Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Interview with Charles Strozier about Until the Fires Stopped Burning

Dear writers and readers,

I had the pleasure this past summer of taking Historical Narrative workshop at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony at Provincetown, MA with Chuck Strozier.  His comments about his work-in-progress, based on psychological interviews of New Yorkers concerning their 9/11 experiences, really aroused my enthusiasm for this book.  So, here, for your enjoyment, is an interview with him about writing and about his new book!    Cheers,  Laura

How did you get interested in writing, Chuck?
Almost as soon as I could read I began to write. In fact, writing has always intrigued me more than reading.  In 4th grade I was absorbed with Jack London novels and fell in love with wolves, dogs, and all kinds of canines.  I wrote a 40 page story about “King, The Story of a Dog” that my father typed up for me as I dictated from my scribbled pages.  A novelist friend of my father (Billy Hagood) said when he read it that I would be a writer.  It was a kind of blessing.  More than once in school I had the curious experience of a teacher not liking an essay but giving me what the English call a left-handed compliment that it was well written.
What was your first success?
I think my story of “King.”  My first adult success in writing came with the reception to my first book, a psychoanalytic study of Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln’s Quest for Union).  It was 1982 and I was 38.  The book was reviewed on the front page of the Times and called “surpassingly eloquent.”  It was startling for me, and it changed my life.
How hard was it to persist writing the biography of Kohut  in spite of family opposition?  Did you put it aside and then go back later, or keep working sub rosa?
That book took me 19 years to research and write (1982 to 2001), though, because of all the opposition I encountered from the family and many of his protective colleagues, I did do other projects along the way.  There was, for example, a delay in the early 1990s in my gaining access to some crucial archival material.  But there was nothing sub rosa about my work.  I just pushed on, kept interviewing, talking about my work, learning more and thinking more deeply about what I knew.  And, frankly, I found the gossip and mean-spiritedness steeled my resolve.  I am stubborn in that way.  It was a welcome vindication to have the book so well received.
  Do you enjoy writing or is it hard for you?  Describe what your writing process is like.

           I love writing.  I do it every day.  I warm up with emails and then get down to it.  My only     frustration is that I have to do all these others things—teach, run a research center, raise money, see patients, and generally earn a living—that crowd in on writing.  But the trick is not ever to let being busy prevent you from writing.
What kind of books do you most enjoy reading?
I read mostly nonfiction works of history but I also usually keep a novel going (my favorites are Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner and, among more recent writers, David Grossman, Don DeLillo, and of course Norman Mailer).  My hobby is photography, and I have a rather elaborate project right now to photograph in medium format, black and white negatives the bridges of New York that I then enlarge in high contrast.  I am about 2/3 of the way around Manhattan and hope in some future year to mount an exhibition.  My visual sense carries over to my writing.  I am less interested in the sentence than the paragraph.  I can see the paragraph when I enter into it with a lead sentence.  I imagine it before I write it.  I love the shape of a good paragraph and its transitions from what comes before and what follows.  A good transition thrills me.
 What kinds of things do you write?  Just books, or do you also write articles, stories, poems? 
I write mainly my nonfiction books but also lots of articles, which I actually don’t like very much and have cut back on in recent years.  I wrote two volumes of poems to the love of my life 30 years ago when I was courting her.  It was a good move, as we are still happily married.
 How did you get the idea for your current book on 9/11?
I was standing in Greenwich Village watching the disaster happen.  It was shocking but I also felt I had some understanding of what was behind it in light of my scholarly involvement in the 1990s with what I then called the “new terrorism.”  I felt a certain mission to study the disaster I watched unfold in front of my eyes and began my interviewing at the start of the second week.
 Will people turn to your book to get help with their remaining 9/11 fears and other reactions?  If they do, will it help your book or hurt it?
I suspect those with lingering fears of attacks or with residual traumatic reactions to 9/11 will have contradictory reactions to my book.  On the one hand, the details of the stories—and for better or worse I am a story teller—may evoke memories and feelings that can be disturbing.  On the other hand, my book provides context for such feelings and I hope puts the disaster into perspective and explains it in meaningful ways.  It is the only overall interpretation of 9/11, and I think we do better psychologically with things we understand than living with the dread.
Do you have an agent?  Tell us about your experiences with/without agents.
I have had two agents in my life.  I stumbled into publishing with my first book, which thankfully Basic Books was willing to take on cold.  The book then led to a top agent (Charlotte Sheedy) approaching me.  She helped me then secure a wonderful publisher (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) for my Kohut book and various other projects.  We then didn’t see eye to eye about my 9/11 book and parted ways.  Some two years an agent, Richard Morris, from Yanklow and Nesbit Literary Agency, picked me up for the 9/11 book.  Both agents were crucial for me and helped me enormously.  It is awful in publishing these days.  Without an agent, trade presses won’t even answer your inquiries.  The good news is that university presses still can be approached without an agent.  There are also many other outlets for one’s writing, including blogs, a format I am coming to enjoy a great deal (note “911aftertenyears.com”).
  What are your thoughts about marketing?  Do you have any great tips on how to do it well?
I have a blog for my book (just mentioned) and a Facebook Author Page.  Each links to the other.  They have proven very useful for promotion.  Any number of journalists who have read my blog have been calling for interviews.

