useful innovation or blight on the game?
Oh dear. I’ve got to say something either impassioned or witty! I guess I like the wackiness of how the American League has a DH and the National League doesn’t, and when NL andAL teams play each other they have to follow the rules of the home team. Because you think of Major League Baseball as being one entity, but it’s not really—it’s two halves that could not agree on something as seemingly simple as this rule. And anything wacky, I’m for. Also I like how having a DH allows some older, out-of-shape players to hang around for some more seasons. I’m fond of out-of-shape baseball players.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why?
Probably Ray. Although all of the characters are fictional, and I can’t say that any of them are based on real people, I went to school with a lot of kids who remind me of Ray, and I’ve always wondered what happened to them. Ray’s attractive, talented, and cocky and at this point his life could go either way, which is an interesting state to write about a character in.
In what ways has your job as the book reviewer/blogger for New West made you a better writer?
I’ve learned almost everything I know about writing from a combination of massive amounts of reading, analyzing what I’ve read by writing book reviews, and the chance to interview other writers. I wrote book reviews for the Rocky Mountain News for eight years, I’ve been covering books for New West for about four years now, and last year I started writing book reviews for the Dallas Morning News. So I’m a book-review-aholic.
Knowing that I’m going to have to write a review every week makes me an attentive reader. And I think I’m a positive reader—I read to find out what works, not to point out why something stinks. I had the chance to interview Francine Prose about her book Reading Like A Writer a few years ago. That’s one of my favorite how-to-write books of all, because she just tells you to read, read a lot and read widely, and if you’re stuck on a scene or the use of perspective or structure or anything, there’s sure to be a writer who has handled this problem before. Read his or her book, and it will help you figure out how to solve your own writing problem.
I kept two books on my desk as I worked on The Ringer—Richard Price’s Samaritan and Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog. Whenever I was stuck I’d flip through these novels to see how these guys did it. Or I’d read another book for New West until an idea came to me.
I’m not one of those writers who abstain from certain kinds of reading to preserve the sanctity of my muse while I’m writing a book. I like my muse good and polluted.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to finish a short story collection, and I’m daydreaming and jotting notes for another novel, which I hope will have something to do with a graffiti artist.
You’ve read the interview, I hope. If you haven’t, get over there and read the damned interview!
Now’s your chance to win Volt, the debut short-story collection from Alan Heathcock. This book is racking up some seriously good reviews, including this one from the Kansas City Star over the weekend:
It would be easy to call these stories dark because of the heavy themes of death and despair, but there’s far more going on than bleakness. What’s at stake is the notion that we can deal with grief and sorrow and yet maintain a life of purpose and hope.
For one lucky reader (U.S. or Canada only, please) I have a copy of this fine book, provided to me by the publisher, Graywolf Press. It’s in fine condition, save for a couple of dog-eared pages, the residue of my reading it. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post. It’s just that easy.
We’ll let this one run for a week. Next Monday (March 7th), I’ll draw the winner’s name.
UPDATE: Kathy P. wins the book. Congratulations!
UPDATE: I’ve taken the price lower. See below for details …
UPDATE NO. 2: It’s now available for the Nook. Go here!
Something new for you e-book devotees:
(The bundle will eventually work its way to B&N Online and the Apple store, but that rests with factors beyond my control. When it’s up in those places, I’ll post an update.)
Here’s the lineup:
This Is Butte. You Have Ten Minutes.
A traveling salesman, stranded by a broken-down car, hops a late-night bus home and learns hard truths about himself and his life as he rides along with a motley group of fellow passengers, among them a woman with a mysterious past.
A teenage runaway lands in an unforgiving city far from home and finds an unlikely friend in a homeless, self-styled vigilante.
Star of the North
Ray Bingham subjugated his own dreams when he beat a man to death. Imprisoned for twenty-three years, he imparts hard-won lessons of living with regret to a young fellow inmate, until his act revisits him in a most unexpected way.
These stories are part of a larger collection that I hope to release in the next year or so. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them linked; a better description is that they have relationships — some casual, some direct — with each other. All try to dig at the central notion that we’re not alone. Even if we deserve to be. Even if we want to be.
