Archive for category Interviews

Ghostwriting, writer’s block, researching a novel … and training a horse. Interview at @officialSNWfest

How do I tackle writer’s block? How much research do I do before I start writing – and what kind of information do I look for? What’s the hardest thing about writing and what is the most joyful? And… what’s it like to write books for other people as a professional ghostwriter?

On Sunday 25th April I’m presenting a session on ghostwriting at the Surrey New Writers Festival (you don’t have to be in Surrey to attend.. we are Zooming!). So here I am on their blog, talking about how I work, how I keep working when it isn’t necessarily easy, and other strategies for a productive author life. Oh, and they asked about a little horse. Do come over.

Meanwhile, if you’d like more concentrated writing advice, I’m teaching the second part of my self-editing masterclass at Jane Friedman’s next Thursday. It’s all available as videos and transcripts if you can’t make the live broadcast. Find it here.

You might also like my Nail Your Novel books.

If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How I made my writing career – writing coach, novelist and memoirist Gina Troisi @Troisi_Gina

How do you get a career working with words? We all find our own routes. In this occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve made writing the centre of their life and now have a distinguished publishing reputation. Today: Gina Troisi, who has award nominations, writer-in-residence posts and is now about to release a memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, with Vine Leaves Press.

Roz Tell me how you got here.

Gina I decided I wanted to be a writer in third grade—it sounds cliché, but I clearly remember learning the writing process in the classroom, and becoming fascinated with it. I grew up writing furiously in journals, crafting stories and poems; it was a creative outlet I desperately needed, but I barely showed my work to anyone. I had very little confidence.

As an undergraduate, I majored in English Literature, and after college, there was a stretch of years where I took writing classes out of a local woman’s home. I was going through a very difficult time in my life, but these classes offered me the best kind of solace. It was this fabulous teacher, Nancy Eichhorn, who suggested I apply for an MFA, and encouraged me to submit my work for publication. I began working on my MFA in 2007, and I spent that time focusing on craft and technique; I immersed myself in the act of becoming a better writer. When I completed my MFA in 2009, I began to send my work out for publication.

Roz Your memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, is about your troubled childhood. Were there many steps before you felt able to show the manuscript?

Gina Oh yes!

Roz How many incarnations did it go through?

Gina In some ways, I’d been writing about the themes my entire life—about my childhood, about recklessness and the act of numbing oneself, and about the search for identity and belonging.

I’d been writing about those themes my entire life… my childhood, recklessness, the act of numbing oneself… the search for identity and belonging

Gina Troisi

Roz When I’ve worked with memoirists, it’s a long struggle to find the wisdom and insight to give readers a meaningful experience.

Gina I think writing memoir takes a great level of self-awareness. We need to get to a place personally where we understand ourselves—our actions and our decisions, our patterns, and the ways in which we’ve been shaped.

I remember hearing the author Joyce Maynard say that in order to write a memoir you have to “let the ashes cool.”

Roz “Let the ashes cool…” I love this.

Gina It takes time to process the moments that have made up our lives, and to gain an honest perspective. I had to reach a point where the “I” in my book was just another character.

Roz Also, we change.

Gina We encounter so many versions of ourselves throughout our lives. 

Roz Yes, and we might not realise unless we write about a time when we were much younger, or under great strain. I see it in my old notebooks, the things that upset or amused me ten years ago, twenty years ago. I recognise where the feelings came from, but I would not react that way now. And then other things are exactly the same, they never change.

The Angle of Flickering Light has been commended in several awards over the years, as far back as 2012. Tell me about its gestation.

Gina The book originated when I was in graduate school. My intent was not to write a book-length work. But I found that I was generating stand-alone essays with recurring themes and characters.

I originally presented the book as a collection of essays back in 2012, and I began sending it to agents and small presses. In 2013, I received interest from a small press, but the editor wanted major structural changes, and to morph it from an essay collection into a memoir. I dove deeply into that revision, but the press decided to pass. So I found myself with two versions of the book, and by this point, I wasn’t sure which was the more structurally sound. I took a break to focus on other projects, but continued to send the original version out to contests. At the end of 2018, I returned to the memoir with fresh eyes, and I spent about seven months reworking it.

