Archive for category Interviews

The push-pull in a person’s soul – how to keep readers desperately hooked. Interview with Mary Kole @Kid_Lit

Mary Kole has long been a legend in my online writing life. I’ve followed her since I first ventured onto the internet of writing, when she was a literary agent and wrote one of the smartest blogs about storytelling. Now she has a podcast for writers – as well as a consultancy – and I was massively chuffed when she invited me to guest.

We had a huge, wide-ranging chat about storycraft which boiled down to this – what keeps the reader hooked? Could we identify any qualities that work for any kind of story – no matter what the genre, even in the absence of a clear genre?

Reader, we did. (See the headline to this post.)

We talk about identifying the core of a story – because most ideas start as an intriguing muddle. They lead us and frustrate us, and for a long time we might not know where we’re going – just that this idea is eating our brain, directing us to books we might not usually read, movies we might not usually choose to watch. We also talk about small but vital aspects of craft – pacing, word shapes, learning from other writers, change in a story and when to give the reader a breather.

We talk about coaching writers – the art of wriggling inside an author’s mind to help them create the book they really want, even if they’re not clear what that is. And about ghostwriting – another kind of mind-reading, with the added challenge of absorbing another person’s experience to write the book they’d write if they could. (Did you know I have a course for ghostwriters?)

We’re editors too, so we talk about switching hats from writer brain to editor brain – and the great big interzone where the two overlap.

You can listen to us talk about all this and more, or if you prefer to read, there’s a full transcript. Step this way.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Do androids dream of electric horses? Creating the future – interview about Lifeform Three at @AuthorsElectric @AuthorKatherine

In 2013, I designed the future for my novel Lifeform Three. I wrote about robots that were more human than people, people who were slaves of their devices, and creatures who wanted to escape the algorithms and find real connection and meaningful lives.

Today I’m at the Authors Electric blog, talking to fantasy and historical fiction author Katherine Roberts about the making of Lifeform Three. (Katherine guested on my Undercover Soundtrack series a while back – ‘A ballad of fairyland, but not sweet and innocent’. Find it here.)

Katherine and I discuss key fundamentals of writing a futuristic, science fiction, dystopia or speculative novel: creating a viewpoint character who is non-human yet relatable; designing a world with plausible social systems by figuring out the priorities of the rule makers; choosing names that reinforce the story’s themes and resonance; and lacing the text with warnings that are subtle and not preachy.

So, do androids dream of electric horses? We also discuss homage to favourite books – Lifeform Three is, in part, a love letter to the pony stories I devoured as a kid. (Apologies; I’m bringing you horses for the second time this month. The next post won’t be horsey.)

Do come over.

And here’s a bonus! A bit of bookish chat with Tim Lewis on his channel Book Chat Live. He asked me to make an Amazon wishlist with favourite books that have influenced my own writing. That’s quite a wide brief because I’ve written memoirs, contemporary fiction, SF and writing craft books, but there are literary touchstones for each of those, which you might like if you like my kind of book. Tim has a wildcard question at the end – choose anything you like from the Amazon store and say why you’d like someone to buy it for you. Ever since, I’ve been bombarded with adverts for the thing I chose. People, the algorithms are watching.

Find the show here.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Two opportunities for shortform writers, a treat for music lovers and a little interview

Do you write shortform? I have two opportunities for you.

If your forte is piercingly, wincingly, blazingly short, the 50 Give or Take series from Vine Leaves Press wants your work. The editor is my friend Elaina Battista-Parsons.

Does Elaina sound familiar? You’re right. She came to my blog to talk about her memoir Italian Bones In The Snow.

If 50 words is too tight and you like to be thoughtful at greater length, Elaina still wants your goodness. She’s also an editor at Cordelia Magazine.

Go here to her blog and follow the trails.

Elaina also invited me for a brief chat about my writing, my favourite music, my favourite decade and advice for new writers. In the same post she featured the work of pop musicologist Quentin Harrison, and that’s an inspired pairing – Quentin has a series of books (Record Redux) on pop icons, explored through their songs, and I mainlined books on bands when I wrote my novel Ever Rest. We were destined to meet.

