Posts Tagged how I made my writing career
‘The sound of a typewriter brings me happiness’ – historical fiction and non-fiction author Cordelia Biddle @AuthorBiddle
When Cordelia Biddle was nine years old, a schoolteacher told her she could never become an author. Cordelia has proved that teacher everlastingly wrong with two works of non-fiction, five Victorian mystery novels and two standalones. Also, 12 murder mysteries written with her author husband. Her latest release is They Believed They Were Safe, set in the 1960s, published at the end of 2022 by Vine Leaves Press.
Let’s rewind to that teacher. What did she say?
She said I didn’t ‘possess sufficient imagination’ to become an author, which was my dream. It’s needless to say that I presented the wretched woman with a copy of my first published novel.
And you teach creative writing now too.
She’s the reason. No one should have a dream squashed. I share that story with my students. Sadly, it often resonates because they’ve also experienced rigid, judgemental educators.
Can you pinpoint where the dream started?
My dad, Livingston Biddle, was an author. He spent hours sequestered in his third-floor office, typing and chain-smoking. The sound of a typewriter still brings me happiness.
Although he wrote novels, poetry was one of his passions, which he passed to me. Many of my parents’ friends were in the creative arts; I’m endlessly thankful for that early exposure.
You describe yourself as a historian as well as an author.
I’m rigorous when it comes to historical research. Every detail must be correct: locales, choices of language, clothing, the creative arts and popular culture. I admit to being a research geek and will pore over archival materials analysing an era’s zeitgeist.
I’m currently working on a novel, I Remember You, told from the perspective of a house (in second person, which is a challenge). The story encompasses 200 years of American history. I want each decade, each cataclysmic historical event to resonate, and I want to place readers squarely within the action.
What an interesting concept. Send a copy to the wretched woman.
I notice the name Biddle in the title of one of your non-fiction works – Biddle, Jackson and a Nation in Turmoil. Do explain!
In the late 1830s the financier Nicholas Biddle – my ancestor – battled President Andrew Jackson over the issue of central banking in the US. The fight was fierce and played out in politics and media. Biddle represented a cultured, educated elite. Jackson was his opposite, a frontiersman who loathed ‘the moneyed aristocracy’ – bankers and their banks. His adherents were self-made Americans, many with little to no education. Rightly, they believed they’d been disregarded within the upper echelons of politics and commerce. Jackson supporters pilloried his opponents and physically attacked voters. One senator carried loaded pistols into the Halls of Congress.
What I found fascinating were the similarities between the 19th and 21st centuries. Yes, banking was the core question, but it devolved into vitriolic attacks that leapt across political issues and polarised the nation.
Give me the complete works of Cordelia Biddle. How many books have you published?
I’ve published two works of non-fiction and seven novels, five in the Martha Beale Victorian mystery series in 1840s Philadelphia. I found the societal issues compelling, as well as dismaying. Philadelphia wasn’t incorporated into the city it is now; it was a compilation of districts and townships, which allowed lawbreakers to escape across internal lines. I created a strong, iconoclastic woman protagonist who must battle classism, racism and sexism while solving crimes and working towards social justice for the oppressed. Child sex trafficking is one of the evils I address, as is the grinding poverty that encouraged it. And, of course, the status of women of all classes.
They Believed They Were Safe, your latest novel, seems a departure from Martha Beale.
Again, there’s a crucial historical aspect: 1962 in a peaceable, small New England college town. President Kennedy’s assassination hadn’t yet cast a pall over the nation, and the northern US existed in a 1950s feelgood haze. I felt compelled to depict the dichotomy between appearance and reality. Mabel Gorne, my protagonist, is naïve despite her age (she’s just entered graduate school) and begins boarding with a seemingly upstanding older couple. All seems blissful, but she carries dark secrets she hasn’t yet acknowledged; and the husband possesses clandestine longings of which his wife is unaware.
What are you wanting to explore?
The novel revolves around sexual trauma. It’s blunt and terrifying. Mabel copes with rape at a time when perpetrators were often excused and the victims blamed – reactions that, tragically, continue to this day.
What makes a Cordelia Biddle book?
My purpose in writing each of my novels is to expose psychological and physical attacks on the vulnerable. If readers cringe, I feel I’ve succeeded. If they respond to their outrage with actions, better yet. The #MeToo Movement provides a vital link to current issues of abuse and ones that had been buried.
All my books are female-centric. All have a moral to impart. One of the reasons I enjoy using differing historical periods is that I can examine women’s lives and allow readers to make connections between present and past. I also love existing within earlier timeframes. I feel as though I’m taking the reader by the hand and saying, ‘Look at what I discovered! Shall we keep exploring?’
You’re the first to hear the news. I plan to continue Mabel Gorne’s story. She survived sexual assault as well as hideous emotional betrayal. I want to discover where life next takes her.
What’s your process?
I start with a barebones idea and follow the characters’ leads. On good days, I feel like I’m taking dictation from these fictional folk. I’m demanding with my wordsmithing, so I edit each morning before jumping into the subsequent phase or chapter. I’m never certain what may occur next, or who will walk into a story, which makes for a thrilling ride. When I finish a first draft, I return and deepen the narrative and then return and return again. My favourite questions are: What if? And: What couldn’t possibly happen next?
You teach creative writing at Drexel university in Philadelphia. What do you think can be taught and what can’t?
Some students have natural gifts; a few struggle but their progress is all the more rewarding for being hard worn. Drexel attracts students from Asian and African nations. Those differing voices and cultures make for a dynamic mix. My goal is to enable intimate knowledge of fictional characters, whether within assigned weekly readings, or critiquing their classmates’ work or analysing their own. I encourage my students to keep writing no matter where their careers take them, and to remember they have a friend and ally who will read future works in progress.
It’s exhilarating when a science major decides writing a novel is a goal. None have published yet, but I’m convinced they will. Hint: look for a riff on Jane Austen set in Lagos, Nigeria.
Have you any formal qualifications in writing?
My training was as an actress. I studied in New York City, and started writing my first novel while appearing on the daytime drama, One Life To Live. I had a tiny part and plenty of time in an empty dressing room. Scripts for the soaps were fairly conventional. I railed against the lack of anything remotely literary and commenced what would become Beneath The Wind – a standalone set on a world tour in 1903. Marital discord, an illicit love affair, a rebellion in Borneo, and the death of a child. I found my voice as an author as well as my love of dark and intricate tales. I still can’t revisit that child’s death without weeping, which makes me wonder whether I invented the story or channelled it. Either way, the scene remains vivid and harrowing.
Acting must surely have set you up for writing…
Acting, I believe, is perfect training for a writer. As authors, we inhabit other characters, exist within their brains and bodies, probe the fears and wounds everyone hides. Authors become playwrights, performers, set and lighting designers; we create the narrative and the physical and emotional mood, but we also live within those complex lives.
How do you decide whether an idea needs to be non-fiction or a novel?
The subject matter makes those decisions easy. I would never have fictionalized the lives of Nicholas Biddle or Katharine Drexel (in my other non-fiction work, Saint Katharine, the life of Katharine Drexel); both possessed drama in abundance. However, non-fiction requires complex characterizations and cliffhangers just as fiction does. I call my approach ‘informed conjecture’. I read personal correspondence, ponder relationships and consider motivations. Why did Nicholas Biddle or Katharine Drexel make certain choices? What brought each joy or sorrow? What infuriated them? In Katharine Drexel’s case, racism made her rage. I felt myself reliving her fury as I wrote her biography.
My latest novel They Believed They Were Safe began as a short story, but the characters pushed me to lengthen the tale, which indicates how deeply I’m involved in the lives of the people inhabiting my keyboard and brain.
You’re married to Steve Zettler, also an author. How does it work, a house of two authors?
I can’t imagine anything better! Our dinner conversation always circles around works in progress. We each provide willing ears as well as useful observations and queries. Because we met as actors, we relish the collaborative process. We challenge each other to grow. His last novel, Careless Love, made me sob at each reading.