A couple of authors from my graduate program, Penny Guisinger and Alexis Paige, had both published books with Vine Leaves Press. I read and loved both of their books, which led me to other VLP titles. The writing was exceptional, and Jessica Bell’s covers are amazing. I decided to submit, and to my great delight, they accepted the memoir.

Roz Inevitably a memoir will involve real people. How did you handle this?

Gina I changed many names and places. I also omitted details and characters, and sometimes merged and compressed events and moments. Every choice I made was to either protect the privacy of others, or for the sake of narrative clarity.

Roz Tell me about that beautiful title.

Gina The original title was Shadows on the Sidewalks, which is a title of one of the chapters. The chapter focuses on the narrator’s relationship with her boyfriend, who is struggling with heroin addiction. But while much of this book is about wandering and restlessness, about movement and motion, I didn’t want the title to indicate that the relationship in that chapter was the focal point of the book. It’s actually about the narrator’s relationship with herself.

The Angle of Flickering Light is a line from an intimate moment in the narrative, and I like that it’s an image, but also speaks to the idea of finding flickers of light in darkness. The book is largely about hope and resilience, and about searching for light within, rather than outside of oneself.

The book is largely about hope and resilience… searching for light within oneself

Gina Troisi

Roz Yes, it works well. As you say, the title is the reader’s lens for the whole book. The Angle of Flickering Light is also mysterious, alluring. It beckons you in.

Let’s talk about the structure you used for The Angle of Flickering Light.

Gina Structuring this memoir was the most challenging part of the process, particularly because it covers such a wide range of years. When I returned to the book in 2018, my main goal was to find and thread the narrative throughline more tightly in order to clarify and highlight the heart of the story.

Roz I love that moment – when I finally grasp the emotional purpose of the book I’m writing. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I’m always looking for it. That’s when I understand what to do with my material.

Gina Once I found the prominent thread, I attempted to tailor each chapter to illuminate it, and it enabled me to veer off into the past or the future as I saw fit—to move around in time more freely.

Roz Moving on, you’ve been widely published in literary magazines. Was it all leading towards this memoir?

Gina I think a lot of it was, yes. But there are also themes and subjects that tend to enter my work often, no matter what genre I am working in. Some of these are addiction and perseverance and mortality.

Much of my work explores the ways in which we survive. And I’ve always been interested in the relationships between people—in the way we connect with one another in raw and authentic ways.

Roz Who do you like to read? Who are your influences?

Gina Oh gosh, there are so many. Joan Didion, Andre Dubus II, and Alice Munro are a few of my heroes. Jeanette Winterson. Lynda Hull, Sylvia Plath, Mary Oliver for poetry. How about you?

Roz Many, many many. From your list, Joan Didion is a favourite. Also Hilary Mantel for the way she explores the humanity of historical moments. Ann Patchett for her sweeping sense of romance, even though she does not write romances, if you see what I mean. Taylor Jenkins-Reid for sass. Janet Fitch for rawness – read her and she seems to take your skin off. Meg Wolitzer too. I’ve just read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, very slowly. Not because it was difficult, but because I wanted to savour every moment.

You’ve studied for an MFA and also taken a writer in residence post. What did these experiences give you? Methods, routines, anything else?

Gina My MFA was a low-residency program, so I attended seminars and workshops two times a year for ten days at a time, while the rest of the year I worked one-on-one with mentors, and met monthly deadlines. This schedule taught me how to incorporate writing into my real life—to prioritize it over almost everything else, and to integrate it into my world despite my work schedule or personal relationships.

Roz This is so wise! I remember when that happened to me. I found myself among people who always had a book on the go, or maybe more than one. I had tried various creative pursuits, but had missed the essential lesson – how to make an art the centre of my life, which was what I needed. I suddenly felt at home.  

Gina The writer-in-residence post gave me the beautiful gift of time, and also allowed me to work with some wonderful creative writing students. Both experiences offered me inspiration, stimulation, and purpose.

