Category Archives: Interviews with Poets & Writers

An Interview with Peter Geye

Safe from the Sea book cover

It is always a pleasure and a privilege to meet fellow Unbridled authors, and Peter Geye is one of them. His first novel, Safe from the Sea, won high praise from Library Journal, which commended Geye for “engag[ing] the complexities of family dynamics skillfully and handl[ing] especially well the kind of family grudges and misunderstandings that can cripple relationships for decades, as they do here. Inspiring, wise, and enthusiastically recommended for all readers.”

His second novel, The Lighthouse Road, takes place in a lumberjack camp in the wilderness of northern Minnesota and aboard a skiff on Lake Superior.  Booklist gave it a starred review, writing that “[t]he echoes of the characters’ heartbreak through the generations are as haunting as the howling of the wolves on the wind.”

And Bruce Machart wrote that “[t]o be submerged in the frothing, watery world of Peter Geye’s The Lighthouse Road is to be baptized anew in the promise of American letters. I defy you to bear witness to the tormented tenderness of Odd Eide, to suffer and love and row beside him in his skiff, without throwing down your nets. Here is an epic that spans more than generations. Here is an epic that spans the topography between hell-dark bear dens and moonlit lake water. Here is a novel that charts the whole of the human heart.”

HUERGO: What moves you to write? What sparked your imagination as you began your last novel?

GEYE: I have to be honest, I write for my own enjoyment as much as I write to be read. I love the process of inventing another world, of filling it with folks I’d like to get to know, of suffering with them, and experiencing their joys. I find a lot of the same satisfaction in writing a book that I do in reading one. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

The Light House Road book cover

And my second book, The Lighthouse Road, had a couple of sparks at the beginning. For one, I wanted to write about the immigrant experience. For a long time I’ve been interested in this idea of the American dream. More specifically, what happened when someone came to America expecting to find that dream, but they ended up finding something else instead. And I also really wanted to write from a woman’s point of view. Both subjects were supremely rewarding, as were the other stories that evolved from those first ideas.

HUERGO: How much research do you do before or during the writing process?

GEYE: I think of myself as a jungle researcher. That is, I go into the subject like it’s a jungle, and I just look around for things that are interesting. This is of course not always possible (sometimes I need evidence or facts), but I’m convinced after writing two books that required a lot of research that I’ve found a sort of method in not having much of a method at all.

As for when I do the research, I spend time before, during and after the writing of the book researching it. By the time I’m done writing a book, I’m usually pretty attached to the subject matter, and that interest lives on my life even after the writing is done.

HUERGO: What was the best advice you got about the manuscript?

Peter Geye

GEYE: I get so much feedback from so many helpful readers that it’s hard to winnow it down to any one thing. One of the moments that sticks out for me was when a trusted reader (an old friend from grad school) encouraged me to keep going with the non-linear format I employed in The Lighthouse Road. I was, frankly, full of misgivings and insecurities, but she convinced me that the method was working. I’m glad I trusted her.

HUERGO: Was there a particular teacher or mentor who influenced and helped you?

GEYE: I love to answer this question because of how emphatically I can say, YES! In high school I was a bit of a misfit, and certainly not the best student. I always say I was way more interested in cracking jokes or flirting with girls than I was in any academic subject. One day in English class my teacher, a man by the name of David Beenken, jumped down my throat for causing a disturbance. He said it was much easier to be a smart ass if you’ve actually done the reading. Thinking that I would show him just what a smart ass I could be, I went home and started reading the assignment. The book was Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and by the time I was finished with it, I was not only on the straight and narrow at school, but wanted to be a writer as well. I never wavered from that ambition.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

GEYE: I’m really excited about my current project because it’s so different from my first two novels. The book I’m working on now is part adventure story, part mystery, and part exploration on how the past haunt us. It mainly involves a father and son who venture into the wilderness of northern Minnesota intent on recreating the life of the hivernants or winterers as they were also known. These were voyagers who spent the winters in the wilderness and were regaled as the toughest sort of men. Well, the men in my story are tough, but they’re not prepared, and there are some ulterior motives on the father’s part. Suffice it to say, things don’t go as planned.

