Posts Tagged how I made my writing career
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!
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
Some people have always written. Some don’t become writers until friends and family urge them to. This is not usually a recipe for success, but Jeanette (Wren) Godfrey Chapman found a publisher, and her memoir Pirate Girl Falls Through Beaver Dam: A Memoir of Adventurous Lessons in Earth School is published this week.
Wren, are there any writers in your family? Was the writing process natural for you?
There are no writers in my family although many write well. Writing this memoir was akin to roping in the squall from hell. Why would anyone in his or her right mind spend years chained to a computer in mind-boggling isolation, hacking away in mental anguish, only to trash godawful first drafts and start over from scratch.
Yes, writers know that particular hell. But you’ve seen more squalls than most, and your usual habitat is the adventuring life, not the hermitage with a typewriter. What made you want to put your life into writing?
After our mystifying mother died, my sister Susan (Suzanne in the manuscript) blabbed to our sainted father the adventures and mishaps of my childhood and young adulthood. Only she got the stories all wrong, so she told me to write them down. I did, and read them aloud to Dad. He laughed his head off and said I should write a memoir, since it sounded like I spent my entire life falling through beaver dams––literally and figuratively.
And that explains the title!
I recorded for my dad the vignettes that are in my manuscript plus around 10 other major events, but I trashed them after the first draft, as they refused to pull the story along a forward path. My wonderful Dad passed away at age 96 (he was still driving and playing golf) and I put the work in a drawer for over 20 years until a man I almost married, Sidney Snelgrove (Shepard Seagraves in the book), shockingly reappeared in my life.
In the late 1960s Sidney and I hitch-hiked to Key West with 10 dollars in our pockets. He became the owner of Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West and made, for years, around one million dollars a day in T-shirt sales alone. After 40 years, he bought a plantation just five miles away from my home. We reacquainted and he wanted to know what went wrong between us, so I let him read my old journal. Like my dad, he laughed until he cried and said it sounded like a book I should write.
Sidney died unexpectedly at age 74 and never saw the finished manuscript. He is terribly missed by many people. Including me. Many of the people in Pirate Girl are now dead.
My Cherokee friend, Free, said I should name the book after my lessons in ‘Earth School’. His astute counsel has never left me and I try to live by his fine example––even though I mostly fail.
Before you decided to look for a publisher, you showed this book to people only for personal reasons, people who were closely involved with you. What’s it been like, opening the material to strangers?
Except for a very early editor and folks in a writing workshop, I did not show my manuscript to anyone before publishing––especially people closely involved with me. But I did show it to the novelist and wilderness writer Peter Matthiessen. Around a year before his death we went for a swim in Long Island Sound. He read and edited my chapter ‘The Bear’. We went for a walk on the beach and he carefully picked out a pebble and handed it to me with great ceremony. I still have it, of course.
And, hellish squalls or not, you’re writing another book?
Yes. I must be crazy to. Someone, please stop me.
It’s called The Killing of Black Bart, who is a character from Pirate Girl, and how he and several family members were murdered, murders that were never solved.
How did you build Pirate Girl? Is it all from memory?
Much of it is from memory. It’s difficult to forget being tied to a mast during a fierce tropical storm, but I also kept a detailed journal while living in the Bahamas and Colorado.
How did you meet your publisher?
I scoured the Internet for publishing companies that worked with interesting authors and subject matter and produced drop-dead gorgeous cover art. Vine Leaves Press won hands down, and I am grateful they accepted my manuscript.
Where did your adventurous urge come from?
I simply enjoyed the rich experience of life and grew up camping, canoeing and mountain climbing with my family. I never thought twice about living alone in stark wilderness. Also, in high school I read The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac and took to heart his quote: ‘I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page, and I could do anything I wanted’.
What do you like to read?
Memoirs by adventurers and travellers. Currently, I am reading Straight on till Morning, The Biography of Beryl Markham by Mary S Lovell.
What scares you?
Living in the once-great USA, now teetering on the cliff of fascism and authoritarian rule. Costa Rica here I come.
Is there anything else you wish you’d done? And anything you wish you hadn’t?
I have no regrets except selling my trawler Evening Star, which I lived on for seven years, and not buying that small coffee plantation in Latin America when I had a chance. And I wish I’d never fallen in love––the scourge of humankind.
Any final stirring words?
It is my fervent hope that folks of every age who read my book––especially women––will come away with the knowledge that no matter the vicissitudes of life, it is perfectly acceptable to fall in and out of love, search for one’s own authentic spirituality, and live life to the fullest.
But hell’s bells, I’m still having adventures at 72 years old. Next summer I’m heading out to Montana for my third major vision quest. My first one was at 12 years old. My second was after a marriage dissolved.
