Friday, October 24, 2014

Giving Context to Structure

Reprinted from an article that appeared in Flash Fiction Chronicles in June, 2009

Content, structure, and language work together

No one element can make a story work. Many writers use a series of steps—brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revision, editing, and proofreading—to juggle content, structure, and language. The order of each step is a matter of choice and fluctuates with story ideas. Here is my preference:

  •  To create content: brainstorm, free-write, draft a first draft
  •  To apply structure: outline first draft, then draft second draft
  •  To perfect language: revise, edit, and proofread

Content refers to the subject matter of a story

Allow the story to blossom
The who, what, when, where, and how of a specific idea.

A character (the protagonist) finds himself in a difficult situation at a certain time and place and must deal with that situation. 

How the protagonist deals with the situation depends on the protagonist’s wants, character, and the nature of the obstacles he must overcome.

Content provides the “story question or problem” that propels the protagonist through the plot and ultimately reveals a universal theme, a jolt, an epiphany, some small observance of life.

Content evolves from a premise, notes, a rough draft, research, observation, plus the attitudes and concerns of the writer.

Structure refers to the basic organization of a story

Unfold the story for maximum effect
Just as a play is divided into three acts, most stories have three main segments.

The opening (Act 1) gives a story focus and meaning by providing the premise, setting, and tone of the story as well as hints at the nature of obstacles the protagonist will face.

The main body of the story (Act 2, which I like to split into 2A and 2B) focuses on the protagonist’s actions to resolve the story problem.

The conclusion (Act 3) reveals the results of the protagonist’s struggle and infuses that struggle with meaning.

Each segment of a story has a similar structure: the overall story as well as each chapter, each scene within the chapter, each beat within the scene

Structure also involves other devices such as set-ups and pay-offs, sub-plots, and the shaping of structure specifically to content.

Structure evolves from outlines, note-taking, drafts or a combination of the three.

Language refers the diction and style used to express a story’s idea

Choose precise language
Diction refers the specific words that are chosen.

Style refers to how those words are combined, the order, the length of sentences and includes the use of literary devices such as metaphor, symbolism, and allusion.

Grammar keeps writing clear and understandable.

Language evolves from revision and rhythm.

Process is what brings these three basic components of composition together

The rough draft is about content…making it up. The second draft is about structure…making sense. The third draft is about language…making it clear. The fourth draft is about perfection…making it publishable.

Actually, the steps to the writing process bleed into each other like ink dropped from a leaky pen over one spot. The blotches don’t land in exactly the same place, but they seep beyond each other’s borders, and create a new kind of art.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Writing as Matrix

