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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
May262015

Brandon R. Brown

How did you become a writer?

I've always been interested in writing, starting in elementary school. While pursuing scientific training, I maintained this interest by taking extra workshop-style courses, even in graduate school. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

In terms of being a reader, I may have learned the most the work of Grace Paley, in terms of how she listens to her characters and tells a story. I've had a great run of luck with instructors, but in chronological order I would list Max Apple, Glenn Blake, Tracy Daugherty, Ehud Havazelet, and Marjorie Sandor as having the greatest impact on my writing as an adult. I'd also like to credit John McNicholas for really helping me understand how to properly use quotations in non-fiction. He emphasized using quotation where the speaker said it best (or most distinctively) and not using quotation where you, the writer, can say it better. So now I'll often just mix in a quoted phrase or half a sentence instead of a full, long quote. 

When and where do you write?

I love to work early in the day. My ideal day of work would have editing from 5-6 a.m. and writing / re-writing from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. It's very rare to create the ideal day, given that I'm a science prof by day, so I wedge writing time into the early mornings and weekend mornings. 

I work as far from our two cats as I can get, usually in a little unwarranted space next to our garage, where I'm sealed off from the little beasts.

What are you working on now?

I'm very interesting in the topic of "time," but this project is in its infancy.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I don't think so. Perhaps project block. I'm not a fiction writer, so I don't push myself in that imaginative way. I more often have to search around for a non-fiction project that will pull me into obsessive mode, where I need to be. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

A. Find a regular way to disconnect from the internet, and make yourself write every day.  My little writing space is actually out of range of our wireless router, which is perfect.

B. Take editing more seriously than writing. Return again and again to your drafts.  I think the editing side of a writer's personality must be equal parts merciless on detail and forgiving on risk.

Brandon R. Brown is a Professor of Physics at the University of San Francisco. His biophysics work on the electric sense of sharks, as covered by NPR and the BBC, has appeared in Nature, The Physical Review, and other research journals. His writing for general audiences has appeared in New Scientist, SEED, the Huffington Post, and other outlets. His first book is a biography, Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War (Oxford, 2015).

Tuesday
May192015

Delilah Dawson

How did you become a writer?

I grew up thinking writers, like doctors and nuns, felt a calling deep in their souls. I never felt that calling, and writing a novel seemed impossible, so I didn't consider myself a writer--even though I wrote poetry and tons of ad copy. When I was 32, my youngest child stopped sleeping, and so did I. My brain... broke. I started hallucinating. When I asked my psychologist husband for help, he set up a schedule to ensure more sleep and suggested I find something creative to do just for me, like write a book. The part of my brain that firmly believed I couldn't write a book was too broken to fight it. I wrote my first book in 2009, queried it, shelved it, wrote another book, and found a literary agent by March 2010. My third book sold at auction in a three book deal and became Wicked as They Come. Once I'd written one book and knew it was possible, it became a compulsion. Before I became a novelist, I felt like there was something I was meant to do in life and I simply hadn't found it yet. Now I have.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

Stephen King's On Writing is the number one book that has influenced my writing. Before reading it I assumed that his first drafts were flawless. Once I understood that even the greats require revision, polishing, and outside help, I felt more confident in my own skills. Dr. Karen Lanning taught me how to write a research paper in 11th grade, and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander taught me that Romance wasn't just fluff. There's something to learn from every book, even if all you learn is why you threw it against the wall.

When and where do you write?

I'm lucky now-- both of my kids are in school. I do my best writing in the morning with a cup of coffee, but I make it a point not to let my writing routine become precious. As long as I have earbuds and my current book playlist, I can write almost anywhere. I especially love writing in airports.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I'm focused on launch day for HIT, which involves thanking people and interacting with new readers online. Once the excitement has subsided, I need to work on a horror story for an anthology and the sequel to Wake of Vultures, tentatively titled Horde of Crows.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

When I was younger and paralyzed by the fear of messing up, yes. I feel like writer's block is a great way to frame any excuse we use for not writing, just as "the Muse" is a scapegoat for our own brain's laziness. Writers under contract don't have the leisure to wait for a Muse to show up--if you want to pay the bills, you have to write. In a way, there's a beauty to that--if the writing doesn't have to be perfect and flawless and inspired, you can sit down anywhere, anytime, and write anything, then just fix it later. So I always suggest that the best way to get around writer's block is to accept that all first drafts are word vomit, then sit down, open the doc, and write it anyway.