You’ve co-written a series of mysteries with Steve under the name Nero Blanc.
Steve and I penned 12 murder mysteries. They’re crossword mysteries, thus the black-and-white themed pen name. In each, readers help solve the crime by doing crosswords alongside one of our protagonists, a crossword editor, Annabella Graham. (Say it fast and it becomes ‘anagram’.) And, yes, our marriage survived. Probably because Steve has a quirky sense of humour and I’m grim. We did, however, discover that we needed a strong outline, a device neither of us employs when writing solo.
Some quick-fire questions:
Writing solo or writing as a duo?
For me, they’re entirely different. Solo is for moodiness and internal drama. Duo makes for a more manageable narrative line.
Three books you’d grab if your library was on fire.
My battered copy of War and Peace, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (signed to me), Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Renascence (signed ‘her book’).
The oldest thing on your writing desk.
My mother’s Estabrook fountain pen – useless now, but I can still picture it in her hands.
The thing you do when you’re procrastinating (as a writer).
Extremely nerdy, but I love to read the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. I’d always hungered for a set. Steve found one and surprised me. Forget gold and gemstones. Give me words.
The thing you do to unwind.
Walk through the city and stare into upper windows, imagining previous inhabitants’ lives. I also practise piano (I’m a new learner), and go to the gym, although my motivation is finding time to read. On the bike machine, novel in hand and I’m lost to the world. Woe betide the person who interrupts to ask me what I find so fascinating.
Find They Believed They Were Safe 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.
‘When creative is your job title, you have to keep earning it’ – author, poet, sculptor and memoirist Guinotte Wise @noirbut
Guinotte Wise is currently two people. Guinotte the sculptor, making found objects into quirky metal creations. There’s also Guinotte the writer, who has published poetry, novels, short stories – and most recently a memoir in essays, Chickens One Day, Feathers The Next. That’s about all the other people he’s been, of which there are quite a few.
But let’s start with writing and sculpting. Creativity seems to have been welded into his DNA. He says:
My great-uncle Jack Gage Stark was a pretty well-known California impressionist painter back in the 1930s to 50s, and I met a relative at the one family reunion I attended, Maude Guinotte, who was a sculptor and a wonderful character. She worked in clay and bronze. One of many stories about her; she bought a new Chrysler convertible to drive to the coast, hated it, traded it for another after a couple hundred miles, disliked that one, traded it, so the (perhaps apocryphal) story goes, it took maybe five Chryslers to get the trip done.
And my mom wrote Dorothy Parkeresque poetry from time to time—really good sardonic stuff.
You’ve also been a bullrider, ironworker, labourer, welder, funeral home pickup person, busboy, warehouse worker, bartender, truckdriver, postal worker, ice house worker, horse groom, paving field engineer. How did those happen?
I started working and squirrelling away money at 12 or so—I thought we were bankrupt and that meant people coming and taking the furniture and carpets. I kept money in a desk drawer against this catastrophic time, after I spent some for necessities like a Red Ryder BB gun ($3.79 at a local hardware store). I worked hard at a lot of jobs from then on. I should be a millionaire by now, but that pinnacle escaped me.
A bullrider, though! How did you get work as a bullrider?
I went to bullriding school in Texas, and, before that, I’d hung around jackpot rodeos in little towns, watching then competing. You go to the arena office, show your affiliation card, pay a fee, draw your bull. Then you’re on your own, you and that bull.
It was not lucrative. I remember a very good bullrider, when asked by a local radio station how much he made in a year, said $15,000 (this was back in the 50s), then they asked what his yearly expenses were: he said $20,000. When asked why he did it, he said, “Too lazy to work, too nervous to steal.”
And a funeral home pickup person?
That came up when I was in art school. I worked nights, from 6pm to 6am. I had to wear a suit and get a decent haircut. If nobody died, I would sleep or study, talk to the night people. From 6 to 10 I’d usher people into state rooms, to see friends or family at rest. People die at night a lot; a night man named Verne and I would pick them up in a hearse.
I have to tell you this one; Verne and I went to pick up a deceased person, and it was 3am. Verne would always lay on the gurney and sleep while I drove to the house or hospital. At a stoplight a carful of partying girls drove up next to us and started laughing and hollering at me; they could see Verne in a suit laying with his hands on his chest—then he sat up to see what all the noise was and they burned rubber for a block getting out of there. The stories I have about that job.
Assuming these jobs were a process of self-discovery, what did you discover?
I discovered one night while having a cigarette and watching the smoke from the crematorium next to the mortuary that I was increasingly bummed by this job, although I liked the people and the pay was decent, but I just had to find something else. I had turned 21, and I got a job bartending at The Jubilee Room, a reporters’ bar, a cops’ bar, a sports figure bar. A Damon Runyonesque mix. I liked it there. And I could slide freebies across the bar to school buddies.
How did this colour your writing and art?
I’d say all my jobs coloured my art and writing, especially the construction jobs, bridges in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Minnesota.
You settled into a career as a creative director in advertising. Why that?
It was what I’d wanted since high school. Everyone tried to talk me out of it—you know, the ‘starving artist’ stuff. I started on the art side in a bullpen, and graduated to an office, had some shops of my own, worked at big agencies. It can be precarious; when creative is in your job title, you have to keep earning it.
In advertising, as in any business-oriented writing, I presume you had to write to constraints. Now you don’t. Any thoughts on that?
Actually the discipline was wonderful. Sometimes in print ads you had wordcounts and the art director would ask you to cut 35 characters so he could fit it to a graphic. You do it, and you know what? It’s better copy.
Also, you had to write around industry restrictions and client dictums—one client said no contractions, which can look awfully stilted and school-teacherish in ad copy.
I’ve written four books of poetry, books of short stories, a novel, an essay collection, and I’ve killed some darlings—not enough, I’m sure, and I must admit, it was sometimes comfortable writing to rules in an agency situation. But try to write a 30-second TV commercial for a car. Daunting. 60-second radio, better, but no pictures—you’d better know how to make pictures in the mind. I credit NPR in helping me do that. And Stan Freberg, what a genius.
Why does sculpture appeal to you?
I can’t answer that in any conventional way. I’m not being difficult—I just can’t. It’s a fugue state with me. Time becomes non-time. I used to do assemblages as a kid and a day would elapse.
You describe your style as ‘found object’ art. Your newest book, Chickens One Day, Feathers The Next is similar – the found objects of a life. A bit about rodeo riding. A bit about advertising. A bit about motorbikes. Most of all, it’s about liking the things that make us who we are. Tell me your version.
That’s a very good version right there, your version.
I love that title. Do tell me more.
There’s an essay in the book with that title; it’s something a very good friend used to say if the newspaper headlines mentioned a prominent death; he said it when JFK was killed. I think it was juju against the reaper. Rudy served in Vietnam, three tours, wounded twice. He was a captain in the USMC and when they stuck him behind a desk he quit. He bought into a ski resort in California, had a position with a big drug company. He was killed by a carjacker in Fresno. It’s his title.
Where do you write?
In a kitchen breakfast nook. Though I have a great mid-century modern office in a loft in a separate building—a studio we built for my wife’s silversmith work. I just slide into that booth in the morning, and only get up to do my walking periodically, or various chores.
Everyone who reads my blog knows I’m fond of horses. How do horses figure in your life?
In Chickens there’s an essay ‘The Horse Worrier’ which opens ‘Horses haunt my life’. As you know, Roz, they are so, so special. They’ve owned me for over 50 years. Fascinating, wonderful, giving creatures. I was privileged to know them, have them as friends.
One of my poetry books is titled Horses See Ghosts, and they often appear in the other poetry books as well.
You write everything – poetry, essays, short fiction and novels.
How do you decide what form an idea deserves?
