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Shades of the truth – talking memoir and fiction-writing with Scott Gould @Scott_Gould

  1. Embrace cliches
  2. Don’t write what you know.

That’s two pieces of writing advice you won’t see everywhere. They are from Scott Gould, award-winning short story writer and novelist. Scott has now crossed into memoir with Things That Crash, Things That Fly, which chronicles the startling and sudden break-up of his marriage. How was it, I wondered, turning the unsparing writer eye on your own character, your own actions, your own real people? We got together for a chat.  

Roz I’ll talk about your memoir in a minute, but first let’s discuss your other books. You have Whereabouts, a novel, and a set of linked stories Strangers To Temptation. There’s also The Hammerhead Chronicles, another novel coming later this year. What unifies your work – any themes, approaches, types of character?

Scott The first two are unified by time and place, both set in the US South and in the early 1970s. Why the early 70s? That’s when I was 12 or so (yes, Roz, I’m old) I was deeply affected by coming of age in that period of time. I remember so much from that era—the music, the social and political unrest, the crushes and the slow dances with the girls who were the object of aforementioned crushes—and that place…the humid, rural, silly and proud South. (Proud for a lot of the wrong reasons, I might add.)

Hammerhead is still set in the South, but it’s contemporary. I think I’ve mined my 1970s dry.

I guess what unites those books is my desire to look at a world and its flawed characters (flawed physically or emotionally or spiritually) and see how they navigate their own tiny spaces in that world. I like following them around and seeing if they can clean up and survive the messes they make. (That’s close to a theft from Faulkner; I think he said something about following his characters around. Sorry. But like Picasso said, “All art is theft.”)

I like taking clichés and stereotypes—like the Southern pick-up-mobile-home-hound-dog—and flipping them on their ear. I’m not one of these people who despise clichés. I actually love them because they give me something to experiment with.

Roz What an interesting way to think about cliches. Yes, I get that. All cliches start from a truth, a recognisable and resonant truth. Before an idea becomes a cliché, it is briefly the wisest thing in the world.

Scott Clichés exist because people have developed this universal idea of what something means. If I can flip it or etch a new aspect onto it, then I’ve made something entertaining. I think that will be real apparent with Hammerhead. There’s some wild stuff going on in that novel, lots of cliché spinning.

Roz So: your memoir, Things That Crash, Things That Fly. How was the transition to writing about your own life?

Scott It wasn’t a transition as much as a flipping back and forth over the years. And a great deal of my fiction is autobiographical. You can really see that in Strangers to Temptation. But I believe all fiction is based in some shade of the truth. Even if you’re writing about some fantasy world or some post-apocalyptic nightmare, and let’s say a character who limps and you want to describe that limp to the reader, and you suddenly think: “Hey, my uncle Jake used to have a limp. I’ll describe the way he walks.” That’s reality blended into fiction.

Roz I think it goes beyond small details. To make a story real, we draw on our experience of behaviour, personalities, emotions, relationships. The characters we most want to write are the people we want to understand.

Scott I always tell my students, “Don’t write what you know. Write what you know well enough to lie about.” That’s a mantra for my fiction writing. So I didn’t just turn off the fiction spout and start writing the memoir. The two are related, don’t you think? First cousins maybe.

Roz Indeed I do. When I published a collection of personal essays (Not Quite Lost), I realised they were the origin stories for my fiction.

Scott I had been thinking about writing the memoir for years—not right after I was separated and divorced, but a couple years after that, I started thinking: “I need to write this down. It’s got all the elements of a good story. Loss and desire, a fall and a redemption of sorts, darkness and light, tragedy and humor. Lots of interesting juxtapositions.”

Plus, I needed to do it for my heart. It was somewhat stitched back together, but the stitches were getting frayed. I remember thinking that if I could write it down and make it into a piece of art, I might come to some new understanding that would be healthy and healing. That was probably a foolish idea, but art has erupted from sillier beginnings.

Anyway, I think the book really took flight (pun intended) when I was awarded the teaching fellowship to go back to Italy and research a WWII pilot who was killed. I recall making a late-night, probably bourbon-fueled deal with myself: “If you get this fellowship and go back there and put yourself through that gauntlet of memory and anxiety, you better damn well get a book out of it.” Well, I did win the fellowship and I kept my promise to myself.

But I wasn’t writing the memoir steady, from start to finish. I would write some, then put it away, because it was too damn hard to face sometimes. Then I would get mad at myself and pull it back out and arm-wrestle with it again.