 “Now there were men yelling in the bunkhouse and barn. The barn boss had set free the Ovcharkas and they circled the horse as eight wolves whirled about the paddock. They moved to their own ancient choreography, their red eyes in the darkness, their thick pelts shimmering like tinsel under the moon.”  —from The Lighthouse Road

 

An Interview with Richard Peabody

 

 Defying Gravity cover created by Sheep Jones depicting a girl on a latterI met Richard Peabody at a local literary conference about seven years ago.  At some point in the conversation, he mentioned his Novel Workshop–how the idea came to him, how important it was to get a full critique of a manuscript instead of just the first three chapters, and I remember declaring that I would enroll in the next one. Since then, he has become an extraordinary mentor. I like to joke that he is our local Leigh Hunt–writer and editor, publisher and no-nonsense soul devoted to guiding and nurturing other writers.

As Lora Engdahl wrote of Peabody in the Washington Post in February 2011, he “has spent most of his adult life nurturing and promoting Washington’s literary output. Gargoyle, a thick doorstop of a literary magazine that he has published since 1976, has amassed a list of distinguished contributors, including eight National Poetry Series winners, five National Book Award winners, three PEN/Faulkner winners, three Pulitzer Prize winners, and winners of more than a dozen other honors. And he can count at least 30 former university, Writer’s Center and private creative writing students who have gone on to sell screenplays or publish books, including many with the most prestigious New York publishing houses.”

Aside from Gargoyle, Peabody’s latest work includes Speed Enforced by Aircraft, a collection of poems, and  Blue Suburban Skies, a collection of short stories. Of the poems, local DC poet Beth Joselow notes that Peabody “rides his love of language (‘the word Loggia turns me on’) to meet friends, family, strangers, students, urban detritus, pine forests, history, jealousy, love, war, moral failings and moral outrage without compromise.” And Tim Wendel, author of Castro’s Curveball and Summer of ’68, describes the short stories as a “fine collection [that] reminds us of the power–even the quiet grace–that can be found when memorable characters dare to reach out in turbulent times.”  

Blue Suburban Skies book cover

HUERGO: You have such an extraordinary creative range: you write poetry and prose, you edit and publish, mentor and teach. How are you able to find balance among these different activities? Is there one that’s closest to your heart?

PEABODY: Well, thanks, but the truth is I don’t find much of a balance. True, I wear a lot of hats, have a lot of responsibilities. All of which was a means to an end when I started this crazy business of writing.  I thought all of it would lead to a tenured full-time position at a college campus somewhere. Never happened. So after 28 years of being an adjunct creative writing instructor, I think it’s time to step back to focus on where I began and get back to my own work.

Richard Peabody

Why? Because it’s impossible for me to write anything long while teaching. I think I owe it to my students to offer them my complete attention.  I do get a lot of satisfaction from my student’s “getting it” and going on to land stories, and books. And I do manage to write prose poems and flash fiction at those times. I don’t foresee doing Gargoyle forever. I think I’m nearing the end of the run.  It’s like an addiction though, creating these objects, and I find it difficult to turn my back on the mag for very long.

HUERGO: As someone who has been part of the publishing industry for so long, what do you consider the most problematic change? What would you consider the most promising?

PEABODY: I like the Opus machine that Politics & Prose [an indie book store in DC] has in their front room. The idea that you put the manuscript pages in one end and a published book comes out the other would be witchcraft to Gutenberg. Publishing changes every day. When I began my friends were still using mimeograph machines. The first typesetting machines I used printed out one single line of print that you had to cut and paste into columns.  My mom’s mom was alive when the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, and she lived until the Moon landing. That’s the sort of change I think we’re seeing in the publishing world.

Speed Enforced by Aircraft book coverAnd while my printer owns and uses Publish on Demand (POD) equipment to print all of our Paycock Press titles and Gargoyle magazine issues since #50, it comes at a price. We live in a period when anybody can publish a book. In some ways that’s fabulous, particularly for short-run family histories, or info you might want to pass on to your kids, but all work is not created equal. Art is different than writing as therapy. The fear is that because we’re already drowning in information and books and because reading requires both time and participation, a large part of any potential audience will opt out for more passive forms of entertainment.

Self-published books equal the new Vanity Press with very few exceptions. That may have to change, but it hasn’t changed yet in the major New York publishing world. They may embrace e-books of the fan fiction ilk, but they don’t do it that frequently, nor do they mine the majority of POD or indie-press books for gold.

