Kill your darlings! Michael Chabon’s case study

Anyone who has ever attended a creative writing class or workshop has heard these words:

“Kill your darlings.”

The genesis of the quote has been ascribed to a host of writers, William Faulkner most prominently. When the 2013 film “Kill Your Darlings” was released—starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg—writer Forrest Wickman published a piece on Slate attributing the phrase to “Arthur Quiller-Couch, who spread it in his widely reprinted 1913-1914 Cambridge lectures ‘On the Art of Writing.’ In his 1914 lecture ‘On Style,’ he said, while railing against ‘extraneous Ornament’:

“ ‘If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” ’”

A contemporary definition of the command was put forth by Melissa Donovan on March 22, 2016 at “We writers must be prepared to cut our favorite sentences, paragraphs and chapter, if doing so improves our work.”

Do famous writers really abide by the rule? moonglow-chabon-webIndeed they do, as made clear by Pulitzer Price-winning author Michael Chabon in a special presentation on the website of The New York Times on November 18, 2016, not long after the publication of his latest novel, Moonglow (Harper).

“The Sandmeyer Reaction: A Short Story” runs for 33 printout pages. Of interest here, though, is not the story itself but Chabon’s three-and-a-half-page introduction. In it, he says that “The Sandmeyer Reacton” was perhaps his most precious darling of the original manuscript of Moonglow, “my pole star.”

“The story determined all of my narrative choices as I worked toward it,” he writes. “. . .I went off to the McDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. I devoted the whole of a precious two-week residency to writing the first of several drafts. . . .” Chabon knew the section needed revising, but he was confident that it would play the key role in his novel that he envisioned. Two years later, in March 2016, he finished the book. At month’s end, he “sat down to read the manuscript. Not quite ‘reading’ it, exactly; stalking it, slithering along it, hunting in its sawgrass for stylistic infelicities, typos, boring sentences, clichés and gags that, face it, Chabon, just never were going to work.” All went well until he reached “The Sandmeyer Reaction.” As he read it, “the tighter the grip of dread became on my gut. Wrong. Wrong, Chabon. Stop. Something is wrong here.

His conclusion? “The book didn’t need ‘The Sandmeyer Reaction’ anymore!”

Chabon decided to kill his darling: “Years of planning, months of work, hours of vivid, violent, wakeful dreaming at the keyboard—down the memory hole. Buh-bye. . . .”

The upshot of that excision is what is most instructive. “The Fist of Dread immediately relaxed its grip as I cut away the pages,” Chabon writes, “and the hole they made in the fabric of the book was tellingly small. Two or three sentences needed to be rearranged a bit. I added a paragraph of connective tissue. . . .And that was it. As I stitched up the tiny wound, I had the annoying thought, not at all uncommon at such moments, which are, annoyingly, not at all uncommon: Yeah, I could have told you all along that part was gonna have to go.

The FWB urges you to read Chabon’s introduction and his killed darling in their entirety (see link above), not only for the lesson they offer, but because “The Sandmeyer Reaction” is—like so much of his work, including Moonglow—a terrific read.—Alex McNab

 A final note: With this post, the Fairfield Writer’s Blog is going on hiatus and will be in read-only mode as of January 1, 2017.

Published in: on December 28, 2016 at 12:55 pm  Comments (1)  

Defining “literary” with debut novelist Linda Legters

LLCoverFirst-time fiction writers seeking agents and publishers are urged to categorize their work according to the book world’s increasingly specific buzzwords. There is the genre: mainstream, mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. There is the reader: children, middle grade, young adult, chick lit, hen lit and others, including the latest label—“new adult.”

The broadest delineation, perhaps, is this: literary or commercial.

Defining “literary,” however, can present a challenge. It is not as epigrammatic as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous dictum on obscenity in the 1964 legal case Jacobellis v. Ohio—“I shall not today attempt further to define [it]. . . .But I know it when I see it.”

Linda Legters writes literary fiction. Her first published novel, Connected Underneath (Lethe Press), was released in April. Connected Underneath follows the intertwining lives of several characters in the fictional upstate Hudson River town, Madena, New York, as witnessed and imagined by a wheelchair-bound woman, Celeste, from her kitchen.

In a recent conversation with the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (and in an appearance as a guest speaker at the Fairfield Public Library’s monthly Writers’ Salon in the autumn of 2015), Legters shared her views about what makes literary fiction—an opinion articulated in far greater detail than Justice Stewart’s about obscenity. Along the way, she offered advice about writing and submitting short stories, the importance of a story’s first paragraph, what it takes to really create a character, the importance of making yourself uncomfortable and more.LLHeadshot

A native of western New York State, Legters began writing as a child. She also studied piano and now paints. “I grew up reading novels and assumed I couldn’t do any such thing,” she says. “When I was in my 20s I read a novella by Edith Wharton and I thought, Oh, I can do this. Not that I tried. I’d always written, but I hadn’t really written anything formal or organized. I started dabbling with short stories. But life got in the way. So I didn’t go to grad school until decades later.” She had earned a B.A. from the University of New Hampshire. When she resumed her schooling, she earned an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Today, she teaches writing and literature at Connecticut’s Norwalk Community College and the Fairfield County Writers’ Studio. She is currently revising her first completed novel, which grew out of a story she wrote in grad school and for which she found an agent but not  a publisher. “Since Connected Underneath, I better understand  how to write a novel, the sort of novel I want to write, so I think I can make [the revision] more successful,” she says.

 The basic difference. For Legters, commercial fiction is heavily plot driven, ties up all of its story’s strands at the end and has the goal of satisfying readers with events and characters that are fairly predictable. In contrast, literary fiction is  unpredictable and doesn’t tie loose ends: “You don’t know how it’s going to end because you don’t know how events in life are going to end.” It may never satisfy the audience in terms of easy answers or safe endings, “which is why it is harder to get published.” As a writer of literary fiction, Legters says she knows she may never have a large audience. But although she sometimes thinks she’d like to write commercial fiction that would be an easier sell, she knows she could never become sufficiently engaged to complete the project.

Use language to capture life. “Literary fiction is more language driven,” Legters says. “I’m fascinated by the effort and the ability to capture something in words. Just like a painter might be fascinated by capturing light or the quality of movement, I want to capture with words what I see or experience or imagine.”

But you need to have insights to capture. Simply putting words on paper was not Legters’ greatest difficulty in becoming a literary fiction writer. “I knew I could write a good sentence,” she says. “But I didn’t feel I had any fresh observations or any fresh takes or really understood human nature well enough to do anything interesting. My college major was 19th century British literature. The complexity of that influenced me. If I was going to write anything it was going to try to cover new territory as opposed to just telling one more story. I just didn’t feel I had anything to say. I had a lot of experiences but I had no new insights. I don’t know why I grew up at the age of 40 or 45 or 50. But I did.”

Is there an age factor? Legters’ experience as a teacher of young writers has led her to some of her conclusions. Her students tend to write plot-driven material, and “often they have not told everything in a story. They think they have explained something, but they haven’t; it’s still in their heads. They have experienced things deeply, but the hardest thing is really seeing what you put on the page versus what you think you put there; it’s good to find objective readers, and to put your writing aside and come back to it with fresh eyes.

“I teach a course at Norwalk Community called Creative Voice. We just finished a whole section on music. It occurred to me, when I was hearing what the students like, they will often pick songs that mirror what they feel. They go to it because it’s familiar emotional territory. We all do—it’s escape and validation. And commercial fiction is largely the same. It’s familiar. It’s safe territory. Even if, in commercial fiction, the story is about divorce or dark, dark things, somehow it ties itself up and doesn’t tend to go into the emotional darknesses of the range that literary fiction attempts. I think that’s a huge difference.”

Don’t equate experimental prose or structure with literary fiction; it may not be. “When art of any kind is experimental,” Legters says, “it’s too often experimental for experiment’s sake. It doesn’t accomplish anything but being gimmicky. So if I attempt to do something different, it’s because I need that difference to convey the emotion I’m trying to covey, or the character or the moment. The writing must be organic. It’s got to grow out the moment.”

One epigrammatic definition. When it is suggested to her that literary fiction deals a lot more with the interiority of its characters than commercial fiction does, Legters says, “Definitely.” Last fall, she told the Writers’ Salon that in literary fiction, “It’s the who, not the what.” Her reaction upon having her quote read back to her: “I said that? I think it’s true.”

A literary editor’s invaluable advice on character. “Tom Jenks is now the editor of [the online journal] Narrative,” Legters says. “But he also worked with Raymond Carver for years. He was editor of all these big name people, so it was a pleasure to spend  a few days with him at a workshop in New York. He saw that I was holding my characters at arm’s length. I sort of knew that. I worked hard to get rid of that. You need to be brave. Really, really, really think yourself into your character and allow yourself to inhabit that person. It takes practice. It doesn’t come easily. It’s a willingness. It’s a willingness to confront fears and motives and unpleasant things about yourself as well as what happens inside that character. Because the tendency—and I see this in new writers—the tendency is every character essentially mirror  themselves. That makes it difficult to produce characters that go beyond themselves.”

More on language and life. “The language used to describe a character’s inner life [is a key element of literary fiction]. In commercial fiction, people present a more recognizable inner life. Literary fiction is recognizable, but it’s different territory. It’s graver. I find it graver.”

How grave is her novel? “Even though Connected Underneath is a little bit dark, there is hope for us. I want readers to come out with hope. And also with a sense of responsibility. That, in fact, we are responsible for what happens around us. I think we neglect to see that all the time. We’re so absorbed in our daily lives or in our cell phones or whatever. There’s always hope.”

