Posts Tagged Vine Leaves Press
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.
How I made my writing career – novelist and award-winning short story writer Annalisa Crawford @AnnalisaCrawf
How do you end up as a writer? Some people train through formal courses; others work away in answer to an inner calling, then one day they have short stories that do well in competitions, and longer works that get offers from publishers. Today I’m talking to Annalisa Crawford, whose latest release is a novel, Small Forgotten Moments. We talk about this – and many other moments between those self-started beginnings, and now.
Annalisa I’ve always had a very active imagination. My daydreams often featured my younger sister being abducted and me having to tell my teachers at school, or my parents disappearing into thin air in front of me. When I was very young, I was scared I’d make these terrible things happen just by thinking about them, so I started to write them down and make other people’s sisters get kidnapped.
Roz Were your parents creative artists of any kind or are you the outlier in the family?
Annalisa None of my family are artistic at all. My mum and dad were very practical people – they wanted me to have a trade or a skill (like touch-typing, which I never mastered). But despite not really understanding why I always wandered around in a daze, they were very supportive, especially when I started to submit short stories and they could see how serious I was.
Roz And you’ve done really well with that. Third place in the Costa Short Story Award 2015, a longlisting for both the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and Bath Short Story Award in 2018. That looks like the Midas touch, but I’m guessing that rejection is a large part of that journey…
Annalisa If you cast enough stones, one of them is bound to hit the target. Rejection is a huge part of the process of learning how to write, in my opinion. You have to suffer the pain to appreciate the joy.
I used to save all my rejection letters – I possibly still have them – because I was submitting at a time when editors sent personalised responses and they were so uplifting and encouraging. The judge of one competition I entered monthly was brilliant for my confidence. One of my favourite comments from him was: ‘Your writing is so good you really deserve to win more frequently.’ It bolstered me and made me try harder because I wanted to impress him.
I’m very proud of the competitions you’ve mentioned. The Costa Award was amazing because I got to go to the London Costa Book Award ceremony that year. The short story award wasn’t televised though, much to my disappointment, but I got to mix with quite a few celebrities. I was too nervous to fully enjoy it, but it gave me a taste of what I’d like to aim for in the future. A nice Costa Book Award win would suit me nicely.
Roz Let’s talk about your novellas, published by Vagabondage Press. How did you end up there?
Annalisa Back in 2011, ebooks were just starting to become a ‘thing’, although I don’t think people knew how big they would get. I had a novella called Cat & The Dreamer which was too long for literary journals and too short to be a real book, so I’d pretty much given up on it ever being published.
I found Vagabondage via Writers’ News – a tiny little article in the sidebar – and I sent it on a whim. I remember thinking I just wanted someone to read it before I shelved it forever. And they accepted it, which was incredible. It came at a time when I was starting to waver in my belief that I would ever get off the starting blocks.
Roz Vine Leaves Press have published a short story collection from you and your two novels. How did you find them?
Annalisa I’d already come across Jessica Bell, who started Vine Leaves Press, and was friends with her on Facebook – I think that must have been through my blog. I saw her mention the annual Vine Leaves vignette competition. I was between projects, so I spent a couple of months writing whatever came into my head. I chose a beautiful notebook from my extensive collection, and each story had its own page. When I ran out of words, I started a new page and a new story. I gave myself no pressure, and I really enjoyed it. That notebook is safely tucked away; it’s surprising how many of the stories remained true to their original concept without much editing at all.
Sadly the collection didn’t win the competition, but Jessica asked if I would consider Vine Leaves anyway. She asked me to add a few longer stories, which I was able to redraft from ones which already existed, as well as the Costa winning one, and off it went into the world.
(Note from Roz: that collection is You. I. Us – and Annalisa wrote about it for my series The Undercover Soundtrack.)
Roz It seems only a short time since you published your first novel Grace & Serenity. Are you a fast writer or did you have several books on the go at once?
Annalisa Yes, they’re just 14 months apart, and it’s probably the quickest I’ll ever publish two books. I’m still not sure how it happened. I don’t remember working on them in tandem, but there must have been a rest-redraft movement happening.