Yet, we now live in a downloadable world where singles are more important than albums once again, like the 50s and early 60s. I have friends who are turning individual stories into downloadable e-versions, or selling e-books. And that market is pretty much wide open. Social media helps any author get the word out, and I think we’re still exploring the multiple possibilities. Of course the death of Flickr means that a lot of this Brave New World is far from forever.

HUERGO: With the passage of time, what have you noticed in your students?

Cassia Beck book cover for Gargoyle 61

PEABODY: A lot of my students don’t seem to have the passion for reading that I had growing up. If you possess an innate curiosity about books, and titles, and cover art, poets and writers, I believe you’ll create something interesting. Too many would-be authors haven’t spent the reading time necessary to gain familiarity with what’s already available–the classics, works that made a real impact–which is just depressing. There’s no substitute.  If you don’t like to read books, then why do you want to write them?

My best students have blossomed through a process of my reading lists, writing to prompts, reading aloud to the class, critiques, and immersion in the work of their peers.  When it works, it works. And that’s a great feeling.  The ones who get into print, or land a book contract, are driven, open to suggestion, allow me to steer for a spell while they figure it out, and listen to their classmate’s opinions. Nobody agrees with every suggestion.  You must pick your battles.  I’m always willing to help my students. I have printed many of them in Gargoyle or in the many anthologies I’ve assembled.  In a lot of cases that exposure inspires them to push on. Gives them a taste of the possibilities.

HUERGO: I’ve taken your novel seminar and learned a great deal in the process. How did you come to develop that course? What has that course taught you about yourself, your writing, your students?

PEABODY: I’m certainly glad that the novel class worked for you!  I was frustrated with so-called “novel workshops” that only ever critiqued the first 3 chapters of a novel manuscript.  Whether it was a college class or a Writer’s Center [The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD] styled workshop, that’s about all that could be accomplished in a class of 15 students.  And when readers complain about fiction, I always tell them that they can pick a lot of books off the shelf and discover that everything falls apart in chapter 4, or with the 4th story, because only the first 3 chapters or stories were ever critiqued.

Gravity Dancers book coverWe did some Gargoyle gigs at the Writer’s Voice in NYC, and I saw a flyer for a Novel Workshop, one that read the entire manuscript and kept the classes to 5 writers max. Bingo. I ran with the idea and tried to persuade both the Writer’s Center and Johns Hopkins to let me teach a class like that. Struck out.  In the end I offered 7 class sessions for 5 students at $500 a head that would read an entire novel every 2 weeks. At first I ran it in a nearby coffee house, and when they changed ownership, I moved into the basement of my house. I’ve run it 10-11 times and 9 writers from the class have had their novels published.

I’ve learned that the only way to learn how to write a novel is to actually write one.  As ridiculous as that seems, many of my students simply don’t get that basic concept. I tell my students that until they have a 300-page first draft they don’t even know what they’re doing.  Students come to my class with what many believe is a finished manuscript and learn otherwise–not just from me but from 4 other readers who red pen everything. On your day we discuss your characters as though they’re real people for 2 ½ hours without your being able to talk/defend/argue. It’s a real gut punch for many. And yet, I swear by it. We’ve done all kinds of novels in that class–sci-fi, literary novels, pulp fiction, young adult, westerns, romance, you name it.

HUERGO: I’m always curious about what writers are working on next. I finished reading Speed Enforced by Aircraft, your most recent volume of poetry, several weeks ago and enjoyed it. Your voice was so clear and present. Can you share with us your current project?

Richard Peabody

PEABODY: My big news is that Alan Squire Publishing is gathering together a gazillion pages of my published and unpublished fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, into The Peabody Reader. I’m both ecstatic and scared to death.  (The idea is based on the Viking Portable Library volumes.)  That anybody would consider my work for something on that scale is mind-blowing.  Rumor is it will appear in late 2014. They’re talking 500 to 750 pages.

Defying Gravity cover by Sheep Jones

Gargoyle #61 cover by Cassia Beck

Author photo (top) by Dean Evangelista

Author photo (bottom) by Sarah Nicole Smetana Ostiz

 

An Interview with Kathryn Johnson (aka Mary Hart Perry)

Kathryn Johnson is a prolific writer. She often tells the story that she wrote her first novel just to prove that she could. That fact, once established, has never caused her either to stop or slow down. At this point in her career, she has written and published more than 40 novels and won a number of awards, including the Bookseller’s Best Award and the Heart of Excellence Readers’ Choice Award. Her most recent novel, The Gentleman Poet: A Novel of Love, Danger, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, was described by Publishers Weekly as an “entertaining tale of mystery, romance, and shipwreck,” and “a well-crafted drama.”