Make yourself squirm. When she spoke to the Writers’ Salon last fall, Legters’ most impactful statement was: “If you are writing about something that makes you uncomfortable, you’re writing the right thing. Truth is uncomfortable, it can be painful. But the truth is what you are trying to get at.”

Writing in the zone. While she doesn’t say it is right for everyone, in terms of her writing process, Legters prefers to be in what she calls the zone: “At lot of people say, write every day, no matter what. Write a hundred words, write three pages or whatever. I just did a guest blog thing for Nina Mansfield. It was about the roller coaster of confidence. I said that [a daily quota] doesn’t work for me. If it’s not going well, walk away. Do something else. Maybe do something else creative. I don’t know how [entering the zone] happens. I suspect that it’s surrender. I suspect it is the same thing that happens for an athlete who’s in the moment. Either you’re in the moment or you’re not.”

Keep revisiting your first paragraph. “I feel the first paragraph sets the tone for an entire book,” Legters says. “It has to be perfect. It had to be perfect in Connected Underneath. Because it’s Celeste talking about what’s going to happen, I knew that I didn’t know, I didn’t understand [the story], really, until I allowed her to be honest with herself.” So Legters never stopped trying to improve it. “I’d rewrite. I’d think I was happy and I’d move on. But I’d always come back to it.” When asked what she ultimately was searching for by doing so, she answers in a word: “Truth.”

Consider starting with short stories. Legters’ first published work of fiction was the short story “When We’re Lying,” in the May 2012 issue of Glimmer Train (where it was a “Family Matters” contest award winner), although her first acceptance, from Story Quarterly, preceded it. “I did start with a short story because it felt like something that was doable,” she says. “Not that short stories are easy. But it was something I felt was manageable.” Indeed. “The remarkable thing about ‘Spinning Through the Dark,’ [the Story Quarterly story] is that, although we all agonize over every word, I wrote [it] in eight hours—and it was published. The Glimmer Train story took me about eight years. So one never knows. . . .”

A story may be shorter, but. . . . “It’s not simpler. When I’m thinking about writing one, I go back to what Edgar Allan Poe’s theory of a short story is, which is that everything in a short story is about a single thing. Nothing is extraneous. Everything is very tightly controlled. It’s really about one event. Even Alice Munro’s stories—when you read them they feel like novels—if you look at them they are about one event, one single arc.

“Novels, of course, aren’t like that. They go in and out of arcs. I have been told that the difference between a short story and a novel is that a novel has subplots. And a short story does not. That does apply. People writing novels, I think, have the notion that in a novel you have so much room, you can put anything in it. I don’t feel that way. I think every line and every word should count, just as it does in a short story.”

Hone your submitting choices. When she first began submitting stories, Legters kept three lists—graded A, B and C—of literary journals where she’d like to be published. At any one time, she might have four stories out at 10 publications apiece. “I think that’s the way for first-timers to go,” she says. “Just get them out there.” But once you have some success, “be a little more discriminating. I have stopped sending to publications that I don’t really care if I’m in. A lot of people just try to get lists of credits. It’s time-consuming. I’d rather spend the time writing.” While she is not submitting shorter pieces currently because of the demands of promoting one novel and revising another, she says her C list, and perhaps her B list, have been shelved: “I have two or three short stories that have never been submitted. I’m only going to send them to the places I really want to appear.”

Her most important submitting rule. Legters told her listeners at the Writers’ Salon, “Don’t send a story out until it is done!” In her case, that moment induces an almost physical reaction, a full-body ”Wow, that’s it!” She said it’s a feeling she lives for now.

 Imagining is the fiction writer’s job. Legters writes from imagination, fueled by everyday observation and conversation rather than deep research. Speaking about Connected Underneath, she says that, “No one who has read it has complained, how dare you write about someone who is in a wheelchair, which Celeste is, and how dare you write about a 15-year-old and how dare you write about 40-year-old single dad. No one has said that. You’re a novelist. You can do whatever you want. Whatever you can imagine. I mean, not doing so would be like saying that no men can write female characters.”

As for research, “For this novel there are two subjects that I checked out fairly thoroughly. One was the process of getting tattoos. And I wanted to know what would happen to his bike if [a motorcycle rider] falls off it at some point.” The rest of the story is purely imagined. “The power of imagination” she says, is what makes writing fun.

Beware a pitfall of query letters. When you reduce your novel’s story down to one or two paragraphs in a conventional query letter, Legters warns that it can sound “trite.” When reminded that in her autumn talk she had used the adjective “stupid,” she says, “Even better.” For her first novel, she used the pay service Writer’s Relief to help get her query letter in shape and to provide a list of possible agents, an experience she says was “worth the money.” For Connected Underneath, though, she approached small presses directly and, ultimately, successfully: “[Lethe] is an LGBT press, and I’m not a member of the community. So it’s been interesting to see responses from people. Initially I was concerned that it might be marginalized as a gay novel, but, thankfully, that sort of label is becoming a thing of the past. Gay, lesbian, transgender, they’re part of the fabric of our lives.”

So, does seeing the published version of Connected Underneath make her squirm? “When I got my copies of my novel in the mail,” she told the FWB in our recent conversation, “I didn’t open the box for days. I finally did just before I was coming down to a class. I took the book out. This is going to sound terribly immodest. But I read the last three pages. I was so uncomfortable reading those last three pages but I realized I’d written a good last chapter. [She laughs.] That was so uncomfortable. So I feel like, OK, I don’t know that anybody else will like the book or buy the book. But I know I wrote a good chapter.

“It’s complicated. I think, because I write for myself first, and not necessarily to be published, I’m not entirely sure I like having it out there.”—Alex McNab

Published in: on May 1, 2016 at 4:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tom Wolfe has turned. . .85!

Tom Wolfe turned 85 at the start of the month.images

The man in the white suit was born in Richmond, Virginia on March 2, 1931.

When the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB) was in graduate school as a magazine major at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in the mid-1970s, his dream (and that of more than one of his classmates) was to become the next Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese, those two paragons of the school of writing known as The New Journalism. (Talese is 11 months younger than Wolfe; he’ll turn 85 on February 7, 2017.) Undoubtedly some of the Medill newspaper majors were similarly inspired by the leading lights of the day, although in their case the role models were Woodward and Bernstein.

Little did the FWB realize that Wolfe was sui generis—a unique combination of writing talent, reporting doggedness, intellectual depth, artistic creativity and ground-breaking style, including a colorful expansion of the effective use of punctuation and italic type. Both Wolfe’s and Talese’s great magazine articles were nonfiction short stories that are still recognized today as among the best ever written.

Wolfe made his mark with magazine pieces such as “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. . .” and “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” in the November 1963 and March 1965 issues, respectively, of Esquire; with his narrative nonfiction books The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and The Right Stuff (1977); and, finally, with his piercing and laughter-inducing cultural criticism, especially his two-part takedown of the then-stuffy New Yorker magazine in the New York Herald-Tribune Sunday supplement New York in April 1965, and the books The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) about modern art and modern architecture, respectively.

In December 1972, Wolfe published a piece in Esquire titled “Why They Aren’t Writing the Great American Novel Anymore,” arguing that the current nonfiction was superior to contemporaneous fiction. Fifteen years later, in 1987, he turned the literary world on its ear by publishing his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, a story grounded in shoe-leather reporting that the author converted, through his ears, eyes, imagination and writing ability into a 659-page Wolfe-ian styled, socially prescient blockbuster about life in New York City. That was followed by another controversial treatise on the failure of many fiction writers to address large topics, preferring instead to write about their autobiographically-derived characters’ narrow external lives and internal musings. The article—“Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in the November 1989 issue of Harper’s—was subtitled, “A literary manifesto for the new social novel.”

It wasn’t until Wolfe published his 742-page second novel, 1998’s A Man in Full—a book that debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list and remained at the top for 10 weeks—that the long knives of some of the country’s leading literary novelists were unsheathed. John Updike in The New Yorker, Norman Mailer in The New York Review of Books and John Irving on a TV show in Toronto all panned A Man in Full, dismissing it as mere entertainment and its author as a mere journalist masquerading, and failing, as a novelist. Irving even declared that Wolfe was “not a writer.” Two years later, in his collection Hooking Up, Wolfe struck back with an essay titled “My Three Stooges.” And he was not deterred from writing more big novels, about big 21st-century topics: modern college life (I Am Charlotte Simmons, 676 pages, 2004) and the multi-cultural melting pot that is Miami (Back to Blood, 704 pages, 2012).

How did Wolfe do it? How did he write so much, so effectively, in so many different genres? Michael Lewis, the most accomplished and acclaimed Wolfe acolyte, attempted to explain in it the November 2015 issue of Vanity Fair. Wolfe has given his papers to the New York Public Library, and Lewis delved into those archives and visited with the man himself to produce “How Tom Wolfe Became. . .Tom Wolfe.”

In addition to Lewis’ article, there are two other invaluable primary sources: Wolfe’s 1993 anthology, The New Journalism (with E.W. Johnson, Harper & Row) and the interview anthology Conversations with Tom Wolfe, edited by Dorothy Scura (University Press of Mississippi, 1990).