I hope you’ll take the opportunity to check them out.
Thanks for your consideration.
In my first question to Alan Heathcock, the author of the forthcoming short-story collection Volt, I used the word “muck” to describe the messes into which he flings his characters.
Popular word, “muck.” Turns out that Publishers Weekly used it, too, in a starred review of Volt:
Heathcock’s impressive debut collection pursues modern American prairie characters through some serious Old Testament muck. If it’s not flood or fire ravishing the village of Krafton, then it’s fratricide, pedocide, or just plain ol’ stranger killing.
Volt comes out March 1st, from Graywolf Press. Heathcock, who lives in Boise, Idaho, and teaches creative writing at Boise State, was kind enough to field a few questions with thoughtful, incisive answers. Enjoy!
The stories in Volt send their characters into some pretty serious muck. What is it about harrowing adversity that is attractive to you as a writer?
The appeal is two-fold. First, I’m what I call an “empathetic writer,” which has kinship to a method actor. I try to become the character in full, think what they think, feel what they feel. The process of writing then becomes an exploration of imagination, intellect, and emotion for me, and putting the characters through the muck is confronting the things that scare and confound me the most. The process of writing has great value to me. It’s not entertainment, but something deeper. I know that sounds pretentious, but it’s as honest an answer as I can give. Second, harrowing adversity simply makes for good compelling drama. Shaekspeare and Cormac McCarthy, two huge influences, put their peeps through deep, deep, DEEP, muck—I, for one, thank them for that.
One of the things that struck me in the stories is the sense of time. You provide small clues about the general era of each story, but most any of them could be dropped into any modern decade. Was that intentional?
It was intentional. I was trying to let the stories be as timeless as possible, not having the baggage of a certain period adhere itself to the stories. For instance, if a story is clearly set in World War II a contemporary reader might slap everything they’ve ever read/viewed/heard about that era, changing/warping the intended meaning of the story. I set the stories in a hard “now” time, while leaving the general sense of time open enough so that each story delivers the reader into as pure a thematic reading as possible.
Aside from that, I’m also proposing the simple truth that history repeats itself, that the pains of war and crime and grief must be felt again and again and again. In that respect, time period has no bearing on the truths of humanity.
I read an essay in which you wrote that your stories help you figure out the world around you. What did you mean by that?
Things have happened in my proximity that deeply altered my ability to understand the moral truths I’d been taught in school/church/home. For example, I used to visit a small town in Minnesota named Waseca. I had friends who lived there. It was a lovely little town, nice Main Street, beautiful lakes, kind people. In winter, I went ice fishing, which I loved. In summer, we’d take long walks down these country roads, looking out over the still fields, listening to the locust drone. Then, in 1999, a twelve-year old girl came home from school to find a man robbing her house. The man raped and killed the girl, and her parents found her dead body in the house. I visited Waseca about a month after this happened, and the town had changed. My friends, who used to leave their doors unlocked, now locked their doors and kept a rifle by their bed. Waseca felt changed, the air and water were changed. It touched everything. I couldn’t shake the desire to have Waseca returned to what it was, and wondered what could possibly be done to restore the peace. So…I wrote the story “Peacekeeper” as a means of unpacking some of my questions, a bit of grief, too, trying to see if I could find any answers and heel the troubled mind. Again and again I find myself drawn to questions that plague me, and use story writing as a means to root out any possibly insight that might settle my equilibrium just a bit.
The Volt stories are set in the fictional town of Krafton. Did you model it after any actual place? What does Krafton look like in your head?
Krafton started out as modeled after the small town where my mother grew up: Lynnville, Indiana. But I felt confined by having to abide their grid of streets and knobs and flora and fauna, so I started borrowing from places I’d been in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Kentucky, South Dakota, Idaho… My goal with Krafton was always to just let it be a small American town. I’ve found, via the early reviews, that depending on the reader they place Krafton in different regions (the west, Midwest, great plains, southeast), which is fine with me. So it’s Krafton, America, which enables the commentary to not be bound by region, while adhering itself to whatever region the reader supplies.
Volt is your first book. Are you planning to write a novel-length book, or are short stories where it’s at for you?
