Welcome to the fourth in a series of interviews with Athens-area writers. The hope is to inform you about new techniques you might want to try, increase your knowledge of the individuals in your community, and inspire you on your path. Please contact me if you’re interested in answering our writing questionnaire and being featured here as a future ‘local writer’.
NOTE: Special thanks to AWA co-founder Jill Hartmann for originally supplying us with these wonderful questions for the series, and to the author below for supplying the photos and memes.
At what point in your life did you become a writer and how did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
First of all, I’m honored to answer these questions for the Athens Writer’s Association. Thank you for this opportunity.
The simple answer is: I don’t know how not to be a writer. From an early age, I enjoyed writing, beginning with silly childhood poems and moving onto teen angst-y kind of poetry about the passions of young love, the tribulations of separation and rejection, as well as parental friction.
In high school, my English teacher told me, “Whatever you do in life, make sure writing is a part of it.” I never forgot his advice, but also didn’t take it completely to heart, until rather recently.
Instead, I entered the public policy field, which required an abundance of writing, although of the academic and technical kind. However, the profession, and my series of positions, was less than satisfying.
The turning point came when a dear friend of mine committed suicide in 2009. The event changed my life. I pondered questions deeply. Are you satisfied with your life? What do you want in life? A meeting with mortality has extraordinary potential for setting and/or redirecting the course. The night of his passing, I sat down and words poured out of me. More specifically, I felt his words poured through me, as if I was a vessel for his story.
It was the first time in many years that I allowed inspiration to flow without the internal editor questioning and sculpting and rearranging. I realized how much I wanted and needed to write.
For the past seven years, I’ve dedicated myself to practicing, learning, and growing as a fiction writer, a bit of a rewiring, if you will.
At this point, I consider myself a writer, but the next step is becoming a published author.
What books have you read that shaped you as a writer? Which authors’ work do you admire and why?
My all-time favorite is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’m enamored of his reporter’s style and the atmosphere he creates in his settings. Most of his work is set in revolutionary Colombia, but the applications and connections are universal. I can imagine his stories taking place in the Civil War-era United States, for example. I enjoy his lesser known works, the novella entitled ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold,’ and ‘The Autumn of the Patriarch.’ Garcia Marquez’s calling card is magical realism. I love how he weaves the material world with other realms and I’m grateful I discovered him early in my writing journey.
Another favorite is Hunter S. Thompson. In a sense, he’s similar to Garcia Marquez but opposite. Garcia Marquez makes the unbelievable feel real, while Thompson had a penchant for making the real feel unbelievable. His brutal telling of politics and public policy beginning in the 1960’s serve as reminders of where our country was at the time and warnings about where we’re going.
A third author I’ve learned from is Dennis Lehane. It’s strange, because I don’t find his books overly entertaining, but I’ve taken cues from his works about grounding my settings and developing pace. Incorporating elements of Lehane’s style provides a certain balancing mechanism to the atmosphere and lyrical beauty of Garcia Marquez and the vitriolic, face-smashing prose of Thompson.
Other inspirations include Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and local author Eddie Whitlock. I also like darker writers like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Some call it horror, but I see it more as the shadowy side of our subconscious selves.
Which piece that you have written are you most proud of and why?
Two pieces come to mind.
First is the first short story I had accepted for publication in 2013. ‘Snout of the Alligator’ appeared in an anthology of “new” Southern Gothic by a small publisher in New York. I still keep in contact and receive advice from the editor. Opening the acceptance email was a profoundly rewarding and motivating experience.
As writers, we spend so much time alone with our thoughts and characters, and little victories along the way serve as motivation to continue. ‘Alligator’ began life as a chapter in the novel inspired by the life and death of my friend who committed suicide. He made a big impact on my shift to a writing life, so it feels fitting that my first publication was inspired by him.
The second piece is the novel I completed last year, ‘We Were Hungry.’ I’ve written four novels over the past few years, but none satisfied me enough to submit to agents or publishers. When I finished ‘We Were Hungry,’ I felt for the first time that I’d written the book I really wanted to. I’ve always wanted to give readers a similar feeling to the atmosphere in Garcia Marquez novels, and for the first time, I felt I was in the ballpark. Not a home run, or perhaps a base hit even, but watching the game from the bench, at least.
‘We Were Hungry’ was the first piece I submitted for a writer’s conference and it won a ‘Best Manuscript Award,’ which was very rewarding and signaled: “Yes! I’m in the ballpark!”
Do you gravitate toward a particular genre(s) and/or format when you write? Tell us more about which genres and/or formats are your “passion?”
Determining genre is a huge challenge for me. My writing isn’t formulaic, but genre is extremely important when self-publishing or querying agents and publishers. As humans, we love to categorize, and fiction is no different. My style has been called “dark but hopeful,” so I wish that was a genre.
I enjoy reading thrillers, magical realism, Southern Gothic, some dystopian, and what they call literary fiction (I’m still unsure about what that means, exactly). The English teacher mentioned above read one of my pieces and called it: “Hunter S. Thompson meets Edgar Allan Poe with a twist of Bram Stoker,” and I can live with that, but must also keep pushing and redefining those boundaries.
My stories are psychological, about what pushes humans to the edge of their own minds and what either pushes them over or pulls them back. My protagonists are often people viewed by society as different or outcasts. Schizophrenics, addicts, war veterans, and others who are often marginalized. Society casts wide nets of judgment about those perceived as different from the status quo. But at the essential core, all humans are on a journey and have unique stories regardless of the circumstances surrounding their lives.
