Blog Tour, Yo.

My good friend Natalia Trevino, author of the poetry collection Lavanda La Dirty Laundry, was nice enough to invite me to participate in the following blog tour, in which I answer the following four questions, which I’ve answered in pairs.  Thanks, Natalia.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS–THE WRITING PROCESS–BLOG TOUR OF WRITERS, 2014

Question Number One: What are you working on? and Question Number Four: How does your writing process work?

Just yesterday I finished the first draft of a short story.  It’s called The Anti-Story, and it’s kind of a long short story (46 pages; 11,500 words).  I just googled How long is a novella? and apparently a novella is like 20,000 to 50,000 words, so this is just a long short story.  Maybe too long.  It’s about a guy named JW who discovers that another writer has written and had published the anti-story to his own story.  It begins like this:

When JW opened his just-arrived copy of the review, inside which were published the winners and runners-up of the contest to which JW had submitted his own story and thus, as a condition of his entry fee, had received a copy, JW found that the winning story was not his own story, but rather the anti-story of his story.

If you’re wondering what an anti-story is, here’s JW trying to answer that very question in a conversation with a friend:

“The winner wrote the anti-story to my story.  To the story I submitted.”

“The anti-story?”

“Yes.”

“What does that mean?”

 “You know.  It’s like…it’s the anti-story.  To my story.”

  “But what does that mean?”

  “It’s like…it’s like this guy’s story…it’s everything that mine isn’t.”

  “Like so much better?”

  “No.  It’s not that it’s so much better.  Maybe it is.  It’s just…not mine.  In every way.”

  “Oh my God.”

  “Right?”

After submitting the final manuscript of my novel, Parnucklian for Chocolate, to Red Hen in the spring of 2012, I didn’t write much at all for quite a while, maybe a year.  There was just so much to do.  I work full time, teaching high school English, and in September of 2012 our first child was born, a little maniac named Thomas.  Plus book promotion and all that, so no writing.

But several months ago I managed to get back into a routine, and in doing so, I have been able to complete a draft of a play and the story mentioned above.  I get up at 5AM, put on the coffee, shower and dress, then sit down and write.  I do this Monday through Friday, usually only writing for 15 to 20 minutes (sometimes just 5 to 10 minutes) before I need to feed the cats and start on lunches and so forth.  Then the rat race takes off and twenty-four hours later I do it again.

Even though this isn’t much time, I’m usually able to get out at least a page of fiction (5-6 pages of dialogue, when working on the play), which by the end of the week adds up nicely.

I do all of this writing by hand, in those little 70 sheet one-subject notebooks that come in assorted colors and that you can get at Target during Back to School for seventeen cents apiece, and on Saturdays I type it all up.  I’m a terribly slow typist, but this is my first edit.  On Sunday mornings, I try to submit stuff.  Lately I’ve been sending out flash pieces that I’ve written the past couple of years, one of those, titled “A Choice,” having recently been accepted by The Los Angeles Review for their fall issue.

So that’s my routine.  Once I have a typed draft of something, my first reader is my lovely and brilliant wife, Liz, who gives me lots of notes and lots to think about.

The play I mentioned is titled Before We Were What We Are Now.  It’s not all that great, but I’d never written a play before, or tried to write a play, but I read a lot of plays and I love dialogue and it was a lot of fun.

Question Number Two: How does your work differ from others in its genre? and Question Number Three: Why do you write what you do?

I guess my genre is literary fiction.  So one way my work differs from others in that genre is that other works are a lot better than my works.

Beyond that, I’d say that my writing leans toward the postmodern, which doesn’t really make it different but maybe helps to categorize it.  Though I wouldn’t necessarily say this about my novel.  I was told by my editor that my novel is naturalist, which sounds alright.