Do come over.

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How to use research to build an authentic story – interview with @Tomokarres at #booksgosocial

How do you use research to build a plot? If you’re writing beyond your own personal experience – and most of us are – what details make a difference? How can you use your actual experience as a starting point? What are the absolutes to cover if you’re writing historical fiction, or fiction set in a special world?

Today I’m at BooksGoSocial, talking about this to Tom Burkhalter. He writes World War II novels created from meticulous research and deep understanding of his subject – indeed he’s often complimented on his flying experience, which he admitted to me was 90% research. And I have wide experience of writing what I don’t physically know, from my years as a ghostwriter and now with my own novels. Just for my most recent novel, Ever Rest, I learned two special worlds – music and mountaineering.

We also talk about how to organise material for a novel and how to teach yourself revision techniques that are effective and rewarding. If you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you’ll know I’m zealous about revision – for me it’s one of the great creative processes. Do come over.

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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We are full of messy multitudes: how I made my writing career – Alexis Paige @lexissima

Alexis Paige is a writing professor with a string of impressive credits for her essays, memoirs and literary editing work, but her latest book, publishing in February, is subtitled How To Make A Messy Literary Life. I was intrigued. Here are all the questions.  

Alexis, let’s begin by talking about your literary life as a whole. Your career has always been writing – local newspapers, public relations and a number of teaching roles in the writing world. However, you describe your early years as anything but stable – ‘a peripatetic childhood shaped by loss and dislocation’. Did commitment to writing come from constant change?

My career has indeed been committed to writing, but I don’t see that as a direct response to any instability I experienced as a child. Not because there isn’t a connection; rather, I feel too close to my own life to see it with any distance or clarity or conviction.

Combat pilots use this wonderful, tactile expression to describe flying at very low altitudes to avoid enemy detection: nap-of-the-earth. This is how I think of myself, as a speck lodged in the nap of my own life.

In any case, I don’t have a good sense of how others perceive me (does anyone?), but I feel more inner turmoil than I show. A student who read my first memoir— Not A Place On Any Map, vignettes of my childhood, adolescence, and 20s to early 30s—remarked that the book did not square with his image of me as an energetic, good-humoured professor, a ‘success story’. It shocked him to learn that I have struggled with depression and anxiety, with substance abuse and PTSD, and that my confidence and competence are tinged with a darker sensibility. As Walt Whitman writes in Song of Myself, ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.

I think we all contain these multitudes. But still they take people by surprise. That could be a discussion in itself.  

So what did that early life look like?

We moved around a lot: I was born in Chicago, my younger brother in Phoenix, and when my parents divorced in the early 1980s, my mother went to Texas, and my brother and I to live with our father in New Hampshire. I had plenty of stability in many respects; at the same time, my life seemed quite different from my peers who spent their lives in one house and one town.

Summers and holidays were in Texas with my mother, and later, Boston. By the time I was 10 I could navigate airports with a competence that made me resent being assigned a chaperone. By the time I was a teenager, I knew how to figure out any subway, rail, or bus system, and could drive an old standard transmission truck off-road in the mountains of New Hampshire. I had this feeling of always moving between worlds, each with different customs and codes. I was comfortable in both worlds, but always happiest sitting in the window seat to the next place.

When did you choose writing, how did you choose writing, and why did you stick with it?

Sometime in my latter high school and early college years. While I had always been a devoted reader, my early English teachers were pinched taskmasters, obsessed with sentence diagrams and grammar (for which I am not ungrateful, but that’s another sidebar). They weren’t writers; they were subject experts. Writing is a subject, sure, but it’s also an identity, a way of being, a way of thinking, a means of exploration, a way of making meaning of experience, a noun and a verb.

In my last year of high school, I took a course in journalism and one in women’s studies—and writing began to click for me in a new, exciting way. These teachers were artists themselves, and that meant something, though I’m not sure I understood that at the time. There was an exchange of recognition perhaps; the more they saw in me a writer, or a thinker, the more I saw it in myself.