Roz You’re a writing coach as well as an author. How do you protect your creative energy while also giving your best to students?

Gina I love working with students, and I find it feeds and nurtures me creatively. It’s such meaningful work. I am doing it less and less since I started my day job at an educational assessment company a few years back because in order to protect my writing time, I often have to say no when I’d like to say yes.

Roz You wrote a terrific post about this on Ian Rogers’s blog, But I Also Have A Day Job  In it you describe so well the artistic lifestyle – the freedom to wander, the patchwork of randomly acquired jobs that let you make writing the centre of your life. But you found it all had a price.

Gina For many years, I resisted the idea of a full-time job because I was terrified it wouldn’t allow me enough time to write. So I juggled part-time jobs with various schedules: I tended bar, I ran a writing center at a community college, I taught and tutored. I ate meals in the car while driving from job to job. I had no health insurance, barely any savings, and no money put aside for retirement. One day I added up how many hours I was working, and I found that I was working at least 40 hours a week, but without any of the benefits, like paid days off and holidays. And I thought, how did this happen? I decided it was time to reassess what I was actually resisting, and to try a new approach.

Roz How do you unwind?

Gina Hiking in the woods, visiting the ocean, listening to live music. And of course, reading. There are also times when I collapse on the couch and give in to Netflix.

Roz What are you working on now?

Gina I am working on two novels-in-stories. One of the collections revolves around a particular restaurant in a small New Hampshire mill town. It explores economic and class issues, and consists of a cast of characters who thread a larger narrative about the way it’s possible to find and form surrogate families.

The other collection takes place in a coastal Massachusetts town, and is focused on the lives of a married couple who lose their only child in a tragic car accident just after he turns eighteen. It poses questions about parenthood and loss and perseverance, and it sifts through what ultimately sustains us during times when it seems that nothing will.

Roz Profound questions. Do they have working titles?

Gina The working title for the restaurant collection is called Then You Were Gone, and the other collection is called What Remains.

Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Gina I find that most of what I have learned about writing aligns with what I have learned about living. That being said, I think the most important trait for a writer is perseverance. Discipline is a close second, but it is essential that we are able to handle rejection. I tell my students that the difference between those who publish and those who don’t is the refusal to give up, and I deeply believe that.

You can tweet Gina @Troisi_Gina, find her on Facebook, Instagram and her website. The Angle of Flickering Light is published by Vine Leaves Press. Find it here.

If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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‘I have a flash fiction mind’ – interview with Jayne Martin @jayne_martin

Jayne Martin has an impressive string of accolades for her flash fiction, especially her recent collection Tender Cuts. Before that, she had a distinguished career writing TV drama and movies. We got together to talk the long and short of writing.

Roz Across all those different continents of work, short and long, do you have any recurring themes, any character types you’re most interested in?

Jayne When I wrote for television, it was primarily on assignment, but I always seemed to be offered the heavy drama: stolen babies, sexual assault, murdered children. I was known for being able to deliver the emotional stuff. I think that’s a recurring theme in all my work. Certainly, in Tender Cuts, every character is dealing with some kind of emotional wound.

Roz And you write humour essays. I haven’t yet had a chance to mention that.

Jayne In real life, I’m actually considered quite funny. If Nora Ephron and Howard Stern had had a love child, that would be me. God, I loved Nora. My humour collection, Suitable for Giving: A Collection of Wit with a Side of Wry, was inspired by her brilliant comic voice and timing. In it is a story called “Stalking Nora Ephron”, where I make the case that if only we could meet we would be best of friends.

Roz I love that idea. You’ve got me making a list of authors who I hope I’d click with IRL.

Who are your inspirations?

Jayne One of my greatest influences in drama was Alvin Sargent who wrote the screenplay for Ordinary People. I was hired to give him clerical support during the revisions. I remember walking into his beachfront Santa Monica apartment to find Alvin and Robert Redford, who would direct, sitting on the floor with pages of the script laid out all over the carpet. I helped Alvin get organized and he taught me how to make a killer tuna salad. I also worked for Sydney Pollack and Fay Kanin, so yeah. I cut my drama chops through exposure to the best in the business.

