Q&A


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Questions & Answers
Mostly On Writing Fiction

Compiled from several interviews:

Q. How long have you been writing?
A. A long time. I began writing as a boy. 

Q. What led you to writing as a career?
A. When I was about 10 years old, I saw a movie, "Gentleman’s Agreement," about a magazine writer exposing anti-semitism in America. I went home and wrote my first serious article. You could say I’ve been writing ever since. But why the movie affected me in that way is anybody's guess.

Q. What is your writing schedule?
A. When I’m at work on a book, I write about four hours a day, trying to average 1,000 words a day. I do this on the computer, which I think is a godsend to writers. I wrote my first novel in long hand and then typed it, using carbon paper on an Underwood portable typewriter. I thought I'd go crazy.

Q. Who do you see as the typical reader of your novels?
A. That's a tough one. In Atlanta Blues, the typical reader might want to know what it’s really like to work day in and day out in the trenches of urban life. Most of us see sanitized or romanticized versions, on TV and in newspaper stories, of what it’s like to be, say, a coroner, a medic, a news reporter, a homicide detective. Atlanta Blues is a great opportunity to see all that, vicariously at least, rendered realistically. In Striking Out, the typical reader could be anybody who grew up in the 1950s or any youngster who feels that he or she doesn't belong or doesn't fit in the surroundings they were born into. Lots of people in different parts of the country have contacted me to say, "It was exactly like that where I grew up!" 

Q. Who's your favorite author?
A. There are too many to pick just one favorite. Some of my preferences include Ernest Hemingway, for his prose style; Somerset Maugham, for his sheer story-telling ability; Sherwood Anderson, for his uncanny ability to write about life’s ineffable emotions and thoughts; Jane Austen, for her endearing intelligence; Willa Cather and Stephen Crane, for their magical descriptive powers; Margaret Mitchell, for writing what is truly the Great American Novel; and Pat Conroy, for his courage as a writer.

Q. What prompted you to write Atlanta Blues?
A. When I was a reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I did lots of “street stories” — stories about urban down-and-outers, the misbegotten, the disenfranchised, the thrown-away, the abandoned, the forgotten, the criminal. These are the people who come out only, or mainly, at night — cabbies, cops, gamblers, burglars, prowlers, night-clubbers, prostitutes and pimps (of both sexes), drifters, runaways, the homeless, night-lifers of all stripes. I knew back then that it would be good material for a novel about a city’s mean streets. You can get lost in plain view, lost in more ways than one, in downtown America. Lots of the lost are out there tonight.

Q. Are any of your characters based on real people you've known?
A. I pick and choose characteristics from those who have crossed my path in life. As a rule, the story I have in mind calls for certain kinds of characters — so I start reflecting on people I’ve known from whom I might fashion a composite character.

Q. What advice can you pass along to aspiring writers?

A. Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and write. Start today and don’t quit until you’ve finished what you set out to do.  

 

Q. You teach both creative writing and journalism. What's the difference between the two kinds of writing?

A. There's not as much difference as one might think, which is one reason so many novelists come from a newspaper background. And the two forms are moving even closer together. Over the years, journalism has adopted all the techniques of fiction except making up the story — and, alas, sometimes even that happens. Nevertheless, some of the best writing I see appears in newspapers and magazines. But to answer your question directly, journalism is formula writing, and creative writing isn't.

 

Q. With you, how does a novel begin? A character? An idea? How?

A. I've written four now and much of a fifth. They all began with a scene that seemed to urge me to write it. That scene was the germ of the novel it later appeared in. Oddly, sometimes the scene turned out to be relatively unimportant to the story. The bottom line, for me, is that there is magic in storytelling, and the faculty that creates stories is mystifying. I believe, however, that the serious writer writes mainly to try to make sense of life's experiences. Something in each of us wants desperately for things to matter. 