I think I save horses for poetry. Nonfiction can start anywhere; presently as a list of things I just don’t get (NFTs, crypto, atrocities of Russians in Ukraine, Lego, $50,000 bottles of bourbon, Kanye, Heizer’s ‘City’…). I have a half-finished private eye book, some ideas floating around, a possible screenplay…
What’s the weirdest response you’ve had to any of your works?
I don’t know if it qualifies as weird, but I had a sculpture show in Santa Monica, shipped a dozen big pieces out there, and it sold out. I’m lucky to sell four pieces a year here in the Midwest. Go figure.
Also, a well known agent in New York read a piece of mine in a lit mag, contacted me and asked if I had a novel ready by any chance. I sent it to him. He said, in effect, have you got another one ready?
In all that, are there themes or life questions you always return to?
As a subject I like good bad guys who win over the bad guys. No one is all good, no one. I’ve known some really good bad guys, bikers, loners, marchers to their own drumbeats. People I met in paving, construction, rodeo, heavy equipment advertising, horses, writing, farm people, biking. Hot rod enthusiasts. A cop or two. Real hippies.
What is Guinotte wise about?
There was a kid whose folks were mean; they gave him a box of horse manure for Christmas. He looks at it, brightens up and says, ‘There’s got to be a pony around here somewhere!’ Optimistic. That’s me.
I’ve been flitting through your pictures on Facebook. At random, I’ve picked this.
Tell me about it.
My favourite gloves. I wore ’em today when I upended the big flower urns after a hard freeze last night. I have a dozen pairs of new mule-skin Wells-Lamont gloves, and heavy-duty Tillmans, and I reach for these. That was a postcard for my last show at The Hilliard Gallery in KC. I didn’t have any sculpture finished enough to shoot, so I used those gloves to say I’d been working.
That is admirably resourceful. Some quick-fire questions.
Hooves or Harleys? Harleys don’t die, but they also don’t nicker and gallop up when they see you.
Early mornings or late nights? Early to bed, not so early to rise. Love bed. Love sleep.
Any near-death experiences? Right now, I’d say.
Are you louder on the page or louder in real life? Page. Big talker on the page.
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.
How do you make a career with words? And once you’re established in a niche, how do you then uproot to a completely new kind of writing? Mark Chesnut has done just that. For most of his life he has been a writer, editor and content creator for the travel industry, but he’s now just released a highly personal work, Prepare For Departure – a memoir of his relationship with his mother as she nears the end of her life. We talk about it all here
First, let me say that’s a great title!
Glad you like it! It came pretty early in the writing process and love how it works as a double entendre. Luckily, my wonderful editors at Vine Leaves Press also liked the title, so it stayed.
How did you become a writer?
I became a writer by following my natural interests, I guess. I wasn’t someone who at an early age would have said “I want to be a writer.” But my mother, Eunice Chesnut, went back to college when I was young and got her bachelor’s and then her master’s degrees, so I was raised in a household where there were a lot of books and a lot of writing went on. I remember falling asleep to the sound of my mother’s big black typewriter click-clacking in the next room.
I was the only kid living at home and it took me several years to become socially adept and make friends, so I had a lot of time on my hands. One of the ways I spent my time was writing — but it wasn’t literature. I wrote crazy things like promotional copy for my imaginary airline, Chesway Global, and program guides for my imaginary television network, ITV (I didn’t realize there already was an ITV in the United Kingdom; when I found out, I tried other names. IBS was another choice, until I discovered it also stood for irritable bowel syndrome).
In short, I used writing to explore my creativity and fuel my imagination.
Any angsty teenage writing?
Yes, I would write when I was feeling upset. I’d type out my feelings in ALL CAPS, to express the urgency of my emotions.
How did that lead to professional writing?
My first editorial jobs were in medical and university publishing houses, and then a tiny weekly newspaper in New York City. Already, though, I was writing about nearly every trip I took, just for my own benefit. I enjoyed recording my experiences and documenting my feelings about the trips I took.
Then a few years ago, my mother became ill and it was clear she wouldn’t be around much more. I started using writing as a way to sort out my feelings, the way I’d typed in all caps as a teenager. It was like therapy. I had been documenting my trips with words, but now I was writing about a different kind of journey; one my mother and I were taking together.
Most of your work is travel journalism – how did you choose that niche?
I must thank my mother for giving me a typewriter all those years ago, and I also must also thank her for giving me the travel bug. I grew up in Western New York State. But both of my parents were from Kentucky, so we traveled from New York to Kentucky at least three times a year, for the first 17 years of my life.
I learned at an early age that travel could be exciting, emotional and a wonderful escape from the stress of everyday life. It made me curious about seeing more of the world. During layovers in Chicago, I’d stand in front of a giant departure board and stare, trying to imagine what life must be like in all the destinations on that board.
I looked for work in publishing and advertising as soon as I graduated from college. I changed jobs quite a bit — like many recent graduates who aren’t sure what they want to do with their lives. I enjoyed working in advertising as well as medical and scholarly publishing, and my job with the free weekly newspaper was exhausting but a lot of fun. But none of them satisfied me. They didn’t tap into my passion. I was obsessed with travel, and I saved money and frequent flyer miles to venture out as often as I could with my meager budget and limited vacation days.
I realized my true dream was to unite my editorial skills with my wanderlust. I started applying for travel-related publishing jobs. I applied four times before I finally got a job as assistant editor at the travel trade publisher where I would work for years and for whom I still do freelance work. That set the stage for the next decades of my life.
Where is home and why is it home?
I live in New York City, in a cool neighborhood called Jackson Heights in Queens. Just being there is like traveling the world. I love it. It’s totally normal to hear multiple languages spoken on just one block. You could see a woman in a sari, a Buddhist monk in his robe, a woman in a burqa, a gay couple holding hands and a drag queen heading to a show at a local gay bar. And nobody blinks an eye. Queens is the future.
How much time do you spend there?
Most of my time, working from home. But I travel at least once a month, and since the pandemic started, my husband and I have been spending a month or two in other places, working remotely. We’ve done extended-stay remote working visits in Hollywood, Mexico City, New Orleans and Guadalajara.
As travel and holiday-type activities are your daily bread, how do you get away from it all?
I block off one month per year to stay home. But it usually doesn’t work out. Either a very necessary press trip comes up, or an irresistible opportunity to go somewhere new.
When I’m really going on vacation, I visit family. And I like to go to places that inspire me creatively; places where I can disconnect but still feel engaged. But then I usually get so inspired that I’ll start writing or thinking of new projects. It’s hard for me to get away from work because my mind is always churning.
How did you cope with lockdown?
New York City was the first pandemic epicenter in the US — and Queens was the epicenter of the epicenter. It was intense. We stayed inside for weeks and could hear ambulances, day and night, heading to a nearby hospital. It was psychologically difficult and the uncertainty was scary, because at first no one understood what was going on. I was glad to have my husband Angel, who has a very positive personality, to alleviate the stress. We played board games, dominos, cards. We had dance nights where we’d watch musicals on demand and dance along with them. We made up things to do and enjoyed each other’s company, and that helped a lot.
What made you write a memoir? That, if you’ll forgive the figure of speech, is quite a departure.
It is. My usual writing is destination features, travel guides, hotel reviews and tourism industry news. Other than saying I liked a hotel suite or a meal in a restaurant, it isn’t that personal. Even though I’d been making my living as a writer for decades, the memoir was a whole new direction that required new skills.
Yes, informative material is quite like a mask. Or several masks – being useful or inspiring or amusing. Our deeper feelings and personal lives are almost irrelevant. But memoir requires introspection. And your memoir is about as personal as one could get, with big, difficult themes. How did that sit with you?
I started writing the memoir for myself, not for publication. It was a way of coping with my mother’s decline. But once I realized that I wanted to make it into a book, I looked for help. I signed up for memoir writing classes and had my writing workshopped, getting feedback from instructors and other students. I started reading memoirs by other authors with voices I could relate to or stories that were similar to mine. And I read articles and essays about the craft of writing memoirs and creative nonfiction. All of that helped immensely.