As for flash fiction, probably Meg Pokrass, Pamela Painter and Robert Scotellaro. And I never miss reading a story by Kathy Fish or Nancy Stohlman. But there is just so much flash talent out there now. Gay Degani is on fire. Cathy Ulrich, Jacqueline Doyle, Len Kuntz, brilliant. The genre has exploded since I started back in 2010. I learn from everyone.

Roz With flash fiction, how do you keep a story idea so brief?

Jayne Again, I have to return to my screenplay roots where you enter a scene late, leave early and keep the viewer in a state of suspense. It’s a very visual art form so I’m used to telling a story through use of imagery. I’ve been doing it for so long that I have a flash fiction mind. I think in small bits. The ending, when it arrives, is always a surprise to me, whether it’s the 50th word or word 300. I rarely write fiction over that word limit. I actually find it hard to read stories beyond that limit, too, because the extraneous leaps out at me and I find myself mentally editing, or just growing bored.

Roz I began my writing life with short stories, but they quickly ran away with me. I don’t think I have a short-form mind. What’s the secret of writing microfiction that is satisfying?

Jayne It appeals to my reverence for instant gratification. Patience is not my strong suit. While a movie would often take six months to complete, I can write a flash or micro in a day. I may let it sit for a couple of days, and then go back and polish, but it’s basically done. I like the challenge of every word having a job. No slackers allowed. It’s like the art of bonsai in its precision.

Roz I feel the same about longform. Don’t include a detail unless it matters… Neither form has room for flab, if done properly.  I guess the real difference is what the reader is looking for – a single riff, or a complete symphony.

Let’s talk further about flash techniques. What are the main problems that you see in inexperienced writers of flash fiction?

Jayne Inexperienced flash writers haven’t yet learned to let the reader fill in the gaps with their own interpretation and imagination so they still feel like they have to explain and describe everything and tie everything up at the end. The magic happens in the cracks, the empty spaces.

I guess it’s like taking the training wheels off your bike and trusting yourself to stay upright. It takes a while to get there. The best way to learn to write flash is to read lots of it. Some of the best publishers of the form are literary journals like Bending Genres, Ellipsis, Wigleaf, and New Flash Fiction Review, edited by Meg Pokrass, a master of the form.

Roz What are the definitions…. What’s flash fiction, what’s microfiction, what’s small fiction?

Jayne Technically flash is considered under 1,000 words. For me, at about 600 it stops flashing and starts dragging. Some people call micro at 400 words. I call it at 300. A drabble is 100 words. But all these are very loose.

Roz You’ve had quite a journey, from TV writing to flash fiction. One is very collaborative, the other is highly personal.

Jayne When I was writing movies for television it was kind of like being a bricklayer in Beirut. Steady work, but little job satisfaction. With movies, the writer gets paid whether the movie gets made or not and some of what I thought was my best work never saw the light of day, often for capricious reasons that had nothing to do with the work. While the “suits” left you alone for the first draft, after that everyone down to craft services had an opinion. If you didn’t like their notes they would just fire you and hire someone else. It pitted writer against writer.

Having said that, I made a ton of money and if someone offered to pay my fee I’d write another. But it can’t compare to the pleasure of writing fiction and the supportive, wonderful writing community I’ve found doing so.

Roz I have scriptwriter friends who’ve tried novels and been daunted by the idea of writing on their own, of having no filters between their words and the reader (except for an editor). Personally, I love that direct connection.

Jayne I love the direct connection with readers. Writing a story and seeing eyes on it within a month is a huge reward. So yes! Give me my solitude.

Roz The opening page of your website is enchanting. ‘I live in a tiny house… high on a hilltop…’ Tell me about this place. How did you end up there?