What’s your advice to new writers?

To embrace imperfection and playfulness and write what makes you feel passionate without worrying about genre, qualifications, or talent. Writing, to me, is not this stiff and stilted exercise in constant one-upmanship. It's telling your story as only you can, providing entertainment and escape and connection. And finish your book-- one crappy first draft is worth more than a thousand perfect first pages.

Delilah S. Dawson is the author of HIT, Servants of the Storm, the Blud series, and short stories in the Carniepunk, Violent Ends, and Three Slices anthologies. Her next book is Wake of Vultures, written as Lila Bowen and out this October. She lives in Georgia with her husband and children and can be found online at www.whimsydark.com.

Tuesday
May122015

Victoria Strauss

How did you become a writer?

I enjoyed writing stories when I was young (and illustrating them too, with really embarrassing results), but it never occurred to me to think of writing as more than a hobby. I didn't discover my writing vocation until I was 17, and started writing a novel more or less on impulse (I wanted an excuse to take a year off between high school and college). I never expected to finish it--but I did, and by the time I was done I knew that writing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I sent out a lot of queries (to publishers--this was back when most publishers accepted submissions directly from writers, and agents weren’t as powerful as they are now), and got a lot of rejections. Eventually, my manuscript landed on the desk of an editor who was planning to start a literary agency. She offered to represent me, and after several years and a lot more rejections, sold it to a wonderful publisher.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

This is always a very tough question for me, since there have been so many, at different times in my life--from the authors I read as a child (T.S. White, Elizabeth Goudge, E. Nesbit, and all of Andrew Lang's fairy books) to the writers I discovered as a teenager (Thomas Hardy, Mary Renault, Jean Genet, and a whole range of SF/fantasy writers, from Harlan Ellison to Anne McCaffrey) to the very eclectic reading I do as an adult, which right now is a mix of SF/fantasy, mystery, and mainstream. My favorite recent reads are Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance.

I can also tell you what has not been an influence: the creative writing course that I was foolish enough to take in college, taught by a minimally-published professor who told me that if I were serious about a writing career, I’d stop writing speculative fiction. Fortunately, I trusted my gut, which told me he was wrong. Even so, it was a demoralizing experience.

When and where do you write?

I write in the afternoons, and often into the evenings. I have an office, but it’s full of non-writing-related stuff, such as bills that need to be paid and correspondence that needs to be answered, and I find it distracting; I can do nonfiction writing anywhere, but for fiction, I need calm and quiet (I’m not one of those writers who has a playlist). So I have my laptop set up on the dining room table, where unfinished tasks don’t reproach me, and I can look out at my garden and watch the birds at the bird feeders.

I’m a highly distractible writer, and will seize any excuse to procrastinate, so I use a program called Freedom that blocks the Internet for whatever period of time I choose. It helps keep me on track; otherwise, it’s too easy for me to use a tough scene or a bit of necessary research as an excuse to jump online.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a couple of different projects. One is a YA in a fantasy setting based on Renaissance Venice, about a girl who has been brought up on her father’s estate without any exposure to the outside world, and what happens when a thief climbs over the walls and accidentally exposes a secret that her father has kept hidden. The other is for the adult market, about an important religious-magical ritual that goes wrong due to human error, and the spiral of disastrous consequences caused by the religious and secular leadership’s attempt to conceal it.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Yes.

Many people believe—and argue passionately—that there’s no writer’s block, only lazy writers. What they’re usually talking about—and what many writers are also talking about when they say they’re blocked—is the normal process of getting stuck on a scene or a character or a plot turn, and being temporarily unable to move forward until they figure out what’s gone wrong, or deal with whatever distracting part of their life is pushing them off track. We all get stuck from time to time. I get stuck a lot.

Block is something different—at least, it was for me. It wasn’t getting hung up on a bad character choice or an inconsistent plot direction, and having to work out how to fix it. It wasn’t about the words on the page at all. It was about the words in my head.