Both Grace & Serenity and Small Forgotten Moments were old novels that I couldn’t let go, so I wasn’t writing either of them from scratch. The basics of the stories were there and I cannibalised them. I took a black marker pen and crossed out everything that didn’t work – whole chapters were obliterated, sub-plots carved up, characters deleted. It was harsh but necessary. I think my theory was, if I got to the end and there was nothing left, I’d have to move on to something new.
You won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t plan my novels so there are times when I hit the third or fourth draft before I realise what the story is. That was definitely the case with both of these books. I’m trying so hard to plan a new novel, but at the moment it’s just a series of images and concepts in my head.
Roz What are the defining qualities of an Annalisa Crawford book? Any particular themes and curiosities?
Annalisa Oh, what a great question. I have no idea. I never think in terms of themes, I simply tell a story that I’m fascinated by. I like to delve into the inner psyche of a person and force them to tell me why they are the person they are.
Strong mother-type characters tend to feature, and most of my characters are running away from something, whether they’re aware of it or not.
Roz Tell me about Small Forgotten Moments. Where did it come from?
Annalisa As I mentioned earlier, Moments was initially a very different story. It still centred around an artist called Jo and her painting (Zenna) which came to life, however the painting in the original story was based on a convoluted myth I made up. There was a dead boyfriend, a mafia-esque type connection, a stalker… I threw so much into this poor novel that it didn’t work at all. Embarrassingly, it earned a full request from an agent who quickly realised her mistake.
I printed it out and slashed it to pieces with my black marker pen. Some chapters had a single line left, others had nothing at all. In the original story, the painting was almost a subplot, so I knew I wanted to make it central this time and then I had to ask myself who Zenna was. And when I knew that, I had to ask why she was so important to Jo now. Then it got taped back together and the hard work started.
Roz What’s the significance of the title?
Annalisa Small Forgotten Moments refers to the amnesia Jo suffers from and the gaps which are never filled. It refers to all those little asides in our life we take for granted. Even though there are some very big things she’s forgotten, it’s the little things which really affect her.
Roz How do you recharge?
Annalisa Walking with my dog (and muse) Artoo and coffee with friends are both great ways to recharge. The views from my town are stunning, even from the balcony of my local bookshop where I stop for a scone and cup of tea.
Roz What do you most like to read?
Annalisa Reading is probably the best way for me to relax. I’ve heard other authors say they read with their editing head on, but I can quite happily read as a reader. I go for quirky covers or titles, or in the case of a novel recently because one chapter was half a page long, and I write short chapters too.
I have a couple of favourite authors whose books I anticipate, but on the whole the author isn’t hugely important to me.
Roz I happen to know from Facebook that you’re also a fitness instructor. Quite a difference from, if I may say it, sitting on your glutes dreaming into the keyboard. How did you end up with two such opposite professions?
Annalisa I came to exercise quite late – I was rubbish at sports at school (still am, actually – hand/eye coordination is not my forte) and there are only so many times you can be chosen last for a team sport before you give up trying. But I read a lot of exercise magazines and was drawn to the idea of lifting weights. It was only when I had my first baby and was still wearing maternity clothes when I returned to work that I decided to join the gym.
I enjoyed it, lost weight, saw a difference, and something clicked – I knew I wanted to share my love of working out. So, I retrained and luckily got some casual hours in the same gym where I was a member, which led to a permanent position.
Roz Do you find the two professions fit together?
Annalisa It’s a great way to switch off and really focus on my body.
Roz I find that with horse-riding. It’s ideal for clearing your mind (otherwise you find yourself dangling in a hedge).
Annalisa As a non-horse rider, I kind of assumed you could just let the horse do its thing and leave you to daydream… Obviously not! Weight lifting is much like horse-riding in that respect – you have to be very present because things can go wrong quickly if you lose concentration. And, obviously, sitting at a desk for hours is not good. I’m a compulsive writer when I’m in the middle of a project, so I could easily sit down before breakfast and not move until bedtime if I didn’t have anything else to do.
Roz Me too. On days when I’m not riding, my husband (Dave) has to send me nagging emails and Facebook messages telling me to take screen breaks. But I also run, and I find it puts me in an impatient and determined frame of mind, which helps me with certain kinds of plot problem-solving.