Jayne In 2011, my lucrative movie career behind me, I decided to purge 40 years of belongings and downsize from an 1800 square foot house to a 400 square foot guest house on the 20-acre ranch of a friend. It felt great. I highly recommend it. My desk faces out to overlook a rural valley where my closest neighbours are the cows on the other side of the fence. In the airspace, red tail hawks do sky ballet and teach their fledglings to fly. And best of all, no one can find me.

Roz You studied on the UCLA writers’ programme. What did it do for you?

Jayne This was in the very beginning of my career. I’d been an actress first, but it didn’t suit me. At that time, I made my living as a script typist and thought, “Yes. This is where I belong.” In that work, I read hundreds of scripts and learned what worked and what didn’t as I started writing my own. The classes were taught by working professionals, some of which ended up mentoring me as I sought out an agent and those important first jobs.

Roz We’re both horse riders. How does horse rider Jayne fit with writer Jayne? Levi is stunning, by the way. Has he, or have any of your horse experiences, found their way into your writing?

Jayne Levi is my fifth horse. They’ve all been my sanity maintenance. The only time I feel the quieting of my monkey mind and am completely present in the moment is when I’m with a horse. I have never lost that feeling of awe when I sit on their backs and experience their willingness to carry me. I’ve kept my riding and writing worlds pretty separate, but one day I may tell some tales.

Roz (Until that time, Jayne has put some of her horse sense into this movie, Big Spender, available on Amazon. And if your heart beats for hoofbeats, here’s my own tribute to a grand and unforgettable horse, Lifeform Three.)

Find Jayne’s website here, her books (including Tender Cuts, published by Vine Leaves Press) here, her essays and shortform work here and tweet her as @Jayne_Martin

If you’d like more writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips for long-form stories. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Finding your personal magic – talking to @thecreativepenn about forgotten places, historic landscapes and Not Quite Lost

This interview was such fun. You probably know Joanna Penn for her legendary Creative Penn podcast, but here she is in alternative guise – Books and Travel.

She invited me to chat about my memoir Not Quite Lost so we took off our teacher hats and nattered about the pleasures of purposeless wandering, the charm of seasides out of season, and the way a low-key place can be personally magical if we just bring our imagination.

Do come over.

And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

 

 

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How to write captivating characters – interview at @Sacha_Black Rebel Author podcast

I’ve just been a guest on Sacha Black’s Rebel Author podcast where we had a thorough (and sometimes rebellious) discussion about how to write convincing people. Ideas we talked about included how writers teach the reader what’s important to a character, and how readers want a book to take them to places and experiences beyond their own lives.

Drop in here, and wear your best rebel boots.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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Should your book be first person, third person (or even second)? Ep48 FREE podcast for writers

Who’s narrating your book? Whose eyes is the story seen through? Sometimes we know by gut feeling which mode to tell a story in. It arrives to us as a first-person account and that’s that. First person also brings interesting limitations and biases, or even the suggestion of unreliability. (These can be interesting.) Sometimes, we want the reader to share more than one perspective or timeline, so third is the way to go. What are the advantages of each, and the pitfalls? Might your story change for the better if you include other viewpoints…. or close it down to just one? And what, pray, is the much maligned sin of head-hopping and how do you avoid it?

That’s what we’re talking about today. My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell.

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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From bust to trust (the tale of a little horse) – guest post at Martha Engber @marthaengber

This is an unusual kind of guest post as it’s not exactly about writing.

Actually, it’s not at all about writing, though it is on the blog of a fellow writer.

That writer is Martha Engber, best described as a words everyperson. Editor, playwright, novelist, essayist, writing coach journalist… the full (extensive) credentials are here, along with a link to her latest novel, Winter Light.

Martha asked me to contribute to a series she runs about pets. I think she was anticipating a cat or a dog. But readers of my newsletter will know my pet is somewhat larger…

No problem, said Martha, sportingly. Write about his quirks.

What emerged was a story about his quirks and mine, how they nearly undid us, and how… well, you’ll have to read it. As I said, it’s rather light on writing advice. But it’s super-strong on perseverence advice. And horses. Do drop in.

PS If you’d like concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win Martha’s latest novel, among many other beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.