Reprinted from a Flash Fiction Chronicles article published November 29, 2010 
Guess what?  Writing fiction isn’t that easy. We become proficient enough in school to use written communication when needed.  However, writing well, long or short, requires additional expertise.    To write a short story, novel, play, or screenplay calls for a three-dimensional, high-definition, multi-layered endeavor on the part of the writer. This endeavor lands us in a matrix as illusive as anything Keanu Reeves found himself in. Words shift and dissolve, meanings change, the whole becomes lost from its parts.  Diving into the complex world of a story often leaves us confused and frustrated.
Writers know there are rules and guidelines, a craft that must be learned, but many don’t understand how all the different parts will eventually need to mesh together.  I’m not referring to plot-points, sub-plots, or authenticity here, though they are, of course,  parts of the whole.  I’m more concerned with the basics of process, how to “see” a writing project and decipher its mysteries one step at a time.
Visualize a published book, any book, the rectangular shape of it when closed, with a spine, the hard back and front covers,  and paper, the whole thing about an inch or so thick.  Now think of yourself opening that book to page one, laying it flat on a table in front of you.  Stand up and look down at it.
Begin on the blank page
You see words lined up on a page. Sentences and paragraphs. You think the author spun out those words: subject+verb+prepositional phrase for one sentence, something else for the next. It doesn’t seem that complicated.  It’s two-dimensional, but the creation of those words, sentences, and paragraphs is anything but two-dimensional. In your mind, erase all the words from that first page of the book, erase all that follow. Where do YOU start?
Content: What is the story about?
With an idea: content. What the story is about: the who, what, where, why, when, and how.  Now place a clear, book-sized piece of glass on top of that empty book, maybe leave just a little air between the glass and the actual book.  Breathing space.  Can you see it?  The clean white pages of the book through the clear glass sheet?  Now imagine filling that glass with all the words you’d use to say what you want to say.  It won’t all fit.  Suspend your disbelief, and pretend.  That’s layer one of the matrix.
Now put second sheet of glass down–some breathing space again–and notice you can still see the paper and all the content.  The content goes all over the place.  Who’d want to read this?  So maybe on this second pane, you can begin to organize what’s on the first pane.  Spend time thinking about all the different ways you can structure it. Which sentence should go first, second, which paragraph is irrelevant?  What content will move your reader?  What won’t?  That’s layer two.
Structure: How does the content unfold? 
You’re still standing over the book but what you see is a jumble of content on glass 1 and a bunch of arrows and carets and notes on glass 2.  An even bigger mess than before.  You want to quit!
So you take the two layers and fuse them together to come up with what seems to work best. The two pieces of glass come together through “the writing process,” the writer as “glass alchemist.” Now you are back to one pane–1 and 2 have become one.
Place another glass down.  You see the structured content below and you begin to understand that it contains subtle ideas and perhaps one or two big ideas.  These ideas are the reason you are writing this piece in the first place. You probably didn’t know what those ideas were exactly, but something led you to them through your writing,  and now you can see it all, right there, on the pane of glass 3, what this story means.
Meaning: What does the story say?
These thematic purposes, big and small, need to be “joined” to glass 1. You look for key words. If your content and structure is about love, you look for places to set up images of love, symbols of love, expressions of love. Maybe instead of a piece of dialogue, you decide to put in a gesture, a finger running down a cheek. All this goes into the pane of glass 3: anything that clarifies, intensifies, distills the language. Through this process, pane 3 fuses to the first two and again, you have a single piece of glass.
Now you notice the single piece of glass is clearing up. The words are beginning to look like real sentences, clear sentences, leading somewhere important. The page is beginning to look like a page with elements of content, structure, and purpose.
A fourth piece of glass will bring tightening to the story: deletions of unnecessary words, unnecessary phrases, those “darlings” that people say we must kill.
Several more panes can be added too. Subplot on one, back story on another, each piece of glass building one on top of the other until it all reads smoothly, giving the reader the information she needs to become one with the story.
Elements: Everything comes together.
After the final pane is honed and completed, all the glass will fuse together and imprint the page. The story is finished, but let’s go back to the beginning and put the four or five or six panes of glass where they were before they were melted together.
If you look at the “book” from the side view, open it with covers and spine flat on the table and the glass panes stacked on top of each other with just a little air between them, you’ll get the idea of the complexity of the process. One step at a time, looking at different aspects, but managing to remember all the aspects too, adjusting to get them to work together. There could be 20 or 30 layers in a novel, maybe only 4 or 5 in a flash.
Now stand above this book with its layers and look down. Let them fuse again.  It’s back to words in sentences across the page, paragraphs, pages to turn.
When I taught Freshman Comp, many of the students were intimated because they thought of writing in its final published form, a thick rectangular book with three or hundred pages of clean text written by accomplished writers.  They’d shake their heads and groan and mumble, “I don’t even know where to start” or “Nothing I ever write is like this in the book” leading to “I’m going to fail.”
They wanted to give up because they didn’t understand that writing is a process, and understanding the matrix of what really goes into a piece of writing: the who, what, where, when, why, and how of content, the organization of structure,  the writer’s own feelings (theme) that emerge from the text, and the time and effort of revision and proof-reading.  Seeing each of these as a separate step (or a pane of glass) in a process, makes it easy to understand that good results require time, attention, and practice and none of it is easy.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Interview with Susan Lewis: Is it Poetry, Prose Poem, or Flash?

Susan Lewis lives in New York City and edits Posit. She is the author of How to be Another (Červená Barva Press, 2014), State of the Union (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014), The Following Message (White Knuckle Press, 2013), At Times Your Lines (Argotist Ebooks, 2012), Some Assembly Required (Dancing Girl Press, 2011), Commodity Fetishism, winner of the 2009 Červená Barva Press Chapbook Award, and Animal Husbandry (Finishing Line Press, 2008).