Meantime, though, the FWB recently came across a treasure trove of Wolfe’s wit and wisdom at the website It is an online repository of memorable quotes by great writers, from A.A. Milne to ZZ Packer. From the nearly 150 Wolfe quotes listed on the site, here—as a delayed birthday tribute to the white-suited wonder and as a gift from him to all of us aspiring writers—are some of his about thoughts about writing and the writer’s life, with a heartfelt sentiment at the end.

“It helps to know from a very early age what you want to do. From the time I was five years old, I wanted to be a writer, even though I couldn’t even read. It was mainly because I thought of my father as a writer.”

“My father was the editor of an agricultural magazine called The Southern Planter. He didn’t think of himself as a writer. He was a scientist, an agronomist, but I thought of him as a writer because I’d seen him working at his desk. I just assumed that I was going to do that, that I was going to be a writer.”

“When I went to high school, my most passionate desire was to be a professional baseball player. But something within me told me that was not going to happen.”

“Everyone is taught the essentials of writing for at least 13 years, maybe more if they go to college. Nobody is taught music or tap dancing that way.”

“[W]hat I write when I force myself is generally just as good as what I write when I’m feeling inspired. It’s mainly a matter of forcing yourself to write.”

“I wrote a number of pieces in the year 1966 that were so bad that, although I’m a great collector of my own pieces, I have never collected them.”

“To me, the great joy of writing is discovering. Most writers are told to write about what they know, but I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.”

“My entire career, in fiction or nonfiction, I have reported and written about people who are not like me.”

“Fortunately, the world is full of people with information compulsion who want to tell you their stories. They want to tell you things that you don’t know. They’re some of the greatest allies that any writer has.”

“It’s fortunate that I am a writer, because that has helped me understand the properties of words. They are what have made life complex. In the battle for status in the animal kingdom, power and aggressiveness have been all-important. But among humans, once they acquired speech, all that changed.”

“I’m a great believer in outlines.”

“I used to go through the dictionary looking for unusual but nontechnical words. At one time, I thought the greatest word was ‘jejune’ and I would throw it into every piece because something about it appealed to me.”

“I found a great many pieces of punctuation and typography lying around dormant when I came along—and I must say I had a good time using them.”

“People complain about my exclamation points, but I honestly think that’s the way people think. I don’t think people think in essays; it’s one exclamation point to another.”

“I used to enjoy using dots where they would be least expected, not at the end of a sentence but in the middle, creating the effect. . .of a skipped beat. It seemed to me the mind reacted—first! . . .in dots, dashes, and exclamation points, then rationalized, drew up a brief, with periods.”

“I still believe nonfiction is the most important literature to come out of the second half of the 20th century.”

“I do novels a bit backward. I look for a situation, a milieu first, and then I wait to see who walks into it.”

“To me, novels are a trip of discovery, and you discover things that you don’t know and you assume that many of your readers don’t know, and you try to bring them to life on the page.”

“Philip Roth is a fabulous writer, but he pretty much stays within his own life. He’s so good—I mean, practically anything I’ve ever read of his I’ve really enjoyed. He just has tremendous talent. But I think he should have given himself a break and gone deeper into the society.”

“[D]on’t just describe an emotion, arouse it, make them experience it, by manipulating the symbol of the emotion. . . .”

“The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.”

“If most writers are honest with themselves, this is the difference they want to make: before, they were not noticed; now they are.”

“There is no motivation higher than being a good writer.”

“I read somewhere that writers, as they get older, become more and more perfectionist. Which may be because they think more highly of themselves and they worry about their reputations. I think there’s some truth to that.”

“Love is the ultimate expression of the will to live.”

Belated Happy 85th. . .Tom Wolfe!—Alex McNab


Published in: on March 15, 2016 at 11:24 am  Comments (2)  

Harper Lee & Mario Puzo: Lessons from their legacies

There were two big stories in the literary news the other week. The death of 89-year-old Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was one.

The other?

The sale, at RR Auction in Boston for $625,000, of the 45-box writing archive of Mario Puzo, including the original 744-page typed working draft manuscript of his novel The Godfather. In that earliest iteration, from 1967, the book bore the title Mafia. After editing those first-draft pages with a red pen, Puzo went on to complete the manuscript he submitted to G.P. Putnam and Sons in July 1968.

While one book is considered a literary classic, the other a commercial one, there are some interesting parallel lessons to be learned about the writing life from the stories of the authors—often in their own words—of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Godfather.

Success was hard-earned by both writersHLeeBook
Lee moved to New York City from her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama in 1949 to pursue her ambition of becoming a writer. For a while she worked as an airlines reservation agent while creating a portfolio of short stories. An agent who read them encouraged her to try a novel. In 1957, her subsequent manuscript was judged by editor Tay Hohoff at publisher J.B. Lippincott to be “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” Hohoff said, though, that “the spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” and Lee got a small advance. Revising was difficult, frustrating work. According to Lee biographer Charles J. Shields, one night the writer threw her manuscript out the window and only went out to save the pages after a teary phone call to Hohoff. Two years of revisions closely guided by Hohoff eventually resulted in Mockingbird. [Note: The principal sources for this summary are two articles in The New York Times, by William Grimes and Jonathan Mahler.]

Harper Lee’s most insightful quotes about her writing life are from a half-century-old radio interview with Ray Newquist, the recording of which has recently been released by the UCLA Library Special Collections and the transcript of which appeared in Newquist’s book of interviews, Counterpoint (Rand McNally, 1964). For example:

“I never wrote with the idea of publishing anything, of course, until I began working on Mockingbird. I think that what went before may have been a rather subconscious form of learning how to write, of training myself. You see, more than a simple matter of putting down words, writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer.”


“Naturally, you don’t sit down in ‘white hot inspiration’ and write with a burning flame in front of you. But since I knew I could never be happy being anything but a writer, and Mockingbird put itself together for me so accommodatingly, I kept at it because I knew it had to be my first novel, for better or worse.”

mario-puzoMario Puzo grew up in the rough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. His parents were illiterate Italian immigrants, yet one of his prized possessions as a youth was his public library card. “As a 15-year-old attending Commerce High School at 60th Street, Mr. Puzo was told by two different teachers that his compostions ‘were good enough to be published.’ ” . . . the author and social critic Camille Paglia reported in a 1997 article in The New York Times. “After [serving in Europe in World War II. . .] Puzo imagesreturned to New York and entered the New School for Social Research, where he won a literary prize, and then Columbia University. He never sold any fiction until he was 35 and earning a living as a magazine writer.”

Those magazines were not slick glossies. They were men’s pulp magazines, titles like Male and Man, for which Puzo wrote adventure stories based on real events, such as World War II battles. In a June 1984 interview with Josh Alan Friedman, he recalled his time working for the publisher Magazine Management:

“If I had a son who wanted to be a writer, I wouldn’t even bother to send him to college. I’d get him a job up there as an assistant editor, leave him there for five years and he’d know everything. You’ve got to turn out a lot of copy.”


“The funny thing is, I don’t think I ever wrote anything about gangsters. The magazines didn’t print gangster stuff, that wasn’t part of our repertoire. . . .”


“When I was working on The Godfather, I was doing three stories a month [for Magazine Management], I was writing book reviews for The New York Times, Book World, Time magazine, and I wrote a children’s book [The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw]. All at one time. And I was publishing other articles. I had four years where I must have knocked out millions of words. I tell ya, it’s absolutely the best training a writer could get, to work on those magazines. You did everything.”

In his 1972 nonfiction collection The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), Puzo recalled—in the piece titled “Notes from an Unsuccessful Writer’s Diary”—a memorable incident during his long apprenticeship. The diary entry is dated November 12, 1951:

“I received a sign, a small sign that really gave me a lift. . . .I got the blood bank story back from The New Yorker. . . .[T]hey sent me a form rejection slip. I expected it. . .didn’t feel disappointed. . .I really didn’t. And then I noticed on the bottom of the slip, with its cold and formal printed dismissal, somebody has written ‘Sorry and Thanks.’

“I’ll never know who the guy was, but he couldn’t know how that phrase came at a time when the author of the story was really desperate, really needed something like that. I say to myself, ‘A guy at The New Yorker likes me, likes my writing. Maybe he even voted to take my story. . . .maybe it was the office boy who happened to read the story while he was putting the rejection slip [in the envelope.]. . .But it doesn’t matter. If I ever get to know the guy who wrote it, he’ll be my buddy for life. . . .”

The Dark Arena (1955) and The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965), Puzo’s first two novels, which he considered literary fiction, together netted him $6,500, even though the latter, his favorite book, was dubbed by The New York Times a “small classic.” Under the pseudonym Mario Cleri, in 1967 he published Six Graves to Munich, an obscure war novel that grew out of some of his magazine adventure stories. By then, he had received an advance of $5,000 from Putnam for The Godfather after submitting only a 10-page plot outline.

When it came, that success was huge
To Kill a Mockingbird, published in July 1960, stayed on the bestseller list for 88 weeks, won the Pulitzer Prize and has sold more than 40 million copies. The Godfather was published on March 29, 1969. It spent 67 weeks on the bestseller list. To date, it has sold somewhere north of 21 million copies.

And, of course, both books led to famous films. The movie of Mockingbird earned eight Academy Award nominations and won three Oscars, including Horton Foote’s for best adapted screenplay writing. Puzo’s novel spawned three movies, which earned a total of 29 Academy Award nominations and won nine Oscars, including two for Best Picture and two for best adapted screenplay writing, for Puzo and his co-writer Francis Ford Coppola.

Lee told Newquist:

“You see, I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement.”