Do you have any other professions under your belt, present or past?
Annalisa In my head, writing was always my career, so I didn’t need another profession. I accidentally got a job in a college library and stayed there for 15 years, then I moved to the gym. I found a two-week intensive course to train as an instructor; if it had been a year or more of studying, I might have talked myself out of it. In a different world, I’d quite like to have been an architect. I loved technical drawing at school – I think I was one of the last year groups to be taught it as a separate subject – but my maths would have let me down.
Roz How has your lockdown been?
Annalisa Lockdown has been a mixed blessing for me. On the one side, Grace & Serenity was published at the tail end of the first UK lockdown which meant some events didn’t happen, such as some in-person signings at my local bookshop, but those are definitely happening this year for Small Forgotten Moments. With Grace & Serenity I wasn’t quite sure how to use Zoom etc for online events, but I’m planning them for Small Forgotten Moments.
However, on the other side, the emergence of online literary festivals meant I saw a lot of events I would have struggled to attend in real life. I saw quite a few of the Hay and Cheltenham Festival.
I was furloughed from my job which meant I could really dive into the edits of Small Forgotten Moments. I was asked to make a couple of changes before I sent it to the developmental editor, so I took the opportunity to take one last sweep through the whole novel and found a lot of little changes I wanted to make. Without the time my furlough allowed, I think the novel wouldn’t have been quite so strong.
Roz Do you think the lockdown will work its way into your future books?
Annalisa I can’t currently imagine how I could write about the lockdown in a new and interesting way. It’s all still so polarising, half my readership would hate it.
However, the book I’m working on at the moment is based on a short story I wrote many years ago which in turn was based on something that actually happened to me. At the beginning of the story a woman wakes up and her town is deserted – no people, animals, birds, not even a breeze.
During the first lockdown, my town really stepped up and the roads really were that empty. Did you notice that where you are?
Roz I did. I noticed the quiet. I live in a London suburb, and most of the residents work in the centre of town. When lockdown started, I had a sense that the houses around me had never been so full of people, 24 hours a day, and that we were all in the same bewildered muddle, wondering how to get normality with these new rules. It was silent, yes, and a silence beyond the cessation of the aeroplanes or the normal commuting traffic. It was a pause of life. Anyway, you were saying… the emptiness…
Annalisa Experiencing it really gave me an insight into the range of emotions my character would be feeling, how it seemed to lay down on me as I walked around. Shut-up shops in the middle of the day were a lot more eerie than I imagined they would be.
Roz Is there a question you wish somebody would ask in an interview?
Annalisa Oh goodness, great question, and yet my mind has gone blank. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked what happens to my characters after the story has finished.
Roz You’ve never been asked that? I get asked that all the time! So I’m asking it of you now… what will you say?
Annalisa I’d worm my way out of answering, if I’m being honest. I love ambiguous endings. Not completely open, but with enough information for the reader to see two or more paths. It’s a trait I utilised when I was writing short stories and can’t quite shake off.
If you’d like help with your own 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.
David Starkey was always a writer at heart. After a few attempts at novels he found his feet in poetry, and has published a range of collections, including one that follows the plot of a series of The Sopranos. If that’s stopped you in your tracks, fear not, we will talk about it in due course. His latest book is What Just Happened: 210 Haiku Against the Trump Presidency. We’ll talk about that first.
Roz Why did you choose the haiku form for this material?
David I initially started the series by writing one 15-line poem for each month of Trump’s awful presidency, but he did so many bad things in any given month, I quickly realized that I would have to go week-by-week. Around that point, I remembered David Trinidad’s hilarious Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera in which he’d written one haiku for each episode of that 1960s TV show. I didn’t want my book to turn into an epic, so that seemed like a good model, and I decided to stick to the traditional five-seven-five syllable pattern, which forced me to be careful with every syllable. Haiku purists might have trouble with some of the poems, but my subject matter was anything but pure.
Roz Why is poetry your chosen medium?