I believe the health of a culture is mirrored by how “the outcasts” are treated, and when I look at our culture, the image in the mirror isn’t pretty. Everyone deserves a voice, and I hope my writing honors those who rarely have one, and that it’s accomplished within a story that is entertaining, thought-provoking, and dashed with some humor. After all, a bit of humor helps us take ourselves less seriously.
Have you studied writing and/or attended writing seminars, workshops or conferences? Where and what did you learn from your classes/sessions and other writing teachers? Did any of them stand out to you and why?
I’ve attended the Atlanta Writer’s Conference. The best part was being surrounded by other writers, networking and making contacts, and comparing experiences. The icing on the cake was presenting my work to editors and agents and receiving feedback, which is next to impossible with online querying. I urge anyone who is serious about publishing to invest in yourself by attending a conference.
The Athens’ Writers’ Association provides presentations and reading/writing groups, which are great sources for meeting fellow writers, motivation, and feedback.
Have you had any formal writing jobs and/or published any of your work? If so, tell us about your jobs and/or your publications.
In the past five years, I’ve worked a few freelance jobs for magazines, writing articles on organic gardening, crystals and minerals (I co-own a mineral and jewelry business with my partner/wife), and the practice of gratitude. One was a lifestyle magazine in Nepal—a friend of mine was the editor—and that was pretty cool. I’ve also had short stories published in online journals and in two short story anthologies.
What is unique about your writing process? What works for you, and what doesn’t work?
I’ll answer this question in two ways—process and writing routine.
Process (how my stories come to life): Writers, in so many ways, are social and cultural observers. Often, I find my story ideas by observing people, overhearing conversations, or reading newspapers. For a writer, just about anything can become a story!
The first part that comes, typically, is a character, so I spend time with that character in my head, learning how he/she would handle a situation. If I’m open to the character and his/her journey, they’ll often lead me to the setting. Sometimes, I’ll write a short story about the character to better familiarize myself with them. This begins the process of identifying conflicts and eventually pushes forth the inciting incidents which move the story along to its completion.
This is where inspiration turns into effort and perspiration.
Routine: Each story is unique and, in my view, each story requires its own rhythm. I recently read an interview with Dennis Lehane that resonated with me. He said he doesn’t like routine because it breeds a dependence on formula.
I don’t have a daily routine, but I do give a certain amount of energy to writing each day. Depending on the work in progress, I might rise with the sun or write in the evening or through the night. I try to be open to what the story and characters need at the moment, and each one, so far, has been different.
I usually have at least two queries out, whether for novels or short stories.
What is the most challenging area of writing for you?
Overall, the most challenging area is time!
As a father and business owner, the time I can devote to writing is somewhat limited, so I have to make that time count. I’ve learned through experience that writing is “ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration,” although ten percent might be too high, perhaps more like five-ninety five.
As for the writing process, editing as I go is a challenge, and one, I believe, magnified by computer software. For me, it’s important to brainstorm the story to completion before the sculpting and editing begins. I’ve found that writing the rough draft, or at least parts of the rough draft, with pen and paper keeps me in the present moment and allows the story to finish before the analysis begins.
As for the business of writing, my biggest challenge is marketing and building a platform. I want to write, not try to sell my writing, but the current environment is one of self-promotion. It’s the way of the world in the age of social media.
What are you currently writing?
I’m revisiting some short stories, tweaking them with an eye for developing a short story collection. I’m also working on a novel about a man who may or may not have schizophrenia.
What advice do you have for someone who is just beginning to write?
If you feel the urge to write, do so without hesitation and without holding on to the ultimate results. Your stories are important! Even if you’re the only one who ever reads them.
If you love writing, you owe it to your deepest self to get it out. Do it for the love of writing, or because you can’t help yourself, or as a form of therapy. Tell your story! It’s the best way I know how to connect with myself, my longings and challenges, the way I interact with the world around me.
Everyone has a story to tell, and writers are the chroniclers of their time. If you want more than self-reflection and satisfaction, read books on the craft of writing, attend workshops, join a writing group, and when you get really serious, delve into the business of writing. It’s not my favorite part for certain, but if you want to publish successfully, an understanding of the writing market is crucial.
READ! Allow the books you enjoy, and the ones you don’t, to inspire and influence you. You can learn a lot about your own writing by reading the work of others.
And…don’t discount the time you spend in contemplation sitting in front of the screen for minutes, maybe hours, on end. Those moments are when the gears are grinding inside your mind, and hopefully, they lead to something satisfying.
How has being a writer changed your life?
Committing to writing and publishing has shifted my life to a more creatively-inspired one. Writing has always been my favorite and most successful form of communication, so intentionally focusing on it drives me to learn and develop more. My desire to live a writing-focused life inspired the development of a small business, so I could shift my attention from nine-to-five office existence to a more home-based life, which in turn, allows me to spend more time with my son.
Writing allows the time for reflection and contemplation, and helps me come to terms with myself, the world, and my journey. It allows me the opportunity to give a voice to those who might not otherwise be heard, and I don’t take that opportunity lightly. And hopefully, I can provide an entertaining, thought-provoking story to make a reader’s life a little bit better. Planting seeds and singing songs.
Thank you and happy writing (and reading!)!