In his nonfiction collection, Puzo wrote that. . .

“I never doubted I could write a best-selling commercial novel when I chose to do so. My writing friends, my family, my children and my creditors all assured me now was the time to put up or shut up.”


The Godfather is. . .not a lucky best seller but the product of a writer who practiced his craft for nearly thirty years and finally got good at it.”

The paperback rights to The Godfather sold for $410,000, a record at the time. Before that, Puzo had sold the film rights to Paramount for a low $12,500 option payment, with escalators if the option was exercised. Eventually he earned much more from the studio.

Success affected them differently
Lee’s triumph led to her withdrawal. She eventually returned to Alabama, where she became somewhat reclusive and very reticent in public. At one point she embarked on researching a long nonfiction project with a crime at its center, not unlike the work she had done in the late 1950s with her childhood friend Truman Capote for his book, In Cold Blood. She had accompanied him on many of his research trips to Kansas and had acted as his appointment-maker and recording scribe for the interviews he conducted. In the end, although she continued to write, Lee intimated she’d never publish another book after Mockingbird. Perhaps it was out of fear:

“I hoped for a little [success], as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”

Puzo’s blockbuster book and the subsequent films led to impressive productivity. Puzo published five other novels (and a sixth was finished by his longtime partner, Carol Gino). In addition to the three “Godfather” screenplays, he wrote at least half a dozen others for big productions, among them “Superman,” “Earthquake” and an uncredited version of Coppola’s “The Cotton Club.”

Despite the success of his most famous work, Puzo did not consider it his best. (Again, he bestowed that judgment on The Fortunate Pilgrim.) In The Godfather Papers he wrote:

The Godfather, on a technical level, is an accomplishment any professional storyteller can brag about. . . .The book got much better reviews than I expected. I wished like hell I’d written it better.”

Though he stayed in the public eye far more than Lee, Puzo also found it trying:

“I loved the money, but I didn’t really like being ‘famous.’ I found it quite simply distressing. . . .I dislike interviews and having my picture taken (with reason).”

Both offered timeless advice for other writers
Lee shared several nuggets of wisdom when she talked to Newquist.

For the aspiring writer:

“Well, the first advice I would give is this: hope for the best and expect nothing. Then you won’t be disappointed. You must come to terms with yourself about writing. You must not write ‘for’ something; you must not write with definite hopes of reward.”

About quality:

“It takes time and patience and effort to turn out a work of art, and few people seem willing to go all the way.

“I see a great deal of sloppiness and I deplore it. I suppose the reason I’m so down on it is because I see tendencies in myself to be sloppy, to be satisfied with something that’s not quite good enough. I think writers today are too easily pleased with their work. . . .

“There is no substitute for the love of language, for the beauty of an English sentence. There’s no substitute for struggling, if struggle is needed, to make an English sentence as beautiful as it should be.”

About the reader:

“Writing is selfish and contradictory in its terms. First of all, you’re writing for an audience of one, you must please the person you’re writing for. I don’t believe this business of ‘No, I don’t write for myself, I write for the public.’ That’s nonsense. Any writer worth his salt tries to please himself. . . .”

About difficulty:

“Ironically, it’s just as hard to write a bad novel as it is to write a good one—just as backbreaking, just as formidable a series of crises.”

Puzo, too, sprinkled some helpful pointers in his collection. Such as:

“Never send out a piece of work that is not completely finished even if it means a great delay in publishing.”

While he was selective in agreeing to interviews, Puzo did one for a cover story for Time’s August 28, 1978 issue. The story included “Mario Puzo’s Godfatherly Rules for Writing a Bestselling Novel.” There were 10, some enumerated with Puzo’s tongue firmly in his cheek, such as:

“Never let a domestic quarrel ruin a day’s writing. If you can’t start the next day fresh, get rid of your wife.”

Another is the most familiar of adages:

“Rewriting is the whole secret to writing.”

Yet another is highly debatable, at least for those of us who partake in writers’ workshops and critique sessions:

“Never show your stuff to anybody. You can get inhibited.”

And finally, there is this rationalization for a working writer’s tendency to subconsciously disappear into an antisocial cocoon:

“Moodiness is really concentration. Accept it because concentration is the key to writing.”

Puzo’s sentiment dovetails neatly with Lee’s thoughts about the creative compulsion that writers deal with:

“You know, many writers really don’t like to write. . . .I like to write. Sometimes I’m afraid I like it too much because when I get into work I don’t want to leave it. As a result I’ll go for days and days without leaving the house or wherever I happen to be. . . .”

Away from the public eye, both writers were homebodies, with close family ties. In Monroeville, Lee, who never married, lived with her older sister and attorney Alice into old age; until her death in 2014 at age 103, Alice Lee acted as her sister’s “gatekeeper,” as Alice’s obituary put it.

Puzo lived in the same house (often remodeled and eventually doubling in size) in Bay Shore, Long Island from 1968 until his death. According to Paglia’s article, four of Puzo’s five children lived with 45 minutes of their father and handled such tasks as cooking, housekeeping, secretarial work and landscaping; his accountant brother and attorney nephew oversaw his finances and legal work.

Puzo, who was five-and-a-half years older than Lee, died in 1999 at age 78.

Lee’s name, of course, was in the news a lot in 2015 even before she died. A very early draft of the novel that became To Kill a Mockingbird—perhaps the draft for which Lee’s editor at J.P. Lippincott asked for a complete rewrite—was, controversially, released earlier in the year. Titled Go Set a Watchman, it became the bestselling novel of 2015, with somewhere around two millions copies in print. The success of the earlier version raises an interesting question:744-pageDraft

What if, instead of its place in banker’s box at an auction house in February 2016, the original manuscript of Puzo’s Mafia (above) had just found a publisher? How would it do? Thankfully, it remains in typescript in that lucky bidder’s banker’s box, where most early drafts belong.—Alex McNab

Published in: on March 6, 2016 at 2:32 pm  Comments (2)  
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Talking writing with musician & memoirist Steve Katz

The Fairfield Writer’s Blog has sought writing-craft advice from KatzBooknovelists, biographers, short-story writers and more. Until now, though, it has never spoken about writing with a “celebrity” author, despite the piles of titles—by the famous, the infamous, the accomplished and the not-so-much—weighting down tables and shelves at stores that still sell books.

One reader’s “celebrity” may be another’s “who’s he?” But for us seasoned music fans whose most influential listening began in the 1960s and carried on for two decades or so, guitarist/singer/songwriter Steve Katz deserves the description. In his memoir—Blood, Sweat and My Rock ’n’ Roll Years: Is Steve Katz a Rock Star?—he is a candid, thoughtful and humorous storyteller, an enlightening tour guide to a memorable period of popular music—and some of its notable personalities. Publishers Weekly’s prepublication review called the book “one of the few rock memoirs worth reading from beginning to end.” And, yes, Katz wrote the book—his first—himself.

Katz was a nice Jewish boy with a dry wit who grew up in Schenectady, Queens and Long Island, New York before selling “something like 29 millions records,” he writes. During the early-60s heyday of the Greenwich Village folk-music scene, while a teenager, he laid down roots as a finger-picking acoustic guitar student of legend Dave Von Ronk and country blues master Reverend Gary Davis before playing with the Even Dozen Jug Band. Moving to electric guitar, he recorded influential albums and played the Monterey Pop Festival with The Blues Project, then became a founding member of the famous rock/jazz ensemble Blood, Sweat & Tears. During Katz’s four-album tenure, that band earned platinum and gold records and Grammy awards, as well as played at Woodstock. Later, Katz recorded for the Beatles’ legendary producer George Martin as part of the group American Flyer, produced two albums by rocker Lou Reed (including a stealth appearance by pop singer John Denver’s live audience), worked as an executive for a record company, did a reunion stint with BS&T, and eventually returned to his acoustic roots as a solo performer/raconteur.

The FWB first saw Katz’s one-man show at our community’s Pequot Library in 2013, during which he mentioned the probability of writing a memoir. After the book’s publication by Lyons Press in summer 2015, he performed in our area again, at the Trumbull Library, with the FWB in attendance.

In October, Katz, now 70, KatzTodaywelcomed the FWB into the home he shares in northwest Connecticut with his wife, ceramic artist Alison Palmer, and a menagerie of friendly dogs and voluble African parrots. Our conversation centered on the decisions he made and the lessons he learned while writing about his life and career, a challenge for any author, not just a first-timer, celebrity or not. Here, then, is Steve Katz on writing a memoir:

Have a reason for writing. “I would tell stories to people, to friends, and they would say, you should write a book. . . .I had gone back with Blood, Sweat & Tears for three years [in the 2000s]. And when I left— I was 68 then—I said, well, what am I going to do now? I think I’ll write a book. I didn’t really think about it before. Then when I started writing, I realized it was interesting. The other reason for writing the book was that it gave me an index. So as I get older and I start forgetting things, I can always just look in my index. Fantastic.

“I never thought of myself as a real storyteller until I started writing. And then I started thinking, well, I wish I had told the stories like this, because when you are writing, you can take your time with them. Put them in better words, [add detail] and stuff like that. So now when people interview me about my career, I just say, why don’t you read the book?”

 You don’t need an MFA to write a memoir. [During his early days in the music business, Katz wrote] “record reviews. For Eye magazine, a spinoff of Cosmopolitan. I was an English major in college and I’ve always been a reader. I’ve always written poetry and lyrics and stuff like that. That’s not to say it came easy for me. Still, when you write a song, when you’re an artist, there’s that blank canvas that you have to fill up. One thing I knew about creative writing was that everything depends on the first sentence of every paragraph. And also you take that context to the next chapter.

