Posts Tagged literary fiction
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.
Literary and historical novelists – your first pages: 5 more book openings critiqued by @agentpete @mattschodcnews and me!
I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was one of Litopia’s longtime members, Matt Schofield, an award-winning war correspondent who now writes fiction.
The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and commissioning editors would consider a submission. And there’s now an added goody – each month, the submission with the most votes is fast tracked to the independent publisher Head of Zeus, and several writers have already been picked up after appearing on the show. (So we take our critiquing very seriously… no pressure.)
As you can see, there is oodles to learn from the chat room comments alone. The audience might not always know why something does or doesn’t work, but they know when they’re engaged, or confused, or eager to read more. Then your trusty hosts discuss the whys and hows.
This time the submissions had a theme – literary and historical, so in our discussions we aimed to define the characteristics of these. We discussed how literary blurbs are not like genre blurbs, and how a blurb can create the wrong impression about a book or give away too much. We discussed how you might create a coherent literary work out of a story with many points of view. We looked at how an author might unify a novel by setting it in a short space of time or a particular geographical place. We identified a fantastic example of showing instead of telling.
We considered openings that were thematically effective but seemed to need a more human centre. We considered titles – the risks of using a name as a title, and a title that gave the wrong message about the tone of the book. We also discussed awkward phrasing – which led us to identify another hallmark of literary work, the author’s control of language and nuance.
We also discussed Matt’s own fiction, which is emerging – in various guises – from his phenomenal experiences reporting on four wars. How do you make real life into fiction? What about transitioning from journalism to fiction writing – are there stylistic habits that journalists have to unlearn? (Spoiler: yes there are…)
There’s a lot more about beginnings and genre/non-genre notes 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 was chatting on a writers’ Facebook group and this question was asked: how many points of view have you used in a novel?
I used several in my most recent novel Ever Rest. Seven, actually. (Splutters in the group. And they were right; it was tricky to do.)
I didn’t plan that way at first. I imagined the novel would be one point of view. Then I wrote a scene where my viewpoint guy had an awkward meeting with another character, and the air was seething with unfinished business. I couldn’t do justice to it if I stayed only with him.
So I wrote her side.
I resisted at first. It seemed a waste of time because it wouldn’t be used. It couldn’t be; Ever Rest was not her book. I hadn’t inhabited her life in the way I had inhabited his. I knew his childhood. I didn’t know her life beyond this brief scene. It was a blank, and a blank is always worrying for a writer. A blank might be temporary, or it might not. But there she was, protesting about being forced to meet this guy.
She began to live on her own. I now had two narrators for the novel.
It happened again. As I worked on her, a person who belonged to her became more significant. He looked kind and mild, but inside, there were deep uncertainties. A third voice began to speak.
On it went, with more people revealing their complicated hearts. Until there were seven.
By this stage, you might be wondering if I should have written it as omniscient, but that didn’t appeal. For this book, I wanted deep third-person. I wanted the reader to know when one person was badly misreading another, or underestimating them. I wanted the reader to scream no you’re too naïve, or too suspicious, or simply mistaken. Each character was in their own private muddle, trying to find their way through, and none of them truly knew anybody else. The best way was multiple points of view.
But how many is too many? It’s too many if you can’t handle them properly. Otherwise, go for it. Here are some rules.
Some rules for multiple points of view
1 They don’t all have to be heard equally.
Like all characters, you’ll have a hierarchy. Some characters are secondary. Their situation is not as fraught and tormented, or they won’t go through very much change.
I used one character’s point of view to occasionally give an outsider perspective. He wasn’t seen as many times as the others, but we sometimes went to him for a grounding scene. Sometimes he was sympathetic to them, sometimes exasperated. It was a welcome relief from the characters who were facing the defining moments of their lives.
2 Take time to make them individuals.
I really made a rod for my own back here. I had seven viewpoint characters, which meant seven distinctive voices and outlooks. It meant a lot of revising. (This is one of the reasons the novel took six years to mature.)
3 When it’s their turn to speak, write them from the inside.
With two of the characters, I realised I was unsympathetic to them myself. I was writing them from the point of view of other characters in the book. X thought y was a tin-eared narcissist, and that was good, but I wrote y’s own sections like that too, which was a mistake. While x might think that of y, y would not think that of himself. So I gave my tin-eared narcissist a fair hearing. He became highly sensitive and often distressed.
4 Remember what they know, including their ideals.
You have to keep careful track of continuity. There are the obvious mechanics of who knows what. What x thinks of y, as we’ve seen.