Kathryn Johnson

I met Johnson years ago at her “boot camp” for novelists, a course she was just beginning to teach at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Johnson coaxed and inspired her students, her manner more akin to a hip, sweet aunt than a drill sergeant. Not surprisingly, the class is highly popular.  She continues teaching at The Writer’s Center in between speaking engagements at The Library of Congress, Mystery Writers of America, and Romance Writers of America; running Write By You, her mentoring service for writers; researching her favorite Elizabethan and Victorian eras; and (of course) working on her next novel. Johnson lives in the DC area and can also be reached at Write By You, on Facebook at Kathryn Kimball Johnson, and Twitter @KathrynKJohnson.  Those of you interested in historical novels may want to read her interview at Historical Novels.

HUERGO: You are such a prolific writer. What moves you to write? What sparks your imagination?

JOHNSON: I love the feeling of being in control of my world, and that moves me forward to write a next book. Yes, the imagination and concept for a story come first, but what pulls me fully into a fiction project is the ability to develop a world, then people it, and then weave a story that involves those characters and brings them to a new place in their lives. In real life, we have limited control, and sometimes all we can do is deal with circumstances the best way we can. But when you’re writing a book, you (the author) get to make things happen and can then resolve problems in whatever way you wish. It’s a little like playing God.

HUERGO: How much research do you do before or during the writing process?

book cover for The Gentleman Poet

JOHNSON: I do research in three distinct stages. Stage 1 happens before I actually begin writing, and often before I even start on a plot outline. This is the dangerous part because research is usually easier (and sometimes more fun) than writing a first draft. So you can get sucked into reading journals and letters, ordering more and more books, visiting settings (“Gee, I really need to go back to London to double-check on the dimensions of the ballroom at Kensington Palace!”), interviewing people. All of that can hijack you because it’s so entertaining. Then you find you’ve been researching for three years and have no chapters to show for it. So I only do enough research to start writing. Stage 2 happens spontaneously, and usually several times, during the middle of working on the first draft. If I run into a wall and feel I can’t move forward because I desperately need more data, more details, then I look up what I need to give me a forward path. Stage 3 comes during the revision and polishing stages. Once I have a full manuscript with well-defined scenes and characters, and the pacing feels right to me, I do more fact checking and look for places in the story where the details are a little thin. Then I may need to go back to research the finer points, so that I can fill in gaps or make a scene more vivid, more tactile.

HUERGO: You have more than one nom de plume, including Mary Hart Perry. How do you develop those different identities and what role do they play in relation to your writing process?

JOHNSON: I’ve written under five different names during my career–so far. They are all me, all my voice, at least I think so. They came about not exactly by choice. When I started out writing fiction, I tried a variety of genres and audiences. So during the first dozen years before I was published, I wrote for children, teens, and adults. I wrote mysteries, romance, contemporary mainstream fiction, historicals. Wild Princess book cover It just so happened that the first books that sold were a series for teen readers and an adult novel, both about the same time. I didn’t want kids looking up my adult fiction because it wasn’t appropriate for them. So I needed two names–my real name and a pseudonym.

Later on, when a publisher wanted a different type of book from me, they asked that I come up with a new pen name. So I had to add another name to the list. That happened two more times. If I had to do it over, I would publish everything under my real name. It’s just so much easier for readers to find and follow you that way.

HUERGO: I met you at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where you were teaching (and still teach) a boot camp for novelists, The Extreme Novelist. How did you come to develop that course? What has that course taught you about yourself and about aspiring writers?

JOHNSON: I’m sitting here laughing at this question because the truth is–I never thought this course would attract enough students to run, or to continue as long as it has. I had taught a few fiction-writing courses at The Writer’s Center. One was Writing the Popular Novel. I enjoyed it, but it seemed pretty tame, nothing about it really sparked my interest. It attracted a wide range of abilities in the class, and we covered the basics of writing book-length fiction. I felt anyone could really teach that course. It didn’t challenge me, and I doubt it challenged my students.