David When I was young, I wanted to be a novelist, but although I’ve finished a couple of (thankfully unpublished) novels, I haven’t yet been able to get the hang of it—though I haven’t given up yet. But basically, I became a poet by default. I had a knack for it, and the longer I worked at my craft—it’s been 35 years since I published my first poem—the better I got. At least, I hope that’s the case.
Roz What is poetry? Is it possible to answer this? What do you look for in a poem?
David Just about anything can become a good poem—I’m open to whatever a poet wants to try. But when it comes to the poems I really enjoy reading, they’re usually imagistic, concise and alive to the possibilities of sound. I like to hear assonance and consonance in service of the phrasing.
Roz How did you arrive at this creative career? Were your family in the arts or are you an outlier?
David Both my parents were schoolteachers, and while they valued education, they certainly weren’t big into the arts. I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in unexciting Sacramento, California—it wasn’t the sort of place where anyone is expected to write poetry.
Roz Did you enter the world of professional creative writing directly or did you take a longer road?
David I always liked to write, but before I became an academic, I worked for an insurance company for a while. That was pretty miserable.
Roz You’ve got an impressive range of credits, with poetry published in American Scholar, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review and many others. How long did it take to get serious attention for your work?
David I started getting published fairly quickly after I began writing seriously, but that’s probably because I was so persistent in submitting my work. This was back in the mid-80s, when you typed up your poems on a typewriter, used Wite-Out to make corrections, and surreptitiously made copies on the office copy machine.
Roz Were there many rejections? Are there still many rejections?
David Yes, I’ve been rejected countless times, and no doubt there are many more rejections ahead. I think that rejection just means that a writer, especially a poet, is still willing to take risks and experiment, to get things wrong first, before getting them right.
Roz I love that. But I think rejection is different in longform publishing. Certainly a book will be rejected if it needs more work, but it might also be rejected because it doesn’t suit the publisher’s audience.
In your poetry, what are your main themes and concerns?
David I write a lot about family, and though I’ve just called my hometown ‘unexciting’, I frequently draw on the city and surrounding farmlands and foothills for material.
Roz Have these changed over the years?
David As I get older, I’ve begun writing more elegies. And I’m always open to some odd incident or happenstance becoming the germ for a poem. In fact, if I am an “underappreciated” poet, as I read a few years back, it’s partly because my tastes and subject matter are so idiosyncratic. You get a sense of that eccentricity in What Just Happened, which mines another of my favourite themes: politics, in particular America’s perpetually disappointing behaviour, which we saw so clearly during Trump’s reign.
Roz If I could whistle up a time warp, what would Today’s David say to Earlier David?
David I hope I’m more sophisticated and more concise than I was three and a half decades ago, but of course there’s a certain jouissance any young writer has that’s inevitably going to diminish over time. That said, I think tonally my work has been pretty consistent: there’s always lots of irony in a David Starkey poem.
Roz You’ve had 11 poetry collections published with small presses. Tell me about that.
David I completed my MFA in poetry writing at Louisiana State University in 1990, and of course I was hoping I would be the Next Big Thing. I’d received a lot of praise in my graduate program, but there are a lot of graduate programs in creative writing, and more coming online all the time. So, when I didn’t win the Yale Younger Poets prize, or any of its equivalents, I soon realized that my best publication chances were going to come through small presses, which are generally more welcoming to someone like me, who doesn’t excel at schmoozing.
Roz Is it possible to sum up each of your collections in a word or two? If we put them all together, would we see the barometer of David’s life?
David I don’t know that I could sum up each book in a single word, but I’d say the arc has gone from very small micro-presses to those that are more robust in marketing their writers’ work. I think if you read the books from first to most recent, you would get a pretty good sense of what was happening in my life and my general attitude toward things. One big caveat: I write frequently from other people’s perspectives—in fact, I’d say a good half of everything I’ve written is some form of a dramatic monologue. So, the actual details in any given poem might be completely fabricated. And, again, I’m liable to write a poem about anything, so there are a lot of tangents in there.
Roz Let’s talk about editing poets. How does one edit poets? And what do poets look for in an editor?
David I think serious poets want to write the best poem they are capable of writing at that particular moment. A good editor is someone who works with the material that’s already there, who doesn’t try and take over another person’s poem and make it their own.
