Friday, May 22, 2020

Writer Bites with Tom Pitts

Getting to know...

            Tom Pitts, author of the recently released Cold Water, from Down & Out Books.

When did you first start telling people you were a writer or author? 

I still don’t. Unless it’s to someone who already knows what I do, I keep it under my hat. I was talking to my wife the other day and I was explaining this new—and probably ridiculous—approach I was going to apply to my writing, and I caught myself saying, “I think that’s what actual writers do.” And she reminded me I am an ‘actual writer.’ Oh, yeah. Sure. Okay.

Go back to yourself at a very early stage in your writing career—what piece of advice would you give yourself? 

The same advice I give myself now—which I consequently ignore, by the way—and that’s to work harder, drink less, and slow down … actually, that’s it. Those three things. Maybe read more. The same advice I give to anybody, not just writers.

Have you ever visited a famous author’s grave? Who? Why?

Yes. Bukowski’s, during the Long Beach Bouchercon. I made the pilgrimage like so many. I went with Russell Lester, and going anywhere with him is an adventure. Anyway, we couldn’t find the damn thing. When we looked for help at the guard’s station, I somehow ended up directing traffic to a funeral for ten minutes. Very Canadian of me. Cars kept pulling up. “This nice young man looks like he knows what’s going on.” Anyway, it was like so many other things you make the trek to see, it’s anticlimactic. There’s no part of their creation there. No ingredients for their secret recipe.  Much better to visit a neighborhood or bar where an author hung. Am I glad I went? Hell yes. I didn’t really know Russell that well and it was a great bonding experience. Proof once again the journey is better than the destination.

Are there any authors who intimidate you? Any books? 

Oh, fuck. All of ‘em in a way. I mean, I always feel like other authors are more grown-up, their methods more sound, their ideas more cohesive. But success doesn’t intimidate me, I’ve been around a few famous people in my long and crazy life. Shit, now that I think about it, I’ve rolled with all kinds of people.  Murderers, rock stars, gangsters, and bums. But put me in a huddle with Lou Berney and I’ll get the shakes.

Are there any animals who tend to show up in your writing? 

Dogs. Always dogs. Which can be a mistake, because when the action starts, you can’t forget about ‘em. And a lot of writers do. Dogs bark. Dogs bite. When shit happens, they’re at the vortex. I guess I should start adding cats. You can mention them once and leave ‘em in the room like furniture. 

What do you wish more readers would ask you about? 

Honestly? Anything. Writers are so approachable. It always freaks me out a bit when a reader will ask a specific question about a book, like, how did you find your way inside my dream? Especially when they ask about a character I don’t remember writing.  I feel a little exposed, a bit on the spot, then I remember I put it all out there. That’s the point. My life is essentially open book, so ask me anything. I’m getting disturbingly more frank the older I get and the less I care. 

Friday, May 8, 2020

Writer Bites with Harry Marks

Getting to Know...

Harry Marks, author of The Prophet (now available)

"Max Barker’s trailer started to cook. Even at eight in the morning, the July sun had turned his little metal capsule into an oven. Not that he’d noticed. The bottle of scotch next to him had been full the night before and sunlight unraveled through the glass, casting drunken rainbows at his feet. Two inches of amber liquid idled at the bottom.

A knock at the door startled him out of his sleep and the Donald Westlake paperback in his lap tumbled into a squishy, dark patch of carpet next to an overturned tumbler. He grunted as he propelled himself out of his barcalounger. The knocking continued, the sound bouncing around the trailer’s walls with nowhere to go but Max’s reddened, hungover ears."

-Excerpt from The Prophet

What is your least favorite part of the writing process? Your favorite?

I love the drafting stage. I know a lot of writers prefer editing to drafting, but I think I prefer the latter because I enjoy the feeling of finishing the thing. Spending all those months working on it, coming up with characters and a whole world, and then writing “The End” is intensely satisfying.

The part I like the least is editing. I understand it’s necessary and that’s where “the real writing” happens, but ripping a thing apart and putting it back together is a slog for me. It’s not nearly as exciting as charting new territory.

In your eyes, what does it mean to be “successful?”

Success means different things to different people. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel truly successful. I thought I’d be happy after having some short stories and flash pieces published, but that didn’t do it for me. I still haven’t been able to secure a literary agent. Even having people buy and enjoy The Prophet doesn’t seem to satiate this need inside me. There’s always another mountain to climb. Maybe I’m broken.

Success is like getting a raise—it’s never enough, and when you feel like it should be, it’s still not enough. Which leads me to the next question...

Do you ever experience doubt or “impostor syndrome?” How do you cope with it?