I’d say what makes my novel unique but not entirely unique is the style, which has been compared, in reviews, to Vonnegut (which I was actually maybe kind of going for and which makes me blush) and to Gertrude Stein.  I write often quite long, perhaps challenging to read, sentences in what Stanley Fish would call the subordinating style, though challenging to read is not what I’m going for.  Fun to read is what I’m going for; the sentences are fun to write.  Here’s an example, from Parnucklian for Chocolate:

The miniature golf game began with Johnson Davis announcing that they would be playing “Boys against Girls!” and then demanding that both Josiah and Bree, as the representatives of their teams and in order to determine which team would go first, engage in a match, best two out of three, of Rock-Paper-Scissors, which Josiah had never actually played before, though he had seen other boys, such as Joey Simms and Eli Koslowski at the group home, play Rock-Paper-Scissors, usually at the start of a game of kickball or basketball, all of which Johnson Davis learned upon asking Josiah before the match with Bree began if he had ever played Rock-Paper-Scissors, leading Johnson Davis to provide Josiah with a short tutorial which included a basic outline of the rules and a brief history of the game’s genesis and a slightly less brief discussion of the irony of the fact that though Rock-Paper-Scissors is itself a game it is often used, as the current situation shows by example, in the facilitation of other games, and a practical demonstration of the proper hand movements and positions required, at the end of which Johnson Davis took Josiah aside, placing a hand upon his shoulder, and whispered into his ear that a strategy that had served him well over the years was choosing the same object—either rock, paper, or scissors, it doesn’t matter, any of the three would do—in all three turns, turning traditional strategy on its head and thereby often confusing the opponent, a strategy that proved unsuccessful in Josiah’s match against Bree, Josiah choosing scissors in each turn, given that Bree, as a member of the family of Johnson Davis, had had extensive practice in the playing of Rock-Paper-Scissors, Rock-Paper-Scissors having been used throughout Bree’s childhood not only to determine order of competition but as a mediator in nearly all decisions, thus Bree had equally extensive exposure to the favored strategy of Johnson Davis and easily defeated Josiah with a volley of rocks.

 

This can be tiring to a reader, so I try to counteract this prose style with my dialogue.  I tend to write short, minimalist maybe, Hemingway-y or Carver-y dialogue.  I guess those are the two chief features of my style: convoluted, subordinating prose and minimalist dialogue.  That plus just not being good enough.

What I meant earlier in saying that my work leans toward the postmodern is that I seem to naturally gravitate toward metafiction.  Parnucklian for Chocolate contains no metafiction, but the story I’ve been working on, The Anti-Story, includes a lot of it, and when I started writing short stories, as an undergrad taking creative writing courses, they were all metafictive.  Borges says that “every writer creates his own precursors”.  I certainly don’t think that I created my own precursors, but I find it interesting that I discovered my influences after already being influenced, which is sort of what Borges is talking about there.  Writing bad metafiction as an undergrad without knowing what metafiction was led to comments from professors like bla bla postmodernism bla bla John Barth Metafiction which led me of course to John Barth, who I went mad for, and Vonnegut, who, you know, is awesome and all.

So there. Thanks for reading this.

Author Meet and Greets: the story of a tantrum

The low point of last Saturday’s Author Meet and Greet at Pilgrim’s Way Bookstore in Carmel, CA involved me sitting down and declaring in a resolute and defiant whisper, “Fine, I’ll just sit here until three o’clock (the scheduled end time for the two hour event),” that declaration followed by my wife scooping up our nine month old and announcing that they were leaving.  The high point came just a few moments later.

The bookstore events I’ve participated in since Parnucklian for Chocolate’s release in March have fallen into one of three categories: readings, author panels, and author meet and greets, the readings being the more common and—along with the panels—the easier and more comfortable, given that in such situations, similar to the teaching I do every workday, one is addressing an audience that has freely chosen to be a part of that audience (or, in the case of high school students, have been forced by the state to be a part of that audience).  In any case, with a reading or a panel or a lecture, the expectation of the audience, going in, is that you are going to talk to them, and as a relatively shy and perhaps even anti-social person, these seem to be the only conditions under which I feel comfortable or able to speak to strangers.