Roz What about teaching? How does one teach poets? What kind of guidance do they need and seek?
David What young poets need and seek don’t always match up. When poets are first starting out, as they usually are when they take a community college creative writing class, they really benefit from being exposed to lots of different writing that they probably didn’t know existed. For instance, if all you’ve read is sentimental verse celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, or on the other end of the spectrum, you think poetry equals hip-hop, and that’s it, you’re going to be surprised by how many other ways people have found to effectively express themselves. My creative writing textbook is going into its fourth edition this year, and I think part of its success is due to how keen I’ve been to seek out and share a wide variety of new writing, in all genres.
Roz I notice Wikipedia mentions your collection Like a Soprano, based on the TV series. This is such a surprising idea. How did you come to write it?
David The book by David Trinidad that I mentioned earlier was an inspiration for Like a Soprano. However, instead of writing one haiku for each episode, I went with the prose poem, which gave me a lot more flexibility to handle the nuances of the show. I was also thinking of how in centuries gone by poets would write about the gods and heroes, and yet they seem so distant to us now. Our new mythology is formed by television—and movies and video games—and Tony Soprano is a larger-than-life figure for our time.
One of the main characters in the show—Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti—lives in Santa Barbara and was nice enough to write a blurb, so I thought Like a Soprano would make a bigger splash than it did. But it turns out that if you make a Venn diagram, the overlap between viewers of The Sopranos and readers of literary poetry is, alas, pretty small.
Roz The unexpected combination of genres and readerships… This is also a hazard for longform writers. Anyway, tell me about another work of yours that you wish would get more attention.
David It’s the book I published just before What Just Happened. It’s called Dance, You Monster, to My Soft Song, and it contains the best poems I wrote between 2014, when Like a Soprano was published, and 2020. Like so many pandemic-era poetry books, it seems to have been lost in the shuffle.
Roz You founded – or helped to found – the creative writing programme at Santa Barbara City College. How did that happen?
David Prior to my arrival at City College, creative writing was just a couple of classes offered every once in a while. As founding director, I went through all the official curriculum development that a college requires, gave the offerings some structure, set up a reading series, instituted student writing contests, and so forth.
Roz Does this mean you have created your own ideal creative writing programme – and what does that look like?
David I don’t know that it’s my ideal programme. American community colleges are designed to propel students into four-year institutions after just two years, so there’s not a lot of continuity among the student population, but I think it’s done a lot of good over the past 14 years. I just retired a month ago, and it’s been hard to let it go.
Roz You’re a co-editor of Gunpowder Press…
David I started Gunpowder Press back in 2014 because I wanted to publish two books of poetry. The first was by my late friend, David Case, who died when he was just 49. He named me as his literary executor, and I heard from publishers that bringing out a book by a relatively unknown poet who was no longer alive to promote it was a losing proposition for them, no matter how good the poems were.
Then my Santa Barbara friend Chryss Yost had a wonderful first book that she’d been having trouble publishing. As it happened, Chryss was also a whiz at book and web design, and after I published her book, I asked her to come on board as co-editor.
Most of the books we publish are through our annual Barry Spacks Poetry Prize, which is named after Santa Barbara’s first poet laureate. Chryss and I choose our 10 favourite manuscripts then forward them, without names attached, to our final judge, a prominent poet who changes every year. We also have an anthology series, started by Chryss, that features poets of California’s Central Coast.
Roz Also you’re co-editor of the California Review of Books…
David I got the idea for The California Review of Books when our local arts paper, where I’d been publishing book reviews for years, decided to focus only on local writers. I teamed up with Brian Tanguay, another of the paper’s long-time reviewers, and Chryss Yost, and we’ve been publishing reviews since January.
Roz For both, are there any mistakes or shortcomings you see frequently in submissions from authors?
David It’s the standard thing most editors would say: some potential contributors don’t seem to be aware of the type of work we publish. But the submission chances for the two are very different, at least at the moment. Getting even a very good poetry book published by Gunpowder is really difficult, but getting a strong, 1,000-word review published in CRB is absolutely doable.