I’ve always had words in my head--descriptive sentences that arrive out of nowhere, snippets of dialog in my characters’ voices. I also play a constant mental game of making up phrases or paragraphs about things I see and feel, trying to find the exact right words to capture a mood or an object or a landscape. But when I was blocked, all those words—along with the desire to find them--went away. It wasn’t as if I became aphasic. But the words that normally swarm around in my head, that define the world for me, that I love shaping and playing with, simply were not there. 

I was aware of the change, of course. Also of the fact that I wasn’t writing any fiction and couldn’t even come up with any ideas for writing fiction. But I didn’t connect this shift in my mental landscape with writer’s block until two years later, after I’d started, very hesitantly, to write fiction again. In the way it felt to return to writing, I realized that my dry spell wasn’t just the laziness and self-indulgence I’d been beating myself up about, or mild PTSD from a previous horrible publishing experience, but some deeper malfunction in the part of me where my fiction is sourced. A door inside me had closed for a while. I only understood that when it began to open again.

I’m honestly not sure where the malfunction came from, or why it happened. I’d gone through tough times before, and never been blocked. I also don’t know why it resolved. Now the words fill my head again--but I also know I can lose them. Every time I sit down to write, there’s always that little bit of dread that it will happen again.

What’s your advice to new writers?

There’s only one rule of writing: there are no rules. Beware of anyone who tells you that there are. If you’re a planner, for instance, don’t feel you have to follow the advice of those who claim that the only authentic way of writing is by the seat of your pants. If you’re a natural pantser, don’t force yourself to outline. Seek out writing advice, but don’t follow it blindly; experiment. Discover for yourself what’s best for your writing. There’s no “right” way of doing things—only what’s right for you.

Also: be an educated writer. Learn about the publishing/self-publishing industry—and do it before you start trying to get published. Attempting to learn as you go or on the fly is the best way to get entrapped by scams, or sidelined by bad advice. In the quest for publication, knowledge is your greatest ally and your best defense.

Victoria Strauss is the author of nine novels for adults and young adults, including the Way of Arata duology (The Burning Land and The Awakened City), and a pair of historical novels for teens, Passion Blue and Color Song. She has written hundreds of book reviews for magazines and ezines, including SF Site, and her articles on writing have appeared in Writer's Digest and elsewhere. In 2006, she served as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards.

Victoria is co-founder, with Ann Crispin, of Writer Beware, a publishing industry watchdog group that provides information and warnings about the many scams and schemes that threaten writers. She maintains the popular Writer Beware website (www.writerbeware.com) and blog (www.accrispin.blogspot.com), for which she was a 2012 winner of an Independent Book Blogger Award. She was honored with the SFWA Service Award in 2009.

Visit her at her website: www.victoriastrauss.com.

Tuesday
May052015

Kyle Mills

How did you become a writer?

By accident, really. I was working for a bank in Jackson Hole, spending my days making business loans and my afternoons and weekends rock climbing. For some reason, it occurred to me that I never did anything creative. Why not give it a shot?

My first bright idea was to learn to build furniture. That plan had some drawbacks, the most obvious of which is that I’m not very handy. It was my wife who suggested I write a novel. It seemed like a dumb idea, though, since I majored in finance and had spent my entire college career avoiding English courses like the plague. Having said that, I couldn’t completely shake off the idea. Eventually, it nagged at me long enough that I felt compelled to put pen to paper. Eight months later, I finished Rising Phoenix and about a year after that I managed to get it published.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

George Orwell was my favorite writer as a kid and was the first person to show me the dark side of the world—the side that makes for interesting thriller novels.

To me, Tom Clancy has always been at the pinnacle of my genre. The natural writing style, the impeccable research, the realism, the edge-of-your-seat plots. He’s the standard that I always try to live up to.

I devoured all things Stephen King when I was young and he still inspires me every time he releases a book. I read The Stand when I was thirteen years old and I can still feel the tunnel scene almost 40 years later.

When and where do you write? 

I’m a nine to fiver, five days a week. Sometimes I play hooky if the weather is particularly good, but then I tend to make the time up on the next rainy weekend.