I told my husband that I wanted to develop a course that would be for intermediate-advanced writers, for people who already knew at least something about fiction. I wanted to take them the next step in a very practical way. I wrote the proposal and when it was done I shook my head and told my husband: “This is going to scare them all off. No one will want to have anything to do with this. It sounds too hard, too demanding.” But he said, “Well, you won’t know until you try.” So I ran the announcement for The Extreme Novelist in the next The Writer’s Center catalogue. And darned if the class didn’t fill up. In fact, the wait list was so large, we actually ran a second class on a different night. I was amazed! Among other requirements, the students had to sign a contract committing themselves to writing 6 days a week, a minimum of 90 minutes each day, for the 8 weeks of the course. They also had to report in on their progress each week to the class. Their goal was to complete a full but very rough draft in those two months. And it worked. Not everyone finished their book, rough or not. But most accumulated 200 pages or so, and they learned how to budget their time and become dedicated novelists. Even better–they loved it! They loved the tough love and demanding routine.

HUERGO: I’m always curious about what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

Seducing the Princess book coverJOHNSON: I’m working now on the third novel in a trilogy of stories based on the lives of Queen Victoria’s daughters, writing as Mary Hart Perry. These aren’t creative biography though. Some of the facts and events from their lives are true. But the fantasy that is the plot is totally fiction. What I like about these books is that they combine all of the elements I love most in a good story–history, mystery elements, a love story, and active pacing. These really are Victorian thrillers–and probably a lot of the inspiration comes from my early love of Arthur Conan Doyle’s wonderful Sherlock Holmes adventures. It’s the same time period, and I get to play with the gas lights, grim poverty, the dangerous neighborhoods of London, like Whitechapel, where Jack the Ripper roamed, as well as set scenes in Buckingham Palace and portray the occasional ball. So far the first two books are doing well. The Wild Princess and Seducing the Princess. I don’t have a title yet for the third book, which I hope to finish this year. After that, I’ll wait and see whether my readers want me to continue the series, or not. Victoria had nine children. So, two more princesses, or I could write about the four boys in the family, some of whom have already been introduced in the first three books. We’ll see.

 

An Interview with Melissa Scholes-Young

Melissa Scholes-Young was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s beloved boyhood home, and she is an Assistant Professor of English at American University in Washington, D.C., where she teaches composition. She is, as she terms it, a recovering high- school English teacher who also spent a few years teaching in Brazil. She earned an MFA in fiction at Southern Illinois University, where she served as an assistant editor for Crab Orchard Review. Her essays have appeared most recently in Brain, Child and The Huffington Post. Her fiction and poetry have been published in Tampa Review, Word Riot, Cold Mountain Review, New Madrid, Yalobusha Review, Mandala, and other literary journals. She writes regularly for Fiction Writer’s Review, and she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize.

I had the pleasure of meeting Young shortly after she contacted Unbridled Books to request an interview that would appear in Fiction Writer’s Review. We met at Teaism in DC’s Penn quarter on a cold, damp winter’s day and formed a mutual admiration society that began with our love for Mark Twain, the challenges of teaching college English, and our interest in history and historiography.

HUERGO: How would you describe your writing process?

Melissa Scholes-Young

SCHOLES-YOUNG: Urgent is the first word that comes to mind. Because my writing time is limited—whose isn’t?—I dive into the carved out writing spaces frantically. I go in with a goal. I’m a Virgo. I also practice Buddhism, though, so the part I struggle to embrace is that what I learn through the writing process is usually different than what I intended. I was rewriting my first chapter last week and one of my minor characters kept speaking up. My goal was to polish the first chapter. Instead, I’m now layering another point of view character. The work may be better for it, or I may just learn more about the story through the exercise, but I have to embrace it either way.

HUERGO: What would you identify as the most difficult aspect of that process?

SCHOLES-YOUNG: The most difficult part is balancing the essential need for sustained silence with the urgency of wanting feedback. Have you read the latest literary life essay in Poets & Writers called “The Calm Before the Calm” by Daphne Kalotay? When I read it, it was exactly what I needed to hear at the exact moment I needed to hear it. I had just published an essay, “American Born Fear,” that I co-wrote with my partner, Joseph Young, in The Huffington Post

“The more we feed into the fear component of terrorism, the further we get from recovery.
If we call the Boston Marathon bombers’foreigners,
even though they’ve been living among us for a decade, then we feel safe once again.”
from “American Born Fear”

When you write and publish something that public clearly you are seeking feedback. Our goal in the piece was to open a dialogue about the destructive “us vs. them” American response to the Boston Marathon bombers. The idea matters greatly to both of us. The feedback in the comments section was scathing and personal. It was also clear that many of the readers had missed our argument entirely.  Readers who agree with you or simply enjoyed the writing are mostly silent in online spaces. It’s too easy to move on to the next article or cat meme. Some of my friends liked the essay on Facebook. Most of my family completely ignored it.

