What do you write?
Right now I’m focusing on this project; it’s a young adult novel, because I think my primary goal is to reach an audience that doesn’t read. I know it sounds counterproductive but I want to create material that will inspire people who are like I was when I was a teenager. I really didn’t read all that much and a lot of my friends didn’t read that much, but there were these odd books here and there we would pick up and say “this is actually really cool” and it sort of inspired people to want to keep reading and look at other texts, and explore other avenues in the literary world, but you have to start with that first groundbreaking book.
So you’re trying to write something that’s more accessible?
Right, and more so than targeting people who already read writing to the fiction community, the story that I want to tell is a focus for those young adults. Those mainly, I guess male, audience to try and show them that books are really cool and a story that can appeal to them.
So how do you make a book more accessible, more transparent and manageable?
Whenever you’re going to write for a particular genre, the best thing you can do is read books that are already out there and published in that genre so you can get a sense of what is being produced, what topics are being investigated, what language is being used. There’s no gratuitous sex in my book, there’s two fifteen year old boys trying to…you know…along with other major themes, one layer is they are trying to get their rocks off. So I was wondering, how lewd can I get with my language for a young adult novel because I’m not really sure. When I read stuff for adults there’s no real boundary other than taste, but I was curious as to what I should do for a fourteen, fifteen, sixteen year old male audience, what I can get away with and still be published. So I would pick up books that were regarded as testing the waters of decency in terms of young-adult. There’s one book that I read called “Doing It” by a British author…You’ll read comments about how disgusting filthy and lascivious this is, but at the same time you would read comments about “Finally a book that speaks the language and speaks the way that teenagers thinks.” So that was a real important step as a writer, you need to understand your audience and what is already out there to be said. That kind of gave me some guidelines on how to write this. It’s a story based off of my experiences when I was sixteen and went to England to work for a summer with a buddy of mine. I already had that story and I knew I wanted to share it to some degree. It could go one of two ways, either a wiser adult reflecting on the sixteen year old self during this unique opportunity, or I could do it with a sense of urgency and have it in the perspective of the teenage character, and that’s the way I wanted to do it. Then I thought obviously in literature you have teenage narrators, but for the most part the audience that will gravitate towards that is other teenagers, and I realized that I should stick to the young-adult/teenage audience, and then I decided that I do have some ideas and themes I would like to convey to a younger audience.
I’m assuming you had it planned out, if it’s from memory, did anything catch you off guard, was the pen smarter than the writer?
Because I’m basing it off of memory, the spine of this probably doesn’t change all that much. In my pre-writing stages I’ve drafted a pretty straight forward arc of actions. But what I do find is, when I move from action to action to action, the major plot points, those are where things tend to change, where characters develop more. As I said I approached this with plot points, with main plot points. When I leave America, when I return to America and England in between. It turned out to be quite interesting, because I fictionalized these characters considerably, not to offend my friend…some real shitty stuff happened, and it’s not protecting the innocent but I don’t want to bring stuff up that would be painful for others so I’m taking some very creative leaps and bounds to avoid that.
Do you have to make your characters super-real, almost hyperbolize them, to make them more accessible?
The first thing that I like to do, when I have an idea of a book that I want to write, I think about characters. That’s when I get detailed with character sketches, I find out: who this person is, how do they react in certain situations, what are their biggest fears? What are their pleasures in life? To give me a basic understanding on who this character is. I think it’s necessary for authenticity to go and pick up on attitudes and demeanors. I use my students; they humanize qualities that I see in some of my characters. I watch and see how they speak and interact and they have these qualities I see in my one character and it helps to develop them. So I guess I externalize to a degree to come up with these characters, and I think it’s extremely imperative that you sit down and really figure them out. The more you know your character, the more you know how they’ll react to a situation. It’s essential that you have a solid understanding of your characters, and that you figure them out, before you write, and as you write get to know them better.
It sounds stupid, but start saying yes. Your friends invite you to go on an impromptu road trip to West Virginia – say yes. Your friend wants to go to Target at two in the morning – yes, go. You can only gain so much experience cooped up in your house reading or watching television. Some of the coolest and most interesting stories I’ve heard come from people who don’t have advanced creative writing degrees but from folks who go out and experience life. When you go out and work odd jobs, go to parties, partake in day trips/weekend trips, and so on, you expose yourself to any number of small anecdotes or large ideas you can incorporate into your writing. Remember when your friends went to visit that dude at University of Iowa while you stayed home? When they came back Sunday night, they had annoying inside jokes and wild stories – well, they might have something to develop into a piece of short fiction, or something to include in a novel. You never know unless you get out and say yes to things (unless your friend offers you heroin or something. Say no to that). And yes, I should start heeding my own advice a bit more. I spend too much time grading and sitting in front of a computer.