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing the last-minute details on The Survivor—the next book in Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not on a grand scale. I sometimes struggle with devising an overall concept for a novel but, after that, things plod generally forward. I tend to build ideas in very small increments, which makes it easier for me to keep things flowing. One brick at a time…

What’s your advice to new writers?

With the increasing popularity of the indie book market, I’m finding that new authors are becoming less self-critical.

Don’t let yourself say “good enough” and neglect to expend the energy necessary to polish your manuscript. No one’s first draft is any good. And sometimes second and third drafts aren’t either. I’ve gone through as many as five before submitting.

Bio: I’ve published eleven thriller novels under my own banner, as well as two for Robert Ludlum’s Covert-One series. My next book, The Survivor, will be released in October.

Tuesday
Apr282015

Mark Hummel

How did you become a writer?

I have been actively writing since childhood. Literally ever since I had enough intellectual ability to string words together and enough manual dexterity to hold a writing instrument, I’ve been writing stories. As a child I owned a tremendous numbers of small plastic animals. I’d clip out order forms from the backs of magazines and comic books and send away for them. I’d do so with such regularity that I had a practical Noah’s ark of monkeys and rabbits, rhinos and zebras, lions and alligators. A few favorites were permitted to live in an apartment, a Manhattan penthouse as I imagined it, for which I had drawn the floorplan on plain white paper and lined the top drawer of my dresser. This was a space not for clothes but for imagination. With these select animal apartment dwellers I populated stories employing the very worst sort of anthropomorphism, beyond anthropomorphism really, for they lived lives that looked entirely human, as if they were figures in a Disney animation. I share this childhood eccentricity because I can’t separate such stories from the desire to tell them or from the way they helped me inhabit worlds that felt entirely real, and thus, I can’t really separate them from the core impulses that form why I write.

In college I was a Wildlife Biology major for most of my first years. I remember one distinct meeting with a professor. I’d written a paper on predator/prey population dynamics between wolves and moose on Isle Royale in Lake Michigan, a rather unique closed ecosystem that offers rich biological research data. The paper was bleeding red ink as it was passed across the desk, and the professor said, “You know, we don’t really have wolves howling and such in the papers we write in this department, perhaps you’d be smart to go talk to someone over in English.” After I recovered from some rather childish reactions to being chastised, I took his backhanded advice. Once I enrolled in my first fiction writing class—a truly star-crossed bit of luck by falling into a course taught by Don Murray, who was serving as a one semester visiting professor while on leave from the University of New Hampshire—and the natural home I’d known since childhood reopened to me. That semester I produced over 350,000 words. I’ve never stopped since.

Name your writing influences.

I’ve been blessed at critical moments in my life with great teachers. As I mentioned, I had the good fortune of first studying with Donald Murray, a gifted writer and consummate teacher and someone critical to any of us who have taught writing courses for his expertise in that arena. In college I also had the amazing experience of having two great writers mentor me and eventually oversee my master’s thesis: John Edgar Wideman and Robert Roripaugh. But great teachers went way back for me, to 2nd grade and Mrs. Bowan, who encouraged a child’s writing, and to junior high, where Mrs. Garcia was one of those wonderful maverick teachers who held competitions to have students write screenplays and then participate in the process of actually filming a movie selected from those screenplays by their peers, and this is back in the day when such technologies were nothing like they are today.

Such teachers first introduced me to the writers that took over as the mentors that stay with me today—too many to mention most. But I can never talk about writers who have influenced my work without citing two geniuses, the one every writer knows—Flannery O’Connor—and the other, a writer too few know—Andre Dubus (the father, though his son, who may now be better known, is pretty brilliant too). I’m not Catholic, but apparently these daring, bold American Catholic writerly voices speak to me.

When and where do you write?

I’m very old school when it comes to writing process and place and time. I follow the sound and tested advice of other old school writers who remind us that writing comes best when our minds are not cluttered with the detritus of a day. So I write first thing in the morning with morning sun streaming in through a window with a goof view of the natural world. I work from an antique library table that dates back nearly a hundred years and most often write first drafts by longhand. The morning hours are dedicated to producing new material, and then after a break to do something physical, the afternoon hours focus on revision, editing, and marketing.

What are you working on now?