If you could achieve one marketing coup for your current book, what would you like it to be?  Interview with someone?  Special review location?
I would love a good Times review.  I may still have an NPR interview with Scott Simon and something is cooking with ABC.  We will see.  The trick, I think, in marketing is to throw a lot of balls in the air and see what comes down.
  If you could go back in time and start over, tell us one thing you have learned that would help you to succeed better/faster/with less struggle.
Personally, I wish I had married my current wife at 22 and not gone through the agonies of my first marriage, the divorce, and the years of single parenting.  I lost time and suffered much heartache.  In terms of my writing, I have had lots of ideas about 9/11 in recent months that I wish I had put in the book.  Why couldn’t the tenth anniversary be in 2012?
  Any other thoughts to share?
Thank you for this opportunity to enter into your world in this way.  These were good questions.

Visit Chuck's blog about issues raised in his new book here: 911aftertenyears.com

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dick Cheney Saves Paris...Interview with Ryan Forsythe

Hi writers,

This interview kicks off a new series of author/writer interviews on the blog.  If you are interested in being interviewed, please email me asap at lhoopes@pomona.edu.  Ryan Forsythe's book is a novel about Dick Cheney and time travel, being released the same week as Cheney's own memoir.  Read below to learn more about Ryan and his book.


Ryan, how did you become interested in writing?

In college I was disappointed with the majority of my classes. I asked all my friends to recommend one decent professor, and I almost signed up for an engineering class (I was a psych. major at the time). At the last minute, a friend recommended Michelle Herman's fiction workshop. I signed up, and on the first day of class—just my luck—learned she was having a baby and would be out all semester. The replacement teacher wasn't very good, but I enjoyed writing the short stories so much that I kept adding writing classes (including Michelle Herman's the following year). Soon I added a creative writing major. Been writing ever since.

What was your first success?

My first writing success was having a travel story selected for an anthology published by Lonely Planet. It paid $100! But it was also an odd start to my writing career, as they made me sign a contract giving them all rights. When it was published, major parts of my story had been changed—including actual quotes. This was nonfiction, mind you, so it was odd that my name was still attached to it, yet I don't believe that the events happened as noted in the final draft. But they bought it—it's their story, and so can apparently change it as they see fit. I will say that since then I've certainly paid much more attention to contracts. Also, I now rarely submit stories to publications seeking all rights.

Do you enjoy writing or is it hard for you?  Describe what your writing process is like.

The hardest part is finding time. When I have the time and space to write and revise, I find it fairly easy and enjoyable. My process is usually to try to get as much down as possible—typing as fast as I can, with almost no editing at first. Sometimes this includes just describing what I want to write, like "insert here a part about how they drive across the state" and then I'm on to writing the next scene. Once I have something to work with, I find I constantly move around from part to part. I might spend an hour working on the first page, then jump to the end for ten minutes, then jump to the middle for five minutes or thirty. In that way, I'm kind-of revising the entire thing at the same time. Eventually, each part feels "finished" and I know the whole thing is ready to share with others for more feedback.

What kind of books do you most enjoy reading, Ryan?

I get bored easily and so I like authors who take changes and try new things. I particularly enjoy novels that play with the idea of genre. Three of my favorites are Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, and Mark Leyner's Tetherballs of Bougainville, though my favorite author is probably Percival Everett. I appreciate that he seems to cover new and different ground in every book—whether western, sci-fi, political satire, epistolary, children's book—you name it, it's always something different. By the way, you didn't ask, but my least favorite books are self-help books.

I may still have one of Everett's novel's I borrowed from you, have to check around and see.  Do you just write books, or do you also write other kinds of things?

I used to write mainly travel stories—even had a newspaper travel column for a bit in Oberlin, Ohio. But I don't travel as much anymore, so my focus has shifted to fiction—both short stories and novels. I've also written a few "children's books for adults"--books that look and sound like children's books, but which cover adult themes. I published one a few years ago, titled The Little Veal Cutlet That Couldn't. It's about the happy cow that goes to the slaughterhouse—told in rhyme with full color illustrations. I have a few more I'd like to get out there, but lately I've been putting all my attention on the novel. I don't do poems.

How did you get the idea for your current book?