Kalotay writes about this balancing act, too.  She writes “But just as humility is in a way a true writer’s essence, an indispensable element of the writer’s job is learning to live with the silence of being ignored–and not just because the silence is independent of our talent, of a book’s merit, of the love and effort that went into creating it. No, we must learn to live with the silence because silence is where we go to write.”  So there was my answer. Go back to the silence, back to the writing.

HUERGO: How do you balance your personal life, your professional obligations as a professor, and writing?

SCHOLES-YOUNG: I think compartmentalization is the only way, meaning I have to literally write down on my schedule the moments when I’m writing. I mark them out on the calendar with a Sharpie. Then I fight against myself to maintain that sacred space. I have to resist the urge to throw in another load of laundry or bake muffins for the next day’s breakfast or grade essays. It’s not that I don’t grade or do the laundry or bake muffins—I make mean blueberry muffins, by the way—it’s that I have to respect myself as a writer, too. It’s something I’m learning. I wrestle with the compartmentalization all the time.  It’s important to me that my children see me as a separate person, as a writer, a mother, a partner, and a teacher. My job is to teach them how to do that. As soon as I learn that myself.

HUERGO: Does teaching writing help or hinder your own writing?

Melissa Scholes-Young

SCHOLES-YOUNG: I love teaching. It’s so essential to who I am as a person. The classroom and my students feed me. I learn from their fresh perspectives. Even when I am teaching a book or an essay I think I know well, a student will see something in the text that I’ve overlooked or they’ll consider the argument with a new perspective. I’m never bored when I’m teaching. I absorb—sometimes rob—my students of their energy. Poor things.

HUERGO: What’s your next project?

SCHOLES-YOUNG: I’ve just finished my novel; it’s called Flood. It’s set in my hometown, Hannibal, Missouri.

 

 

An Interview with Virginia Pye

Virginia Pye and I also share an important bond: we’re both lucky enough to have our work published by Unbridled Books. When we met at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March 2013, she kindly agreed to respond to a few questions about her forthcoming work, River of Dust, a beautifully lyrical novel inspired by her grandfather’s journals, written while he was a missionary in China in the early 20th century. This debut novel has already won an important accolade, having been selected as an Indie Next Pick for May 2013. Pye, aside from having taught writing at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, served three terms as president of James River Writers, a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia. Her short stories have won awards and appeared in numerous literary magazines, including The North American Review, Tampa Review and The Baltimore Review. There is more information about Virginia Pye at Unbridled Books, as well as her author site.

Virginia Pye

Huergo: How would you describe your writing process?

Pye:  I have written for many years, stopping only when my children were young. River of Dust is my sixth novel, though the first to be published. I tend to ruminate on a story and characters for a while before I begin to write it. I jot down an outline. Nothing strict, but something to follow, heading towards key moments or turning points. I then dive in. I write every day and have for some time, unless I’m distracted by travel or family. When I was working on River of Dust, I was so possessed by telling the story that it woke me before five a.m.. I was at my desk with a cup of coffee before sun up and could write for two hours and then take my son to school. I’d return to it in the daylight and press on. I tend to write a full first draft of a book, then go back and rewrite extensively through many more drafts. The whole process can take years, but luckily, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

Huergo: What would you identify as the most difficult aspect of that process?

Pye: The most difficult aspect is being able to see the work clearly for what it is, not for what I hope it will be. Like many writers, I have a love/hate relationship with what I write. I can be enamored of something one moment, and then feel chagrined by it the next. What’s hardest is to find that clear-eyed balance where you can see where you have succeeded, but also where you’ve fallen short. Hemingway said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector.” For me, that’s taken years to develop, and I’m still working on it. And, by the way, there’s a danger in sharing work too early. A writer can become hopeful and excited by her intentions and share it. That’s never a good idea, because criticism can be confusing and can throw you off track. It’s better to really polish the work and give it its best shot, and then venture out with it.