 

Q. Some critics of creative writing courses say it's not possible to teach creativity. How would you answer them.

A. I'd use the same words I say to my students: I can't teach talent, but I can teach the talented. I'd add that I believe we're all creative in some way, but that talent isn't nearly as important as hard work in creating anything. I also repeat the words of Henry Ford to each class on the first meeting: "Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're right!" Put another way, believe in yourself and you'll be amazed at what you can accomplish.     

 

Q. In Atlanta Blues, Why did you name the newspaper The Phoenix?

A. Because the phoenix is the symbol of Atlanta.

 

Q. While at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution you found yourself covering stories similar to those covered by Ben Blake in Atlanta Blues. What story of that period stands out the most? Did that event change your view of society?

A. No one story changed my view, but work in journalism in general changed it. I still tell my students that reporting is the world’s best job. I loved it, and I especially loved working in Atlanta and for The Constitution. I still can’t believe they paid me to do that job. What a newspaper! What a city! And what a talented bunch of people I was privileged to work with.   

 

Q. In Atlanta Blues, you wrote about runaways. Why are runaways drawn to cities? Why do the police and newspapers ignore them to some level?

A. Most runaways are young, and the young everywhere seem drawn to cities – I guess because that’s where the action is. Runaways are of relative unimportance to the police and press because most runaways return home in a few days.

 

Q. “Loss” is a theme throughout Atlanta Blues – loss of innocence, loss of ideals, loss of ethics, loss of identity, and the ache caused by losing loved ones. How can a great personal loss prove to be a soul-affirming moment leading to change? Who suffers the greatest loss in Atlanta Blues?

A. That's an astute reading of Atlanta Blues. While I consider loss to be more soul-tarnishing than soul-affirming, I do believe that grievous loss begets change.  What’s that saying? “Live and learn.” Early in chapter 1, the protagonist reflects on how the death of his wife changed him. Until her untimely death, he had lived a charmed life, never been seriously hurt. Her death taught him how vulnerable, and how transitory, he was in reality. That’s what makes him identify with the distraught mother’s loss and persuades him to help her, after all. Who suffers the greatest loss in Atlanta Blues? Johnny Lee gets my vote. Police work rubs his nose in a kind of reality he wasn't sophisticated enough to cope with. Ben and Rick, the other two protagonists, adjust to this reality; Johnny Lee can’t. By the end of the book, he’s lost his innocence and his idealism, and been unable to replace them with another positive world view.  

 

Q. Each major character in Atlanta Blues makes changes in his/her life at the end of the book. Do you hope that the reader will experience a similar change of some sort?

A. I hope only that the reader feels enriched in some measure for having read Atlanta Blues. It’s part of the magic of story that we as readers can learn, through stories, about other sensibilities, other places, other lives.     

 

Q. The Class Managerie was a collection of stories you compiled from your creative writing course at the University of South Carolina. As an evening class, what do non-traditional students bring to writing that is unique?

A. Nearly all my students are traditional students, simply college-age students who for whatever reason prefer a late afternoon/evening class. On the whole, they bring the perspective of their generation; consequently, I learn as much from them as they do from me, maybe more. From time to time, however, I do have a non-traditional student or two. Invariably they bring a life experience that traditional students, because of their youth, don’t have.

 

Q. How many novels have you written?

A. I’ve completed four and nearly completed a fifth. The first is buried in a closet somewhere. The fourth is yet to be published.

 

Q. What’s the fourth about?

A. Titled A Majority of One, it’s about a teacher in a rural south Georgia county who gets into trouble by resisting the ministerial association’s efforts to ban certain American classic novels from the high school classroom.

 

Q. Which of your novels is your favorite?

A. That would be like saying which of my children is my favorite. I can’t do that -- not because it wouldn’t be proper to single one out, but because I like them all equally.

 

Q. How do you decide what a novel will be about?

A. I don’t decide that. I just go where the story takes me. Mainly, I write to see what the story is about. I repeat that storytelling has magical qualities. I’ve often thought a scene or story would go one way, only to find that it went another, very unexpected way. But that’s part of what keeps me writing. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gate pillar on the fabled Horseshoe on the old campus of the University of South Carolina.