I’m working on a novel now, though I’ll keep writing stories. My original idea for these Krafton stories was to write a comprehensive moral history of a town, a collection of 30 or 40 stories covering a town from its founding to its present. VOLT is like volume one of four in a series I hope to eventually complete.
You’re a Chicago guy who’s teaching creative writing at Boise State University. How have you taken to living in the West?
It was quite a transition. The west is vast. VAST. Time and distance are very different in the west. The people aren’t as direct as they are in Chicago. But I’ve grown to completely love the west. Boise, Idaho, is an absolutely amazing place to live. It’s growing like crazy and crackling with energy. In a small way, being part of the growth in Boise connects me with what the pioneers who founded the west must’ve felt, the feeling of being able to effect a place, to put your mark on a land and culture. And the west has some of the world’s most stunning landscape. Idaho is a wonderland of beauty, and beauty hardly touched when compared to everything back east. I’m loyal by nature, but I sincerely love the west, and I’m extremely proud to be a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho, and Writer-in-Residence for the city of Boise. And everybody back in Chicago hits me up for Boise State football t-shirts and hats—ha. Go Broncos!
Let’s talk process: When do you write? How do you balance it against work, being a husband, being a dad?
We (my family and I) treat my writing like it’s my full-time job, which it is. It teach one or two nights a week at Boise State, and other than preparing to teach I’m working on my writing Monday through Friday, from the moment I get my three kids off to school to the moment they get home. It helps that I don’t have any hobbies (ha). I read, write, watch movies, follow my kids around to all their activities, sneak in a date night with my wife every now and again, and that keeps my life full and productive.
I grew up in a working class area in south Chicago, and I often think of my friends back home who are pipefitters or police officers or office stiffs, who have to go to a job every day, week after week. With them in mind, it’s easy for me to stay disciplined to doing my work—if ever I have the urge to put my feet up on the desk, I just think of them looking in on me, totally disgusted by how soft I’ve become, and that stokes me to get back at it.
What are some of the books that influenced you? Who or what lit your literary fuse and made you want to become a writer?
Lord of the Flies by William Golding, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, the stories of Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, Taking Care by Joy Williams, Upon the Sweeping Flood by Joyce Carol Oates, Emergency by Denis Johnson, the stories of John Cheever, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Kentucky Straight by Chris Offutt, to name a few. But, really, for me, there’s Cormac McCarthy and then all the rest. McCarthy’s books were a revelation to me, were everything in style and story I ever wanted. My top ten books would be dominated by his titles. His novel The Road is the one of a few books I consider to be perfect.
Your publisher, Graywolf Press, has released some great story collections — yours, Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy, Ghosts of Wyoming by Alyson Hagy, among others. How was the publication experience for you?
Graywolf Press is the best publisher out there. Period. I could throw numbers at you to prove it, but if you talk to any author in the wolf-pack, they’ll echo my sentiment. The editors are extremely talented, the sales and promotions crew thorough and dedicated and charismatic. I hear authors published on other presses complain about not being a part of the process, or having quibbles about their book cover or lack of promotions or not being able to get answers from their publisher about this or that. I’ve really felt that with each step Graywolf has included me in the process, cherished my input, given me their best guidance, and championed my book in the marketplace, all with grace and great effect. My book is succeeding both critically and commercially in ways I hadn’t imagined, and I credit Graywolf for enabling that to happen.
As someone who nurtures young writers, what are you seeing from the next generation of storytellers?
I occasionally hear someone lament the lack of imagination coming out of writing programs, but I don’t see it in my classes. I have youngsters writing stories from a myriad of styles and genres, with great variances in thematic content, all with powerful execution. These young writers have grown up with great access to information, have been barraged with stories from around the world, and have been reared in a great time of war and turmoil. They’re filled with stories, brimming with great thoughts and intense emotions. It’s an amazing thing to witness as young writers find their voices and use drama to express their passions in the written word. Time will tell, but I think we’ll see some truly great books in the next ten years or so.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
Do not look beyond yourself for validation. Learn your craft to the point you understand the values of quality. Then look inward, and be brave enough to take yourself seriously. The moment you decide to take yourself seriously, to look inward, you will stop imitating others and become original.