This upcoming quest will be for how to face old age––not with tiresome grace and dignity, but with long white hair streaming down my back as I ride an old Indian motorcycle along the Blue Ridge Parkway, stoned, flying past wild azaleas and gnarly rhododendron (like me). In truth, I’m shocked to reach older age when I should be long dead many times over.
Find Jeanette on Facebook and on her website. Find Pirate Girl Falls Through Beaver Dam: A Memoir of Adventurous Lessons in Earth School
If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
How I made my writing career – award-winning novelist and short story writer Ann S Epstein @asewovenwords
How do you end up as a fiction writer? Some people learn to use their word skills for a career, then also discover a strong creative calling. My guest today, Ann S Epstein, wrote psychology papers for many years and then discovered joy in writing fiction. Now she has a solid catalogue of published short stories, a Pushcart Prize nomination for creative nonfiction, the Walter Sullivan prize in fiction, and an Editors’ Choice selection by Historical Novel Review. Her fourth work of longform historical fiction, The Great Stork Derby is released this week. We talk about this – and many other moments that slowly added up to Ann S Epstein, author.
Ann, was your family creative in any way or are you an outlier?
I didn’t grow up in a creative family, although my mother taught us to appreciate art and music. My father liked to make things for our small Bronx apartment, but these were primarily utilitarian: radiator covers, storage chests, and step stools. (I come from a line of very short people.) As a child, I loved to draw and write, and continued these activities long after my friends abandoned them. However, the arts were seen as a “hobby,” not a means of livelihood.
My brother and I both became social scientists – he an anthropologist, me a psychologist – and we each produced a lot of professional writing, but not creative writing. And yet, at some point later in adulthood, he began to write poetry and I started to write fiction.
Tell me more about that.
I thought it would be fun to try writing fiction when I retired. Then I asked myself, “Why wait? Why not give a go now?” So, I did, and I loved it.
Have you taken formal instruction in writing?
I’ve taken a couple of classes and several workshops, but most of what I’ve learned has come from being a long-time member of two fantastic critique groups. We’re supportive and encouraging, but also honest in our feedback. Our participation stems from a need to improve, not to be patted on the back. (Or skewered.)
I learn as much by reading and giving thoughtful feedback to others as I do from receiving their input about my work. We celebrate one another’s successes and, perhaps best of all, commiserate over our inevitable rejections.
I’ve also learned from developmental editors who make me think about what I’ve written. Their ideas and questions push me to go deeper and wider.
You also have a PhD in developmental psychology and an MFA in textiles. What fulfils you about these disciplines?
My 40-plus years as a developmental psychologist were extremely gratifying. I was a researcher and curriculum developer at an educational nonprofit foundation whose mission was helping at-risk children and their families and teachers. One of my books, The Intentional Teacher (published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children) remains a bestseller in the field, and has been translated into several languages. I still hear from readers around the world about how the book affected their relationships with children and the adults who work with them. Knowing that the foundation’s work, and my contribution to it, made a significant difference in the quality of their lives reassures me that my chosen career was meaningful.
I actually got my MFA 10 years after my PhD. As I said, I never stopped making art. In addition to drawing, I loved working with fibre. While I was in graduate school in psychology, macrame was the big thing. (I’m still doing penance for creating knotted and beaded jute wall hangings and planters.) The local YMCA offered a class in weaving. I signed up and immediately knew I’d found my medium.
Do they find their way into your writing?
Psychology and art certainly do. My character-driven stories explore relationships between parents and children, siblings, friends, co-workers and even the nameless people we cross paths with who make us wonder about their lives, and our own. I’m intrigued by the challenge of making an “unlikable” character sympathetic by humanizing them.
My immersion in art makes me attentive to imagery. And I love textiles because of how fibre feels passing through my fingers. The act of weaving — feet pounding on treadles, heddles clanking up and down, shuttles flying back and forth — establishes a noisy whole-body rhythm. Each type of yarn, plant or animal, has its own smell.
Ultimately, in art or writing, I try to make the disparate pieces coalesce into a satisfying whole.
What non-writing jobs have you done/ do you still do?
In college, I worked summers at an office and a bank. In graduate school, I was a research assistant and a teaching fellow. After I got the MFA, I changed my schedule at the nonprofit to four, 10-hour days, and used the fifth weekday (and weekends) to make art. I exhibited my work in dozens of shows, and sold several large pieces to corporate clients. Later, when I began writing, I kept the same schedule and shifted some hours from creating at the loom to the keyboard.
I’m also a firm believer in (unpaid) community service. In high school, I was a Junior Red Cross volunteer. In college, I was active in the civil rights movement and tutored youth from low-income families. I currently serve on the board of my Jewish community centre.
You have four novels and a solid catalogue of short stories. What makes an Ann S Epstein work?