Also, in a memoir, we have to share and examine the less certain moments. Journalism usually involves being in charge of the material, but in a memoir we open up the times when we’re not in charge. We grapple with questions that maybe can’t be answered.
Writing about one’s personal experiences really does open you up to questions, many of which, as you said, can never be fully answered.
The classes I took were interesting and helpful. When I submitted essays about how upset I was about things that had happened between my mother and me, the other students and instructors would often suggest possible explanations for her behavior or attitude that I’d never thought about before.
When I was 12, for example, my mother and I walked into a restaurant in Leitchfield, Kentucky, and the waitress said “what can I get for you ladies today?” I was so embarrassed that my face felt hot, and I also felt hurt that my mother didn’t correct her. When some of my fellow students read that chapter from my memoir, they pointed out that she might have ignored the comment because it could have embarrassed me even more if she had been confrontational about the mistake. So while writing a memoir certainly can open up old wounds and expose your weaknesses and embarrassments, it can also bring new understanding and points of view that can be really therapeutic.
I’ve also found it very moving to get feedback now from people who’ve bought the book and found parts of themselves in the story. I’ve almost been brought to tears by some of the notes I’ve gotten from people who also felt like misfits when they were growing up, or who struggled to come out, or who’ve experienced similarly difficult moments as their parents were aging or passed away. The more I hear from readers, the more I realize that this book isn’t just my story, it’s a story about issues and experiences that a lot of people have faced in one way or another.
One reader wrote me a touching note that said she felt like she never had a voice for her experience of caring for her elderly father and finding an assisted living facility for him. Until she read my book she hadn’t found a voice that spoke to her about what she and her father were going through. That was such a beautiful thing to hear, and I can totally relate because when we’re dealing a situation with aging parents, we can often feel isolated; even our closest friends or family might not fully understand what we’re going through emotionally, or they may not feel comfortable hearing about it. I hope my book helps to give a voice to other people’s experiences, too. We all deserve to be heard, and to share our joys and our pain.
A significant part of this memoir is the character of your mother.
Eunice Chesnut was a magnificent character, as well as a very cool mother, and a big part of writing this book was to keep her memory alive. She was an amazing woman but she wasn’t perfect, and she had her hands full with me, a strange, often bratty son who turned out to be gay; she had trouble feeling comfortable about my orientation.
How did you find it, portraying her in her full glory and difficulty?
To give the story depth and make it real, I had to show the happy as well as the challenging aspects of our relationship. I aimed to portray her and our relationship in a realistic, layered and multifaceted way, to show how love between a parent and a child is imperfect but can endure. I was concerned about doing her justice, and I was also nervous that some of her friends might think I was doing a “Mommie Dearest” job on her, making her look bad. But I’ve been getting good reactions from her friends, as well as from general readers, about how I portrayed her and our relationship, so I think and hope I’ve struck the right balance. People have commented positively about how the book portrays the complex and loving relationship between a parent and child.
Did she know you were writing it?
Eunice didn’t know I was writing the book. She did know I was taking notes on what was happening to us when she was in the nursing home, and sometimes when she said something funny or clever or deep, I’d whip out my cell phone and jot down what she was saying. I didn’t want to miss a thing.
I think she’d be a bit embarrassed about the more personal aspects of the book since she was a private person. Yet she was also super social and loved people, so I also think she’d be happy to see that so many people can relate to our story, that it’s making other people laugh and cry and might help some people as they deal with their own difficult situations.
Were there many drafts? How much input did you get from beta readers and editors?
The manuscript went through a lot of revisions. I’d submit a chapter for review in my class, then take their feedback and revise. Sometimes I’d resubmit that same chapter again later. I also got lots of input from an amazing little writing group that I formed with a group of other students.
One of the most important things I did was to step back from the manuscript for a few months. That was crucial, because I’d been reading, re-reading, writing and rewriting the same material for too long.
When I finally looked at the manuscript again, I tried to read each chapter as if it were a standalone essay written by someone I didn’t know. I asked myself: What is the main storyline or point for each chapter essay? How does each chapter serve the overall storyline of the manuscript? And, why should I or anyone care what this essay is about? Is it funny, touching, heartbreaking, dramatic, informative, educational?
Reviewing my work through that lens, I realized several chapters needed major overhauls — thinking about what readers want and what would resonate with them, educate them, entertain them. I realized that I had to start seeing the work not just as a memoir about myself.
Would you ever write fiction? Or even poetry?
I’m more attracted to fiction than to poetry. I’ve done initial drafts on a few short fiction pieces, and at some point I may start workshopping them, sending them to journals, etc. But I realize that will require more education and research on my part, since fiction is a far cry from memoir, and an even further cry from travel writing. The one thing that all these forms have in common, of course, is that we’re trying to tell a compelling story. And, in my case, I see it all as a journey.
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.
How do you make a life as a writer? John McCaffrey’s stories, essays and book reviews appear regularly in literary journals, newspapers and anthologies. He’s had a novel and several short story collections published (his latest, Automatically Hip, was released this month) and he teaches creative writing at college level. Where did this all start? How do you create a life path like this?
John, when did you start calling yourself a writer?
I love this question. It’s something I often say to emerging writers about taking that next step in their process, the importance of owning they are a writer by voicing it – ‘I am a writer!’
I feel that many writers, at all experience levels, can be shy or reticent to share with others about this pursuit. Perhaps the reason is fear of ridicule (‘are you one of those artist types?’), or condemnation for doing something that might not be monetarily beneficial (‘why don’t you get a real job?’). But if you are writing, and especially if you are serious about writing, then you are a writer. And standing up for your writing helps solidify it in your life.
And when did it happen for you?
After completing my MA program at City College of New York, and publishing my first story, Words, in Fiction Magazine. Before, I had always couched my writing in deprecation when asked, but I decided then I was making light of real accomplishments and harming my true self.
Where did your creative urge come from?
The dramatic answer is survival. But it might also be the true answer. When I am feeling creative, I feel the most alive, the most healthy, the most positive, and the most forward thinking. And when I don’t feel creative, or am not creating, I feel as if I’m existing. And that’s not bad. Living in itself is a wonderful thing, and I’m grateful for every breath. It’s just that I’m more grateful, and have a greater capacity to be grateful, when I’m being creative.
Were any of your family writers or other kinds of artist?
While I’m the only writer in the family, I’d say we’re an artistic group – my mother and sister are excellent at sketching and painting, and my father was a good storyteller.
Have you done jobs that aren’t connected with creativity?
I have been very lucky, these past few decades, to have worked as a development director for a nonprofit organization. A major component of this job is grant writing, which while different from creative writing, still demands originality and craft.
Is there any crossover?
I think the discipline needed to write grants, to keep to form, be precise in detail, and, basically, get to the point, has helped me develop a better prose style.
What was your publishing journey?
As mentioned before, my first published short story appeared in Fiction Magazine, which was headed by Mark Mirsky, a talented professor at City College of New York and a noted author. With that as a touchstone, I kept writing short stories for years, and was grateful to have almost all of them published in literary journals and anthologies. The story in Fiction, for example, was selected for Flash Fiction Forward, published by Norton & Co.
I then decided to challenge myself by writing a novel, and worked for a few years to create The Book of Ash, which was published by an independent press. After this success, I went back to my trove of short stories, and began organizing them into collections. And with great fortune, Vine Leaves Press chose to publish these works – Two Syllable Men, What’s Wrong With this Picture? and Automatically Hip.
You have an MA in creative writing. What did that change?
Being accepted into the MA program at City College was monumental for me. I graduated from Villanova University some years before and was working full time, but I knew I wanted to immerse in writing and knew I needed help to do so. From the start, I loved City and the students and professors.
It felt right?