Roz What have I forgotten? Oh yes, your six textbooks on creative writing, and several other textbooks you’ve edited or contributed to. Do these represent changes or refinements to your teaching approach over the years?
David I think a lot of students, and teachers, dismiss textbooks as a not very important genre of writing, and it’s true some are pretty horrible. However, it’s extraordinarily hard, and time-consuming, to write a good textbook. As my teaching matured, I did become a better—and, yes, more refined—writer of textbooks, certainly since the first one was published in 1999. The older you get, though, the more actively you have to work to place yourself in the mind of a 20-year old student.
Roz What are you working on at the moment?
David I’ve started and stopped several projects since I finished What Just Happened. I usually have a sense after five or six pages that something has the potential to make it to the finish line, and if it doesn’t, I will quickly abandon ship. I like Keats’s thought that ‘If it come not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ That doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of hard work and revision, but I don’t want to feel like I’m swimming upstream—to use my third cliché of this response.
Roz You’re teaching the writers of tomorrow. You’re publishing them too, and your own body of respected work. Are you living the dream?
David I always remind myself how lucky I am to have the time to write at all. Most people are too busy trying to make a living, or simply finding edible food and clean water, to even think about writing poetry. Having the chance to sit down and say what’s on my mind is an incredible luxury. I’m definitely living the dream.
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.
How I made my writing career – novelist, playwright, photographer, actor Steve Zettler @szettlerauthor
How do you become a fiction writer? For some people, it’s almost by accident. That’s how it was for Steve Zettler, but after a series of cosy mysteries, another series of thrillers and a play, he seems to have found a good groove. His latest title, Careless Love, puts romance and thriller together, and is released today.
Roz Steve, you’re a photographer, actor and author. And according to your website you have an even wider CV. In the great tradition of adventurous arty folk, you’ve done an encyclopaedia of jobs. To pick a few: bricklayer, bartender. And that’s just the Bs.
Steve Ha! I read this as BS.
Roz I had a feeling you would.
Let’s continue being predictable. Those jobs must have given you great material.
Steve It’s been an interesting ride, which has left me penniless on more than one occasion. I’ve always travelled in whatever direction the wind is blowing, even from an early age. There’s never been anything that vaguely resembled a master plan; I’ve never once considered where I might be, what I might be doing, at age 40 or 50. Thus the endless list of assorted occupations – I get bored easily and don’t like going in reverse, so it’s always been something different, a new way to pay the bills. It’s put me in close proximity with a whole gaggle of very interesting people.
In the early 70s no one had come up with the term PTSD (they were still calling it shell-shock), but if they had labelled it PTSD I could have been one of their poster-boys. Seventeen months’ combat duty in Vietnam had left my brains resembling scrambled eggs and I found photography to be the perfect escape. I was a freelancer in NYC and it allowed me to live a life where I spoke to almost no one. It took me about seven years to become a socially acceptable animal.
The downside of freelancing; I was broke most of the time and needed to tend bar, drive a taxi etc to pay the bills. But photography forced me to become a consummate observer, which I’ve been to this day. So with all of the twists and turns my life has taken I’ve been able to study a very divergent assortment of people and landscapes. And I’ve never ceased to be fascinated by what I see and hear.
I ended up doing a lot of photography for theatre companies and taking headshots for actors. One theatre company was doing a children’s show and an actor injured himself. They were in need of a warm body and asked me to take his place. They neglected to tell me that the Handsome Prince was blind as a bat and we would have a sword fight, but I lived through it and this kicked off my acting career.
So I was now a new person with a new title; the wind had taken me elsewhere. I threw all my black and white negatives in the trash and sold my cameras.
And by the way, acting is a fabulous training ground for writers. I’ve often suggested just that to fellow writers; take an acting class, get to know your characters from the inside out, live their lives.
Roz Yes! I’ve often thought this while polishing dialogue. You have to know what it’s like to be the character. Also, know why it’s good to be them, especially if their actions aren’t nice. But I’ve never had the chance to discuss this with an actor. Glad you raised this.