My work is character driven, both inner and relational, but I’m also attentive to plot as the driver of each character’s arc. The people I write about might be called underdogs or outsiders, those who are discriminated against because of poverty, religion, race or ethnicity, gender, immigrant status, handicap or other otherness.
My characters come from diverse backgrounds (gender, religion, race and ethnicity, countries) and ages (very young to very old). I favour ambiguity over tidy endings; I want readers to keep writing the story in their own heads. I’m not a nihilist or pessimist, but I accept that people are flawed. Yet I believe that hope is a renewable resource. Many of my works are historical.
Any signature periods or settings?
They are set in the years from before WWI to after WWII, but bear messages for today. The novels often span several decades so that parts are more contemporary. I love researching the periods I write about, but my emphasis is on fiction, not history. Other than being a stickler for certain details (I abhor anachronisms), I invent people and events as long as they’re consistent with the time, place, and culture I’m writing about. I’m delighted, after finishing a manuscript, if I can no longer remember what is real and what I invented.
On your website you have a quote about Susan Sontag. To paraphrase: becoming a writer is a long process of apprenticeship and failure. You comment that you find this reassuring as you look at your own evolution as a writer. I can certainly identify with that. The first novel of my own that I published (after I was a ghostwriter) was a book I’d been incubating for about 18 years. I sent it to publishers and agents, who were encouraging, but really I was trying to write something I wasn’t ready for. Eventually I wrote that novel properly, and it taught me to be the writer I am now. So that’s what ‘apprenticeship’ looked like for me – and of course apprenticeship never ends. What did apprenticeship look like for you?
In the two decades I’ve been writing fiction, perhaps the greatest change was having the courage to write about things that were NOT part of my own experience. My early stories were inspired by the people and events that populated my childhood. However, I quickly learned the freedom of writing from my imagination, not my memories, although I’ll draw on the latter to add details.
Not having formally studied creative writing, my apprenticeship has meant incrementally mastering the craft, including how to write dialogue, where to start a story (endings are easier for me; beginnings are harder to nail), and when to kill my darlings. Like every writer, I’ve learned the importance of (re, re, re) revision.
Me too. I’m a total reviser. Revision is where I do my most creative work.
I also read differently than before I began to write. I’m not overly analytical (that would drain the pleasure), but I’m more aware of the mastery behind a passage that makes me stop in admiration, awe, and (I admit) an appreciative twinge of envy.
How did you end up at Vine Leaves Press?
In December 2015, I saw a call for submissions in Poets & Writers and sent a query for On the Shore. Two months later VLP requested the full manuscript and the following month they wrote that they wanted to publish the novel and included an amazing review by Peter Snell.
The bookseller Peter Snell! We’re good friends! I might even have introduced him to VLP/ (BTW, I feel I should mention our radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer…)
Peter has also given the go-ahead to my two other VLP books, Tazia and Gemma and now The Great Stork Derby. Pending the response to this third book, VLP has also accepted a fourth. So, I’m among those fortunate authors who can laud and thank Peter for being our gateway to VLP publication.
An unexpected benefit has been joining the international VLP community. Not only do its members connect with a group of talented writers and staff, we support one another through every stage of the publication process, and cheer our individual and collective achievements in the literary world at large. I’m in awe of what Jessica Bell has created and continues to innovate and build upon.
Amen to that. And here’s an interview with Jessica herself.
Ann, tell me about your latest release, The Great Stork Derby.
Based on a bizarre but real event in Canadian history, The Great Stork Derby begins with a husband pressuring his wife to have babies to win a large cash prize. In 1926, an eccentric millionaire leaves most of his estate to the Toronto woman who has the most babies in the 10 years following his death. Emm Benbow convinces his wife, Izora, to enter the contest. His ambition becomes an obsession and Emm ends up disappointed by his large family and alienated from his children. Fifty years later, and now a widower, Emm is told by his doctor that he can no longer live alone. He can either go to a dreaded old age home, or move in with one of his disaffected offspring. The novel follows Emm as he tries living in turn with each of his adult children and attempts to learn that the true value of fatherhood is not measured in big prizes, but in small rewards.
That’s quite a concept.
The idea came when I stumbled on this weird event. As often happens with me, I knew there was a story, but the question was “What?” Or more accurately, “Whose?”
To find the heart of a story, I must first decide whose point of view to tell it from. An idea may incubate for years before that “aha” moment. My original short story covered the 10 years of the stork derby itself, written from the wife’s perspective. When I envisioned the novel, I knew it had to be from the husband’s viewpoint. As I said, I love the challenge of turning an unlikeable character into a sympathetic figure and Emm put me, and I hope readers, to the test.