Why do you write?
Because I like to, because I have to, like any other writer will tell you.
Is there a reason you write short fiction?
I write short fiction because I have twins. Two very young children, they’re three years old. That format allows me to work quickly, get things out and revise it in the time that I have. I teach five classes and I try to give my students as much attention as possible, however much time that affords me. Stuff I write lately is a lot of prose poems. Or rather, it could be considered cross genre as prose poems and flash fiction and a lot of times it’s genre-less. I do write longer short stories and am working on a novel.
Is there a specific audience for your novel?
That is a difficult question for me, and it’s a question that’s very easy when I write non-fiction…there is a very specific audience for my scholarly work although my work is not really scholarly, it’s usually along the lines of the craft, of making fiction or teaching of it through pedagogy. But as far as my fiction goes, and my creative work, I don’t think that I have an audience in mind. I wouldn’t say that its young adult, but I wouldn’t not say that it’s young adult. I don’t think I do, do you have an audience in mind when you write creative work?
It’s something that’s important to think about especially when you’re starting to market your work. When you are working with short works you just look at the different journals that are out there, online or whatever, but when you start marketing to somebody like an agent, or for a novel, that agent my want to know in your pre-letter “who is your target audience?”
Is there something your novel is capable of handling that your short fiction isn’t?
This is the first really long work that I’ve done. One thing that I’ve learned with this is that much more needs to be told to an audience, to a reader, than in short fiction. Short fiction has a lot of implication, you have only so much space to work with, but with novels you can spend more time on description, with back story, with exposition and stuff like that. That I’m not used to, and usually when you revise you do a lot of cutting away, but when I’m revising this novel I’m doing a lot of adding too, just to fill it out a little more. It reads right now, although it’s over two hundred pages, it reads like a two hundred page plus short story in some aspects, so I’m working on that too. When I first starting writing it, the professor that I started with when I was still in grad school, I asked him “does this sound like a series of short stories or does this sound like a novel?” and he said “this is a novel.” And he’s a novelist so I respect what he says.
What about content? What are you trying to achieve with this novel? Is there a message?
I wish! That sounds really important. The one thing that I could think of to describe the novel is, very simply, is that there are three protagonists, three women, and all three fall in love with other people. Those relationships are very taboo, one is set in the thirties and is a homosexual relationship, one is set in the forties and is an interracial relationship, and one is set in the sixties and is a May/December relationship. The idea is that, even if you were to be in that relationship, even if you’re in love, it’s okay if that relationship ends. Even if it’s taboo, even if you fought for it, if that relationship ends [it’s okay]. When I explain it right now it sounds very chick-lit-ish. It sounds really pretentious to call your own work literary but I think it’s more literary than that. The exterior conflict is class, there are class issues, there’s racism.
Your work seems to deal with race very transparently.
The only time I include things about race is if it’s important. What I did with “What Plums Would Do” the reason I wrote that…as an exercise that I gave myself…is how do you write about a culture outside of your own without appropriating that culture? So I thought it would be fun to write about another culture from the perspective of someone outside of it. I had fun writing that.
Your writing seems to handle themes like race in very genuine ways, without making it the forefront of the piece. Is there any intent to do that or a way you go about doing that?
No, I wish I was that smart. Some advice I gave to a fellow student at a writing workshop once, he was writing outside of his race. He was writing about black people, and I didn’t know why I was not liking it. To me his work sounded insincere, and he was a very good writer. This particular piece, I didn’t like it, and I thought about it, and it was constantly thinking about being black. You said you were Latino, how often do you actually go around thinking about being Latino? Unless something happens that brings it to the forefront you just don’t think about it. It’s part of your identity, it exists, but no one goes around constantly thinking “I’m a woman, I’m a woman, I’m a woman.” So I thought of an analogy, if it leaks in your house and it rains, you think about it, but unless it’s raining, you aren’t thinking about it.
So how do you go about being sincere to someone-else’s race?
That’s a hard question, I don’t know. I think just in real life, if you’re going to accept others as who they are, you have to first accept them as a person. If race comes into the picture at all, deal with it as it comes, but you don’t have to deal with race. It is the same with dialect. Dropping verbs, certain words, you don’t want to make it look like Mark Twain. I like Mark Twain, and that was fine in the 1800’s but it’s not fine today. If you can say someone is from the south and talked with a Louisiana accent, you don’t even have to display the accent, just hearing it is enough for the audience. If you do it well…I don’t know if I do it well.
