Back Porch Winter 2017
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I was 11 years old when I read Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary and then, Superfudge by Judy Blume. I immediately began work on my first book – Ralphie! The protagonist was an even mixture of Ramona and Fudge. It was borderline plagiarism. I never finished that particular project, but I’ve been writing ever since. I love Cleary and Blume. Those wonderful women made me the man I am today.
What was the most embarrassing moment of your writing career?
Describing the gore coming from a goblin’s arrow wound was probably not the best way to start my short story assignment in seventh grade. I had ignored the “short” part and decided to write a novel. In a presentation of our work at Holy Trinity Catholic School, fifteen minutes had elapsed with carnage strewn across every dwarven mountain and elfish glade. Parents, nuns, classmates, and golden Jesus figurines eyed my parents wondering where they went wrong. Sensing a growing horror in the audience after ten pages, I killed off the main characters with a well-timed dragon entrance and retreated to my cold desk, fifty pages unread, eyes on my shoes, and a disregard for the clapping that arose a few seconds too late to seem sincere. Thus far, this has been my most embarrassing writing moment.
What was the worst or strangest rejection that you’ve ever received?
When I started out, I wrote horror and sci-fi for small magazines. The stuff I wrote was bizarre and, as happens in the genres, not always pretty. I submitted some rather tasteless poems to Grue Magazine once, and the editor responded with a handwritten rejection: “This poem is an insult to taste and decency, but that would be all right if not for the cheesy rhymes.” I’ve always loved that note.
When I wrote my second novel, (which, much like my first novel, was not very good and will never see the light of day), I sent it out to agents and publishers. In those days, this process was conducted entirely by snail mail. One of the publishers did not even bother to send me a form letter in response. Instead, they just sent me back the book’s cover page, with big red letters scrawled across it: “WHY SHOULD I CARE?” Ouch. But, hey, rejection letters are just a part of a writer’s life. If you can take one like that, you can take anything.
“There’s some entertaining stuff in there but it doesn’t work as poetry (which is what we publish). Good luck with the script – maybe clear concentrate on playwrighting?”
I should have known better….
I have had many rejections as both a writer and a photographer. This one was the most painful, poignant, and, by far, the saddest. However, when I am rejected today, memories of this afternoon inspire me to keep working.
The CH-47 Chinook was a US work horse in the Nam in 1969. Playfully dubbed the “Shit Hook” by GI’s, the big bird hauled troops, munitions, water, and even smaller disabled choppers. It was a ponderous, brown, airborne turd that was indispensable. One afternoon on a day when the temp hit a blistering 115, I watched as a ‘Hook lifted off the pad heading for Chu Lai with 25 grunts and beaucoup cargo. As the pregnant bird edged off the mountain top straight into airspace, it suddenly lost power. In what seemed like diabolical, slow motion replay, the craft bounced end over end down the mountainside. It finally settled near the valley floor where it burst into flames.
GI’s poured down the steep slopes in a frantic rescue operation. I did what I was trained to do. I shot images as heroes carried up the badly burned and the dead. Seven fatalities and nineteen injured. Later, GI’s accosted me about my photo taking. They were highly pissed. I said little except to mumble that I was a photojournalist just doing my job.
Soon someone had reported me to our burly battalion commander, LTC Bob Longino. He sent for me on the double time. He was a bear of man who listened stoically as I softly explained that I was just following the mentoring that I gotten from ace AP photographers like Ollie Noonan and Horst Faas. I offered to cough up my roll of undeveloped Kodachrome. Longino’s face was etched in grief over his lost troops. He looked me squarely in the eye and said, ” That won’t be necessary.” My only consolation came a few weeks later when I got to shoot photos of Longino awarding medals to the heroes who saved so many that tragic day. Just a combat photojournalist finishing a job.
What’s the hardest or most interesting challenge when writing about the South?
Everything down here is strangely wrought with pretense. This pretense in itself is strange as well. Rules hidden within rules created by your strange uncle who had his own secret set of rules. And so on.
The South is a never-ending source of inspiration. I think it’s the air—just as Venice has the so-called “Golden Hour” that painters lust after, the South’s air brings out colors that, in other locales, aren’t visible to the naked eye. Rose petals show their ultraviolet underpinnings; oak leaves drip their tannins; mockingbirds stand proud as eagles on road signs, their beaks glowing like graphite. So much of writing is learning to really see, to hear—the South provides material with embarrassing generosity. It’s almost a question of what not to write. Once, when my wife was asked to volunteer at a girls’ camp near our home, we went to inspect the property before the campers arrived. It was near dusk, deep in the Pine Belt, and the mosquitos sallied forth to feast on us. Then, following the mosquitos, a colony of bats surrounded us in a black, squeaking tornado. Watching the fading sunlight glint between bats’ bodies, their leathery wings and hairy bodies lit in orange—how can you not find something to write?
What would you change about your writing if you could?
I wish I were the kind of fiction writer who could plot out my story or novel before I start writing. A lot of writers I admire work in this way, like Ann Patchett, John Irving, J.K. Rowling. I wish I could write like this, but I can’t. I’ve tried, but my writing seems flat and lacking energy. It seems that in order for me to convey suspense, I must keep myself in suspense while I am writing.
Don’t get me wrong—I do a lot of preparation, I make extensive notes, I think a lot about my characters, their qualities and their actions. There is usually a scene I have in mind that I am working towards, but often I don’t really know what will happen until it is happening. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to say that I get into a kind of rhythm. The downside is that I make a lot of false starts, I follow leads that go nowhere, and sometimes I have to get rid of a couple of months of work. It’s painful but I have to be ruthless. If I were the kind of writer who could figure it all out and then write it, I would save a lot of time and effort, and I would be more productive. It seems to me that the way I work is wasteful. But it’s the only way I know how to do it.
If I could change one thing about my writing, it would be with my patience, or lack of, for revisions. My poetry comes in flashes, and a poem is most often finished in one sitting, in one draft. I will make minor changes as I type it (I generally hand write first drafts), but once it is typed out, that is the finished product. I Have friends who are wonderful revisionists. I am not. If I attempt to rewrite a section, it seems to come apart and usually ends up in the trash. I guess that is my meter concerning a poem working for me–it will work all at once or not at all. Still, I have probably trashed some potentially good poems had I the patience and skill for revising.
What’s the best line you’ve ever written?
“The cicadas squalled like boiled babies.”
“Whitney, honey,” Sugar said, sweet as pie, as the cop did his routine to settle her into the backseat, “I wish I had some vodka in my hairbrush.” From “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” published in Gravel
What’s your advice for new and emerging writers?
Everyone has advice for new writers. Read a lot, they say. True. Keep trying, yes. Don’t worry about rejections, yes. Be true to your artistic vision, do what you know feels right for you. But I would also add, make a rhythm for yourself. The mechanics of actually sitting and WRITING are critical or you will never write anything. Someone called it “seat time”, sitting your rear down somewhere conducive and just grinding out some writing. You must make time for this somehow. A schedule, whether in the bathroom, late at night, on the back porch, whatever and wherever, must be created. Otherwise there will be nothing but excuses about why the piece never got finished, or revised.
All stories deserve to be written, but not all need to be read. Knowing the difference between the two is key.
Read everything you can get your hands on. Write about the things that matter to you most and don’t be afraid to go down into the dark places. Experience things. Don’t be afraid. Go out into the world. Eat weird food. Have conversations with strangers. Make out with stray cats. Experience everything you can. Pay attention. Breathe in and breathe out. See why this place smells different from that place. Decide what you call home. Decide where to go from there. Run around and experience things, and read all the time.