The period from 1926 to 1976 was also fascinating to research. It encompassed the Depression, WWII, post-war boom, and emergence of the women’s and gay rights movements. So, another challenge was imagining how these societal developments affected the development of the Benbow parents and siblings. I had lots of threads to interweave in this book.
You’ve also written memoir essays. Has your memoir informed your work in fiction?
Both memoir and fiction involve storytelling. Character drives both. And creative nonfiction employs the structure and rhythm of fiction, that is, character(s) follow an arc or trajectory. They have desires, face setbacks, make discoveries, and either evolve or fail to change.
How do you think creativity operates in non-fiction if it must be based on fact?
I think of fiction as construction and memoir as reconstruction. Both mix fact and fiction. Fiction has elements of fact (such as details of time and place, the truth of human nature). And memoir is not strictly factual, but rather an honest attempt at recall. Writers and readers of memoir sign a contract in which they agree to accept that the events and people are described ‘as best remembered’.
To me, what makes memoir interesting is not a mere recitation of what happened, but the writer’s reflection and analysis. Unearthing what lies below the surface, letting the mind play with the message underlying the facts, makes the piece creative. And meaningful — to write, and to read.
Do you teach writing in any form?
For many years, I taught workshops on grant-writing, which I was very successful at; I brought in millions of dollars (public and private) for the nonprofit I worked for. The people who attended my workshops tended to be from small agencies in search of operational funds so they could serve their target audiences: children and families from low-income, minority or immigrant backgrounds.
I taught by putting students in the position of the people deciding who to grant the money to. I distributed five sample proposals that I had written, each with strengths and weaknesses, then had them debate who to grant the award(s) to. They learned from sitting on the other side of the table. I see this method as analogous to my saying we learn as much from critiquing others’ work as we do from getting feedback on our own.
You seem prolific as a short story writer. What’s your working routine like?
I don’t have a routine in the sense of sitting from X to Y o’clock at the computer, or producing a minimum number of words a day. That said, I write — or do writing tasks such as submissions or critiquing — pretty much every day, including weekends. Quite simply, I like to work! I’m an early riser, so I get an early start. I’ll usually knock off mid- to late afternoon to work in the yard, go for a walk or read. Around 5:00 PM, I head two blocks east for my daily playdate with my grandsons, aged nine and five. I keep paper and pencil handy during dinner (also at my bedside) to jot down thoughts that pop up. I think a writer’s mind never stops churning.
I mentioned I’m short. My work space where my laptop sits is an old oak kindergarten table (with child-size chairs) and I’m writing by hand at a child’s roll top desk (also antique).
Do you have any tips for submitting to literary publications?
Perseverance! You never know when something you’ve written will resonate with a reader or editor. I’ve submitted some stories dozens of times before they found a home. That said, don’t submit blindly. Learn what type of work each journal publishes and if/when you have a piece that fits (or are inspired to write one), send it in. And every time you get a response that says “Your submission wasn’t the right fit this time, but we’d love to read more,” take heart. I keep a folder labelled “Encouraging rejections.”
What question about writing do you find hardest to answer?
‘Where do your ideas originate?’ Occasionally I can trace when something I read or heard ignited a spark, but the path to the endpoint is too circuitous to pinpoint the exact source. As I craft each character or scene, I often ask myself, ‘Where on earth did that come from?’
No wonder the Greeks invented muses. Dipping into the creative well is like dunking a bucket blindly and seeing what you pull up. Thank goodness, my bucket has never come up empty.
An easy question, often asked by new writers, is how to go about writing. Should one write every day? If so, how many words? Is it best to knock out a first draft and revise it later? Should one make an outline or follow wherever the writing leads?
My answer is that there are no ‘shoulds’. My colleagues each employ a different method that suits them. So, I say, experiment and find what works for you.
Also on your website is another quote I love – from a personal essay by Peter Schjeldahl, which (in your words) ‘captures the “Did I really write that?” sensation. Writing is a present/absent process. One is at once fully immersed in the act, yet also removed to another plane’. Now you’re leaving The Great Stork Derby behind, what are your feelings? Do you want to linger with the characters and world?
My characters never leave me. Once I enter their world, I continue to occupy it. I think that’s why those with whom I’ve become deeply embedded migrate from a story to a novel. (And why they were great company during my solitary pandemic lockdown.)
However, once I complete a novel, while I may stop in to say ‘Hi’, I rarely linger. Recently, though, I pondered writing a prequel to a book I finished not long ago. The completed novel, which follows the seesawing friendship of two women from their teens to their 70s, touches on their traumatic childhoods as WWII orphans and I’d love to explore those early years in depth. The Great Stork Derby has a large cast of intriguing characters. Maybe someday, I’ll write about Emm’s death and the continuing lives of his many children over the next 50 years.
If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.