Was your family artistic in any way?

One of my cousins is a sublime photographer, another a gifted dancer, one aunt a talented painter. My paternal grandmother played piano on the radio with her sister on vocals—everything from boogie-woogie to standards of the 1940s and 50s. My brother is a talented singer-songwriter and musician.

But more than artistic, I would describe my family as big readers and conversationalists. My dad, brother and I were our own little debating society. Extended family gatherings were rhetorical athletic events (my dad was one of 12 children, and I have approximately 40 first cousins), with everyone jabbing and sparring, making cases for this or that, spinning yarns, playing cards, and filling up rooms with smoke and laughter.

That’s wonderful. Do they have room for one more?

Let’s talk about your latest book – Work Hard, Not Smart: How To Make A Messy Literary Life. Why messy?

For me writing is a messy activity. In 25-plus years of doing it, it hasn’t gotten any easier, or tidier. You have ideas and images and gestures and space junk zooming around, and that’s before you even get into the chair. The writing hasn’t even started. The real writing happens when I yield this unwieldy consciousness to the writing itself. In his essay On Writing, William Stafford said it so much better: ‘A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.’

I recognise that well. I start with a compulsion and a muddle, which torments me until I’ve spilled it roughly onto the page. Then I feel calmer because I have it fixed, it can’t get away. Then I can question it properly, see what bothered me so much about it.

My new book is partly a reckoning with, or perhaps an ode to, this—the muck and slog of the act of writing itself. The book dives into some granular concerns of craft, which is why I settled on calling it a craft memoir. By messy, I suppose I mean it’s a thing one never quite gets right. I recently re-read Anna Karenina, and I thought to myself, once again, that it is the most exquisite, perfect work I’ve ever read. But Tolstoy was probably still fiddling with semicolons or dialogue tags or something long after it was published.

Work Hard, Not Smart is a craft memoir of my life both off and on the page (and in the classroom), with linked essays on everything from writing with and about mental illness and addiction, to writing about rape in the age of Me Too, to writing about race and incarceration.

Before I quit drinking at 30 (I’m in my mid-40s now), I got into a terrible drink-driving car accident in Houston that resulted in a protracted felony case and trial in which I was facing prison because a woman was injured in the crash. In the book, I spend a chapter puzzling out how to write this complex story for another book that I’ve been working on for a long time. The more I wrote about the experience, the less I wanted to write a merely personal story of redemption, or whatever. Not that there’s anything wrong with redemption. It’s just that I am more interested in writing about the racial dimension of my experience as a white person reckoning with America’s racist criminal justice system. This is a much larger story, one that remains beyond me, and its difficulty is what I discuss in the Ars Poetica chapter.

The book is also about the messy enterprise of becoming a writer, being a writer, over the long haul. This encompasses career and life choices, literary citizenship, careerism (or anti-careerism), and other vexing concerns like time, and how to get enough of it. Years ago, I asked the poet Charles Simic how I should go about becoming a writer. ‘First,’ he said, ‘you will need to get a job—any job—that pays money.’ I didn’t see it this way in the moment, but now I think it’s the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten.

It’s the advice we’d be most disappointed to hear, but we all learn its value.

You were recently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). How did this change things for you?

My own mind suddenly felt less unsolvable. There was a name for it. There was a name I could quibble with, anyway. It became less a thing to resist and more a feature I could lean into. I was diagnosed when concepts like neurodivergence and neurodiversity were becoming more mainstream, and this helped a lot too. ADHD was simply a different way of being and thinking—one even with some creative advantages, like hyperfocus when interested, for example.

And how does one define ‘normal’, especially in creative people? We train ourselves to do things that require a high level of concentration, practice and persistence, we follow impulses that are mysterious to others and often inexplicable to ourselves… we make connections others do not… 

The title of my book is an inversion of the cliché “work smart, not hard,” a nod to my own growing acceptance of ADHD as a kind of divergent-thinker magic. The book arose from this, which made me want to run out and tell other like-minded creatives what I wish I knew early in my writing life: that not all who wander all are lost. You can learn to rely on yourself, to go your own way, and to make a writing life that fits you. The essay form is especially elliptical, so having an elliptical thinking pattern is an advantage there too.