Being in that environment felt right, that I was where I should be. I was able to learn from professors and peers, learned to read and critique work, was exposed to literary classics in a more nuanced way, and made lasting connections that have helped me in my publishing pursuits.
You now teach creative writing. How did that start?
About 15 years ago, believing I now had something to say that was valuable to writers, I signed on to teach a continuing education. Like my experience at City College, it felt right, from the start. I love to talk writing, hear work, laugh and joke and get to know rising writers on a deeper level.
Next, thanks to a friend, I began teaching writing classes at a senior center in Queens for LGBTQ individuals. Then I had the opportunity to teach at college level – first at The College of New Rochelle’s Rosa Parks Campus in Harlem, and then at Sacred Heart University and the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Helping people connect with their creativity and become better writers feeds my own soul.
What do you think can be taught and what can’t?
I’d say the biggest thing that can’t be taught to writers is commitment to the craft – the desire to be a better writer.
That’s a great answer – so true! In all the times I’ve asked this question, I’ve never heard that!
I believe you can help unblock people who may be in a rut with their writing, or help them better organize so they write more, or give them a starting point to move forward and finish projects. But you can’t put in them that drive, or need, to keep going and keep going and keep going, which is the basis for success.
You write short and longform… how do you choose which treatment an idea deserves?
It’s more intention than inspiration. When I first started writing with determination, I was interested in writing short stories, so all new ideas I had were funneled into that form. But as I matured, finished a novel, wrote plays and essays, there was a switch in process. Today, I pick a form I want to take on, say a novella, and wait for the idea to fill the vessel.
Do you have a writing process?
I usually write each day, but not at any set time or amount of time. What I try to do is have both short and long-term projects going at once. Say I’m tasked with writing a book review, I work on that at one point of the day, and if I’m at the same time working on a book, that’s done in a separate sitting. In this way, I am keeping my writing muscle strong while getting different rewards from the work. I also try to keep wordcount goals. One summer, I stuck to writing 250 words a day, every day – no more, no less. And yes, I am OCD.
Tell me about Automatically Hip. The cover has a kooky vintage vibe… and a lizard head, elephant head, a man in a suit and bowler hat, and music. What should it tell me about the book?
Jessica Bell, the multi-talented publisher of Vine Leaves Press, gave me a gift with her cover design for Automatically Hip. The image is a take from one of the stories, Grooved Pavement, about a man who only paints pictures of an elephant wearing a bowler. I think this image represents this book well, as many of the stories are a bit surreal, hopefully funny, and meant to pique the curiosity of the reader…any maybe bring bowlers back in fashion.
Tell me about your other short story collections.
Two Syllable Men, the first collection published by Vine Leaves Press, is about, surprise, men. Each story is a different man’s name (two syllables of course), who are the main characters. I wrote many of these pieces after a painful divorce, so the themes are relationships and loss, healing and finding new love.
What’s Wrong With This Picture? was next. These stories are more about the insanity of modernity, or the madness in the mundane. And now we have Automatically Hip, which might be a mix of both.
And your novel, The Book of Ash…
It’s comedic sci-fi, influenced by 1984 and also Fight Club. It was inspired by 9/11. I was living and working near the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, and like many was trying to make sense of human cruelty. So I created a dystopian world set in a not-so-distant future that might, I’m scared to say, be actually approaching.
There can’t be a dystopia writer who doesn’t have that same ‘what-have-I-done’ feeling. We write it down and it starts to come true. Let’s return to positive vibes. You’re involved in something called the Good Men Project – what’s that?
It’s a men-focused online magazine that publishes male perspectives that are inclusive and diverse. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity for many years to pen a column for them, and with the help of an amazing editor, Kara Post-Kennedy, it’s been fun and rewarding.
What do you like to read?
I like all genres, but mostly I stick to classic mystery/thriller writers – Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Ross MacDonald, Eric Ambler. But I’ll read or reread anything by Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway or George Orwell. My current favorite is Burt Weissbourd. He is a master story teller.
What do you wish I’d also asked?
Not a thing! Such a nuanced set of questions!
‘I just keep making things’ – Melanie Faith @writer_faith on patience, fulfilment and the long game in art
How do you make a professional creative life? Melanie Faith is the person to ask. She’s adept in many written forms – poetry, flash fiction and longform. She’s also an expert on the teaching side with her work as a writing professor, editor and tutor. And her creative proficiency extends into the visual world – her photographs have been included in exhibitions and used on book covers. Now, over the past few months, she’s published a series of how-to guides for all these disciplines – so there’s loads I want to ask her.
First things first: where did this creative ethic come from? Her family, perhaps?
My family is working class, but they are all makers and creative problem solvers. There are dressmakers, toymakers, jewellery makers, masons and house builders, knitters, gardeners and cooks. They are resourceful in applying trial-and-error, working around obstacles and using whatever few materials they have to create something more than the sum of the parts. Their can-do practicality and inventiveness have influenced me for sure.
Personally, I’ve been encouraged over the years by writing teachers and professors and beta readers who gave thoughtful critiques. Also, my family and friends who asked how it was going and my parents for encouraging my goals. And by books I’ve read, and authors I’ve studied.
I try to run with all of the opportunities that I’ve been fortunate enough to have – like internet publishing and a university education.
How did you move beyond private dabblings to the point where you said, I am a writer, an artist, a poet, a photographer, a teacher?
What I love about the arts is that we can spend our whole lives practising, always discovering things about self and media and always seeking to improve.
I don’t have one big end goal; I have myriad little project ideas that I want to enjoy—some fall to the wayside, others stick but don’t create a splash, and others resonate with fellow writers. I just keep making things.
Did you study any of them formally?
Yes, I have a BA in English with a concentration in professional writing and an MFA in creative writing with a concentration in poetry. I loved the knowledge and writing practice I gained from both degrees. The years to focus on consistently making art for critique and forming community were priceless, too.
The cost was the only part I didn’t enjoy: even though I had academic scholarships and contributions from my parents and I worked part-time jobs during my education, I was still paying off lots of student loans for years on both degrees, which is a familiar story for many of the creative artists I know.
Have you done jobs that were unconnected to your creative work?
Like most writers and artists I know, I’ve had a variety of jobs over the years, including an early gig as a choir-music librarian. I worked in an attic-garret office, mostly on my own, alphabetising and cataloguing boxes of sheet music. It was a self-paced, methodical, time-to-think kind of job that replenished my introverted self. I took classes and had time to write before or after work.
Most of my other jobs were in various subjects and levels of education, such as teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) at summer camps.
You’ve recently published a trio of books on writing and publishing, all with Vine Leaves Press. Two are for writing teachers – Writing It Real: Creating an Online Creative-Writing Class for Fun and Profit, Writing It Real: Crafting a Reference Book that Sells. The other is From Promising to Published: A Multi-Genre, Insider’s Guide to the Publication Process , which has just been released. Why those books, and why now?
I wrote them to share what I have learned and to encourage fellow writers. For all writers and teachers, myself included, rejection is a realistic and discouraging part of the vocation, so if I can provide kind words and insights to keep other writers going, that is fulfilling.
Plus, the reflections were meaningful to write. I aimed to bring something personal to each topic as well as something that might inspire readers to apply the knowledge. I wrote the second and third books during the early days of quarantine, so the writing became a positive and wonderful escape in the grip of much confusion.
You’ve also written craft books on poetry and flash fiction, also from Vine Leaves Press. How did they come about?
For years, I had nudges of encouragement from students who’d suggest I should write craft books, but I didn’t feel confident about it. I remember sitting down to write what I thought would be a craft article to submit to a literary journal, and realised, Hmm, this might be something longer. I saved the file, worked on shorter projects, and then a week or two later, more and more ideas for a flash fiction craft book occurred to me.
Is there a common mistake writers make with these forms?
They send work to one or two editors or markets and, after rejection, think it’s unpublishable. But it’s very common to get persistent rejections before a yes; some of my favourite published work received eight, 10, 20 or more rejections. I encourage writers to keep submitting rejected work while writing new projects.