You mentioned poetry earlier, is there something your poetry accomplishes that your other work cannot?
No, I wish. I think it’s just because I can write really short poems, it’s really because of the kids. I’m not not going to write, you’re a writer, you have to write something down, so what can do you with the time that you have. I was told this summer by a literary consultant, a woman at Bread Loaf who makes it her business as well as being a writer, telling you about your work, where it would be placed in magazines and which journals you should submit to. She told me that my fiction is very poetic, more poetic than prose. So, I started off as a poet, or I thought I was a poet and then when I went to grad school I decided that I didn’t want to write poetry because everyone was doing it.
So you went to short fiction?
I was already writing short fiction at that point but yeah.
So the novel is really where you want to focus?
Right now, yeah. As a student you might be interested in this, it’s easier to publish a novel than publishing short fiction. The reason why, is because people read novels, students and writers read short fiction. This is going on the internet and that’s going to be bad for me to say but really how many people do you know that read short story collections that aren’t writers are students. They are starting to become more popular and I don’t understand why they aren’t as popular as they are because you can read them in a single sitting and with our attention spans it seems like short stories would be more popular, even novellas. But no, novels, people buy novels. The first time I taught a lit class, I taught a lot of short stories and my students were really annoyed with that. They thought it was more difficult to access short stories than novels, I guess I understand that too, because if you remember when we first started talking, short stories are implications, you have to do a lot more work to get into the story. Readers have to be a little more imaginative. I know that these are generalizations. One of the things that Dr. Burns told me when I was a student here, she drew it on the board, she said she didn’t like Hemingway and I don’t really like Hemingway either, but she drew like these humps when we read “Hills Like White Elephants” it’s a short piece, mostly dialogue. One of the characters in the story looks at these hills and says “they look like white elephants” because all you see are the top of the hills. And Dr. Burns said like in short stories, you’re just seeing the top of the stories, the exposition you don’t see you just kind of assume, and I thought that was a good analogy.
Is there any advice you’d like to give new writers?
Read, and write. Musicians practice their instrument hours a day, and when they learn songs they listen to variations of them over and over again. I’m not saying to write for hours every day, but even half an hour, fifteen minutes, practice. And read, read everything, read the back of a cereal box, learn how language works and learn how other people are using it.
What do you write?
I am an extremely prolific writer, not necessarily a good writer, but extremely prolific. I write all kinds of things, I’ve been writing since the 1970’s, but what I have been doing more recently: I write poetry, I write plays, I write short fiction and I continue to freelance as a journalist. I follow the Virginia Woolf rule “Room of One’s Own” approach, I get up every day at five, and that’s when I start writing. Last year one of my plays won second place in the Dubuque Fine Arts Players One Act Play Contest and this spring I had a play performed by the Wauwatosa Village Players.
Why plays? What does a play let you access that poetry or fiction doesn’t?
It gives me an element of control over the characters, what they say what they do. It becomes a sort of exploration. It’s almost like a laboratory of human interaction and I like that a lot. Coincidently I did my undergraduate work in Platteville fifty years ago; I was taking the freshman English class that I teach now. The little theatre in Doudna was the theatre for all campus productions. I think what has happened is that we don’t act in plays anymore, I still like theatre, I still respect it, and its satisfying to write it and have it performed, but I don’t need to see it performed, it’s still as satisfying to write it. I would say that theatre is far more sophisticated than when I was hear…that’s its grown. The theatre is far more sophisticated than the old presidium theatre, and there are far more possibilities.
So what is theatre’s role in a world of modern media?
What I would say is like, you can read, you have electronic devices for reading novels, but there’s something tactile about the experience of reading a book. Reading online is okay, but there’s something about the tactile experience of the book. The same thing is true with live theatre. I enjoy film as much as anyone does but I seldom have a visceral feeling of excitement when a film is about to role, that I do when its live theatre, and the lights go down, and people walk on stage. People that you can touch and you know that things can go wrong, and things can be wonderfully unexpected. It is just such a live visceral feeling, and that’s what I like about live theatre. There’s a vulnerability knowing there’s no second take, that’s the thing that is exciting. You can have fire alarms in the theatre and it doesn’t affect the film unless it catches fire. But the audience affects the performance, and there’s a sort of relationship that’s wonderful.