Meanwhile, what’s this picture of you with – gasp – travel writer Jon Krakauer?

For my 25th birthday, my dad took me to a Himalayan Foundation dinner in San Francisco. We had both read a lot of mountaineering books, including Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which is a harrowing account of the 1996 Everest disaster, not to mention a timely polemic about the phenomenon of big mountain tourism.

I know it well! I read it several times while writing Ever Rest. If I open the pages, I fall into it again.

I love all of Krakauer’s work (he’s SO good with nouns!), and he was a speaker at the event. After the speeches and dinner, as things were winding down, Krakauer was suddenly free, and I saw my chance. I practically tackled the poor guy, but he was very gracious and kind and his eyes were dazzling—full of life. My father was ready to capture the moment on film.

Let’s talk about your first memoir – Not A Place On Any Map.

It’s a memoir in vignettes about my childhood and early 20s. This was the time when I moved around most, first with family, and then by choice. The locus of the book is also trauma itself, in particular, my first trip abroad, to Italy, where I was raped. My life thereafter spun out in painful, predictable ways. I reported the rape, nothing happened, I felt re-victimized, I drank, I drugged, and I stuffed down the assault (and others) to the deepest recesses I could find. The book is an attempt at mapping the spin out and what happens when it all comes back up.

Your website describes a few hair-raising escapades including a short spell in jail. Tell me about hellraiser Alexis. Is that a fair description? Are you still a hellraiser?

Hellraiser, I’ll take it! I do think it’s a fair description. I’m not as much an obvious hellraiser as I was in my 20s, I have more to protect and lose now. But I still have a rebellious disposition (even with myself), and I hope to be raising hell for a good many years to come.

Do you write fiction at all?

I haven’t written fiction, but I never say never. I read and teach a lot of fiction. The short story is one of my favourite forms. In my early years as a baby creative writer (a poet), I did publish a few poems. This occurred around the millennium, when publications were still print, largely, and mine are now long out of print now, thank god.

What are the hallmarks of an Alexis Paige piece in terms of concerns, curiosities and style?

I love this question, but I have no idea. I have no aptitude for this sort of self-appraisal.

I love this answer. We can’t always figure ourselves out – as you said earlier.

I’ve always been driven by an insatiable curiosity. A few years ago, I became so obsessed with underwater treasure hunting that I contemplated studying engineering at the college where I teach writing, not because I wanted to do any engineering, but because I wanted to better understand marine engineering so I could read more about it. For the last few years, I’ve been on a World War II tear that started with a book on Churchill. So, I have these interests that ostensibly have nothing, or little, to do with my field, but they’re all connected on some crazy loop that makes sense to me.

Your essays are published in several literary journals. You’ve also edited the journal Brevity. What does a journal editor do, aside from assessing submissions?

Allison K Williams just wrote this super helpful piece for Brevity about this very topic, so I want to second everything she says in this link.  

I’ve worked as a journal editor at a few places—most recently at Brevity—and the role can be different at different places. At Brevity, most of my work was reading and rating submissions—sometimes offering commentary if I loved a piece or if I felt my rating could benefit from explication (this wasn’t feedback for the submitter, more part of an internal conversation about what we loved, liked, didn’t like, or had questions about). I didn’t work directly with writers on revisions; I believe that happened at a higher editorial level, but Brevity gets such incredible work, so many publishable riches, that most accepted work requires little editing. At other journals, the Stonecoast Literary Journal where I was the creative nonfiction editor during my MFA program, I not only read submissions and managed our wonderful readers, but I made publication decisions and worked with writers on revisions and edits.

Do you have any submission tips to offer authors?

Many writers send out tons of work to lots of places. I’m not opposed to this, but it’s not how I work. I don’t send out anything until I’m really done with it, probably to my own detriment. I have trouble turning loose of even one sentence. And I rarely submit simultaneously. I send out one piece at a time, to one place at a time, one that’s been carefully researched. With publishing, I’m either risk averse, or a serial monogamist.