Also, taking classes and getting feedback from other writers or beta readers builds a community and gives writers more tools to revisit pieces with new skills that enliven and strengthen the work.
Also, it’s helpful to realise that not every piece of art we create needs to be published—some can be just for ourselves or just for fun or to develop our skills. As much as I’ve published, I have a bunch of work nobody else will ever read. They were projects that got me to the projects that did reach an audience. Patience and the long game are important in art.
And you’ve written a creative guide to photography for writers.
I don’t have any special training in photography (other than two or three online non-credit classes for fun). It took me decades to have the confidence to call myself a ‘photographer’, and that was after several publications of my photos.
I’ve always had a passion for photography, although not always the money to practise the art as much as I’d like. In many ways, I feel similarly alive and happy and intrigued when making a photograph as I do when writing.
The idea for the book was sparked when I wanted to teach a class that combined photography with writing. I looked for a class text that combined photography tips from a writer’s unique skillset and couldn’t find it. Something inside me lit up.I felt there was an audience for the book, because many writers I know have either dabbled in or studied photography, and also great cellphone and digital cameras have dropped in price and increased in quality, so more people can explore photography at their own price-point.
Tell me about your own photographic work. Your pictures have featured on book covers and in online exhibitions. How did that come about?
I submit a wide variety of photographic subjects (from abstract to nature and landscape to conceptual photography of people to still-life photos), and often I’m surprised at the pieces that make the cut and the others that don’t. Many times, I’ve read calls for submissions for thematic photos or exhibits or literary journals asking for art and decided to send work on a whim. About 75% of my photos are rejected. The acceptances, though, are well worth it. You never know what others will connect to, which is one of the marvellous things about art of any kind.
Make what you consider your best work, and then release it to see what others will make of it, without too many expectations.
On the other hand, my photographs that have gotten published or exhibited have had similar qualities: an unexpected angle, a very detailed or, conversely, a mysteriously blurred element, elements of characterization of a place or a person, sometimes a saturated or unique colour combination, and a wild card element, like unique subject matter.
As with my writing, I often follow my own ‘Hmmm, that’s interesting’ or ‘I want to know more about that idea’ moments.
You’ve combined the visual and the written arts in a set of prompt cards for writers, which you sell on Etsy. What gave you the idea to create those?
I love using prompts in my teaching and writing. I love the idea of a set of cards that writers can carry as a light, tactile object so that, while waiting for an appointment or at a park or on a lunch break, they can use slivers of time to make art in a low-key, self-directed, no-pressure way. As a freelance editor, writer, and teacher, my schedule is ever in flux, so I use tiny snippets of time to keep my writing process cooking.
Let’s talk about your own creative writing. You have a collection of poetry, This Passing Fever, 1918 Influenza Poems, which was also adapted for a music performance. And you have two chapbooks of poetry.
I wrote This Passing Fever several years before the Covid pandemic. At the time, like many people, I didn’t think we’d ever experience a pandemic ourselves. The collection follows the lives of several characters in a small town during the pandemic over a hundred years ago—some survive and some don’t. Many of the poems are persona poems and the POV shifts from poem to poem, back and forth between characters. It was a meaningful series of characters and time period to explore, even more meaningful to me now.
What are you working on at the moment? I believe there’s a disobedient novel in progress…
That’s so funny. Very true. During the first weeks of quarantine, I started a novel about two sculptors who are also teachers who met in grad school and reunite in 2018 as very different people. The story alternates POV and time periods in non-chronological order. I’ve taken the manuscript through two or three solid drafts so far, but there’s a lot more to explore and more creative editing to do. This summer, I look forward to delving back in, and also to working on more photographs and two poetry collections, one of which is set in the early 1960s.
But you’re already published as a novelist, with a Regency novella under a pseudonym, Lucy M Loxley.
I started the Regency novella during a fan-fiction exercise in 2015. I chose to write in the style of Jane Austen. I just kept writing to see where the story went, and then I had a novella, so I decided to see if it could be published. Happily, it was.
Why did you choose a different identity for that book?
It’s in a genre (romance) that is not my primary genre, and there is a tradition in romance for authors to take pseudonyms.
Why that name?
At the time of writing the novella, I was streaming a show called Mr Selfridge, and one of my favourite characters is Lady Mae Loxley. I love the double L alliteration, so I chose another name I like that has a strong L sound, Lucy, and combined them. The M middle initial is a wink to Mae and my real first name.
What have I forgotten to mention? I’m all awhirl with your creativity and I’m sure I’ve missed something.
These have been such excellent questions that inspired me to dig deep! Many thanks. I can’t think of anything you’ve forgotten.
Some quick-fire questions.
Writing or rewriting?
Writing for the discovery, but more time in rewriting than my younger self would have enjoyed.
Write in silence or listening to music?
Both, and it depends on the project. First drafts I usually create to music, but editing my work often requires at least some silence.
Five essential things in your writing space?
A profusion of pens in every hue imaginable, a postcard a writing friend took the time to snail-mail with a writing quote on it, a photo of my nieces (they are ever-growing and changing, and they inspire those qualities in me), my computer, my tactile writer’s notebook with a jumble of to-do lists and ideas/random thoughts as they monkey-mind around and before they disappear.
What would you buy for your writing space if money was no object?
A Leica camera. They are famous and pricey. It would be a very generous splurge that would be fun to create with! Where’s that money tree again?
Find Melanie’s most recent trio of writing books here Writing It Real: Creating an Online Creative-Writing Class for Fun and Profit, Writing It Real: Crafting a Reference Book that Sells, From Promising to Published: A Multi-Genre, Insider’s Guide to the Publication Process.
Jobs that give you time to be who you need to be: how I made my writing career – Ian M Rogers @iantheroge
How do you fund creative work if your natural niche is not a high earner? Ian Rogers is the guy to ask. He’s done a variety of odd jobs that allowed him headspace to write a series of mischievous pseudo self-help pamphlets and a full-length work of experimental fiction released last week, titled MFA Thesis Novel. Meanwhile, he exploits his word-fu to the full, editing academic papers and business texts, and teaching English as a foreign language. How creative people sustain their careers is a long-term interest of his – which led to his blog, But I Also Have a Day Job.
Ian, how did writing start for you?
A lot of writers start interviews like this one by saying they were writing passionately from a young age, and if you count a handful of elementary school stories and stick-figure comics, I guess I was too.
When I was young I gravitated more toward different forms of storytelling: acting out imaginary stories at recess, narrating into a tape recorder, making my younger brothers laugh.
Have you done other arts?
I did a lot of acting in high school, and for a while I dreamed of doing stand-up comedy, but I never took serious steps toward either. Around college, writing—and novels specifically—naturally emerged from that experimentation as the method of telling stories that was most accessible to me. It was the method I understood the best after nearly two decades of reading books.
Were your family in the arts?
If making ridiculous jokes around the dinner table counts as an art form, my family were experts. As far as the more traditional arts, though, not at all, and no one in my family understood how one made a career in that. My parents encouraged me to follow the path I wanted regardless of what it was. I think to my parents, saying I wanted to be a writer was the same as saying I wanted to be a plumber or investment banker—it was just one path out of many, and didn’t come with any connotations, positive or negative.
You have a blog titled But I Also Have a Day Job. It’s a situation most people working in the arts would recognise. How did this blog come about?
After I finished my creative writing master’s at the University of Nebraska I was processing a lot of mental overload about my next steps. I was working on the MFA Thesis Novel manuscript and trying to pitch an earlier novel based on my time living in Japan, and the easiest way to earn money during that time was an incredibly laid-back job in a greenhouse on the university’s agriculture campus. The job mostly consisted of filling pots and mixing chemicals while hanging out with cool international students, and when I finished in the afternoons I found myself with plenty of energy to come home and write—far more energy than I’d had as a grad student, where I was teaching classes, doing homework and attending department talks.