And this knowledge also has a deeper level – characters’ attitudes. In Ever Rest, a key aspect was the characters’ attitudes to romantic love – what they thought love should be. X feels love is a shattering thunderbolt. Z feels love is educating the person about how to be in love, and watching them in case they get out of line and make themselves unhappy. I drew charts of these, so I could easily compare them.
5 Manage the reader carefully.
Make it clear when we’re in a new point of view – unless your purpose is to deliberately obscure this. (I can’t think of a good example right now, but for every general prohibition, there’s always a person who’s broken it to great effect.)
Otherwise, make sure we know whose POV we’re in. Establish a system that will let the reader know. I began a new chapter each time there was a new POV. Some chapters were very short – a mere few paragraphs – and that was fine.
Also, I made the viewpoint clear in the first sentence so the reader knows how to interpret what they’re seeing. Each character had very different views and feelings about the action, so it was important to know whose emotions we were sharing. Is it the character who is mortally offended by this action or the character who thinks it’s a storm in a teacup?
6 Ask if you need all those POVs.
Why make it so complicated? Most things are better if you strip away complication, especially when making an artwork. However, they are not necessarily better if you strip away complexity and richness. I found I needed each of my seven voices to give the story its most lifelike treatment.
BTW, this is Ever Rest.
And speaking of managing big projects, don’t forget I have a course this week at Jane Friedman’s – Standalone or Series: how to grow your novel concept to its full potential. You can watch it live or catch up later.
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.
What’s literary fiction? Some authors – and publishers also – feel ‘literary’ is a label that puts readers off. (Not me!)
What are their misgivings about literary fiction? Are they justified? Can we reclaim it?
I was discussing this with Imogen Clark, who describes her novels as ‘contemporary fiction about families and secrets’, but her publisher, Lake Union, calls her literary, which she says she’s never found comfortable. We got chatting.
Roz First, let’s define literary. Here’s how I see it, in the broadest way. Literary as a definition of two parts. The first is a definition by exclusion. By this I mean a literary work doesn’t conform to a genre.
An example. If your book contains a murder and you write in a genre, you must follow certain traditions to satisfy readers. This doesn’t mean you have to be predictable, but you have to hit certain marks. So the murder might have to be explained or solved. Perhaps the killer will be brought to justice.
But in a literary novel, a murder might not follow those protocols at all. An example is Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, where a teenage girl goes missing, which has repercussions for decades, but the story does not solve the mystery or provide answers. Jon McGregor uses the event in a non-genre way, to explore rhythms of life, the ebb and flow of the seasons. He is interested in another kind of mystery – the mystery of life.
Imogen The first thing that people ask me when I say that I’m an author is what kind of books I write. That’s hard to explain when there isn’t an obvious genre like crime or romance to pin to them. So, when I heard you say on a podcast that one definition of a literary fiction book is that it can go where it pleases without having to hit any expected tropes I was delighted because this idea seems to fit with what I write more closely than any specific genre.
My books are all standalones with each exploring a different issue, but because I don’t have any limitations placed on me by reader expectations, I have the freedom to take the story in whichever direction feels most natural for the characters. Labelling my books as literary fiction avoids me having to say that they are a bit like this and a bit like that.
Roz The freedom to follow your own thread…. Exactly!
Here’s the second part of my definition. A literary work is a richer experience than ‘just a story’. In fact, some people would say literary fiction is plotless full stop, and I have to disagree. Some literary writers are very interested in plot – and very good at it. Some aren’t. But plot and pace aren’t the defining feature. The defining feature is this – literary fiction will offer an additional artistic dimension, perhaps through its themes or metaphorical shapes.
Imogen My books definitely have a plot and are quite pacey. They are very character driven too, unlike some genre fiction which can be more about the twists and turns of the story than the people who tell it. As well as the story, I try to explore an underlying theme which might not always be immediately apparent. For example, the plot might concern the uncovering of a family fortune, but the book may actually be about integrity and honesty which I would examine through the way that each character responds to the windfall.
Roz I also like to write fast-paced stories with a strong plot ethic – and just as you say, I create this from character. I love complex people who behave in ways that arise from their unique inner struggles, so we experience something unfathomable about the human condition. (Quick aside: if you’re struggling with plot, my plot book understands.)
Let’s talk about language. Finely honed prose is regarded as a key aspect of literary fiction. But literary writers don’t have a monopoly on language. Many genre writers are fantastic wordsmiths – their prose is sleek, spare, vivid, perfectly judged for the job. I’ve heard writers say they think they’re ‘being literary’ if they write lush, lyrical descriptions. But that’s not, by itself, literary. I think it’s looking at the wrong thing.