Gay Degani: I've read many of your poems – especially your prose poems – but before we get started with discussing that subject, I thought my first question should be more about you, for me and the readers to get to know you. Can you tell me a little more about what brought you to writing? I noticed from your extended biography that you went to law school. Being a lawyer means lots and lots of writing, did that play any part in your decision to turn to writing?

Susan Lewis: It’s true that law involves plenty of writing – and reading. That was probably why I thought I might be better suited to the field than I was! I’d been a bookworm since I was tiny: a bit sickly, I was always reading. I was also taken all over the world (school be damned!) by my parents, who were globe-trotting Hollywood producers – and spent a lot of time in planes, trains, cars, and hotel rooms – reading.

By the time I was a teenager I had powered through the canon. As for writing, when I was six or seven, I fell in love with a slim volume of poems by Basho, and started writing Haiku, Tanka, etc. I kept writing poetry, plays, and short stories until I went to college, where I studied – and therefore wrote – literature and film criticism. After which I wanted to be “relevant” and “engaged” in social justice – hence my foray into law. The fact is law taught me plenty about discipline and accuracy. But it was not a great fit. I’m no warrior – I’ve always loathed competition. And intellectually, I’m more intuitive than methodical, preferring insight to argumentation, implication to explication.

GD: What launched you from law to writing, the actual step between pragmatic practice to creative work? How did that evolve for you?

SL: Ah, well, like almost everything I’ve ever decided to “start,” I had no idea what I was getting into when I “tried” writing! After getting my BA in only three years, going straight through law school, and finishing a very demanding stint as a law clerk to a US District Court judge, I decided to nourish my soul by “taking a year off” to write. 

Well, that year turned into a few, during which I discovered, to my chagrin, that I had no desire to go back into law. For a while I wrote screenplays, but discovered that world wasn’t right for me either. So I decided to pursue an MFA in fiction, which is all I wrote for many years. Then I morphed (yet again!) into a poet, albeit one with a foot still in the narrative door. But the fact is I’ve never lost my pragmatic side: so alongside the writing, I taught for a few years, and then served as a fiction editor, poetry editor, guest editor, managing editor, and finally, founding editor of the journal I run now (Posit).

GD: Let’s talk about your work!! One of the reasons I wanted to have an opportunity to interview you is because you do have one foot wholly into poetry and the other foot straddling the rather unclear line between poetry and fiction, what some people would call “prose poetry.” I began thinking about this “unclear line” between the two when I read one of my stories at an event and received several compliments on my poem! It was narrative flash, but because it was read aloud, I suppose it was harder to tell.

When I met you earlier this year, you introduced yourself first as a poet, then laughed and said something about how your poems sometimes merge with fiction (not your exact words, my apologies). I wanted to know more. What about prose poems? Are there distinct features to each side of the line, prose v. poem? Does it matter what we call them?

SL: Gay, I love these questions. In fact, the prose poem is a form with a venerable history (dating back to Beaudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé), and so yes, I believe it is a term with meaning, and not a shallow or arbitrary label, which is not to say that many prose pieces might not reasonably reside in more than one category.

From Beaudelaire
First and foremost, it comes down to the author’s intention/understanding – in which tradition she would like her work to be situated. But it’s also a question of the publisher’s understanding. For instance, although I tend to consider most of my short prose pieces poems, I have had a number of them published “across the aisle,” as flash fiction! And that’s fine with me – I’m not rigid about the label. But I do think there are ramifications.

For instance, in the readership. As we both know, fiction and poetry readers are pretty distinct populations, with very little overlap. (As are, to a significant extent, their publishers). Naturally, they’ll view the work from quite different frames of reference. This also speaks to how the author wants her work approached – which of its features she’s hoping readers will engage.

For myself, I’ve written most, but not all, of my short prose pieces in the belief that I was writing poetry – without necessarily knowing, during the composition process, whether they would end up lineated or in blocks. I also considered them poetry partly because I was inspired by, and responding to, the work of writers generally considered “poets.” In addition, I envisioned poetry readers as their “target audience.” On the other hand, for years I wrote short stories, even very short “flash” pieces, which were informed by a consciousness of, and admiration for, an entirely different literary corpus. (As were my intended readers).