Steve Anyway, I worked as an actor for a number of years in NYC and Los Angeles. My wife was an actor as well but when we moved to LA she began to write. Her first novel was published by Simon and Schuster, and her agent was the infamous Irving ‘Swifty’ Lazar. We moved to an island off the coast of Connecticut. The wind just blew us back east. But there wasn’t a lot there, acting-wise, so I started to write. And this will annoy the hell out of every writer who reads this: I simply gave my first novel to my wife’s agent and he got me a two-book deal. I remember thinking, holy crap, I’m going to have to write another book.
Roz Holy crap, indeed. So that’s how writing became ‘the thing’?
Steve I never did give up acting and photography altogether; I bought another camera when things went digital. I now live in Philadelphia. My passion for stage acting has left me but I work with young filmmakers getting their careers off the ground and the occasional independent film shooting in the area. It’s more of a desire to mix it up with the younger generation than anything else. Their energy is contagious, even though the money’s short.
Photography-wise, I generally do stuff for free, unless it’s a commercial entity. Since everything is now digital it’s easy enough for me to help an organization, or author, or actor, with photos and send jpegs. There’s no longer the cost of film or the annoyance of darkroom work, so why not help people?
Roz Were your family artistic in any way?
Steve Not remotely. My dad owned a bar/restaurant and we lived above it. It was in the county north of Philadelphia and was basically a country inn. It was a very rural and very charming place along the Delaware River and essentially a shack-up spot for New York writers, actors, directors and producers. Some crazy people drifted through when I was a kid. I would never mention who spent the night there, but I still have the guest registry from 1936 through 1965. Regular customers at the restaurant included Pearl Buck, John Dos Passos, Robert Frost, James Michener, Oscar Hammerstein and the like. I was much too young to know who they were, let alone converse with them, but they attracted quite a bit of attention when they walked in for dinner. It seemed like the life I wanted to live.
Roz What would you tell your 16-year-old self?
Steve I’m afraid the 16-year-old Stevie never listened to anyone or took anyone’s advice. He’d look at me and say. ‘What the hell do you know?’
I’ve made some really bad decisions in my life and had to live with them. In a strange way that has become a blessing. I don’t lie to myself. I guess if I told Stevie anything it would be to slow down a little. There’s a wonderful Billy Joel song called ‘Vienna’. I’d tell him to listen to it over and over. Unfortunately it wasn’t around when Stevie was 16.
Roz Your novels are mainly suspense thrillers – the Joe Bradlee series (Double Identity and The Second Man), also Ronin, a standalone thriller. Why that genre?
Steve I really enjoy the format, both in reading and writing. You know from the beginning who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, and most likely, by the end, the good guy is going to crush the bad guy.
I love the ride of a thriller. You can go wherever you want. People walk into the story out of nowhere and you have to deal with them; give them a life and a purpose for being there. You can’t disregard them. You can’t tell them to get the hell out of your book because they won’t. They stay there and pester you until you give them that purpose. I think writing thrillers is as much of a joy ride for the writer as it is (hopefully) for the reader.
Roz What’s the characteristic flavour of a Zettler thriller?
Steve I take nothing too seriously. My protagonists are always self-deprecating and I can’t seem to prevent myself from pointing out some of the lunacy that exists in the world. Hypocrites are often my favourite target.
Roz What’s the Steve writing method?
Steve I have to admit, I’m not a consummate writer. I can go a long time without writing a thing and it doesn’t bother me. I don’t have that burning desire to write. My wife does; I don’t. At some point I seem to get visited by a spirit that tells me to write and if that spirit is off fishing in Alaska I’m not going to write a damn thing. But then the spirit shows up and gives me the first sentence of a novel and informs me where the novel’s going to end and tells me to fill in the middle. If I don’t have that first sentence, I’m not going anywhere.
And interestingly the first sentence never remains anchored as the first sentence, but it always shows up in the novel somewhere; it becomes the driving metaphor.
Roz You also write crossword mysteries under the name Nero Blanc, with your wife, Cordelia Frances Biddle.
Steve There are 12 Nero Blanc titles. Each book contains a series of crossword puzzles – solve the puzzle, solve the crime. Crossword puzzles are black and white, thus the pen name; nero is black in Italian, blanc is white in French.