Indeed, actual poems can be written with simple language. Look at this piece, ‘Before You Cut Loose’, by Simon Armitage. He uses ordinary words. The power comes from the thought and heart in the work, an emotional structure and order, a sensibility and sensitivity.
Imogen I think this is the biggest resistance I have to describing my books as literary. I make no great claims for my writing. It is rarely lyrical or lush and I worry that readers who are looking for beautiful and unusual imagery would be disappointed. I do use complex sentence structures and try to make my writing arresting and thought provoking, but I don’t write prize-worthy prose, which is what I think a reader would expect from a book calling itself literary.
I also worry that the term literary fiction has too many elitist connotations – and they don’t sit well with my work. I am a commercial author who writes books that I hope will sell rather than for the sheer beauty of the language. I think my typical readers might be put off buying a book described as literary because they might expect it to be ‘hard’ to read or have no plot when what they want is a novel that doesn’t challenge them too much in terms of its writing style but which does make them think.
Roz I fully agree that literary doesn’t have to be hard. It might be, but that’s not a requirement. To look at the Simon Armitage poem again, it is a simple scenario, but also a metaphor for something bigger – an exploration of loyalty. It could be many other things too.
And here’s where its power lies. It’s a rich experience. The recognition of the metaphor creeps up on you. And almost anyone could understand it at a deep level. There’s nothing elitist or difficult about a poem like this. It’s people and dogs. The poetry is in the situation, and the way it is finely and precisely tuned, to create an experience that deepens a mystery. Difficult to write, but easy to read, easy to understand.
I think literary authors probably fall into many subdivisions. For some it’s about creating challenges for the reader – perhaps with the form, or resonance with other existing works, or intellectual games. But a work can be rich in literary terms without being a hard read.
That’s what I’m aiming for when I write. I’m not writing tricksy, difficult books. I want my books to be rich on many levels. I love story, so the story has to be gripping and surprising. But I also want to explore the situation in an unusual and fresh way, because that’s where the magic lies for me.
For some reason, I’m thinking of parallels in music. Artists like David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Kate Bush could write tracks with striking hooks, high drama and great distinctiveness, but also musically and lyrically sophisticated. If you want depth, they give you depth. If you want a memorable iconic song, they give you those too. Popular and accessible doesn’t have to mean superficial or trashy. That’s how I see literary fiction – it can be full-blooded enough to please both.
Imogen I couldn’t agree more. I would love to see the stigma that has grown up around the term literary fiction being broken down. If a reader is looking for a book that explores a complex issue in a way that is accessible, but which also has a page-turning plot and some well-drawn characters then I hope they might read one of mine and not be disappointed.
(And we are not difficult, purple or plotless.)
Purple prose pic by Leslie Nicole on Flickr.
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.
My third novel Ever Rest, is now shortlisted, with honourable mention, for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize 2022!
Several reviewers have mentioned they’d like to introduce it to their book clubs, so I’ve created these crib notes, to use as a primer before reading, or a refresher afterwards. I’ve included key themes, suggested questions for discussion, and an interview by Garry Craig Powell at Late Last Night Books where I explain my inspirations and intentions – which, of course, might be entirely irrelevant to your own reading of the book. Spoilers are flagged in case you’d like to avoid them.
The title is more ponderous than I would like. I wanted to call it Sleeve Notes, but Amazon’s rules require the words ‘Study Guide’ in the title, and prominently on the cover. There were other options, but they were even more earnest. So Study Guide it is.
Anyway, it’s formatted as an ebook and a PDF and you can download it free from all the major ebook retailers. Find it here.
PS For more of my creative doings, you might like my newsletter, here
Today I’m at Joanna Penn’s now legendary podcast, The Creative Penn, talking about writing and publishing literary fiction.
We cover the writing process for a very long-haul book (ie Ever Rest), the research process, creative revision, how you battle on when you’ve lost your way, and how you design a cover for a book that doesn’t have established genre parameters.
We also cover another big question – if literary fiction isn’t the most predictably lucrative kind of book, and marketing is tricky, what are the guaranteed rewards? Hence the line about making honest art.
As always, I thoroughly enjoyed our discussion. Do come over.
If you’re curious about my creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
Trust the process. Although there has been much muddling and rewriting; although I started with a short story and wasn’t sure how I’d make it into a long one; although I had to learn about the technicalities of two artforms (music and visual art) and one elite sport (mountaineering)… I got safely and securely to The End.
Ever Rest, my third novel, is now available.