As for what makes fiction “fiction,” and what makes poetry “poetry” – any generalization can be shattered by the right counterexample. Nonetheless, casting a piece as a work of fiction invites comparison to literature that tends to emphasize character, description, dramatic arc, etc. Poetry, on the other hand, is presumed (or permitted) to be more about form or language itself, with a more primary focus on rhythm, texture, music, argument, etc. But we don’t have to look at prose poetry to see the lines blur; consider, on the one hand, Beckett’s fiction (or even Joyce’s); and narrative poetry on the other (Dante, Milton, Browning, Tennyson, etc.)

GD: I love learning about this. To introduce readers to your work, I selected one I particularly like that was published in the Brooklyn Rail earlier this year. What draws me to this work is the wordplay throughout, the way so many words and phrases echo each other. For example,

From: “Say What You Want”

Reach across this bloody chamber floor, clamor with comrades clambering for pale rays grasped like straws, gasped & ghostly. Sipping light like salamanders, cave-bound.
“Chamber,” “clamor,” and “comrades clambering” as well as “grasped” and “gasped” and “light” “like.” Is this what’s called an internal rhyming scheme? I’ve read poems here and there over the years, but haven’t studied them since college so the terminology is not part of my personal lexicon. 

Can you talk a little bit about the four pieces published under the heading from State of the Union

Readers of this interview can find them here: Brooklyn Rail/Susan Lewis

SL: I’m glad you like those pieces! I’m not sure I’d use the word “scheme,” but what you are identifying are indeed internal rhymes (as well as other poetic devices, such as alliteration and assonance). Since these are prose poems, as opposed to lineated verse, there are no line or stanzaic, breaks – so in a sense, every prosodic device is “internal.”

Those pieces are from my most recent chapbook, State of the Union, a group of twenty-five prose poems struggling, more and less playfully, as well as more and less abstractly, with the question of union – on the personal as well as social scale. I’m interested in the energy and provocation generated by wrestling to unite, or at least encompass, oppositions.

It strikes me as a quixotic struggle parallel to our struggle as humans, which I think is both imperative and impossible, to “only connect,” as Forster so succinctly admonished. Just consider the irony of that word, “only!” In a sense I’m just reaching for the artistry of Forster’s epigraph – using compression to encompass sincerity and irony, darkness and light, bleakness and humor.  

That little book has been fortunate to receive several generous reviews, but one that particularly moved me was by Moira Richards in a June issue of the Cape Times, treating my poems as relevant to the struggle for unity and dialogue in South Africa!

GD: You really know your stuff. What advice would you give a writer who finds herself (or himself) trying to decide which way to write a piece, as poetry or prose? In other words, if they feel they need to decide because they’re buried in a muddle of words they like, what criteria would you have them use?

SL: First, I’d think about which kind of reader I was wishing for. Then, I’d try writing it one way and if it flowed, I’d take that as a good sign. If the process stalled, or seemed to be stultified by the task of fitting into that particular form, I’d try changing it up, and see what happens. I believe in letting go and listening – in letting the piece you’re writing tell you what it wants to be – which can sometimes be surprisingly far from our original intentions.

GD: And my last question, could you please name your inspirations in life and in writing?

SL: Wow! The first thing I need to do is add the words “some of” before “your!” Writers who have inspired me include, but are definitely not limited to: Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Julio Cortazar, Russell Edson, Michael Palmer, Bin Ramke, John Ashbery, Jose Saramago, Jim Crace, Yasunari Kawabata, Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee…not to mention the extraordinary writers I continue to discover almost every day.

In line with my fondness for duality, I’m inspired by two radically dissimilar groups of people in my life. There are those with the spirit to endure and even thrive, despite the often harsh challenges life throws at them. Others decline the refuge of optimistic delusion, and brave the pain caused by facing reality head-on. Their common denominator is courage, which inspires me in every shape and size.