“[As a reader, I love] anything by Philip Roth. He used to be in town [in northwestern Connecticut] all the time, sitting in the chocolate place reading the newspaper. About 10 years ago he was turning onto a street off Main Street and I was crossing the road. He was in his Volvo station wagon. I started moving back, and he stopped and went like this, [waving] for me to go. I came home and emailed all my friends, ‘I was almost killed by Philip Roth today. I’m so excited.’ ”

Even a rock star has to write query letters: “I went to a website that had a list of literary agents. I just went in alphabetical order. When I got to D, I got a deal [with Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management]. She repped Barack Obama and Dreams from My Father.”

 Seek—and welcome—professional help. “When I sent in my proposal, the first one, to Dystel & Goderich, Jane called me and said, ‘We love the idea, we want to represent you, but you are going to have to rewrite the proposal, and we’re going to set you up with somebody. You’re going to need help with the proposal. It’s got to have more oomph to sell it.’ So they told me about Mike Edison. I went and looked him up. He was editor of High Times magazine for a while. He wrote for Penthouse, and he wrote something like a hundred pornographic novels. I called Jane and said, ‘Wait a second, who are you putting me together with?’ Then I read a book he wrote called Dirty, Dirty, Dirty. It was the funniest thing I’d ever read. I said, ‘This guy is perfect. He gets my sense of humor.’ The proposal he worked on with me is essentially the forward to the book. That was mainly Mike. He added other certain things, too, but I’d say 95 percent of the book is mine. Mike helped me through the process.

“Bruno Ceriotti lives in Italy and is a rock and roll lunatic. He was a fan. I would write a paragraph and send it to him for dates and stuff like that. I would say, ‘The Murray the K Show started at 10 o’clock every morning. . .’ and he would write back and say, ‘No. It was 10:15.’ I don’t know how he got all these things but he was really, really helpful. I never met Bruno.

“Forgetting about Mike, the biggest contributor to my book was [Katz’s editor and now Interim Editorial Director] Keith Wallman of Lyons Press. He didn’t write anything, but he was so helpful in editing. For example, [take] the opening lines of Chapter 3, ‘Mimi.’ I wrote, ‘I came home from the concert late at night’ or something like that. ‘I opened my door and I could see that Mimi was gone.’ Keith would say, ‘Put this in a time context.’ OK. ‘It was November of 1966. Ronald Reagan had just been elected governor of California, and the Beatles had just begun recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. I tiptoed into my apartment, not wanting to wake Mimi, but the moment I opened the door, I knew instantly that she was gone.’ It makes total sense. It is such a little simple thing. Keith was incredibly helpful with that. It was a real education for me to see what an editor really does.”

Use your natural voice. “It’s basically my sense of humor. Most rock ’n’ roll memoirs are, ‘My dad used to beat me so I took drugs.’ I never had that. The worst thing that ever happened to me was that my mother spilled chicken soup on me. . . . I look at the book as being funny, and not just a memoir. I think some of the reviews have caught on to that.”

Enjoy the writing process. “I woke up every morning and sat at my computer. I loved it. But it was difficult with the dogs, and helping my wife lift her sculptures and stuff like that. There was always something happening, except for the three months we spend in Mexico in winter. My wife’s a workaholic. It sort of rubbed off on me. I’m not a workaholic, but some of it rubbed off. Especially when she’s at work in the next building.”

Don’t just write. Rewrite. “I’d constantly go back. And that’s why going through the proofreading thing was. . .how many periods and commas and semicolons did I get wrong? But they kept finding things. And they were right.”

Use the music to frame the story. “I was able to do that in the context of the set that The Blues Project played at Antioch College in late 1966. I don’t remember the concert that well. I remember all the [stoned, dancing] kids in the audience. But I was able to tell stories through the songs.”

Use the words to convey the music. (Katz writes of the debut rehearsal of Tim Buckley’s song, “Morning Glory,” with the BS&T horn section: “When the horns entered on the second verse for the first time, I almost couldn’t sing. . . .The sound, the feel of the building verse into the chorus, it was at that moment that I said to myself, So this is why I wanted to be a musician. It was an ethereal moment. . . .That’s something you carry with you for the rest of your life.”) “I put that in later, because I thought about that afternoon we rehearsed it, and how wonderful that feeling was. You sort of keep going back and going back and adding things. Yeah, that was an amazing afternoon.”

The best-known elements of your story don’t necessarily make the most compelling writing or reading. “It was much more interesting for me to write about The Blues Project or even the jug band and the beginnings there than about Blood Sweat & Tears. I think I make it clear in the book that BS&T was more of a corporate type thing. So I don’t spend that much time on it. If I was a rock star during those days, what I remember is getting up a 5 a.m. to get a plane to a city and hopefully having time for a nap before the sound check. Then after the concert, schmoozing with radio people and stuff like that, and then you’re in bed by midnight and have to get up at 4 o’clock to catch the next 5 a.m. plane. Or you’re taking buses. The arenas and stadiums all looked the same. So it was always hard work. The most fun part was when you were onstage playing music.”

Remember your reader. “My whole career, because of the nature of being a musician who plays publicly, you want to entertain people. If you are writing a book, if you are making a movie, if you are making a record, I always think about entertaining people. I’m certainly not Proust. I’m not that heavy or intelligent. [Laughter.] I wanted the book to be entertaining. I wrote it for people to have a good time reading it.”

Be open about writing about old intimacies. “I love my wife more than anything. But [folksinger] Mimi [Farina] was my first love. And a first love is different. I approached writing about it by first going to my wife and asking her, do you mind if I write about some old girlfriends? This is not an easy thing. She gave me a green light and it made it a lot easier.”

Your story may not agree with the way others remember things. . .“I didn’t really rely on other people’s memories that much. I didn’t get in touch with former band members. If I did, nobody could remember anything anyway. I’d say I only spoke to [drummer] Roy [Blumenfeld] from The Blues Project. It was the only time. I didn’t speak to any of the people in BS&T. I spoke to Roy because I wanted the story about [our lead guitarist] Danny Kalb and his suicide attempt. I wasn’t speaking to Danny at the time, and I certainly wouldn’t have gotten the correct answer anyway. Roy knew the whole story.”

. . .Especially if the others are people with whom you have had feuds. “There are four of them. With my brother, he was my brother, so I had to mention it. Basically I skipped over it and gave a description about his greed, and then I went on later about how that affected me and Lou Reed [with whom Katz also had issues].

“As far as [Blues Project organist and singer and BS&T co-founder] Al Kooper, he wrote a book where he didn’t say nice things about me, but I loved the book. I actually used Al’s book for research. He enlightened me with some memories. Al’s always been very funny, and even though that book was a pure collaboration with Ben Edmonds, I think his humor comes through. Kooper and I have worked together since then. Everything I write about is true. We don’t get along anymore. But we were a family. We did get along great. We had a background of growing up in Queens, our Jewishness; we had things in common. I think we agree on what happened a lot, but not why they happened. Al’s whole story about why he left BS&T is different from the way I see it. I do respect the fact that he sees it differently. This is my truth, that kind of thing. Even though mine is right.

“Whereas David Clayton-Thomas [the singer who replaced Kooper in BS&T], you know, might as well have been an alien. David wrote a book, and I didn’t even want to read it. Finally somebody said to me, you have to read his book. So I got a yellow highlighter just to mark all the misperceptions and lies. I went through five highlighters by the time I’d finished the book. He makes up these things and he actually believes them. I have to say, though, that when Lew Soloff died in February, the only person who got in touch with me from the band was David. On Facebook. He said let’s put aside our petty differences and pay tribute to Lew. Which I thought was really gentlemanly, especially, you know, because I rip him to shreds in the book. I thought it was very nice of him to do.”

Let your vulnerable moments come through on the page. (Toward the end of the book, Katz recounts his discomfort before a one-night 1993 reunion concert at the Bottom Line in New York featuring many of the early members in BS&T, including the great jazz and session trumpet players Randy Brecker and the late Lew Soloff) “Here I am, a guy who started out playing Travis picking [a variation of finger-picking named after country-western musician Merle Travis] on acoustic guitar . I wind up on stage with these incredible players. These are great players. I hadn’t played for a while, especially electric guitar. And Randy Brecker, who’s just the sweetest guy in the world—when I said at one rehearsal that I was nervous—told me, ‘What you did works. It has more to do with heart.’ And that’s why Randy has always been one of my favorite people. I could hardly read music. It was difficult. That’s why I had to leave BS&T at some point. [Later, jazz tenor saxophone player] Joe Henderson was in the band. Sitting next to Joe, I’m saying, what the hell am I doing here? The guy is a genius, pretty much.

“I’ve sort of been in limbo like that. I come from the folk crowd, who never have accepted me because of Blood, Sweat and Tears. And of course some of the great musicians of the Blood, Sweat & Tears jazz thing don’t accept me because I’m a folk musician.”

Build your story around a theme. “The theme is that I always felt I was always on the outside looking in. As I write in the book, ‘Lorraine Alterman, a writer. . .had done an article about me for a short-lived magazine called Scenes. . . .The subtitle [of the article], which was put on the cover, asked the musical question, “Is Steve Katz a Rock Star?” With descriptions of me taking leftovers from my mom’s house, the answer was inconclusive at best.’ ”

You can make it through the hardest part of the story. “I think it was my first marriage. My wife’s mental illness, which also ties into our house burning down. When I started writing it, I figured, oh boy, this is going to be difficult. But you sort of move aside, you become objective about the whole thing. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it might be. You can add subjectivity later. But first you want to put the facts down. The great thing about writing is it’s like clay, you know. You can mold it anyway you want. Edit. Thicken things. That’s one of things I loved about writing the book.