 

 

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How I became an author – interview on inspirational authors podcast

When I was a kid, I desperately wanted an artistic life. But I lived in a small village in the north of England, where the arts weren’t something you did. Moreover, I didn’t realise that was what I truly wanted, but somehow, I was aiming for it anyway. Complicated.

That journey, from arty misfit to working author, is what I’m talking about on this interview for the Alliance of Independent Authors. The host, Howard Lovy, is fascinated by authors’ origin stories – how we start, what makes us tick, how we discover who we should be, how we find our groove.

We talk about lucky meetings that shaped my future, influential school teachers, finding places I fitted (and didn’t), why my English literature degree was not my finest hour, becoming a ghostwriter – and shaking off that ghost to discover who I should really be.  Do come over.

PS Coming bang up to date, here’s how the current novel is doing

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How to plan a non-fiction book – Ep 5 FREE podcast for writers

Books are big. They turn out better if you plan before you write! Many yonks ago, in my first publishing job, my role was to plan and commission how-to books, deciding content, researching what readers needed, briefing contributors, shooting down the troubles that inevitably arose. Since then, I’ve also worked on a lot of the more creative kinds of non-fiction books, from memoirs to poetic journeys to travel narratives (here’s one I made earlier!).

I’ve put all that experience into today’s episode. Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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Memoir: how we write about ourselves – an interview with Peter Selgin @PeterSelgin

How do we write about ourselves? How do we write a memoir that will have value for others? How do we find the necessary level of truth, empathy and self-examination? How reliably are we remembering and does that even matter? What about the other people who are part of our story – how do we approach writing about them?

I’ve posted before about memoir from various perspectives and of course I’ve had own dabblings, with Not Quite Lost.

For me, the very best memoirs perform a conjuring trick with your mind. Even if the author is nothing like you, they somehow seem to be writing experiences you’ve also had or recognise.

Today I’m thrilled to be talking to such a writer – Peter Selgin, whose memoir The Inventors was one of my favourite books of last year (though it was actually published in 2016, but who cares about that?) Peter is a literary powerhouse – novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor and associate professor of English at Georgia College & State University.  He’s also an artist, and the gorgeous pictures in this post are by him. (Find more of his art here.)

Roz Your memoir The Inventors is mainly written in second person, with your older self-addressing your younger self. I found this moving and effective; it allowed you to express complex emotions about your illusions and motivations, to bring your younger self alive in all his truth and complexity, while commenting from your perspective now. This is one of the challenges we face with memoir: how to be wiser than we were but also kind to our follies. I think your style choice balances them beautifully. How did you arrive at it? Was it something you’d seen in another book or did it happen for you spontaneously?

Peter My decision to write The Inventors in second person was mostly logical. At some point it became obvious to me that the younger version of myself whose story I was trying to tell, this thirteen-year-old boy, was in many ways a different creature than the fifty-something man I had become. I realized that I couldn’t inhabit that younger self fully or authentically; I couldn’t be him again. But I still wanted to tell his story. So instead of telling a story about him, as him, I told it to him. This gave me the sense of distance and perspective that every memoirist needs.

I think the hardest thing—or one of the hardest things—about writing memoir is how to be objective, honest, and fair, while avoiding all forms of sentimentality, of unearned emotion. I was intent on not romanticizing or glorifying my own past in any way. I didn’t want my younger self to come across as in any way heroic. But I was equally determined not to portray him as a victim (I’m no great fan of victim memoirs). The second person enforces acts as a sort of prophylactic against sentimentality. “You did this; you did that.”  It has—or should have—the objective authority of an instruction manual or a cake recipe.

In the past few years the second person has become very trendy, which makes me almost wish I hadn’t used it, but it really was necessary for this book. And I think with second person that’s the key: is it necessary? if not, don’t use it.

When your agent disagrees

Roz I saw you remark in a blogpost that your agent advised against second person because it wouldn’t be as commercially appealing.  We tread a fine line with our professional advisers, don’t we? Can you talk about handling advice that may be right in some ways, but wrong for your artistic direction? Your agent suggested a major change. How did you resist and still remain on good terms?