New from Susan Lewis:

This Visit
BlazeVOX [books]
Paperback: 104 pages
ISBN: 978-60964-169-6
cover art by Michael Janis

An elegy to this visit of the living to our own existence, This Visit is a pastiche of lyrical dissonances assembled from intimate voices yearning for connection. The world of these poems is constantly struggling to take form, like Michelangelo’s slaves emerging from the half-hewn stone, or Duchamp’s nude descending a multitude of linguistic staircases by way of half-lines, half-steps, snatches of overheard lines, and the primordial rhythms and rhymes ingrained in our bones.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Never Too Late to Write

Reprinted from an article published in Coastlines, Summer, 2014
My novel, What Came Before, took more than twelve years to write.
I’m not bragging about that. The book is only 242 pages long and it’s not a deep philosophical treatise on man’s inhumanity to man. There are no white whales, no Dublin boarding houses, no Madeleines, so why did it take me so long?

Well, life got in the way.

My dream of becoming a writer began in childhood. My mother read me the Bobbsey Twins, and my dad introduced me to the dauntless Nancy Drew. After devouring Little Women, I knew I had to be a writer, just like Jo. I drew pictures of books, my books, with enticing titles along the spines, my name just below. At 12, I scribbled a “novel” in purple ink about the Twellington twins and their nine siblings.

I was surprised in high school to find out that my Creative Writing teacher had entered one of my short stories in the Atlantic Monthly High School Writing Contest and more surprised when I won second place. “Collision,” I thought, was just the beginning.

After graduating with a B.A. from UCSB in 1970 and getting a Masters’ Degree in English at Long Beach State in 1971, I found myself in need of a career—or at least a job. I had to support myself, but I was certain I could dig up the “spare time” to write. As a kid of the 50s and 60s, I thought time grew like fat plums waiting to be plucked, but as a full-time worker bee, I couldn’t find the tree, let alone the fruit. Still I thought, one day, some day.

Now I realize I had to live my life before I could write. When I look back, I can identify those moments of learning that gave me the confidence and know-how to put words on paper.

As a trainee in a department store executive training program, I learned that the Junior Department in Del Amo was only a small segment of huge enterprise. Behind the selling floors, the dressing rooms, and the customers was a complex operation spread over 40+ stores as well as a blocks-long system of offices and warehouses. In the beginning I vaguely understood the size and shape of the company, but not its intricacies, how it actually functioned. Later, as a writer, this experience helped me understand that behind a basic storyline, there is structure, a way of doing things, a way of controlling results.

As a Gap store manager, my job was about people—customers and employees. I understood something about human nature, but not enough. My first lesson came before I was even hired. The company gave all new employees an “honesty” test. It seemed obvious to me that anyone could pass whether they were honest or not, so I asked the man who hired me if anyone ever failed. His answer?

Yes, they did. A high percentage. This surprised me and forced me to become more aware of how very different we are from each other. Later, as a district manager, when I had to figure out how to foster top performances in others, I developed more insights into what motivates and what discourages people. Strong characters in good stories have to want something. What pulls the reader along is how those characters respond to the obstacles put between them and their desires.

Tupperware came next. Yep, I learned everything there is to know about eradicating mold from my refrigerator, but more importantly, this job forced me to rely on myself to get what I wanted. It taught me to rally to the task, to observe and imitate successful behaviors, to give encouragement as well as to accept it, and to think on my feet. Selling Tupperware made me feel something like a stand-up comedian—the more they laughed, the more I sold—and I became addicted to being “in the zone,” that feeling that comes when everything I do works. I had forgotten how that felt. I knew it was finally time to write. My first screenplay was called “Plastic Dreams,” about a man who seeks refuge in selling Tupperware.

I began to write screenplays, stories, random poems, and journal entries. I took extension classes, went to conferences and workshops. By the time my kids left home to chase their own dreams, I was beginning to understand what made good writing. I accepted that writing well doesn’t just happen, but that it comes with practice and study.

I am proudest of not giving up, of refusing to abandon my writing dream. Many of my pieces of both fiction and non-fiction have been published including sixty short stories, an eight-story collection about mothers and daughters called Pomegranate, a second collection almost completed, a novella serialized in Pure Slush’s 2014 project, and of course, my suspense novel, What Came Before. I’m 65 years old.  Thank goodness, it’s never too late.

 What Came Before

Sunday, September 21, 2014

An Amazon Review of What Came Before by Rachael Warecki!