In the meantime, I was writing stories, and sending them out and trying to work on novel manuscripts. I guess I’m a juggler. I like to have a lot of things in the air. I was constantly in transition between fiction and the memoir. And that may have not been a bad thing. I wanted the memoir to have a definite arc to it, so maybe working on stories simultaneously was good for maintaining the idea of a narrative.

Actually, I’ve never really thought about that connection between the two. Thanks, Roz…

Roz The subject material is frank and honest. And very involving. I shared your certainty that the relationship could be salvaged, the many moments of surreal awkwardness, the sense of inevitability and disappointment. Were there many drafts before you reached this one?

Scott For better or worse, I’ve never had an issue or problem with writing extremely honestly about myself. In the Prologue to Things That Crash, Things That Fly, when I say, “I will tell you anything you want to know,” I really mean it. I think it’s the duty of any writer to be brutally honest with the reader. As a writer you’re trying to bridge the gap between your words and the reader’s emotions. And if you don’t develop some sort of trust with the reader, you’re doomed to fail.

Roz It’s the honesty that creates the relationship with the reader, which makes the narrative feel like a special encounter.

Scott And you achieve a level of trust by delivering information to the reader in a crafted way. Your use of specific detail, handling of point of view and narrative stance, characterizations…all of these craft elements (and many more) web together to make this comfortable, honest, safe place for the reader to exist. And that place is the story you are trying to tell. God, is this making sense? I feel like I’m blathering.

Roz Not blathering at all. This is a good definition of the power of prose – inviting the reader into your emotional sensations.

Scott I remember the early drafts of the memoir possessed the wrong tone. It was too whiny and too mean-spirited. And I knew it. But I still existed too close to the story. That’s why I needed some years between first and final draft. I needed to find the correct emotional connection between me and story, one that the reader would understand and allow.

Roz When I’ve helped writers with memoirs, they’ve often needed quite a bit of midwifery, coaxing them to look more deeply, to excavate further. Sometimes to forgive themselves.

Scott I always tell my students, when you’re writing a personal essay or a memoir, you are a character in the piece. There’s a difference between the ‘I’ that writes the story and the ‘I’ that lives within it. Put the ego and the fear and the anxiety aside, and treat that person in the story like any other character in a piece of writing. Tell the readers exactly what they need to know about that character.

If you can create separation between I-the-Writer and I-the-Character, it helps with the level of honesty, I think.

Roz Inevitably, a memoir has to involve other people who are also in vulnerable situations, in this case your daughters and ex-wife.

Scott I resisted for many drafts pulling them into the story. I suppose that was because they had already lived through the trauma and I didn’t want their characters to go through it again. I know, very weird and probably therapy-worthy. But a very well-known writer, who picked this memoir as a runner-up in a book contest, told me I needed more of my daughters in the story to make it work. So I dialed up their presence slightly, but carefully.

Roz I liked your delicate approach – they aren’t named and they’re seen mainly in glimpses. But it was enough. What lines did you draw about how you’d involve them?

Scott I was very selective in the scenes they appeared and very precise (I hope) in the way I used their appearances.

Roz Did they see the manuscript?

Scott They’ve known about the book for years, but they haven’t read the manuscript. Actually, as I write this, I’ve just mailed them copies. I’m a little anxious about that.

Roz I also thought the book ended in just the right place.

Scott Endings are always hard, right?

Roz They’re hard enough with fiction. Even harder with non-fiction. Life doesn’t just turn off. You could keep going for ever.

Scott I tend to adhere to something I heard the novelist John Irving say. He said that when he begins a novel, he always knows the last line. It gives him a compass heading as he navigates the twists and turns of the narrative. So when I began this, I knew I wanted to stop when I returned from Italy. I wanted that bit of homecoming, and I wanted my daughters there. That seemed like an logical emotional destination. Of course, the epilogue gave me the opportunity to expand the ending slightly and tie up some loose narrative threads. But for all intents and purposes, the story ends when I arrive back home after the Italy journey. That felt right, felt like the narrative circle was closed.

For a long time, the structure was wrong. I kept experimenting. I had an agent who wanted me to do some weird time-warp, Quentin Tarantino thing with it. And one agent who turned me down suggested I rewrite the book as a novel. (It was a disaster.) A hugely important moment for me was when I read this amazing memoir by Sonja Livingston called Ghostbread. It’s told in very short chapters. I was captivated by that idea of a very staccato rhythm. I thought, I can do that. I can break my story into tiny fragments, all of which add up to the total emotional experience of the story. And that’s what I did.

Roz You have three titles releasing within a short time – Whereabouts was last October, Things That Crash is this month and The Hammerhead Chronicles is coming soon. Was that deliberate?