What’s the most common reason for rejection?

I can only speak for my niche experience. Some rejections occur because the piece is not the right fit (eg it’s a piece of reportage submitted to a journal that doesn’t publish reportage), some are because it’s not the right timing (eg it’s wonderful, but we just published an essay about infidelity). Most rejections, in my experience, occur because the submission is unfinished, it needs work on a beginning or ending, it needs one thread tugged on a bit more, it needs to be edited, but it’s close. Maybe it’s good, really good, but not great. It’s so subjective, of course.

Tell me about your editing work, both as a freelance and for Vine Leaves Press.

I do some copy editing, but mostly developmental editing, both freelance and for Vine Leaves. At VLP, development editing is with a manuscript that has been accepted for publication, so it’s about refining the work and making it the best version of itself. Editing is so satisfying to me because it’s so much easier to see the issues and possibilities in work that’s not my own.

It certainly is. It also tunes up our own awareness. Speaking of your own work, what are you writing now?

I’m in flux. I’m on the book launch, but I’ve been tinkering with a couple of longform essays that detail the grief and fear of the last few years—not only life in a global pandemic, but also some personal griefs and fears. I had a hysterectomy a couple of years ago because of health problems, my husband had a serious injury and recovery last year; he shattered his arm. We lost two dogs. So, I want to work on those; whether they’re one-offs or part of a book of essays, I don’t know yet. I also need to finish another work-in-progress, my jail memoir, which I believe is close but needs one more revision.

Find Alexis sparsely on Twitter @lexissima , on Facebook and on her website. Find Work Hard, Not Smart: How To Make A Messy Literary Life here.

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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The resilient mindset, overcoming blocks and living every moment of the creative journey – interview at @insideyourhead0

Today I’m on a podcast that’s not my usual territory. Although I’m talking about writing and creativity, the podcast’s main focus is psychology, self-help, neuroscience and wellness.

Inside Your Head is hosted by my friend Henry Hyde, whose name you might recognise because we’ve podcasted together before. Henry’s a writer and designer, and has taken this new direction after a health issue. He wants to explore how we tick on many levels – from our physical health to other less quantifiable aspects of our lives that are central to our wellbeing.

And here’s where creativity and writing are relevant.

Resilience and self-belief are needed for the artistic life. You carve your own path. It’s a long game. You might make plans – and nothing will turn out as you thought it would. When I started writing seriously, I hoped I’d complete a book, and if it was good enough, it would be taken up by a publisher or a literary agent and I’d begin my author career. Certainly I’ve ended up as an author, with the kind of books I hoped I’d write (and readers who like them!), but absolutely nothing went as I imagined it would.

There’s also another kind of self-belief you need as a creative artist – to discover where you truly fit. You try lots of writing styles and genres that don’t suit you until you find the right ones. You wonder sometimes – actually, quite a lot – if that’s good enough. You’re teaching yourself an artform, and learning to express yourself, and learning who you are while you look for your own distinctive style. You’re often torn down or disappointed – but gradually these experiences teach you better who you are.

There’s loads more on the podcast. Henry knows that one of my day jobs is editing a medical magazine, so we talked about the problems facing doctors in the UK at the moment – which I see first hand, from their own pens. It certainly puts creative struggles into perspective when you talk to people who handle life and death. This led to a very interesting chat about emotionally demanding jobs, and the people who are suited to them and are also burned out by them – an issue I tackled in my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life.

So it’s a wide-ranging and often surprising conversation. Did you spot horses in the introduction Henry’s written? Indeed you did. Horses teach you a lot about your inner chatter, self-trust and self-compassion. Do come over.

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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The accidental way to build a writing career – interview at @AnnalisaCrawf

How did I get where I am? I’ve asked that question of a number of authors (in my series, How I Made My Writing Career). One of my interviewees, Annalisa Crawford, has returned the invitation and today I find myself in her interview chair.