Relax, it’s OK to feel embarrassed. “When you look back at some of the stupid things you did, and you’re writing it, and then proofreading it on paper, they make you say, I don’t want to think about that. Oh God! There’s a whole paragraph about my sideburns. How one was longer than the other. I was really very self-conscious about the whole thing. It’s totally ridiculous, but it’s true. Now, looking back on it, it’s hilarious. I wanted [the reader to think back to] . . .when you’re a kid, and make it into a funny story. That’s one of my favorite parts of the book.”

What small crises of confidence as a writer? “This is one of the few great things about getting older—there are certain things that get better. And one of them is you have the self-confidence to say, basically, I don’t give a damn what people think. This is my life and I’m going to put it out there. I couldn’t have done it 10 years ago or 20 years ago because I would have been afraid of what people thought. I don’t care anymore. I did the best job I could.”

Look for unique ways to promote your work. “Lyons Press got me to talk at the Jewish Book Council convention. There are all these Jewish centers from across the country. You have to do a two-minute talk. I was sitting next to Joe Klein. Tess Gerritsen was there. I was a nervous wreck because I had to convince these people to bring me in. So I said, ‘I have something to offer you that not many do. There are not that many Jewish ex-rock stars out there. And not only that, but I can give you a [musical] performance. But I have to charge you.’ So I’m getting my fee. Starting in a week and a half, I’m on the road for two months. Kind of like one-nighters, almost, all over the country at Jewish community centers. I get mobbed at the meet-and-greet afterward.”

Appreciate how your written memoir triggers your readers’ memories. “No, I don’t consider myself a celebrity. Some people do; people who are fans do. A celebrity is like [someone in] People magazine. I have to amend what I just said, if you don’t mind. I’ve been working in the craft world a lot [with Alison], and every now and then somebody will say, ‘Oh God, you’re Steve Katz.’ But lately I’ve been feeling like a celebrity. Now, with my concerts and because of the book, because I’m going out and performing, people are thrilled to meet me. Which is, like, really weird. This is why I enjoy playing. People say, ‘Do you get any young people?’ I don’t care about young people coming to my shows. It would be nice if they did. Maybe they’ll enjoy my finger-picking and stuff like that. But the fact is that, for people of my age. . . .all of a sudden, you’re part of a memory that happened years ago, and that remains part of their lives.” —Alex McNab


Published in: on December 20, 2015 at 6:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Cut the boring parts. Fix the crap.” And other advice from author Kristan Higgins

images-1Beginning in 2006 with Fools Rush In, Connecticut author Kristan Higgins—a two-time winner of the Romance Writers of America RITA Award—has published 14 novels, and No. 15 (the fifth in her Blue Heron series) is scheduled to hit bookstores before year’s end.

Romance is the best-selling genre in publishing, and Higgins is one of its stars. Yet her IfYouOnlyKnew-smsummer 2015 title, If You Only Knew (released in August from HQN Books), marks a shift toward what is known these days as “commercial women’s fiction” in the label-obsessed book business.

The affable and amusing Higgins has shared her writing wisdom with aspiring Fairfield writers more than once. She was a featured panelist in a lively group discussion the Library presented on romance fiction in February 2010. Then, this past September, she made the final stop on her book tour for If You Only Knew just down the street, at the Fairfield University Bookstore. It was there that the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB) asked if she would be willing to answer some emailed questions about writing, a request to which she graciously assented.

Changing from romance to women’s fiction. FWB: You said the changes with your new book were not big ones. But what did they entail? Should aspiring writers try to check off genre conventions from the get-go, or just write the best story they can write?

Kristan Higgins: I’ve always straddled the line between women’s fiction and romance in that my books have never been solely focused on romance—my characters have issues with job, family, friends, the past. But for If You Only Knew, the biggest change was having two female narrators. In the past, my books have had only one first-person narrator, or the hero and heroine as point-of-view characters. This was the first time I focused on two women.

I don’t think there are any rules or conventions to follow other than exactly what you said: Write the best story you can. Understand what makes a good story, however. To do that, you have to read great authors.

Revising & editing. Your admission on what you do when you get stuck is, “I write crap! You can quote me on that.” You also said that you were a very good reviser. Can you describe how your revision process works. How extensive are your editor-suggested changes, and are those revisions easier or harder to make than the ones you make between the first draft and the manuscript you submit?

KH: It’s funny; I’m teaching an online class on revising right now. My process consists of being a stone-cold darling-killer. I think I have a very good eye for what works and what doesn’t, and I’m not sentimental about my work, as some authors are. The process isn’t that formulaic; it’s more like, “Cut the boring parts. Fix the crap.”

As for my editor’s suggestions, they’re rather general; she mentions an area or character that gave her pause, and she lets me decide how to fix it. Every once in a while, we disagree, and though those occasions are rare, she defers to my gut instinct. We have a lot of respect for each other. And affection, too, which doesn’t hurt the relationship.

Productivity. You said that keys to writing two 115,000-120,000-word books a year are your separate office space, your dedicated 9 a.m.-4 p.m. writing schedule and ignoring the internet. Should aspiring writers try to employ some sort of daily quota system to get words down, or just make it a habit of writing every day? Is the love of writing an often-unrecognized secret to writing productivity in an age of so many distractions?

KH: I do shut down my internet for chunks of time when I’m writing, because it’s just so easy to be distracted, especially when the book isn’t going well. I think setting goals is a must, though I’m more vague with mine. Rather than trying to hit a daily word count, I shoot for a weekly or monthly count. And yes, writing every day is helpful. Otherwise, the pressure builds up and an author can feel a little sweaty and panicked.

Humor & sex in the story. You employ easy humor so well in incident, word choices, dialogue, etc. Should a writer consciously strive for humor, or employ it only if it part of her natural writer’s voice?

KH: I think humor comes naturally. Your writing voice has it, or it doesn’t. Personally, my books get funnier as I revise, when I can home in on the humor and cut the dreck. I don’t think anyone should chase after any element of writing because it’s popular, whether it’s humor or, uh, spanking, for example. Honesty is probably the most important element in a writer’s voice.

At the romance panel that you said you didn’t include detailed sex scenes in your romance novels . . . .If You Only Knew has an inciting incident that involves “sexting.” Are you writing more, or more involved, sex scenes than before? Would you care to comment on what you feel makes a sex scene work?

KH: I’ve gotten a little more comfortable writing love scenes, but I still don’t write graphic details. As a reader, I find those really detailed scenes less appealing. Honestly, they can be about as explicit as a lesson from a gynecologist, and. . .well, that’s just not for me. And honestly, it’s a rare author who can write an explicit love scene without just regurgitating the same phrases that have been used for centuries. An audio book narrator told me if she had to read the world “shattered” one more time, she would punch herself in the face, for example. Lordy, that made me laugh!

I think the challenge in writing a love scene is to capture both the emotional and physical elements in a new way without getting ridiculous. We all know what happens (one hopes). What’s really original is the emotional component. That’s what I try to focus on, while still giving a strong sense of sexy time.

What makes a love scene work is just that—love. Why is this time is different and meaningful? How do you convey that? What’s the subtext? Otherwise, you just have Tab A going into Slot B, and Ikea seems to have that kind of description covered.

Setting. The last question comes from our Library writing colleague Alison McBain, who has read all of your books. “[Kristan’s] books are written in a similar version to how she presents herself—funny, quirky, down-to-earth. She also does an amazing job of incorporating local areas into her novels. How does she research/choose a location/incorporate the places in which she sets her books into the narrative? Her towns feel so real—I’ve rarely read an author who does as good a job in making the locations really come to life. She is a master at that. Does she have pages and pages of research, or are these places where she’s spent a significant amount of time herself?”

KH: That’s one of the nicest comments I’ve ever read, so thank you, Alison! I do visit the locations I’m researching. All of my settings are in the Northeast, and I’m a Connecticut Yankee, so I already have that sensibility. It would be tough for me to write a fifth-generation Texan, for example, because culture is so ingrained.

When I visit a location, I wander a lot and try to soak everything in. I take pictures of ordinary things. . .the pavement, the lamppost, a regular house, the grocery store. I also try to find a townie bar and eavesdrop. I ask questions once in a while; I’m always interested in what people want me to hear about, and what they don’t bring up. As with most things, the unspoken stuff is the most interesting.

Growing up, I was a little bit of a fringe character in my family and in school, which allowed me to watch and listen more than participate (save your tears. . .I wouldn’t have it any other way!). It’s translated into a really excellent skill as a writer. I think it’s true for most writers—we’d rather listen than talk.

—Alex McNab

Published in: on November 15, 2015 at 7:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Lessons on pacing from author Wallace Stroby

As a storyteller, here are a couple of reactions you like to hear from readers:

“What happens next?”


“I want to keep reading.”