The Day Job blog grew out of this idea that having a mindless job that required very little energy and caused zero stress was the perfect way to earn bill-paying money when you’re primarily interested in doing your own creative work. The writing program I’d just finished was the exact opposite of that—it stressed that if you wanted to write you had to enter this cut-throat academic world where the competition for professor jobs was fierce and most opportunities came in the form of poorly paid adjunct positions with little job security. With the Day Job blog, I wanted to explore the possibility of finding different career paths, and the various ways writers and other creative people handle these very practical concerns.
Are all the interviewees writers?
I try to host a balance of writers and people working in other creative fields—for instance, Krissy Diggs, who’s an Instagram illustrator, Jeff Gill, who’s an animator and producer on the Netflix show Ask the Storybots, and Miranda Reeder, who writes, draws and programs visual novels.
Are there any useful generalisations you can make about creative careers?
One thing I’ve found is that while the specifics of different creative fields vary widely, the paths to building any kind of creative career involve a lot of uncertainty, a lot of working less-than-ideal jobs while you transition, a lot of networking, and a lot of night and weekend work.
I think a lot of writers make the mistake of only looking to other writers for career guidance, whereas there are plenty of other models they could be borrowing from. My hope is that by looking at these stories of how different creative people become successful, creative people in all fields can get ideas and inspiration about how to build their own careers.
What is your day job now?
In January I finished a second stint of teaching English in Japan—first elementary school, then at a university in Yokohama. Most of my income now comes from editing, writing coaching, and teaching private video lessons in English as a foreign language. It’s a good routine because I can set my own hours, I don’t have to answer to a boss, and most importantly, I can write in the morning while my mind is fresh.
Your website mentions you’ve done a lot of odd jobs. How successful were they for you?
The greenhouse job was probably the most successful in terms of freeing my mind and time for creative work, and I probably would have kept it if it hadn’t involved staying in Nebraska.
All of my other jobs came with one problem or another: before grad school I worked as a school secretary, but the pay was low, the workload neverending, and the environment toxic. For a while I graded standardized test essays online, but it got too monotonous. After that I picked up a job listing electronics for an online store, but I left after I discovered that the boss was breaking tax law and cheating employees out of overtime pay. I didn’t want to be associated with a work environment where other workers were being exploited.
Tell me about MFA Thesis Novel.
Much like Day Job, MFA Thesis Novel grew out of my grad school experiences in Nebraska. The novel I was workshopping was about life in Japan, a topic the other grad students knew nothing about, and it used a lot of experimental techniques I was drawn to after years of reading the 20th century modernist writers. No one around me was doing any of that, and the program was centred in more contemporary fiction, especially fiction with a rural bent. I still had a lot of craft-developing to do, but the people around me usually rejected the literary moves I was making rather than trying to understand them, which felt confusing and hurtful, but most of all, limiting.
In my grad school workshops we always talked about conflict, and it occurred to me that grad school itself was a perfect setting for conflict—work that didn’t fit the mould was being criticized, people were lonely in this strange, conservative university environment, and everyone was aiming for these high-paying tenure-track English jobs that were disappearing because universities weren’t funding them any more. MFA Thesis Novel naturally emerged from these conflicts, along with my love of campus comedies like Lucky Jim and Joseph Heller’s A Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man, which merges narration and novels-within-the-novel in a way that’s both poignant and incredibly silly.
Why that title? It’s quite brave…
The title was inspired by a Broadway musical I’d seen a few years back called [title of show] in brackets. It’s a comedy musical about two guys trying to write a comedy musical, and the audience watches them bumble through the process. I loved the metafictional concept and wanted to play with that in MFA Thesis Novel, which is also about the writing process and finding your voice as an artist.
How long was your novel in progress?
Too long! I wrote the first draft over nine months while I was working in the greenhouse in Nebraska, then took two-plus years to revise it while I was working more mentally demanding jobs after moving back to New Hampshire. In the process of writing MFA Thesis Novel and the novel I’m working on now, I’ve realised how difficult it really is to make progress on a novel when you’re working a day job, commuting, and trying to build an online presence as a writer, not to mention making time for hobbies, family, and—wait for it—sleep.
Do you have an MFA yourself?
My creative writing degree is actually an MA (don’t tell anyone), though research and more than a few late-night grad student conversations have revealed that my experience was comparable to any number of the hundreds of MFA programs in the US. My own department was at a huge R1 school that prized research and had a lot of creative writing PhDs, as well as a lot of students in literature and composition and rhetoric, which led to its more academic bent.
Was it useful to you?
It was. Aside from the time to write and hone my craft, I learned a lot about the world of literary agents, publishing and small presses, which were largely a mystery. Equally important, though, were the connections and work experience, which launched me in a whole new direction after graduation. I did internships with the department literary journal and the university press, taught a year of freshman composition, got my first paid editing jobs, and took an amazing class about copyright law and how publishing contracts work. Plus, of course, the experience gave me a cool idea for a novel.
You also have a set of zines, The Erochikan Zines, which satirise how-to pamphlets and corporate culture. Are these a reaction to situations you’ve worked in?
The Erochikan zines satirise work, but they also shine a spotlight on basic human interactions that to me feel broken, like how passive-aggressive put-downs are considered socially acceptable, or how we subtly pressure one another away from making changes in our lives. I thought, what if there was an evil corporation intentionally teaching people how to act this way—how would they make these abhorrent behaviours seem attractive?
Does that indicate a rebellious streak in your soul?
Ha! ‘Rebellious’ is a word I usually associate with teenagers who cut class and carve their initials in bathroom stalls. I prefer to describe myself as someone who points out the absurdity in the world we all live in and isn’t afraid to speak the truth. I’ve always found satire to be extraordinarily powerful in how it can show us bigger truths about society in ways that have real entertainment value while also being more thoughtful than, say, sarcastic Twitter memes.
The name Erochikan comes from the Japanese words ero, a shortening of the English word “erotic,” and chikan, a pervert who gropes women on crowded subway trains.
The Japanese have a word for that? They think of everything.
Speaking of words, you’re an editor too, with a broad set of skills – academic papers and business materials as well as the more creative side of writing – and, of course, English as a foreign language. How did you get that spread of experience?
That greenhouse job I keep mentioning actually started as an editing job cleaning up agricultural research manuscripts written by second-language speakers from India. I knew nothing about farming, but it gave me a lot of experience both in line editing and in working with dense academic writing in specialised fields I didn’t have a background in. My boss was good about recommending me to his colleagues, and I picked up other gigs editing social science and architecture manuscripts. If clients like you, they tend to use you again and pass on your info, which helped bring in different kinds of jobs, especially ones that involve coaching or talking through ideas over Zoom. Transferring those skills to working with fiction writers felt natural because I could integrate my teaching background and my writing experience, so it’s been especially rewarding to work with fiction writers as they hone their craft.
Your novel contains autobiographical material. Would you ever write a memoir?
While I’ve read a few excellent memoirs that played with form and structure in ways I found fascinating, I doubt anyone wants to read about my childhood playing Sonic the Hedgehog and having sleepovers with my friends. Aside from traditional memoir, one of my goals is to turn But I Also Have a Day Job into a nonfiction book about how creative people build careers. The book would be part research, part my own experience, and part experiences of people I’ve interviewed—a road map to the creative life.
That sounds like an excellent idea. Okay, here are some quick-fire questions.
Wordcounts or not?
In my own writing? Hell no—solving one really different problem for me is more valuable than 10,000 mediocre words I’ll have to edit out later.
Travel or stay at home?
I’m constantly torn between both—when I lived in Japan I was in travel mode, but for now I gravitate more toward staying at home and getting work done.
Fast or slow reader?
Slow—I tend to pause and process ideas as I read.
How did you end up a complete expert on the George Michael song ‘Careless Whisper’?