I’m probably a typical writer – introverted, at home in my own head, not the kind of person to thrust myself into the spotlight or to think I had anything significant to say. But somehow I ended up with my name on book covers, and writing novels for others, and even helping other writers to grow up into authors.

We discuss how that happened, the jobs I did that pointed the way, and how I discovered what kind of writing I should be doing.

Do come over.

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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What’s literary fiction and how do you sell it? Interview on the Self-Publishing Show @SelfPubForm

What’s literary fiction? Today I’m on Mark Dawson and James Blatch’s Self-Publishing Show, wrangling this question.

We talk about definitions, of course. Where literary and genre overlap. What literary isn’t. We also talk about marketing strategies for literary, and about my work as an editor, ghostwriter and writing coach.

Find it here.

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. 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 been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How I made my writing career – poet, publisher and creative writing tutor David Starkey @WhatHaiku

David Starkey was always a writer at heart. After a few attempts at novels he found his feet in poetry, and has published a range of collections, including one that follows the plot of a series of The Sopranos. If that’s stopped you in your tracks, fear not, we will talk about it in due course. His latest book is What Just Happened: 210 Haiku Against the Trump Presidency. We’ll talk about that first.   

Roz Why did you choose the haiku form for this material?

David I initially started the series by writing one 15-line poem for each month of Trump’s awful presidency, but he did so many bad things in any given month, I quickly realized that I would have to go week-by-week. Around that point, I remembered David Trinidad’s hilarious Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera in which he’d written one haiku for each episode of that 1960s TV show. I didn’t want my book to turn into an epic, so that seemed like a good model, and I decided to stick to the traditional five-seven-five syllable pattern, which forced me to be careful with every syllable. Haiku purists might have trouble with some of the poems, but my subject matter was anything but pure.

Roz Why is poetry your chosen medium?

David When I was young, I wanted to be a novelist, but although I’ve finished a couple of (thankfully unpublished) novels, I haven’t yet been able to get the hang of it—though I haven’t given up yet. But basically, I became a poet by default. I had a knack for it, and the longer I worked at my craft—it’s been 35 years since I published my first poem—the better I got. At least, I hope that’s the case.

Roz What is poetry? Is it possible to answer this? What do you look for in a poem?

David Just about anything can become a good poem—I’m open to whatever a poet wants to try. But when it comes to the poems I really enjoy reading, they’re usually imagistic, concise and alive to the possibilities of sound. I like to hear assonance and consonance in service of the phrasing.

Roz How did you arrive at this creative career? Were your family in the arts or are you an outlier?

David Both my parents were schoolteachers, and while they valued education, they certainly weren’t big into the arts. I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in unexciting Sacramento, California—it wasn’t the sort of place where anyone is expected to write poetry.

Roz Did you enter the world of professional creative writing directly or did you take a longer road?

David I always liked to write, but before I became an academic, I worked for an insurance company for a while. That was pretty miserable.

Roz You’ve got an impressive range of credits, with poetry published in American Scholar, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review and many others. How long did it take to get serious attention for your work?

David I started getting published fairly quickly after I began writing seriously, but that’s probably because I was so persistent in submitting my work. This was back in the mid-80s, when you typed up your poems on a typewriter, used Wite-Out to make corrections, and surreptitiously made copies on the office copy machine.

Roz Were there many rejections? Are there still many rejections?

David Yes, I’ve been rejected countless times, and no doubt there are many more rejections ahead. I think that rejection just means that a writer, especially a poet, is still willing to take risks and experiment, to get things wrong first, before getting them right.

Roz I love that. But I think rejection is different in longform publishing. Certainly a book will be rejected if it needs more work, but it might also be rejected because it doesn’t suit the publisher’s audience.  

In your poetry, what are your main themes and concerns?

David I write a lot about family, and though I’ve just called my hometown ‘unexciting’, I frequently draw on the city and surrounding farmlands and foothills for material.

Roz Have these changed over the years?