What’s it like? Here are a few reviews to help you decide.
How do you get a career working with words? We each have our own routes. In this occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve made writing the centre of their lives, have been recognised with awards and grants and have become a guiding light for other writers. Today: Connie Biewald, who teaches literacy and creative writing to both children and adults, and is about to publish her fourth novel, Truth Like Oil.
Roz How did you start writing?
Connie As soon as I could hold a pencil. My first novel was about two friends, entitled Josie and Susan. My mother typed it up and made carbon copies. (That shows how old I am.)
I always read and I always wrote. When I read this Eudora Welty quote, it resonated. “Indeed, learning to write may be part of learning to read. For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.”
I look back at journals from elementary school and I always wanted to be a teacher and a writer. There were other ideas like being a pathologist—I thought cutting up dead bodies would be interesting. But teaching and writing were the through lines.
Roz Was anybody influential in this?
Connie My schooling felt boring and restrictive. But in fourth grade, I had my first experience of a teacher reading aloud to us. We put our heads on our desks and for a beautiful half-hour I was happy in school. I wasn’t even in school. I was in the NY subway with Mario and his cricket, (George Selden’s Cricket in Times Square) on the Saskatchewan prairie with the owls, Wol and Weeps (Farley Mowat’s Owls in the Family). And time passed more than pleasantly. I was not used to that happening in school.
My mother read to me before bed. I remember one night listening to Louisa May Alcott’s Old Fashioned Girl, watching the clock hit the 8:30. My mother was not one to extend bedtime by a minute, yet the big hand kept moving. There were more pages to the chapter. The combination of anxiety and wonder…the power of literature to make even my mother forget the clock.
Roz Were any of your family in the creative arts or are you the trailblazer?
Connie My parents encouraged creativity—all that typing my mother did! One of my brothers is a musician. Our mother loved genealogy and sewing. Our dad was an industrial arts teacher. They built all our furniture.
Roz Did you do other jobs before you concentrated on literary arts?
Connie Literary arts were always my passion on the side. I was realistic about needing money. I worked in a bakery in high school which provided material for my book Roses Take Practice. I also worked with children through high school and college which became the foundation of my career in education. I didn’t want to do a job in literary arts, thinking that it would take my writing energy away. And I think I was right. I have been able to write what I want.
Roz How did you start to prioritise writing?
Connie The first writing I did with real intention of publishing was after college when I took a day care program director’s job so I could use the morning for writing. That book later became Digging to Indochina. When my children were young I wrote every Saturday morning.
That was enough for a while. As my kids got older I was able to go away to residencies. Grace Paley, my most significant mentor, said, “If you want to be a writer, keep your expenses low and don’t live with anyone who doesn’t support your writing.” I’m grateful to my parents for providing childcare while I went to workshops and residencies and to my husband who has never questioned my need to write.
Roz If you went back to age 16 and saw where you are now, what would your thoughts be?
Connie At 16, I was a mess. I had an idea that if I was going to be a writer I needed to have as many life experiences as possible and some of those experiences were risky. And some were psychological issues as much as intention. I’m lucky I made it through.
Roz What would you tell your younger self?
Connie I’d tell myself, “You will still have these female friends when you are 63. The approval you are craving from these boys doesn’t matter. You’re so much more beautiful in every way than you realize right now.”
Roz That’s exactly the kind of advice we can’t believe at that age.
Moving on, you have four novels – Bread and Salt, Roses Take Practice, Digging to Indochina and – about to be published – Truth Like Oil. Do they share any common themes or concerns? What makes a Connie Biewald novel?
Connie Connie Biewald seems obsessed with 17-year-olds. There’s something very powerful to me about that age. My novels all seem to have this theme—life is tough, but ultimately worth it. And power fascinates me.
Roz Did any of that come from your life experiences?
Connie Yes! The first three books seemed to come from within—Digging to Indochina and Roses Take Practice are autobiographically inspired fiction from my own experiences. Bread and Salt is a fictionalized account of my grandmother’s life, coming of age between World War I and II in Germany.
Truth Like Oil is different. When I finished Bread and Salt I thought I’d written everything I had to say. I was being pushed to write nonfiction about my work and parenting, but that wasn’t fun for me. I write to escape my daily life; not that it’s a bad life, but people crave escape and writing is mine. I had an effective writing habit established , but nothing to say.
At a reading, an audience member asked what I was working on next. I said I had no idea. My mother, who was also in the audience said, “You do have another grandmother, you know.” This was true, but I was not close to her. At that point she was in a nursing home and pretty bitter, also very racist. I wasn’t interested in writing about her, though she did become the inspiration for Hazel in my novel. Then a new character, Nadine, a Haitian-American nursing assistant, began whispering in my ear.