This review is from: What Came Before (Kindle Edition)

I started Gay Degani's "What Came Before" with the vow to read only a few chapters before heading to bed. Famous last words, those: I stayed up until I finished the whole book, I was so compelled to find out what happened next. "What Came Before" is lean, spare, and tightly plotted, without sacrificing any of its literary qualities. The protagonists are sympathetic and realistically flawed, the language is beautiful, and Los Angeles -- both the present-day city and the L.A. of the 20th century -- is lovingly and accurately rendered.

Abbie Palmer, nee Hart, is shocked out of her mid-life crisis when a woman named Olita shows up on her doorstep, claiming that they're half-sisters -- both daughters of former pin-up girl Virginia Hart, who committed suicide when Abbie was four. The next day, Olita dies under suspicious circumstances, and Abbie resolves to find out the truth about her mother's past while also solving the mystery of Olita's murder. With the help of Makenna, Olita's daughter and Abbie's potential niece, Abbie sets out on a cross-SoCal journey that takes her from Pasadena to the High Desert, encountering old Hollywood producers, civil rights activists, and vengeful singers along the way.

Degani flings readers into her plot head-long, and the story is fast-paced: Degani covers a lot of ground in just over 200 pages, primarily by focusing tightly on the mystery; at times, Abbie's relationship with her husband seems to fall by the wayside. That said, Abbie's relationship with her maybe-niece, Makenna, is fully realized and conscientiously developed, and I found myself rooting for the best of all possible outcomes for the both of them. My only nitpick is that sometimes information was repeated from chapter to chapter, but I suppose that's the result of the novel moving over from an online serial format. Definitely a book I'll be recommending to my other mystery-loving friends!

About Rachael
Rachael Warecki is an alumna of Scripps College, Loyola Marymount University, and the Teach for America '08 corps. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Masters Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Midwestern Gothic, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.

Find Rachael on Twitter: @RachaelLaWriter
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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Talking with Len Joy about his novel, "American Past Time"

Len Joy’s first novel, American Past Time was released April 19, 2014 by Hark! New Era Publishing. He is the author of two short fiction collections, Casualties and Survivors. His work has appeared in FWRICTION:Review, The Journal of Compressed CreativeArts, Johnny America, Specter Magazine, Annalemma, Washington Pastime, Hobart, and Pindeldyboz. He is a competitive age-group triathlete. In June 2012 he completed his first (and probably only) Ironman at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Gay Degani: Your debut novel, American Past Time, is set in the middle of America (Missouri) in the middle of the twentieth century. Can you talk about what drew you to this era? Which came first, the All-American sport of baseball or the time frame?

Len Joy: The novel has a twenty year arc, and it covers the most tumultuous decades of the post-war era. The civil rights movement, the space program and finally the war in Vietnam are all part of the environment in which the novel plays out.

I wanted to write a story about what happens to a man and his family after the cheering stops. What happens when the hometown hero becomes just another guy punching a clock? What happens when our hero loses the respect of the son who thought he was perfect?

I knew I wanted to weave into the story, the history of the times in which I grew up. And I chose a small town setting because, in my experience, it is much harder to be anonymous in a small town. Everyone knows your story. That can be great when you’re the hero, and it can be tough when you fall off the pedestal.

I’ve always loved sports, and I have an appreciation for the perhaps undeserved attention young athletes receive if they are really good at what they do. In this era, baseball, more than football or basketball, was truly America’s pastime. That’s probably not true today.

The Midwest locale, the small town setting, and the baseball action all provided what I felt was the appropriate backdrop for what is a quintessentially American story.

GD: These are all very conscious decisions to create a “quintessentially American story” and that’s what you’ve done. Baseball also seems like the perfect sport for that era. You say you wanted to explore what happens to “a man and his family after the cheering stops.” Why did you focus on this idea?

LJ: Many of us when we are young think we know what we want. We have dreams we pursue and we make decisions aimed at achieving our goals. We choose a path and if we don’t realize our dream, we just have to deal with it. How we deal with it can affect not just us, but our entire family. I was interested particularly in how a “failure” can affect the relationship between a father and a son and between a husband and wife.

I had a great relationship with my father. With both my parents. They were always there for me. They let me grow up and make my own mistakes, but I knew that they would always be there for me. I try to be that kind of parent to my children. Similarly, I think I’ve had a good relationship with my wife. She’s hung in there for forty years so I must be doing something right.