I wrote the first draft in 2006, when Cheney was V.P. One day I was thinking of all the things he'd done in his life, wondering what would make a person, for example, vote against a resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela. For some reason I pictured Cheney as a time traveler, stuck in our time and doing what he had to in order to get back home. Soon I had a rough draft, which sat in my computer for years. When I found out Cheney's memoir would be coming out this year, I decided to revisit the book. Since his has the subtitle "A Personal and Political Memoir," I decided to add a similar subtitle to mine. In order to make mine more "personal and political," I added the parts to my book about my own history with politics, as well as my thoughts on politicians and their memoirs.

Will people confuse your book with the book by your subject, Dick Cheney?  If they do, will it help or hurt your book?

I don't think anyone will confuse Cheney's memoir with my novel. If they do, I think it would just draw attention to the book, which certainly won't hurt.

Do you have an agent?  Tell us about your experiences with/without an agent.

No agent. For people really trying to sell the next bestseller, agents are probably necessary, but given the tiny market for the type of things I write, I don't see the value. Or rather, I don't think they'd see the value in having me as a client. Really it's not something I spend any time thinking about.

What are your thoughts about marketing?  Any tips about how to do it well?

A lot of authors seem to hate that part of the process (or say they do), but I enjoy having different things to work on—website or ad design, writing press releases, contacting newspapers, and so forth. It's not my favorite part of writing, but more and more often, independent writers have to manage all aspects themselves, and I'm comfortable with that. As for tips on marketing, I would probably suggest authors try to have more than just the book to discuss. It could be an event or a giveaway, but I think having something extra can help draw attention. For example, With Dick Cheney Saves Paris, we have a soundtrack due out the same day as the novel. It's been fun putting together, and I think the songs fit well with the book. But it's also one more avenue for getting the word out on the book.

If you could achieve one marketing coup for your book, what would it be?

I would love to see a book review somewhere that examines both books side by side, but I'm not convinced a review in the New York Times or someplace similar would help the book reach its true audience. For me, the ideal mention of the book would probably be by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! or by Rachel Maddow on her show, or perhaps a review in Mother Jones. Anywhere that will help the book find an appreciative audience would be great.

If you could go back in time and start over, tell us one thing you have learned that would help you succeed better/faster/with less struggle.

One thing I've learned is the necessity of the struggle itself—in order to grow as a writer, one needs the many moments of doubt and pain, as well as the small successes along the way—all are part of the process.

Any other thoughts to share, Ryan?

As I note in the book itself (it is a meta- novel, after all), I hope the book will not be taken as simply a joke. Yes, it is an absurdist time travel tale about Dick Cheney. But part of my point is that we need to more deeply examine memoirs written by those in power, and not blindly accept their versions of events as the true story. At the end of the day, it's possible that an absurdist sci-fi novel is just as true as a memoir.

To preview an excerpt of the novel, visit http://www.freado.com/book/10562/dick-cheney-saves-paris 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Misplaced Earthquake and Typical Hurricane

The East Coast friends and relatives have our sympathy as nature turns vicious there, first delivering an earthquake in Virginia, which propagated in the harder rock so that it was felt much farther away than it would have been out here.  Then we have Irene, the hurricane that has New York planning to shut down the subways on Saturday perhaps.  And Amtrack and the airlines are canceling travel right and left.  So it's a good time to settle down with a good book and a hurricane lamp to enjoy a nature-induced break from modern life.  That's what these natural disasters impose on us.  The outdoors we ignore most of the time suddenly appears, renders us house-bound or nearly so, but wakes us up to the power and majesty of nature.
Quite a few of my friends attribute all this to global warming but I recall hurricane Hazel's destruction when I was in junior high school, walking home as limbs crashed all around me, half pushed and half pulled by wind gusts that could not keep a constant direction.  I arrived home wet through but exhilarated.  My mom, though, was appalled and thought the school should have kept us there until the winds died down.  No doubt I could have been killed by a falling limb; some of the ones I saw fall were over a foot thick.  But I am glad I didn't miss the immersion in nature's reality.   I hope that wherever you are, you can manage to contact nature regularly and don't have to wait for disasters to make it happen.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Joys of Historical Research: The Battle of Hayes Pond

Hi writer friends,

I am beginning to write a novel about North Carolina.  Incidents that I half remember from when I lived there keep coming up in the back of my mind.  Then I have to see what the public record shows about these half-memories.  This week, I recalled that while I was in high school, the Indians of the coastal region of NC surrounded a Ku Klux Klan rally and won the fight with them hands down.

I remember that the Klan was unpopular, even though there was a lot of racism in my whites-only high school, and that people passed around gossip about the Klan's defeat with great glee, even people I knew had racist attitudes towards black people.  The fact that the Klan behaved like terrorists, hitting at night, keeping their identities secret, and trying to win by intimidation, probably accounts for why my fellow students rejoiced in their loss of the battle.  I hoped to find out more about this event, and turned to the internet to find some sources I could order.  Most sources seemed to be newspaper and magazine articles, at least as cited in the Wikipedia article.  Now I'm really tempted to use this incident in my novel!

Have you ever included real historical incidents in your fiction?  How do people react to that?