Huergo: How do you balance your personal life and your writing?
         
            book cover for River of Dust

Pye: I’m extremely lucky because I have a supportive husband and family, and I live in a community where there’s a sense of space and time in which to write. My life is not overly pressured. I used to teach writing, but not these days. Also, for years, I helped run a literary non-profit. But for now, I can say I just write. I tend to be disciplined about my time and go to my desk daily, which I consider a great privilege.

Huergo: What’s your next project?  

Pye: I’ve written many drafts of a novel about a family in Cambridge, Massachusetts—which happens to be where I grew up—at the time of the student take over of Harvard in 1969. For some reason, I’ve been trying to write that event into a novel for decades. It fascinates me. This novel is about two sisters, one of whom ends up inside the administration building during the take over. The girls’ father is Dean of Students, and his job is to bring the kids out of the building safely. Once again, as in River of Dust, I’m interested in the conflicts within families of the dominant class. In this case, they are not missionaries, but “the establishment.” I’m interested in how the next generation goes to great lengths to define themselves in opposition to their inherited status. In other words, it’s a novel that comes out of the sixties. And, although I wasn’t of that age, I know how it tore apart families and has echoes to this day.

An Interview with Ed Falco

Ed Falco and I share an important bond: we’re both lucky enough to have our work published by Unbridled Books. When we met at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March 2013, he kindly agreed to respond to a few questions about his writing process and his time management strategies, two key matters for most writers. There is a lot more information about Ed Falco and his work at Unbridled Books, which has recently published a Falco Sampler that includes Saint John of the Five Boroughs, Wolf Point, and Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha. His most recent novel, The Family Corleone, is based on some of the screenplays of Mario Puzo. If you like Raymond Carver, you’ll enjoy Ed Falco’s work. 

 Ed Falco

Huergo: How would you describe your writing process?

Falco: For most of my life as a writer, I’ve had to balance family and teaching with writing.  That usually meant that I’d get a couple of hours every morning to write, and then spend the rest of the day getting everything done that needed to get done so that I could have those couple of hours the following morning.  The process turned into a routine: get up, have breakfast and read the paper, then go into my study and write for a couple of hours before rushing off to a class.  (For many years, while raising my daughter, I’d make us both breakfast and then run her off to school before coming home and writing.)  Beginning a couple of years ago, when I decided I wanted to try to write popular fiction—or at least fiction that had a chance of reaching a popular audience—I started putting in eight hour writing days.  I could do this during the summer and on breaks between semesters.  I discovered I could write 1,500 to 2,500 words a day, and I’ve been working that way ever since.  I’m single and my daughter is grown and off living her life—and that makes it easier to devote more time to writing.

Huergo: What would you identify as the most difficult aspect of that process?

Falco: Occasionally I feel like a hermit living in the cave of my study. This is hardly a news flash—but being a serious writer requires spending a awful lot of time alone.  That can be difficult.  I’m lucky to have a girlfriend who drags me out of the house now and them.  It’s a blessing.

Huergo: How do you balance your personal life, your professional obligations as a professor, and writing?

Falco: It’s a juggling act.  One of the great dangers of academia for writers comes from getting so involved with the life of the university that you forget you’re a writer.  I’ve always tried to write a couple of hours a day, every day.  Then I’ve used the rest of the day to prepare for my teaching.  Because of that I’ve always felt like I was working two jobs, rushing from one to the other every day.  Personal life has sometimes suffered—but that would be the case for anyone working two jobs.  Still, I’ve done my best over the years to balance all three aspects of my life.  I’ve done it well at times, at other times, not so much.

Huergo: Does teaching writing help or hinder your own writing?

Falco: Both.  It helps in that I’m around exciting young writers (in our MFA program) and I do a lot of careful reading in preparing for my courses.  It hinders in that I spend so much of my life reading work in very early stages of readiness for publication.  I read thousands of pages of manuscripts every year, with my pen in hand, trying to make them better.  I’m sure I’d be a better writer if I were reading thousands of pages of great literature every year.

Huergo: What’s your next project?                          The Family Corleone book cover

Falco: I just finished the first draft of a new novel, tentatively called Toughs.  It’s set in depression-era New York, and it’s based on historical events in the life of a young Irish gangster, Vincent Coll.