I had a chance to join this cool podcast called Blanketing Covers with Danny Getz and Jon Trainor. Every episode they choose a song or artist and look at the dozens of artists across the world who’ve covered them. They gave me a few options, and ‘Careless Whisper’ jumped right out. I take guilty pleasure in all the soft rock songs that my mom would listen to on the radio in the early 90s, and I’ve given the protagonist of my new novel a similar fondness.
Oh wise editor, what’s a word you always mis-spell?
Disappointed, recommend—any word with two sets of letters that could be doubled.
There’s a lot more about writing technicalities 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.
How do you become a fiction writer? Some people have formal training; some never do. They create their own training, from their temperament and inner drive. That’s the case with my guest today, Nick Padron, a musician and composer, and also a writer of scripts and fiction. His latest novel, a thriller Where Labyrinths End, is published this week.
Nick, my first question has to be this: how did you make careers in all these disciplines?
One at a time, really. I think creative people usually handle more than one artistic discipline. Actors paint, writers play music. Have you seen Bob Dylan’s paintings? Amazing. It’s pretty common.
I haven’t even heard of Bob Dylan’s paintings! Once we’ve finished talking, I will hasten to Google.
In my case, making music and literature came at different stages. Growing up, rock and roll music was all I cared about. Elvis and The Beatles were everything I wanted to be. It could’ve been a form of escape from what was happening around me as a boy in Havana, Cuba—which eventually broke up my family, and my mother and I ended up political exiles in New York City.
I never consciously set out to be a formal musician or a writer per se. Formal education was not for me. I learned these disciplines by ear, by imitating and osmosis, and sheer will, I guess.
Imitation and osmosis… I recognise that. If an artform appeals, we pick it up and try it. It’s an appetite.
It wasn’t until my 30s that the urge to write stories came to me. By then, I had already become a professional musician and composer, tried my hand at comedy sketches for TV, even cowritten a movie script. I had developed the kind of personal discipline needed to write—the learning and patience necessary to complete a novel.
I either work on music or on writing prose. To me, they’re all-consuming practices, requiring every ounce of creative focus.
How much crossover is there? Do the sensibilities or skills for one inform your work in the others?
These are very good questions. I don’t think there is a definitive answer to them. How much time I spend on each depends on priorities, really. The skills and sensitivities in both art forms do cross over. Putting words to a song is very close to writing poetry, and poetry very close to prose.
In music, perhaps the physical demands of playing an instrument are not found in writing, but arranging music, particularly the longer works—soundtracks, musicals, operas—does share similar demands. The rhythm of a story is not unlike that of a musical composition. Modern music, though, does diverge. The minimalism of 21st century popular music, where practically no musical instruments are used, all are computerized, moves the creative effort away from, say, the organic work of language as an instrument. Personally, I’ve only written words with a word processor, so I’m not one to talk. But, so far, I think technology has been far more influential on music than it’s been on writing. Then again, had Tolstoy had a laptop, he would’ve probably written four War and Peace sequels…
For sure. And if he was around now, his publisher would have demanded it.
So were your family creative or are you an outlier?
I am an outlier. Although, looking back, I realize my mother was a very creative person, in her own way. Her father, who died before I was born, was involved with a theatre troupe and had a passion for opera, and co-owned a movie theatre.
Is any of your writing autobiographical?
I do insert autobiographical touches in my work. You can’t escape it. Particularly when building characters, you see people you’ve known in them.
Would you ever write a memoir?
I don’t think writing a memoir would be fun—to me. But one never knows, maybe one day I’d want to, but not yet.
What’s the distinctive signature of a Nick Padron novel and short story?
I’m not aware of having a distinctive signature. I suppose there’s one. When I write, I consciously think of the action and settings in cinematic terms. I like the idea of movie-like storytelling enhanced by straight prose.
I’m not opposed to prose for prose’s sake either, if it works. That’s why my three published novels could easily be turned into movies, and still be interesting reads. I have writer friends who have read my works and spotted in them what one might define as a personal ‘signature.’ I suppose the time will come when my ‘signature’ will become apparent even to me. Until then, I’ll let my friends tell me about it.
I note that Ernest Hemingway is a guiding light for you. You titled a novella It Tolls For Thee. One of your short stories is titled Papa’s Bastard Son. Tell me about the importance of Ernest.
My mother told me Hemingway and I met once in Cojímar, a coastal town near Havana where my family owned a house. There was a restaurant there, I think it was called La Terraza, where Hemingway and my parents went for lunch sometimes. One afternoon, when I was five or six, my parents took me to lunch and old Hemingway happened to be there with some people. My mother said I kept running around all over the place, making a racket, and as I flew past Hemingway’s table he said something to me—probably told me to shut up and go sit down. Of course, I don’t remember any of it. But having annoyed the Old Master became a family anecdote.
I bet it did. That’s hard to beat.
There was a time too, it seemed everywhere I went Hemingway had been there before. Cuba, Key West, Pamplona, Madrid, even Venice. It was inevitable that I became interested in Hemingway’s work. Eventually, I read all of his books.
One of your novels, The Cuban Scar, has a pseudonym – Gabriel Hemingway.
The Gabriel Hemingway pseudonym idea came to me after I finished my first novel. I remembered Elvis Costello’s strategy to get attention when he first started out, changing his name to ‘Elvis’. So, I tried doing something like that with my first book. I used the pseudonym of Gabriel (after Garcia Marquez) and Hemingway, hoping the book would stand out in the marketplace. It didn’t. So, I’ve used my own name since.
There are other writers I find inspiring, Don DeLillo for instance. I’ve read most of his books. Mind you, I’m not a voracious reader. I wish I was. I do read a lot every day though, news, magazines, stuff online, fiction and nonfiction. But I could go for months without reading a complete book, probably busy with music. Sometimes I get hooked to a particular writer or a style or a period and spend a lot of time reading. When I was a young, I read the classics while riding in the NYC subways, Robinson Crusoe, Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, Moby Dick, those books. Later on, the Russians, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev; modern classics, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Salinger, Lee. I had my Bukowski period, my Vargas Llosa period, my Oscar Hijuelos period. I suppose there’ll be others to come.
I saw in an interview that your first attempt at a novel eventually defeated you.
Yes, I did give up on my first try at a novel. I made what seems to be a classic beginner’s mistake, biting more than I could chew.
This is very familiar.
I wrote around a half million words. Now I realize, as a self-taught artist, that this unfinished novel was really my basic training as a novelist. I made every mistake a writer can make, over and over, until I learned how it’s done.
I did the same, though I eventually lashed mine into shape. But I wrote several simpler books before I was ready to tackle the first one for real. Would you ever go back to yours?
I’m not sure I could finish that first novel any more. But I’ve used passages from it. My first published short story was taken from the unfinished novel.
Nothing is ever wasted, is it?
Some of your work features magic realism. How do you use it? Why does it appeal?
If anyone finds ‘magical realism’ in my writing, it would only be in the prose and not in the story itself. A critic called one of my short stories “realistic magic.” I think I know what he meant. For instance, in Where Labyrinths End, the protagonist, Symphony Messina, is abducted and locked up in a dungeon-like place where she discovers she’s pregnant. The passage has a magical realism-type of atmosphere. But the ‘magical’ quality is all in the character’s head, not in the character’s personal experience. If you have a character who is superstitious or very religious or given to flights of fancy, the writing might acquire a supernatural aspect when inside the character’s mental universe. But my stories are set in reality, and any resemblance to magical realism is solely in the reader’s take of it.
What are you working on now?
I have several stories going at the same time, as usual. It’s something like my reading habits, reading two or three books at a time. This year has been a busy one for me. Three books of mine have been published between November 2020 and December 2021. One was a collection of short fiction, another was a novel set during the Spanish Civil War, and of course, Where Labyrinths End, my first thriller. I have plans to finish two or three other books. One would be a sequel to Labyrinths. Hopefully very soon.
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.