Author meet and greets don’t necessarily feature these conditions.  Based on my cumulative experience of two author meet and greets, author meet and greets seem to work like this: the author is positioned in a designated area of the bookstore, adjacent to a carefully arranged stack of their books, and instructed by the friendly and gracious bookstore owner to feel free to introduce themselves to and chat with the customers.  Some people may come to the store specifically for the meet and greet, but, especially if you’re a debut author no one has ever heard of, for the most part you’re dealing with the regular traffic in and out of the store, which in Carmel in the summer is mostly tourists.

So the flaw in the design, for a fiction writer, is that said fiction writer may not be the most likely candidate to speak to complete strangers about anything at all, least of all their own writing.  Nonfiction writers seem to be better at it; my anecdotal evidence of this consisting of having been seated at an author panel next to a woman who had written a nonfiction book called Sexy Feminism.  The woman spoke tirelessly and had the uncanny ability to somehow incorporate the phrase “Sexy Feminism” into every sentence.

The first meet and greet I did, at Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills, was scheduled for 6 to 8pm, and I ended up doing pretty much what, as mentioned at the start of this post, I would threaten to do at the next meet and greet.  I just sat there.  I only spoke to one person, who came up to talk about the book only after being buttered up by the clerk.  My just sitting there wasn’t a matter of attitude—I smiled and said hello to everyone who came in—I just couldn’t bring myself to take the next step.  I couldn’t bring myself to walk up and impose myself on people who had innocently come in to browse.  If I were them, I’d want to left alone (I think) and it was this precise notion and my inability to counter it that led to the aforementioned “low point” last Saturday in Carmel.

The most important difference between the first meet and greet, in El Dorado Hills, and the second, in Carmel, turned out to be the accompaniment of Liz (my wife) and Tommy (our baby boy).  If I had gone alone to Carmel as I had to El Dorado Hills, the result probably would’ve been the same: sitting, talking to no one.  But as the event last Saturday began and as the shoppers came in and out, Liz encouraged me to approach and talk to them.  She even gave me a script: “Hi, my name’s Bill and I’m here today promoting my book Parnucklian for Chocolate (gesture toward display).  Please let me know if you have any questions.”  I then explained to her, a bit panicked, that it was impossible.  I couldn’t do it.  She compared it to getting into a cold pool; once you dive in, it’ll feel better.  I explained, beginning to sweat, that I’d choose a root canal over walking up to strangers to tell them about my book.  I’d choose amputation.  She explained that talking about the book was the reason I had been invited there, the entire point of us coming.  I begged her to do it.  I’d stand by the books and sign them if she’d talk to the people.  I suggested she use the baby as a prop.  Or as a conversation starter.  She refused, at which point, as described, I declared my intention to just sit there, after which, as described, Liz loaded Tommy in the stroller and said, “We’re going.”

When the next person came in, I did nothing.  The next, again nothing.  When a third person came in, I began to think about letting down my wife and my publisher and the long drive home if I allowed myself to continue to just sit there, and I made the decision to take the plunge just as a German family of four crossed the threshold.  The matriarch let me get a third of the way through the script before cutting me off and asking me where the children’s books were, but my feet were wet nonetheless, and the next person let me finish and took a postcard.  But the ice—if you’ll allow my metaphor to change states—was completely broken by the next customer, a localish man who was out shopping while his wife competed at a nearby dog show.  This gentleman also cut me off a third of the way through the script, but to tell me he wanted to buy a book.  He had me sign it, had our picture taken, and came back later to introduce his wife (Ann) and dog (Norman).

And Liz was right.  It got easier, and it felt better.  I ran her script on everyone who walked through that door.  Some brushed me off, which, it turns out, is okay, but others didn’t, and by the end of the day I’d met some nice people, had some pleasant conversations, and placed my book in the hands of several people who hopefully will read it and perhaps will enjoy doing so.  And, of course, I once again demonstrated that if I’d just do everything my wife tells me to do, I’d be better off.