What is the role of short fiction?
I’ve written unpublished novels, they aren’t as satisfying. I like novels because I like a project that sustains me that pulls me along. I feel a hedge against mortality when you’re writing something [like a novel]…I love novels, but they’re much more difficult to write. I find what I like about short fiction, and the way I write short fiction is I come up with an idea, or character or deadline…spurred by something that speaks to me, and I run with it. I keep a cheap notebook as a journal and I write basically stuff and ideas, and then I’ll sit down, and put out a story in one sitting, and I will work on it later. But that’s something you cannot do with a novel. It’s also easier to find an audience for short fiction than for novels…and I write poetry for that reason too.
What do you like about poetry?
I see my poems many times as snapshots. Like bits and pieces of my life and my personality and experience. I write poetry, generally for myself, and sometimes it will work for other means but generally for me. When writing poetry I use what I think of as the infinite number of monkeys with infinite number of typewriters kind of thing. I write just a boatload of stuff. I don’t write a poem every day, but over the year, I probably write three hundred poems. Some of them are awful, but I don’t need to write a poem every day I get up. It’s inspired by stuff around me, and sometimes it works well, other times not so well. I heard a poet one time say when someone asked him “how do you know if you’ve written a good poem?” and he replied “You don’t.”
What do you want to accomplish by writing?
Um, absolutely nothing, nothing that is terribly quantifiable. I find that when I’m trying to describe something it comes out terrible, as a bunch of abstractions, which I suspect is true for most creative writers. But, if you have time to tinker…to get jiggy with it…something comes out. The rest of the world doesn’t express itself at all…or does it poorly, except for the rare individuals who can make their brains cogent.
How does your material deal with being a middle-aged white man?
It doesn’t very well. I think it was maybe Lorca who said that the “infinite things that people write about are Dreams and Childhood.” There are certainly stories of adulthood, no doubt, but so often they’re being ruined, just ruined in this book. Most of it deals with what he remembers from being a kid; part of it is just meditating on objects around his house and where they came from. So I think being a middle aged white guy, I tend to write about the middle class suburban landscape of my youth, and It was quiet and safe and didn’t have most of the problems with rest of the world was dealing with. And somehow that quiet safety while we know things are happening out there in the world, those are the things we make poems about.
It’s easier to write poetry when you’re not being shot at.
Yeah I mean, [if] you don’t have a death squad threatening to crush your nuts, you’re going to have time to reflect, to form and find imagery.
I asked the question sarcastically, but especially since the Multicultural Conference is coming to campus, it seems to be a theme.
It’s difficult to ask questions about race and gender.
It’s hard to mask them.
What do you say? I had a happy childhood, mom and dad were nice, two kids, no gangs…no real criminals. How do I write, how does anybody write poems that somebody of a different world will respond to? I think that’s the trick…but we managed to do it, absolutely…I believe if I’m reading his (Eduardo Corral) poetry correctly, it’s revelatory, and he’s clearly Hispanic. I think that stuff is beautiful, awesome stuff. It’s damn good stuff! He has completely and totally different experiences from mine. If you look at his poems, at least what I’ve read, they’re almost all memory poems. There are a lot I haven’t read yet, but if you look, so much he’s talking about [are] moments from life. Memories from childhood [like] the one about his father1. I’m assuming he’s crossing America. He find the lizard, he eats it because he’s so ravenous, and it becomes a pure phallic symbol for the speakers own sexuality. That’s a childhood memory, that’s a memory of a moment that becomes a major change in his life. A major event, his first encounter with sexuality…a sexual epiphany more or less, and that childhood memory is what poetry is made out of.
What is it about Poetry that makes it [poetry]?
All writing is wonderful in its own regard, but honestly I think poetry more than any other writing, just like music, gets down to the mystery of consciousness. It’s the way of expressing, what would be otherwise inexpressible. You could say “my father crossing the desert, and I understood his hunger, his wanting for life and great desire to be alive, and I equate that to my own desire in this culture to come to terms with my own sexuality.” You could say that, but that’s a flat statement no matter how much you mean it. But you put it into a nicely wrought poem where language and the imagery force the reader into some sort of emotional union with the poet; you have a whole different experience. That’s the beauty of poetry that I don’t think other kinds of writing can’t do. And there are things it cannot do as well…the long narrative where you know the character as if you lived with the character for a while. But I think that poetry is the negative capability. The ability for language to be more open ended, or to not have to have purely annotative meaning and most language in poetry is almost entirely connotative. That’s the power it has.