David As I get older, I’ve begun writing more elegies. And I’m always open to some odd incident or happenstance becoming the germ for a poem. In fact, if I am an “underappreciated” poet, as I read a few years back, it’s partly because my tastes and subject matter are so idiosyncratic. You get a sense of that eccentricity in What Just Happened, which mines another of my favourite themes: politics, in particular America’s perpetually disappointing behaviour, which we saw so clearly during Trump’s reign.

Roz If I could whistle up a time warp, what would Today’s David say to Earlier David?

David I hope I’m more sophisticated and more concise than I was three and a half decades ago, but of course there’s a certain jouissance any young writer has that’s inevitably going to diminish over time. That said, I think tonally my work has been pretty consistent: there’s always lots of irony in a David Starkey poem.

Roz You’ve had 11 poetry collections published with small presses. Tell me about that.

David I completed my MFA in poetry writing at Louisiana State University in 1990, and of course I was hoping I would be the Next Big Thing. I’d received a lot of praise in my graduate program, but there are a lot of graduate programs in creative writing, and more coming online all the time. So, when I didn’t win the Yale Younger Poets prize, or any of its equivalents, I soon realized that my best publication chances were going to come through small presses, which are generally more welcoming to someone like me, who doesn’t excel at schmoozing.

Roz Is it possible to sum up each of your collections in a word or two? If we put them all together, would we see the barometer of David’s life?

David I don’t know that I could sum up each book in a single word, but I’d say the arc has gone from very small micro-presses to those that are more robust in marketing their writers’ work. I think if you read the books from first to most recent, you would get a pretty good sense of what was happening in my life and my general attitude toward things. One big caveat: I write frequently from other people’s perspectives—in fact, I’d say a good half of everything I’ve written is some form of a dramatic monologue. So, the actual details in any given poem might be completely fabricated. And, again, I’m liable to write a poem about anything, so there are a lot of tangents in there.

Roz Let’s talk about editing poets. How does one edit poets? And what do poets look for in an editor?

David I think serious poets want to write the best poem they are capable of writing at that particular moment. A good editor is someone who works with the material that’s already there, who doesn’t try and take over another person’s poem and make it their own.

Roz What about teaching? How does one teach poets? What kind of guidance do they need and seek?

David What young poets need and seek don’t always match up. When poets are first starting out, as they usually are when they take a community college creative writing class, they really benefit from being exposed to lots of different writing that they probably didn’t know existed. For instance, if all you’ve read is sentimental verse celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, or on the other end of the spectrum, you think poetry equals hip-hop, and that’s it, you’re going to be surprised by how many other ways people have found to effectively express themselves. My creative writing textbook is going into its fourth edition this year, and I think part of its success is due to how keen I’ve been to seek out and share a wide variety of new writing, in all genres.

Roz I notice Wikipedia mentions your collection Like a Soprano, based on the TV series. This is such a surprising idea. How did you come to write it?

David The book by David Trinidad that I mentioned earlier was an inspiration for Like a Soprano. However, instead of writing one haiku for each episode, I went with the prose poem, which gave me a lot more flexibility to handle the nuances of the show. I was also thinking of how in centuries gone by poets would write about the gods and heroes, and yet they seem so distant to us now. Our new mythology is formed by television—and movies and video games—and Tony Soprano is a larger-than-life figure for our time.

One of the main characters in the show—Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti—lives in Santa Barbara and was nice enough to write a blurb, so I thought Like a Soprano would make a bigger splash than it did. But it turns out that if you make a Venn diagram, the overlap between viewers of The Sopranos and readers of literary poetry is, alas, pretty small.

Roz The unexpected combination of genres and readerships… This is also a hazard for longform writers. Anyway, tell me about another work of yours that you wish would get more attention.

David It’s the book I published just before What Just Happened. It’s called Dance, You Monster, to My Soft Song, and it contains the best poems I wrote between 2014, when Like a Soprano was published, and 2020. Like so many pandemic-era poetry books, it seems to have been lost in the shuffle.

Roz You founded – or helped to found – the creative writing programme at Santa Barbara City College. How did that happen?

David Prior to my arrival at City College, creative writing was just a couple of classes offered every once in a while. As founding director, I went through all the official curriculum development that a college requires, gave the offerings some structure, set up a reading series, instituted student writing contests, and so forth.