I have recently finished the first draft of a new novel to be titled A Different Breath and have completed the first couple of rounds of revisions. At this stage it’s a novel that is still a bit difficult to label with shorthand, what, in Jackson Hole, we used to call the “chairlift pitch” as opposed to the elevator pitch, but the essentials are these: set in 1926, primarily in the Midwest and inter-mountain West, the story follows a traveling musician of potentially legendary talent, his lover/manager, and the odd addition to his mini-entourage, a priest, through backroom clubs and speakeasies. Obsessive in his love for the woman, this musician will do nearly anything to demonstrate his devotion and maintain her presence as his muse. The story is actually a purposeful reinvention of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, which focuses much of its interest, like the Rilke poem “Orpheus, Eurydice, and Hermes” on the awakening consciousness of the Eurydice character. The book opens, like the poem and the myth with the characters ascending from a kind of underworld, though in my treatment, that exists in an elaborate metaphor.

I like to sit on a book for a while in order to gain some psychological distance on it so that I can better see the wholesale sorts of revisions typically required (and which this one will definitely need). My self-expectation is that while I consider the needs of one piece, I always start on another. So while that book rests a bit and circulates for input from a few trusted readers, I am a hundred pages into a new book, a literary crime novel set where I live on Flathead Lake. I am as interested in using the book as a vehicle to inspect the income divide between rich and poor as I am in investigating the sudden disappearance of a seventeen year old.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I do believe that writer’s block is a very real and significant thing, and yes, I have suffered its ravages. But of course a logical vision of writer’s block is to realize that there is complex, if predictable psychology behind it, for there are real fears behind writing we should all acknowledge, among them: what is more intimate than the act of writing, more self-revealing and self-scrutinizing? Can you find so demanding of work (and if you are writing book –length material, work that can take years to complete) that offers such total uncertainty of reward? Even if we love to write, who wouldn’t rather go drink a beer, take in a movie, enjoy a dinner, join in a game, or read someone else’s book than write (especially when you are likely the only person telling you that you must)? Oh, writer’s block is real enough. What to do about it? Work. It sounds ridiculous, but I am a great believer in ritual and routine when it comes to writing. I have all my little writing eccentricities I live by, right down to the pens I use, but I, like O’Connor said I must, show up to work every day and face the writing tasks before me and insist that I produce something, even if that something gets thrown away later. Writing is a lot about perseverance and overcoming, like most things worth doing.

What’s your advice to new writers?

My first piece of advice is to remember to love the act of writing. You’d be surprised how many new writers are more in love with the idea of being a writer than with writing. It’s easy to love having written, harder to love the long and often difficult (but frequently joyous) act of doing it. Wanting to be a writer is not enough. You learn by doing. Even, for a long time, by doing it poorly. Those failures may be the most important lessons. You stick them out. You learn. You try to get better. You return to the writing desk every day without fail and slowly you will get better. So if you are willing to embrace the long haul, you’d better love the act of committing writing.

Write what you want to write and not what you think someone else desires. You’ll never produce work worth reading if you are not stubbornly passionate about the work you are doing. I’m not suggesting stubbornness that equates to ignorance or blindness or an inability to accept when the work is shit, but I do mean to suggest that you can’t fulfill other’s desires. You must write what they don’t know they yet desire.

Demand truth. With yourself. With others. And most importantly, within your texts. It doesn’t matter how far afield from “reality” you may stray in your desired work, even in science fiction where you have created and populated a universe entirely from your imagination, not only will the laws of physics still apply, but characters, whatever form they take, must think and behave in a manner that is true to the whole of themselves and that is recognizable as feeling authentic, of being truthful, to your readers. If you set your sights on creating truthful, honest texts, you can then, by having been demanding of yourself and of your text, be demanding of your readers as well. They will reciprocate in kind.

Mark Hummel is a novelist, essayist, editor, and writing teacher. His work has regularly appeared in a variety of literary journals including The Bloomsbury Review, Dogwood, Fugue, Talking River Review, Weber: The Contemporary West, and Zone 3. He is the author of the novel In the Chameleon’s Shadow and the story collection Lost and Found and is the editor of the nonfiction magazine bioStories. He lives in Montana’s Flathead Valley. To learn more about his work, visit: www.markhummelbooks.com.