The mysteries fall into the ‘cosy’ category, meaning no swear words, no sexual situations. There’s a cute couple who solve the crimes, with sort of a Nick and Nora relationship. They have a lot of fun with one another, which is pretty much how Cordelia and I travel through life. More often than not at book signings people would say they didn’t bother with the puzzles; they only read the books as romance novels.
Roz Doh. Why didn’t I spot that?
Steve Cordelia and I had, for quite a while, been scouting for something we could write together; anything, travel books, cookbooks, whatever. Remember we were on this island with a lot of time. We were having lunch one day, sharing the crossword puzzle, when she got so frustrated she threw down the pen and said ‘Someone should just kill this guy’, referring to the person who had edited the puzzle. We were off and running.
Roz So it’s good, working with your spouse?
Steve Cordelia and I worked together as actors; that’s how we met. I’ve always maintained that acting teachers should understand that if they assign students a scene from La Ronde, those students are going to end up sleeping with one another to properly research their characters.
But once again, this acting background was invaluable when it came to collaborating as writers. As actors we had become very comfortable with taking direction. Directors can be very blunt. Actors need to listen and make it work, no matter how biting the criticism might be. Often Cordelia and I would act out dialogue scenes and write them as we had improved them. And the main characters were simply a reflection of our own relationship. We had a great time writing Nero Blanc together, but eventually wanted to get back to the swear words and sexual situations.
Roz Your latest novel, Careless Love, is published by Vine Leaves Press. How did you end up there?
Steve My thrillers and mysteries were published by big houses, and quite often, as I’m sure you know, literary fiction and poetry get the short end of the stick from the big boys. And their editors can be somewhat, shall we say, mercenary? They want you to stay on the horse you rode in on.
But it seemed with each book the editors became more and more hands off. I wanted a smaller, more personal, literary publisher, so that’s the direction I went. Vine Leaves Press was the first to respond to my query. They did so very quickly, which was tremendously encouraging. They were very positive, and I have to say they’ve proven to be far more supportive than my previous editors and publishers. Other publishers have since contacted me about Careless Love. There is something wonderful about being able to say, ‘Sorry, that ship has sailed’.
Roz What inspired Careless Love?
Steve It came from my soul. It’s been bouncing around in there for decades. The spirit finally visited me, gave me the first sentence, and told me how the novel was going to end.
Roz What would readers of your previous work recognise in Careless Love?
Steve Oddly, it does almost have that thriller format, and I think readers of my previous work would enjoy it for that reason. But I would call it literary romantic suspense – is that a category? It is inspired by true events. Every incident in Careless Love has happened to me or someone I’ve been very close to.
Roz Why that title?
Steve It was inspired by a blues song written in 1921 by WC Handy. It’s been recorded by almost every blues singer since, but Madeleine Peyroux’s cover just brought it all home for me. There are some blues songs that really must be sung by a woman to hit the mark, and this one of them. It’s just two words, but they can be interpreted so many ways. My novel is very much a woman’s story. Like the song, I’ve interpreted careless love to mean that love is careless, it will grab your heart, rip it out and stomp on it if you’re not careful. But when you’re deeply in love it’s not so easy being careful.
Roz What’s coming next?
Steve I’m halfway through a memoir focused on the year I was eight years old, discovering my great aunt dead in her bedroom, living above my dad’s restaurant and rubbing elbows with the celebs out front and the down-and-outers who worked in the kitchen. It was a wonderful way to grow up.
Roz Rich material indeed. Give me some unzettling final words.
Steve A seminal moment was the day I returned to the US after my months of combat duty in Vietnam. As the other Marines filed into the terminal I dropped onto my knees and kissed the tarmac. This brought on a fair amount of laughter from the others, but I stayed there, on my knees, for some time. Eventually a lieutenant joined me and did the same thing.
He then said, ‘You know we’re a couple of lucky bastards, you and me’.
I said, ‘I’d guess we all are, sir’.
He responded by saying, ‘No, you and I are luckier that the rest’.
‘How’s that, sir?’
‘Because we know how lucky we are. They don’t.’
And tweet him on @sZettlerAuthor
Find Careless Love here
If you’re looking for writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. 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.
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.