Scott Whereabouts appeared last October from Koehler Books, this memoir in March from Vine Leaves Press. The novel that was supposed to come out in June from the University of North Georgia Press, The Hammerhead Chronicles, has been moved to February 1, 2022. (They want to wait until the pandemic is over so we can visit bookstores and stuff.) And I just found out I won a short fiction contest sponsored by Springer Mountain Press, and that collection of stories, Idiot Men, will come out this August.

Roz Wow, you can’t be stopped.

Scott It’s kind of strange and wonderful that all of this is happening at once. I don’t have any explanation for it. I’ve been grinding for a lot of years with nice, but modest results—stories in wonderful literary magazines and anthologies—but nothing on the book front. Then I hit my early 60s and the floodgates opened.

Some of these manuscripts had some age on them and I rewrote. Some were new.

I don’t really worry about publication. I love seeing my work in print, but I don’t set out with the goal of publication. I enjoy the process and I enjoy practising my craft. I enjoy taking a tiny speck of an idea and turning it into a fully-developed story.

I don’t mean that I love writing. Writing is hard and soul-crushing and exhausting…but, man, when you get it right, when you work the process and the craft takes over and you create a story when one didn’t previously exist? That’s a good day.

 Roz It makes it all the soul-mining worthwhile. So how did you come to each of your publishers?

Scott I had writer friends who published with them or I researched them on my own or I read a book and said, “This is really good. Who’s the publisher?” I kept my eyes open and did my due diligence.

 Roz Do you have a literary agent?

Scott No. I’ve had an agent at various times, and it never amounted to anything.

Roz Same here. I’ve had two. Each time, it was a confidence boost, and I felt I’d made the grade, but I didn’t fit the markets they sold to.

Scott I’m sure agents are wonderful and necessary for a certain type of writer…but I don’t seem to fall into that category, which is fine. The world is a big place and there’s plenty of room for everybody.

Roz Do you have any tips for submitting to literary journals? Has being published by them helped you get deals for longform work?

Scott A writer friend told me that if you aren’t getting rejected twice a day, you aren’t doing your job. I took that to heart. I submit relentlessly, realizing that I’m going to get hammered with rejections. I don’t take it personally. When a story is rejected, it doesn’t bother me if I know the same story is out to another eight or nine magazines. I’m a grinder. I put my head down and keep moving forward.

Roz Was your family creative and artistic or did you create your own path?

Scott Growing up, my family wasn’t super artistic, but my mother was an avid reader and insisted we always have a book in our hand. (I remember in the sixth grade, my parents let me stay up all night, one a school night, reading Robinson Crusoe, cover to cover.) So I was always interested in books and stories and language, which led to me being an English major in college (when I realized my basketball career was over and I wouldn’t be the next Larry Bird). In college I took a couple of creative writing courses and I was doomed to start chasing stories.

Roz Have I remembered this right… during Things That Crash, you were working in advertising. Was that useful in your creative writing, or even a welcome antidote?

Scott I took a too-long foray into the advertising business. Being a copywriter taught me how to be clear and concise and fast. But I eventually had to get out and return to teaching and writing stories. I thought, If I have to think up another clever, 75-word way to convince somebody to open a free checking account, I’ll jam this pen in my hand. I think some of the precision in my language comes from those years in copywriting.

Roz You teach creative writing. What level/age group?

Scott For the past 17 years, I’ve been teaching creative writing at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities, one of the nation’s only public, residential high schools for the arts. I teach creative nonfiction to high school juniors and seniors (usually 16-18 years old), and they are amazing. They have such energy and such seriousness of purpose.

Roz I want to linger on that phrase: ‘energy and seriousness of purpose’. Creative people never lose it. This is why I love them.

Scott I love talking with them about images and structure and intent and craft. Some of them continue their writing careers. Some don’t. But they ALL leave with an appreciation for language and the power it contains.

Roz The arts are something we never truly master. Even if we are teachers ourselves, there’s always more to learn. Where do you do most of your learning?

Scott I’ve been writing for a long time, Roz, and every day I wake up and realize I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. And I consider that a good thing. You see, as writers, we’re always apprentices, and if I ever get to the point where I think I’ve got it all figured out, I hope somebody is standing nearby who can slap me back into reality.

 Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Scott You will never figure out the perfect way tell a story or build a character or construct a scene, because the world around you constantly shifts, constantly brings new factors into the narrative equation. The important thing is that you always try. Sit in the chair, respect your craft, chase the language around the page and do the best you can. Keep grinding.

Find Scott on Facebook Twitter @Scott_Gould and his website. Things That Crash, Things That Fly is published on 10 March 2021 by Vine Leaves Press but you can grab a copy right now.  

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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