One of the elements of writing that generates such responses is expert pacing.370009

For some thoughts on how to keep your story moving, the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB) reached out to New Jersey novelist Wallace Stroby (right), a newer voice you should know in the field of crime fiction. Stroby is a native and resident of the Jersey Shore area that also produced, in a different form of the arts, another fine storyteller, Bruce Springsteen. A former award-winning newspaper reporter and editor, Stroby reports on his website that he’s seen the Boss in concert more than 100 times. He’s also written seven crime novels, six of which are in our Library’s collection, beginning with 2003’s The Barbed-Wire Kiss, set in the heart of Stroby/Springsteen country down the shore.*

Stroby’s newest book, The Devil’s Share (Minotaur, July 2015), devilssharelargeis the fourth to feature professional thief Crissa Stone. While the Crissa novels might remind you of the Parker novels by Richard Stark (a pen name of the late, great Donald E. Westlake), that is a bit unfair to Stroby. He has created a fresh character in his criminal, and not only because she is female. Crissa has a humanity that the compelling but cold Parker rarely if ever displayed. The jobs she takes quickly transcend mere capers as inevitable complications arise.

The Devil’s Share, in the FWB’s view, is an object lesson in good pacing. Stroby has been kind enough to respond in detail to the FWB’s not-so-swiftly-paced email questions about how to do it.

FWB: How do you define a novel’s pacing? Is it important for your storytelling, the reader’s reading or both—or are they really the same thing? Do you think pacing is approached differently in a so-called “literary” novel that might include more description, internal monologues, etc., than a so-called “crime” or “genre” novel?

Wallace Stroby: I think the pacing is decided by the story you want to tell, as well as your own style, how you see it. Certain stories are going to require certain approaches. If you’re writing a thriller, you want it to move as fast as possible, because that’s one of the pleasures of the thriller and what draws people to it—the  “ticking clock” concept. If it’s more of a character piece—even in a crime novel—you’re going to want to go deeper and take the time to flesh out your characters, whether by giving them interior monologues or having them do things that are not necessarily related to the plot. That grounds them, and helps us invest in their story, because we feel like we know the characters and can identify with them.

What is your approach to handling exposition and giving the reader enough backstory, setting, etc? In an interview, you said you try to avoid more than two pages of exposition at a time, and that you watch out for overly-long information dumps.

WS: Backstory and exposition vs. narrative drive is one the greatest challenges in writing fiction. Even the most experienced novelists have issues with it. It’s something that has to be finessed, and it’s very easy to go wrong in one direction or the other. The trick is to weave in just enough that the reader has the information they need, but not so much that it stops the narrative cold. Sometimes the writer needs to know the backstory, but doesn’t have to share it all with the reader. It’s like a scaffolding—you have to build it to paint a wall, but once the wall is done, you don’t need the scaffolding anymore. In other words, all that backstory may not still be there on the surface, but it will be part of your understanding about the characters and the stories and will emerge in other ways.

It’s the same with dialogue. Nothing makes dialogue clunkier than trying to frontload backstory or excess information into it. At the same time, dialogue does often need to communicate things central to the story. So it’s a fine line, and practice is the only thing that helps.

Any advice on pacing dialogue?

WS: If you want to know how to write—and pace—dialogue, read the masters: Richard Price and Elmore Leonard.

Another technique you use so effectively is the “jump cut” between chapters and sometimes within chapters. For example, in Chapter 4 of The Devil’s Share Crissa is meeting others in Los Angeles, then Chapter 5 begins at a Texas prison. And when Crissa is back onstage in Chapter 7, she’s on the road out of Las Vegas. In the later stages of the story, her movement between New Jersey, Boston, Ohio and Kansas are similarly telegraphic. Yet only at the start of Chapter 11, when you write “Three days later. . .” is there a specific reference to time or distance. Is using the jump cut technique part of what you’ve said about letting readers fill in the blanks themselves? 

WS: Yes, exactly. As far as time and distance, you put it in when it’s necessary, you leave it out when it’s not. In the passage you cite, knowing how long it takes Crissa to get back to New Jersey is important because there are parallel stories being told—hers and [the character named] Hicks’—and the timelines have to match up because they will eventually intersect. Certain events have to happen for that confrontation to occur, and they need sufficient time to happen. Also, when you’re dealing with a story that takes place in various locales across the country, the characters need time—and means—to get there.

Is part of ineffective pacing related to not giving the reader enough credit to use his or her imagination to fill in between the lines? You’ve said that, as far as Crissa’s appearance, we only know her as “Red” and have no other description, and you want the reader to fill it in. Has a reader ever told you that you hold too much back?

WS: Yes, sometimes a reviewer or reader will complain that I don’t describe Crissa enough, but that train left the station a long time ago. What happens much more often is readers telling me what they think she looks like—sometimes referencing a certain actress. That’s what I love to hear, because it means they’ve created a version of her in their head, and they’ve become a partner in the storytelling process.

A risk for the writer, of course, is if you describe someone too much the reader might not like that person the way they’re described, or it might remind them of someone they hate —you never know.

But as far as how much information to impart, I always go back to one of Billy Wilder’s screenwriting tips, quoting director Ernst Lubitsch:  “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you for it.”

Do you have a goal in mind on the overall pacing of a story? . .  .Are you conscious of having certain events and turning points in specific places? And do you want the last third to move faster than the first third or the middle?

WS: Again, it depends on the story you want to tell. To quote another director, Sam Peckinpah, the story process is always the same—introduce, develop, resolve. Where those beats end up is going to be decided by the story. But by the last third of the book, I think readers want a clear run to the end. You don’t want to introduce new major characters or a deus ex-machina at the last moment. It feels like a cheat.

How much of your pacing comes while writing the first draft of the novel? How much in revising? Are you always cutting from your first draft? Or are you so oriented toward the forward action that you have to add some missing information so the story makes better sense?

WS: It’s all in revising. To use another Peckinpah quote, shooting the film—or writing the first draft—is mining the coal. It’s refined in the editing room. Polish, polish, polish. If something doesn’t belong, get rid of it.

Occasionally my editor will ask me to add some backstory or an interior monologue to give a deeper sense of the character’s thoughts and emotions. That’s usually easy to do, because I already know them—I’ve just left them out for pacing’s sake. What becomes an issue is when the editor asks about something that I haven’t thought sufficiently about, because that means I have more work to do.

Aside from looking for big blocks of gray type, are there other things a writer should look for while reviewing his or her work that might indicate the pacing could be better?

WS: Things should get faster as they move along—shorter scenes, higher stakes. You can always get into a scene later and out of it earlier.

At the very elemental level, can a case by made that pacing begins with word choices—strong nouns and verbs, essential adjectives, no adverbs? 

WS: Yes. When in doubt, go back to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, one of the essential books about writing—“Omit needless words.”

What about the length of scenes and chapters? Some writers. . .turn each scene into a chapter. How do you decide on chapter length for pacing, and what role does it play?

WS: Again, it’s a function of the story. With each scene being its own chapter—regardless of how short the actual scene is— it may move the story along faster and prompt readers to keep turning pages. But if it feels like a construct or an artificial break in the narrative, it can be frustrating. If you feel like you’re being manipulated, the magic doesn’t work as well.

Last question: Any thoughts about pacing you care to add?

WS: Elmore Leonard had the final word on it in his 10 Rules of Writing: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

—Alex McNab

*Stroby’s short story “Lovers in the Cold,” originally published in the 2005 anthology Meeting Across the River: Stories Inspired by the Haunting Bruce Springsteen Song, is now a Kindle single at Amazon.

Published in: on October 15, 2015 at 4:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A sampling of smart thoughts about writing

It’s a good month for cherry-picking some wise thoughts about writing and storytelling from some of the Fairfield Writer’s Blog’s favorite authors who are in the news and in the craft journals. As always, the FWB recommends turning to the full-length pieces after reading these samples.

The writers include:

Larry McMurtry, storyteller extraordinaire, who will be presented with the National Humanities Medal by President Obama on September 10.

Mary Karr, memoirist extraordinaire, who has a new book—The Art of Memoir—entering stores on September 15.bookcovers_artofmemoir

John McPhee, “creative nonfiction” magazine writer extraordinaire, who just published the latest installment in his series about writing, in the September 14 issue of The New Yorker.

John Steinbeck, 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature winner extraordinaire, whose thoughts about writing are so timeless that one is in the current issue of The Writer.

And Dennis Lehane, crime novelist extraordinaire, who is the cover subject of the latest issue of Writer’s Digest.

Here is the sampling:

McMurtry, to a 2013 writer’s workshop Larry_McMurtry_in his hometown of Archer City, Texas:

“I don’t start [a story] until I have an ending in mind. It’s much easier to write toward an ending than it is to write away from the beginning.”

Karr, in a BN-KC442_wolfe_12S_20150901130705feature with journalist Alexandra Wolfe in The Wall Street Journal:

“[Writing memoir is] cathartic, but the purpose of it is not your catharsis. You’re publishing it to create an emotional experience in another human being, and for me, unless another human being reads it and has that feeling, there’s no point.”

McPhee, in his piece titled “Omission”:images

“Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. . . .Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.”


“Ernest Hemingway’s Theory of Omission seems to me to be saying to writers, ‘Back off. Let the reader do the creating.’ To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.”

Steinbeck, as quoted in the steinbeck_140-02fc70eb1271941fc85afacb5aec29da6919148c-s400-c85October 2015 issue of The Writer:

“If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”

Lehane, in an interview with Steve Boisson in the October 2015 1185044_556522077717966_13123148_nissue of Writer’s Digest:

“. . .It’s really important to write every day. You have to do an hour a day minimum or the muscles get atrophied.”