Peter My agent Christopher Rhodes was concerned that the second person would put off editors (this was before it became as trendy as it is now). At one point I rewrote the entire manuscript in the first person, but felt that it lost something crucial in the process. It no longer had that ruthlessly objective tone that had made it not only possible to write, but fun to write. And so I switched it back into second person again.

Ultimately, Christopher arrived at a brilliant solution: break up the second-person voice with another voice, with short intervals or inter-chapters in the first person. I used those intervals as opportunities to comment on the process of writing my own memoir and on memoir in general, little glimpses into the author’s process or notebook. In fact, I raided a few notebooks of mine for reflections to include in them. I’ve long been attracted to the sort of writing where the author’s inner process is exposed to the reader, the way the plumbing, ducts, and other normally hidden features of architecture are externalized at the Centre Pompidou.

Writing about real people

Roz Inevitably when we write memoirs, we involve other people. Many of them haven’t necessarily consented to become part of a book. Even if they do consent, they might not appreciate how we will use the material about them.

An example from my fiction – I have friends who jovially say ‘I’d love a part in your book’. They imagine a cameo where they’re doing something jolly and typical of them, like a special guest in a movie. They think it’s all surface. Instead we might write complex responses to our time with them, responses they might be entirely unaware we had. We cast them as part of our struggle to deal with life. We must write them this way in order to be truthful for the reader, but we also are aware it might create surprising and personal questions for the real people in our orbit. How did you handle this generally?

Peter On one hand, we should always respect the feelings of other people and try not to hurt people or use the medium of memoir irresponsibly or vindictively. But then we also have a responsibility toward telling the truth, or anyway trying to be as truthful and honest as possible. I’m lucky to have been born into a family that tolerates artistic needs and temperaments. While my egocentric father was more-or-less oblivious, my mother has always been supportive of my work as an artist, even when it’s come at her expense. Which isn’t to say that nothing I’ve ever written has given her offense. She was particularly offended by a passage in The Inventors in which I describe the family home as having gone somewhat to seed in the wake of my father’s death (of all the things that could have offended my mother about The Inventors, I never imagined it would be that passage).

The thing is, you can’t predict other people’s responses. It’s probably best not to try. Try to be as fair and objective as possible. Write to understand rather than out of anger, anguish, or self-pity; and never use the medium as an instrument of revenge, judgment, condemnation. The lens of self-righteous indignation is a poor instrument, I think, through which to view one’s life—let alone the world—clearly.

Roz In your book, there are two interesting ways you acknowledge this conundrum. You describe one of the main characters by just a label, ‘the teacher’. And at the end, you invite your brother George to write an afterword and correct anything he likes. He says that several details are wildly inaccurate from his point of view – even the kind of pen he had. This creates a sense of unreliability, but somehow does not undermine the book at all. Perhaps it also resonates neatly with your title, the men who invent themselves. Perhaps it also shows the complexity of reader belief, that what matters to them is inner honesty.

Unreliable narrators?

Peter As I see it, the memoirist’s job isn’t to tell “the truth,” which isn’t always possible. In fact it’s never possible at all, since “the truth” is a moving target that alters with the slightest shift in perspective or time. The memoirist’s job is to remember. And memory is entirely constructed.

Nor is it a stable construct. It keeps amending and refining itself, until finally what we remember isn’t “the truth” or even our own experience, but a story, a fiction based on experience, that we’ve told ourselves over and over again. With each telling the story acquires its own mythic reality independent of the facts, whatever those may have been.

Memory and truth are very different things. When students ask me, “How can I write about X if I don’t remember X?” I remind them that “to remember” is a verb, that there is no such thing as a memory that exists on a shelf in a storage room somewhere in our brains. Memories are like wind; they exist through the process of remembering. Whatever the act of remembering evokes, though it may not be “the truth,” still, it will do for memoir.

Roz You wrote two memoirs and a book of memoir essays. Why did they naturally split into three books?