I travelled to Haiti because of her. I wanted to understand her background. I ended up returning to Haiti for the next decade, working on literacy projects with teachers and kids at Matènwa Community Learning Center on Lagonav—all because of Nadine. It’s amazing that a fictional character had such a powerful impact on my life.
Roz Three of your books are self-published with iUniverse…
Connie I had folders full of positive rejections that all said ‘We don’t know how to market/categorize this book. Is it commercial or literary, young adult or adult?’ My dad kept suggesting self-publishing but I resisted.
Roz You were reluctant to self-publish?
Connie For me there was something shameful about self publishing. But whenever I ran into former students or their families, they’d ask about my books. I was tired of having no publishing news.
I picked the book least important to me, Digging to Indochina, and put it out. It was a big success. And fun! I did lots of readings, and won some awards. IUniverse republished it as one of its star award books. Then I published the others. I wish I’d had the benefit of a developmental editor like I had at Vine Leaves Press. They would all have been better books. Yet I am still proud of them.
Roz Truth Like Oil is published by Vine Leaves Press – how did you find your way to them?
Connie On the website, Vine Leaves says it seeks work that blurs the line between commercial and experimental. I sent the novel and forgot. When I received an acceptance, I was thrilled. My school had just switched to online teaching because of the pandemic and it was a shock to all of us and the technology was tough for me. At that point there was so much fear. The publishing offer was a giant consolation prize. The Vine Leaves developmental editor told me to cut 60 pages and helped me do it. I knew I was in good hands.
Roz All writers have to build a relationship with their readers. What are your thoughts on this?
Connie Marketing is a stretch for me as it is for many writers. I’ve depended on word of mouth. I need to step it up and am not sure how. I signed up for a three-session class at Grub Street.
Roz What other kinds of publishing do you do? Short stories, personal essays… Do you do that too?
Connie Sometimes. I do have short writings on my website. But novels are my thing. Once I know a character well enough to write a short story about them, I’m attached enough to write a novel.
Roz Me too. My soul works in longform.
You also have another defining role – for several decades you’ve taught reading and writing in schools, including a programme for homeschoolers. And you’re a librarian and growth education specialist. Education seems to be a personal crusade for you.
Connie Thank you for noticing that! I really enjoy being with kids. I appreciate their energy, their sense of humour, their ways of looking at the world. I’m constantly learning from them. So many of our issues with power start with how we were treated as children.
As a progressive educator, I think deeply about teaching and how we teachers use our power. I use the way the environment is set up and the schedule and the kid culture of the classroom as much as possible, instead of being an adult who tells kids what to do. I always strive to understand each kid and their interests, strengths and challenges.
I struggle with the fact that I am a better teacher than writer. There’s a passage in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life about how no cares if you write. They’d rather you do things to benefit them! And I think about Grace Paley’s poem which I love, “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative” about people preferring a pie to a poem. But I need writing to make me a happy teacher and a happy baker so that’s something.
Roz Being a teacher requires considerable energy. As does writing. How do you juggle these demands?
Connie Grace Paley talked about how balance is impossible. At any time in life, one demand supersedes another. That’s okay. During certain times in my teaching year, I can’t write at all. During the summer, I don’t teach so I have lots of time to write. When I was parenting young children it felt much more difficult than it feels now.
Roz You’re building a body of creative work and helping others to flourish. Are you living the dream?
Connie You know, I really am. I never thought of it that way until you asked. I love having grown children who more than earn their carbon footprints and the time that frees up to do my own thing.
Roz What do you like to read? Are there any writers who changed you, either as an artist or as a person?
Connie I read constantly, deeply and widely. On the “reader” section of my website, I list many of the books that affected me most. I’ve also crafted my own writing education, taking workshops from writers I admired. Grace Paley, Michael Cunningham, Allan Gurganus, Marie Howe, Elizabeth Strout, to name a few. I love Alice Munro’s work and my husband and I have read most of it out loud.
Recently I LOVED the book Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. I’ve read it twice and listened to the audio version, which is amazing. I also love Danielle Evans’ work, most recently The Office of Historical Corrections.
Roz What’s next?
Connie I have two projects that I haven’t been able to do much with during this pandemic. One is a novel for adults that takes place in 1870 in a New England mill town. The other is a middle grade novel. I’m excited about diving into one or the other this summer.
Roz Give me some stirring final words!
If you’re looking for writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’d like to know more about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.