“. . .Sometimes the reason to write something is because it’s cool. Because you enjoy it. Because you’re having fun. Because you just think, Hey, why not? Those are reasons that sometimes get lost in the more schematic ways we approach writing. Sometimes if you get excited, guess what? The reader’s going to get excited, too.”

—Alex McNab

Published in: on September 8, 2015 at 7:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Writing wisdom from E. L. Doctorow

The great American writer E. L. Doctorow has died at age 84.

His books included the novels imagesRagtime (1975), World’s Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989) and The March (2005). Among them, those four books won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. During his life, Doctorow also worked as an editor at the New American Library and the Dial Press, and taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University.

Doctorow’s words of wisdom about the art and craft of writing are timeless. Here are three examples:

  • “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
  • “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”

—Alex McNab

Published in: on July 22, 2015 at 1:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Maggie Shipstead talks short stories

Southern California native Maggie Shipstead’s shipstead2012 debut novel, Seating Arrangements, was a New York Times bestseller, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and earned her the £30,000 Dylan Thomas Prize for authors under 30 (Shipstead was 28 at the time) from Swansea University in the U.K. Two years later, she published her second novel, Astonish Me.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Shipstead studied fiction in a workshop with acclaimed writer Zadie Smith. She went on to earn her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.

So when Shipstead scheduled a spring 2015 author appearance on behalf of Astonish Me at our neighboring Westport (Connecticut) Library, the FWB requested a short private interview with her, and she and the library graciously consented. The twist was that the FWB did not want to talk with Shipstead about writing novels, but about writing short stories.

Here is what Shipstead said in a June 2013 interview with Marisa Atkinson at the website

When I was in workshop—in college, at Iowa, and at Stanford—stories seemed like the best way for me to take advantage of the feedback and deadlines. Every time I turned one in, I had to be responsible for a beginning, middle, and end, and stories were a useful way to experiment with different voices and structures without making a huge commitment. My two novels both started as short stories, but neither worked. They felt sort of pointless or something. I find stories very difficult to write; that form doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I wouldn’t have written nearly as many as I have (i.e., a not-staggering fifteen or so) except I was in workshops for so long. I want to keep writing them—I think they help me learn and improve—but I find the novel to be a much more forgiving form, like living in a big house with a yard versus on a boat, where everything has to be in the right place.

The FWB would never want to contradict as accomplished, accommodating and amiable a writer as she. Would it be unfair, however, to suggest that the lady doth protest too much?

Shipstead may find stories difficult to write, but she writes them very well indeed. Consider:

  • Six of her short stories were cited as notable in the annual anthologies of The Best American Short Stories between 2010 and 2013, and the full text of one of them, “The Cowboy Tango,” was included in the 2010 edition by that year’s editor, Richard Russo.
  • La Moretta,” a story published in the Fall 2011 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) was one of five finalists for the 2012 National Magazine Award for fiction.
  • “Via Serenidad,” the first story Shipstead ever submitted, to Glimmer Train, placed second in the respected journal’s 2008 September Fiction Open contest, earning its author $2,000 and eventual publication in the Summer 2010 issue.

So here, from our interview—and, in a few places, from other sources—are thoughts about writing short stories from author Maggie Shipstead.

Length. “I don’t think I’ve ever written a short story that’s on the short side,” Shipstead told the FWB. “They tend to be around 25 to 30 pages.” Both of our printouts from the VQR, “The Cowboy Tango” and “La Moretta,” in fact, were precisely 25 pages. “It would be better if they were shorter. I think they’d be a lot more publishable.” Her hope is that, whatever the length, the reader will finish a story of hers in one sitting.

Ideas. On the website in January of this year Shipstead wrote:

Usually my stories come from the intersection of at least two ideas. At any given time I have a handful of vague notions floating around about settings I’d like to use or characters or inciting incidents. One element isn’t enough to go on, and so I wait until I see a way to combine one or two (or more) of those ingredients with a concept for structure or voice.

In an interview with Emma Bushnell at in 2013, she said:

For me, it’s tricky figuring out what might power a novel and what should be folded up and put in a short story. Sometimes very disparate ideas occur to me that eventually find their way into a single story. Like I might think about writing a story set on an airplane and about writing a story about a Hollywood cult, and at some point I end up fitting those two ideas together into one story. (“You Have a Friend in 10A,” Tin House Winter 2011). I like the magpie aspect of gathering material — little shiny incongruous bits and pieces can sometimes all be twisted together. The puzzle-solving aspect of constructing fiction is really satisfying for me.

First sentence. From Shipstead’s essay at

These little moments of unlocking, of finding the key to the puzzle, often manifest as first sentences. The first sentence establishes so much as far as tone, verb tense, point of view, even rhythm. Ethan Canin, one of my teachers in grad school, said that the whole story should be in the first sentence, and I think that’s true, although for me it’s more that the whole story unravels from the first sentence. The first sentence is what I return to when I need to be reoriented while writing.

Traditional vs. modern. In our writers’ critique group at the Library, there have been occasional discussions about whether a story’s protagonist has undergone a sufficient change or whether there is enough of a payoff by the end of the piece.

When the FWB asked her about this, Shipstead said: “I think the epiphany story has gone out of style a little bit. I do like stories where there’s sort of a surprise or gut punch at the end. But it can be pretty subtle. Alice Munro is the master of the subtle change at the end.

“It’s interesting. MFAs get such a bad rap for creating cookie cutter writers. That just hasn’t been my experience at all. People wrote all kinds of weird stuff, experimental fiction. I never saw anyone kind of get the weirdness beaten out of them.

“One thing workshops responded to negatively but maybe never quite expressively is, people don’t like to read things that are boring. I think sometimes the traditional and the boring can be difficult to extricate from each other. Like if someone’s writing a story—and I’ve done this too—and is sort of modeling it on another story, [sometimes] there’s no fresh insight or the characters don’t come alive.

“I don’t think change has to occur within the protagonist. For me, I would like something to change, but it could be the way the reader sees the protagonist, it could be within the protagonist, it could be just a plot change. I like a story that’s really a story.”

Submitting. The process, Shipstead conceded, “for anyone, can be so discouraging. It’s worth sending your stories out. Keep doing it. Just make a routine out of sending them out. Try not to think too hard about the rejections. It really is such a human process. And it doesn’t stop no matter how high up you go in the food chain. Picking the Pulitzer Prize is a human process for the people doing it. Every little magazine, every big magazine, has an idea of itself and of the fiction it publishes. They might think your fiction is great, but it might not fit with their vision of themselves. There’s sort of nothing you can do about that. I also think dealing with sending out and having it not always work out is a good way to get a thicker skin. A thicker skin is really important for a writer, you know.”

First acceptance. “Via Serenidad is a real street in the neighborhood where I grew up [in Orange County],” Shipstead said of the title of the story. “The women who run Glimmer Train [sisters Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda Swanson-Davies] do it all themselves and are really passionate about it and publish a lot of people. It was a long time between when they took the story and when they ran it. Close to two years. I think it’s a really good place to submit. Those contests are a good way to go.”

“The Cowboy Tango.” Of all the characters in the half dozen or so Shipstead stories the FWB read in preparing this post, the most memorable is Sammy Boone, a skinny 16-year-old who is wise well beyond her years as the story of a love triangle on a Montana dude ranch opens. “ ‘The Cowboy Tango’ was actually my first story to be published,” Shipstead said. “That was VQR. I was 24. My agent—who I met at Iowa when I had written like two finished short stories—had sent it to The New Yorker. And they started to edit it. And then they decided it was too long and they couldn’t make it short enough. On the one hand it was heartbreaking, and on the other hand I was 24 and so I was like, ‘Oh, they’ll take the next one. No big deal. Just keep trying.’ They still haven’t published me.”

Going from short to long. In our conversation, SAShipstead addressed the growth of her novels: “To me what signaled that those stories could be novels was I had a list of possibilities and I felt like a lot of doors kind of opened. Seating Arrangements, especially, I felt like I had good chemistry with the character. I understood him and I knew more events I wanted to inflict on him.”

Shipstead told’s Bushnell:

My second year at Iowa, Ethan Canin suggested that the Seating Arrangements short story (which was about fifteen pages long and completely flimsy) could be expanded into a novella, and I remember feeling almost liberated. I’d been trying to jam something into the confines of a short story and by letting go of that restriction suddenly all these possibilities were open to me.AM

With Astonish Me, I’d written about a hundred pages of a different second novel. . . and took a break to revise a short story I’d written at Stanford about a ballet dancer. The revision spiraled out of control, and I ended up with 90 pages that turned into maybe 170 on the next go-through and then eventually more than 200 on the last revision before my publisher took it. . . .

With my short stories that stay short stories, when I’m done I feel like I couldn’t possibly come up with another scene to save my life.

Current stories. With her focus on novels, “I didn’t write a story for two years, and I’ve recently finished maybe three, with a couple more kind of going,” Shipstead told the FWB. “I love short stories. I really admire the masters. It’s such a really difficult, exacting craft. I think it’s really worthwhile for me to do. And it’s, of course, so much less of a commitment. But it’s also a distraction. It can take a really long time to write a short story. It can take potentially a couple of months away from working on a book. And books pay the bills a lot better than stories do.”

A final thought. “I wish I knew the secret and could pass it on. I had a teacher at Stanford who said, ‘When you’re not sure what should happen next, just think about what the most interesting thing that could happen is.’ I think interest can be underrated, as far as something to strive for.”—Alex McNab


Published in: on June 14, 2015 at 3:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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