Peter I’ve actually published only one memoir and one “memoir in essays.” A third memoir exists. Titled Painting Stories: a Life in Words and Pictures, that focuses on my love affair with those two things, how for many years they were at odds with each other, and how I finally succeeded in reconciling them. It has yet to find a publisher, in part because it needs to be produced in full colour, which is expensive. But everything we write is autobiographical, isn’t it — or rather everything we write is a blend of memory and imagination. But while fiction is driven mainly by the imagination, memoir has memory humming under its hood. It’s a matter of priorities.

The eclectic writer

Roz You have an eclectic mix of output. First of all, you’re an artist and graphic designer as well as writer. But within books you’re also quite diverse.  You have fiction short and long, memoirs and essays, three craft books, five books for children. This is, of course, what a naturally curious, creatively inclined, expressive person does. But commercial folks would say that’s too diffuse. I have a good friend who writes award-winning non-fiction and has also written a novel that is terrifically good, but his agent doesn’t want him to enter that market and won’t attempt to sell it. Have you experienced this kind of obstacle?

Peter The demands of the marketplace are hostile to versatility. If an artist has a successful “product,” the market demands that they produce more of the same. For me that’s always been a problem, since I hate to repeat myself. This was driven home to me many years ago, soon after I published my first book, a children’s book. The book having done well, my editor at Simon & Schuster was eager to see more from me. I met with him several times. At each of those meetings I must have shown him half a dozen ideas I had for more children’s books, each of which was of a completely different order than the one we’d published, none of which appealed to him. It became obvious that what he wanted more of the same. But I just couldn’t get excited by that. I envy artists who, having found a successful style or method, are able to repeat it over and over again with minor variations. That’s a formula for commercial success. But I’m afraid I just don’t have it in me.

Roz Neither do I.

When we teach writing…

Roz New question. You teach a university graduate program in creative writing. What do you think we teach when we teach writers?

Peter Every teacher is different, of course. My focus has always been on craft, and especially on what makes for good storytelling. What information does the reader need, when do they need it, and how should it best be delivered?

Roz That is brilliant. I always think good writing knows exactly how it’s handling the reader. What they’re directing the reader to notice. And to feel.

Peter Of course there’s no single right answer. But those are the kinds of issues I look at when analysing and diagnosing a piece of writing. I see myself as something of a clinician. Of course, when it comes to prescribing, the first question should always be, “What is it that this author has set out to do? How can I help them to write the book that they seem to want to write?” I reject the often-heard accusation that creative writing teachers necessarily mould their students into their own image. Of course it may be true in some cases. But in my experience, the shape of the “mould” is determined by our students’ drafts, by the vision they present me with.

Aside from Roz: You might like Peter’s series on Jane Friedman’s blog, Your First Page , a spin-off of one of his writing craft books.                    

Roz I spotted on Facebook recently that you’ve been revising a novel after feedback from agents and publishers. What kinds of things did you re-examine?

Peter The novel, titled Duplicity, is nominally about twins—but the way Moby Dick is about the whaling industry. It’s really about dualities, opposites, contradictions, and paradoxes of all sorts, including a phenomenon of physics known as “quantum entanglement,” by which a single entity may exist in more than one place at a time. Having had it rejected by nearly every publisher in the country, large and small, I decided to revise it—not heavily, but to get rid of as many of what I call “speed bumps” in the narrative road —words, sentences, paragraphs, in one or two cases whole passages that slowed things down unnecessarily. I like the analogy of a story or narrative as a guided tour with a destination, but also with detours and side trips to interesting sights along the way. Some things are worth pulling over for; others less so. In revising I got rid of a few side trips.

Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Peter The best advice I’ve heard given to a writer is what the titular character tells (actually writes in a note) to Buddy, his fledgling author younger brother in J.D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction. He has Buddy ask himself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world would he most want to read if he had his heart’s choice.” Seymour then tells his brother to “sit down shamelessly and write the thing [him]self.”

Find Peter and his books here and connect with him on Twitter @PeterSelgin . Find his beautiful artwork here.

And on that note, of things we’re writing ourselves, here’s my latest news

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