Roz Does this mean you have created your own ideal creative writing programme – and what does that look like?

David I don’t know that it’s my ideal programme. American community colleges are designed to propel students into four-year institutions after just two years, so there’s not a lot of continuity among the student population, but I think it’s done a lot of good over the past 14 years. I just retired a month ago, and it’s been hard to let it go.

Roz You’re a co-editor of Gunpowder Press…

David I started Gunpowder Press back in 2014 because I wanted to publish two books of poetry. The first was by my late friend, David Case, who died when he was just 49. He named me as his literary executor, and I heard from publishers that bringing out a book by a relatively unknown poet who was no longer alive to promote it was a losing proposition for them, no matter how good the poems were.

Then my Santa Barbara friend Chryss Yost had a wonderful first book that she’d been having trouble publishing. As it happened, Chryss was also a whiz at book and web design, and after I published her book, I asked her to come on board as co-editor.

Most of the books we publish are through our annual Barry Spacks Poetry Prize, which is named after Santa Barbara’s first poet laureate. Chryss and I choose our 10 favourite manuscripts then forward them, without names attached, to our final judge, a prominent poet who changes every year. We also have an anthology series, started by Chryss, that features poets of California’s Central Coast.

Roz Also you’re co-editor of the California Review of Books

David I got the idea for The California Review of Books when our local arts paper, where I’d been publishing book reviews for years, decided to focus only on local writers. I teamed up with Brian Tanguay, another of the paper’s long-time reviewers, and Chryss Yost, and we’ve been publishing reviews since January.

Roz For both, are there any mistakes or shortcomings you see frequently in submissions from authors?

David It’s the standard thing most editors would say: some potential contributors don’t seem to be aware of the type of work we publish. But the submission chances for the two are very different, at least at the moment. Getting even a very good poetry book published by Gunpowder is really difficult, but getting a strong, 1,000-word review published in CRB is absolutely doable.

Roz What have I forgotten? Oh yes, your six textbooks on creative writing, and several other textbooks you’ve edited or contributed to. Do these represent changes or refinements to your teaching approach over the years?

David I think a lot of students, and teachers, dismiss textbooks as a not very important genre of writing, and it’s true some are pretty horrible. However, it’s extraordinarily hard, and time-consuming, to write a good textbook. As my teaching matured, I did become a better—and, yes, more refined—writer of textbooks, certainly since the first one was published in 1999. The older you get, though, the more actively you have to work to place yourself in the mind of a 20-year old student.

Roz What are you working on at the moment?

David I’ve started and stopped several projects since I finished What Just Happened. I usually have a sense after five or six pages that something has the potential to make it to the finish line, and if it doesn’t, I will quickly abandon ship. I like Keats’s thought that ‘If it come not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ That doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of hard work and revision, but I don’t want to feel like I’m swimming upstream—to use my third cliché of this response.

Roz You’re teaching the writers of tomorrow. You’re publishing them too, and your own body of respected work. Are you living the dream?

David I always remind myself how lucky I am to have the time to write at all. Most people are too busy trying to make a living, or simply finding edible food and clean water, to even think about writing poetry. Having the chance to sit down and say what’s on my mind is an incredible luxury. I’m definitely living the dream.

Find David on Facebook and tweet him at @WhatHaiku

Find What Just Happened, which is published by Vine Leaves Press, here

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. 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 been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Making my honest art – writing and publishing literary fiction: interview at @thecreativepenn

Today I’m at Joanna Penn’s now legendary podcast, The Creative Penn, talking about writing and publishing literary fiction.

We cover the writing process for a very long-haul book (ie Ever Rest), the research process, creative revision, how you battle on when you’ve lost your way, and how you design a cover for a book that doesn’t have established genre parameters.

We also cover another big question – if literary fiction isn’t the most predictably lucrative kind of book, and marketing is tricky, what are the guaranteed rewards? Hence the line about making honest art.

As always, I thoroughly enjoyed our discussion. Do come over.

If you’re curious about my creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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