Cope? What’s that? Everything I do is drenched in impostor syndrome. When someone compliments my writing or my podcast, I thank them and wonder what the hell is wrong with them. And it seems to get worse with each book I write. Every manuscript brings more rejection, which fuels my self-doubt and makes me think I’m wasting my time pursuing a traditional writing career.

It’s been 10 years and I’m still at it, so I’m either too stubborn to quit or a glutton for punishment.

Are there any authors who intimidate you? Any books?

Eric Shonkwiler and Beth Gilstrap come to mind immediately. These are authors who have honed their skills to a razor-tipped point. They are infuriatingly good at what they do and I will read anything they publish because I know it will be amazing.
Eric’s Above All Men and Beth’s I Am Barbarella have still stuck with me years after reading them.

I’d also add Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch to the list for their scope and emotional depth.

Do you write to music?

This is kind of a curse for me. I’ve been a musician for most of my life and yet I cannot listen to most music when I write. It’s too distracting. I don’t make playlists for my books either. The only thing I’ll put on is the BGM (Background Music) Channel on YouTube and listen to nondescript bossa nova. The songs aren’t recognizable jazz standards, so I can leave it on and write without trying to figure out what it is I’m listening to.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Writer Bites with Shuly Xochitl Cawood

Getting to Know...

Shuly Xochitl Cawood, Author of A Small Thing to Want (May 3rd, Press 53)

"Suzette didn’t like it when Mig called Dr. Rowan “Patricia,” but she didn’t say a word about that. She had picked Dr. Rowan out of the list of marriage counselors based on the string of credential abbreviations trailing like children after Dr. Rowan’s name, and the fact that Dr. Rowan’s office sat exactly halfway between Suzette’s own office and Mig’s. Well, Mig liked that. He was always about halfway, taking turns cooking, splitting the check down the middle, rotating who hauled out the trash. Suzette would have made the drive all the way from Chapel Hill to his office in Raleigh had it mattered—all the way to anywhere, really. She didn’t say anything about that, either."
-Excerpt from "Happy"

Have you ever fallen in love with a book? 

I’ve fallen in love with books as well as an essay (“Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion), countless poems, and a short story (“Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton). I must have read “Roman Fever” in college, and it’s only recently that I realized what a strong impact it has made on my short story writing. It’s a quiet story on the surface, about two friends talking about old times, but it has a turn at the end that surprised me and that made me view the whole story differently. I like when stories do that, and I realized that some of my stories take a slight turn at the end as well. I’m no Edith Wharton, but I appreciate any small thing I have learned from her wonderful writing.

How do you choose the names for your characters? 

They name themselves—the names just come into my head in an instant, as soon as the character does. I am definitely not a writer who plans out who characters are or what they will do—they run the show entirely.

What is your least favorite part of the writing process? Your favorite? 

My least favorite part is when I know a piece of writing isn’t working, but I cannot pinpoint why—because if I can pinpoint the problem, I can usually solve it. My workaround is setting it aside for weeks or months until I can see it anew. My favorite part of writing fiction (as opposed to poetry and memoir, both of which I also write) is the surprise of where characters take me, what secrets they reveal. Discovering is incredibly fun, and getting to live inside someone else’s head for a while and coming to understand someone very different than who I am has been a gift.

What is your favorite form of procrastination from writing? 

Walking. That’s also a time when writing happens in its own way, even though I am not at my writing desk. I often get story ideas while walking, or an idea for a poem, or if I am struggling with, say, how to reorganize a story, the solution often comes to me on my walk even if I am not thinking about it. A lot of things happen while I am walking. Something about the movement and fresh air makes things appear. I often use the “Notes” feature on my phone to remember things that surface on my walks.

In your eyes, what does it mean to be a “successful?” 

I think it’s easy to get caught up in how many reviews your book has on Goodreads and Amazon and how many stars, etc. With my first book, I kept track of all that, and I read somewhere that you needed to have at least 50 reviews on Amazon, so anytime someone told me they had read my book, I would ask them to review it. I got tired of corralling—even family members who loved my book wouldn’t get on Amazon to review it. Later, I realized that there were books I adored that had only a handful of Amazon reviews. I stopped keeping track after a while, and I do my best to avoid reading the reviews (emphasis on “do my best”). I think it was Roxane Gay who said that reviews are for readers, not for the writer, and I took that to heart. Now I try to focus my idea of success on whether I loved writing the book (I definitely loved writing this short story collection), but I would be lying if I did not admit that I feel successful when people reach out to tell me they enjoyed something I wrote, especially if it helped them in some way.