In playing that game of “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” for me, the idea of losing the respect of your children and your wife had to be at the top of the list. I wanted to explore that. How does someone deal with that kind of loss?

Most of us watch pageantry like the Olympics. It’s fun to celebrate the winners. Some have great stories, but for everyone up on the podium, there are hundreds who weren’t quite good enough or lucky enough. I wanted to tell a story about one of those folks who didn’t quite make it.

GD: You seem to have a stable life, strong relationships with the people that matter, which led you to approach this novel with the question “what am I afraid of?” The stability also makes me curious about your writing journey, when did you start, what made you want to write, what has stood in your way.  

LJ: I had some writing aspirations from an early age. I can remember I asked my mom to sign me up for a summer school writing course when I was in 6th grade and that was an unusual request because I would normally spend every day at the park or at the lake. I took a lot of grief from my buddies for voluntarily going to school in the summer.

When I went off to college I still had this inclination that I would be a writer. I don’t think it was the burning desire I see in many younger writers today. Maybe more than anything I liked the “idea” of being a writer. Anyway, I became an English major, but in my second semester I had one of my papers harshly critiqued (rightly so) by my professor and that criticism convinced me I didn’t have what it took to be a writer so I shifted my major to Economics and eventually went on to business school.

Thirty years later, after that aborted start, I got a mass mailing solicitation to take a creative writing course at the University of Chicago’s Graham School for continuing education. I enjoyed the course, found I had toughened up enough to accept helpful criticism, and I kept at it. That was ten years ago. Every summer from then on I went to a summer workshop. I started with the Iowa Festival (which I loved; great location, people, instructors; no pretensions;) and later on Tin House, Squaw Valley, Skidmore, Norman Mailer, Sewanee and last year, Bread Loaf. 

The advantage of trying to become a writer later in life is that for me I was financially stable and I could devote more or less full-time to the effort. The disadvantage, of course, is that I don’t have decades to figure it out.

Another advantage is that during my business career (I owned an engine remanufacturing company). I had to endure rejection from customers as well as challenges from suppliers, employees and the always helpful government agencies. After that experience the rejections from literary magazines, agents, and the occasional snarky comments during workshops just don’t bother me that much. 
However, one lesson I learned when I was a sensitive teenager was that it is important when we critique others to be sensitive to their feelings. We need to be honest in our feedback, but we have don’t have to be harsh or cruel.

GD: What authors or works have influence your writing over the years?

LJ: Hemingway and Fitzgerald were influences. I read most of their novels in my early twenties before I had serious writerly aspirations. Both of them had clean, spare styles, and they told engaging stories that transported me and kept me turning the page.

John Updike’s Rabbit books were also a major influence. He created a flawed character that I cared about. Each of those four novels came out at about ten-year intervals, and it was fascinating to follow the exploits of the characters as they aged.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read from Russell Banks. I don’t know if he has influenced me, but he has certainly impressed me.

I haven’t loved everything Joyce Carol Oates has written, but that’s because she’s written so much: forty plus novels, a ton of essays, reviews, and short stories. Her short story “Where are you going, where have you been?” gives me a chill every time I read it. It is also my candidate for the worse movie adaptation of all time.

I would love to write a novel half as good as The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry, my candidate for the best film adaptation of all time. I watched that film at least half dozen times when I was in college, although that may have been because of the scene where Cybil Shepherd strips on the diving board.

Elmore Leonard is also one of my favorites. I aspire to someday write with as much transparency as he was able to achieve in his stories. He never got in the way of his characters or the action.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

SoCal Voices: Gay Degani, Bonnie ZoBell, and Désirée Zamorano, Sept 5 Traxx Bar 7:00PM

Writ Large Press / DTLAB / #90for90 present

SoCal Voices: Gay Degani, Bonnie ZoBell, and Désirée Zamorano

Join us for the reading, conviviality and another terrific #90for90 event.

Three dynamic women read from their recently published novels. We tackle family drama, racial tensions and unexpected catastrophe.

Whaddya expect from SoCal Voices?

Friday, September 5, at 7:00pm - 9:00pm
@Traxx Bar at Union Station, 800 N Alameda St, Los Angeles, California 90012

For full calendar of events: