1) When were you at UW-Platteville, and how did you wind up here? (OK, that was two questions.)
I was at Platteville from 2006 to the end of 2008, so, two and a half years? My wife, Jennifer, moved up there in early 2005. She was a reference librarian in Karrmann, which is why we moved there. (I stayed behind in Texas for in `05 and part of `06 to finish my doctoral coursework.) We both were looking for an opportunity to move north to colder climates — Texas summers, which last roughly 10 months of every year, really weigh on a person. Ironically, we left Platteville to explore a teaching opportunity in the United Arab Emirates, which is even hotter than Texas, but we always missed Wisconsin.
2) Where are you now, and what are you doing?
After UAE, we decided to return to cooler weather and took a chance on moving to Portland, Oregon, where I’d spent my toddler years and to which I’d always wanted to return. Right now, I’m teaching writing and literature at Chemeketa Community College and Pacific Northwest College of Art, and I’m working as production editor for the literary magazine/small press, Jersey Devil Press.
3) Could you tell us a little about the paths you’ve travelled since you left here?
Oops. Already did.
I will add that one of our favorite things to do is travel. While we lived in Platteville, we mostly travelled the area, including several trips to Chicago (our second favorite city in the US) and out to the Field of Dreams farm in Dyersville, Iowa (we love movies). But we also made our second trip to Prince Edward Island and our first trip to Scotland from Platteville. Once we’d moved to UAE, which is a central travel hub for most of the eastern hemisphere, we took the opportunity to travel more: we spent one fall browsing Christmas markets in Vienna, another fall visiting Buddhist monasteries and lounging on beaches in Thailand, and a spring traveling around the Netherlands, where we got stranded for several days in the wake of the Iceland volcano eruption. We also revisited Chicago on a summer home from UAE, and we had a terrific time reconnecting with some of our Platteville friends who drove down to meet us!
4) Any links to your writing projects that you’d like to share, or other things that we should know and ask you about?
Oh, lots. While we lived overseas, I had the opportunity to take a little time away from the classroom and write full time. I missed teaching terribly and I’m really happy to be back in the classroom here in Oregon, but that time focused on writing was tremendously helpful in honing my craft and getting comfortable with my own writing process. I was immensely productive and finished a book of short fiction and a novel, as well as maybe a dozen other stories. Also, my publications began to skyrocket: I published nearly as many stories in 2010 as I had in all the years previous, and in 2011 — when I was back in the States and submitting work I’d written overseas — I published twice as much as 2010. This year, the number is better than last, and I’ve also finished four chapbooks and a rough draft of another novel. All of the book-length work is still under consideration, but the stories are out there and making good waves. In fact, one of my stories led to my job at Jersey Devil Press, and another was the impetus for an interview I did with EJ Runyon. That interview will be on her blog Oct. 14 (http://ejrunyon.wordpress.com/)
I also want to point out that my first post-graduate writing experiences were at Platteville, and the writers there remain good friends and confidants. I worked closely with Wendy Perkins, for instance, whose enthusiasm for National Novel Writing Month finally got me to sign up for the challenge, which is where the novel I wrote overseas came from. For a while, Russ Brickey and I were working together on an online lit journal based out of Platteville. And I continue to work closely with UWP alum Ryan Werner — his first book of stories was published by my colleagues at Jersey Devil Press. I also stay in touch with some of the young writers I worked with at the Teen Creative Writing Workshops I established at the Platteville Public Library, and I’m thrilled to say those workshops continue today under Werner’s tutelage. I even recently met another UWP alum, the poet Michael Lambert, who was visiting Portland.
5) Where do your ideas come from? (Or any other clichéd yet useful question you’d like to ask yourself?)
No, this is a good question. It sounds lame, but beginning writers keep asking it for a reason. Sometimes they want to find new ways to approach writing; other times they have what feel like weird ways of getting into their work, and it’s nice to feel reassured when other writers are just as strange.
I’ve had a lot of good fortune with writing from music, and it’s still my go-to source of inspiration. All the stories in my story collection are based on lines from one Butthole Surfers song, for example. Probably half my flash fiction, including my run at Werner’s Our Band Could Be Your Lit project, came from songs, too. I don’t always tackle interpretations of the lyrics; sometimes I just get a feel for the mood of a piece, other times I listen to instrumental music and ride the rhythms of it.
I also sometimes dream a story. It sounds like it’s either easy or just dumb luck, but it’s really neither. The trick is to be open to the absurdity of dreams, to be willing to treat the weirdness that your subconscious coughs up with some seriousness and try to convey that to a reader in a way that might make sense to anyone but you.
But ultimately, writing from dreams is the same as writing from music or from life experiences: you just read a ton and write a ton until you develop this almost muscle-memory reflex for recognizing a good story when you see it. That way, wherever the story comes from – whether it’s from music, from dreams, from newspaper clippings, from a conversation you overhead in a coffeehouse, or wherever – you’ll know not only that the idea contains a story, buy also what to do with it. It’s a bit like sculpting: a sculptor can look at a tree trunk or a chunk of marble or a slab of clay and see a figure hiding inside. Writers are open to the stories that hide inside of everything.
6) What are a couple of your favorite memories of your time at UW-Platteville? (Yes, you can talk about least favorite or why you left if you want.)
I loved sitting in the chairs or couches back in the reading area of Karrmann library. I liked meeting students there and hashing out essay ideas with them.
I loved the pop culture poster sessions I instituted, especially the time then-state Assemblyman Phil Garthwaite dropped by to see what my students were up to.
I loved sitting at those blue-wire tables outside the student center and eating lunch with my wife in the late-spring sunshine.
I loved working with the gentlemen of SigEp (I was their faculty advisor, and I’m proud to still be their Brother).
I loved watching the thumb-sized flakes drift like feathers outside my office window during that first snow of fall. I loved the crunch of my shoes in the snow as I walked to campus each winter day.
I loved Dairy Days. I loved the Fourth of July. I loved eating strawberry shortcake in the summer and walking through corn mazes in fall.
I loved playing game show host for the academic trivia contests during Homecoming. I loved the parades and the townspeople lined along the sidewalks.
I loved my students. I loved my colleagues. I loved my neighbors. I loved my friends.
7) What writing inspires you?
I have always been driven by beautiful writing, by which I mean beautiful sentences. Sometimes that means intense language and rhythms like Edgar Allan Poe or Cormac McCarthy; sometimes it means quiet, painful realism like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Alice Munro; sometimes it means experimental, poetic writing like JA Tyler or Helen Phillips. But I am always turned on by sentences, by creative uses for words, by rhythms of language both natural and supernatural.
But lately I’ve been really interested in the only-slightly experimental. That is, fiction that flirts with fantasy or magical realism but which leans heavily on the side of realism, or at least in which the characters seem either unaware of or unconcerned about anything odd occurring. Jorge Luis Borges was always good at this. Sarah Rose Etter does a wonderful job of this in stories like “Koala Tide” and “Husband Feeder.” At Jersey Devil Press, we recently published a beautiful little triptych of fables by Matthew Burnside that plays with reality in these ways.
I’m also fascinated by absences in fiction. The missing spouse in Jac Jemc’s My Only Wife, or all the absent mothers and lovers and siblings and limbs in Ethel Rohan’s Cut Through the Bone. It’s like art that’s defined more by its negative space than by what’s actually in the picture. I’m loving that.
8) Could you ask yourself another question about something you wished we had asked you about, and answer it?
I got nothing. I think I’ve rambled on enough as it is.
9) What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
You know, I could try to hammer out something clever or something concise, or I could steal advice from people like Robin McKinley or Truman Capote. But I think the best advice I could give, I already wrote down in my Fourteen Principles for Creative Writers. (http://snoekbrown.com/teaching-philosophy/fourteen-principles/) It feels weird to just refer you to my website like this, but really, that’s the advice I have.
But you want something that doesn’t make you click on some link? Okay, here’s the shortest, easiest advice I know for aspiring writers:
And to hell with everyone who tells you otherwise.