Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Writing Process - a conversation with Andrew Stancek

Gay Degani, a great writer and good friend, asked Andrew Stancek and me to join a literary blog tour about the writing process, and we agreed, even though we are not really touring kind of guys. Since Andrew doesn’t have a blog we’re going on tour together – basically having a long range conversation (Andrew was born in Bratislava and now lives in a small southwestern Ontario town close to Lake Erie and I live in Evanston, Illinois in close proximity to the 2017 World Championship Chicago Cubs.)

But first meet Gay Degani and Susan Tepper as they converse on their writing process on Gay’s blog “Words in Place”  http://wordsinplace.blogspot.com/

And now the discussion between Andrew Stancek and me.

1). What are you working on?

Andrew StancekToo many projects, too little time.  After devoting about two years to mostly flash, in the last year, in addition to dealing with cancer recovery, I’ve been wrestling with two very different novels.  One is a historical piece, set in 1944 in the Tatra Mountains of Czechoslovakia, and the intended readers are in the 12-16 age group.  The other is a post-apocalyptic one for the Hunger Games fans.  I have completed a twelve-part magic realist novel-in-stories for Pure Slush and am hoping to compile into a collection my Mirko pieces about a teenage hoodlum in sixties Bratislava.  I have about thirty of those pieces done and when time allows I will fill in missing gaps with about twenty more and then set about getting them together as a collection.  I do still occasionally write flash.  I also….(laughter)  Yes, I AM crazy.  Just too, too many stories come pouring out of me.  And since I retired about a month ago I’ve been wondering whether I should do something other than writing.  But probably not.

Len Joy – I totally agree with you. You are crazy.  I would never be able to keep all of the characters and plots straight. I had enough trouble with one story.  But let’s back up. You mention your cancer recovery and you’ve been helpful to me in sharing your story (by the time this blog posts I will have undergone the same kind of prostate surgery that you have already had). 
I know that for me, being told that I have cancer (mine is very early stage) has not exactly been a wakeup call, but it has been a reminder that I am probably not going to live forever.  It took me almost nine years to write “American Past Time,” which was published in April. 

If I was thirty or maybe even forty I might be satisfied that I had the important first novel finally published and I would have started on the second novel, not caring quite so much that hardly anybody has discovered my masterpiece.  I am working on the sequel to “American  Past Time” titled “American Jukebox”.

It takes place thirty years later so I’m not sure if that truly qualifies as a sequel, but it is going to have many of the surviving characters.  The big challenge for me is that where “American Past Time,” takes place over twenty years, “American Jukebox,” takes place on a single day in 2003. 

As I said, I “should” be plowing full speed ahead on that novel, especially since I don’t know that I have the luxury of spending another nine years to write the book.  While I am working on it, I’m also spending a fair amount of time and money to promote “American Past Time.” 

That probably doesn’t make good business sense – with so many good books out there a book written by an unknown writer published by a small unknown publisher has lottery ticket chances of being discovered.  But people enjoy playing the lottery and I enjoy my Sisyphean effort to gain attention for my novel.  I’ve learned a lot about promotion, publishing and people. (going for that alliterative thing).
“American Past Time” has had a gratifying number of good reviews (33 on Amazon right now) from readers of all ages. The story is especially appealing to folks who grew up in America in the 60s and 70s. It might not resonate quite so much if you grew up in Bratislava.  

But enough about me, Andrew.  How has the cancer-thing affected your writing process?

Andrew: Oh, my.  Terrific question, Len, and I have an enormously long answer which would bore you and everyone else to tears, so I’ll cut it to bare bones. 
The main difference is focus.  I was faced with the real possibility of imminent death.  I had to accept, even embrace it.  Then I spent eight weeks recovering, wrestling with where I’ve been and where I hope to be, what I’ve accomplished and what I hope to accomplish in the future.  That particular kick in the gut has been transformational.  I have decided I needed to become a different human being and not return to what I was.  I still have that determination. 

Although I returned to my day job, I was changed.  Now, eighteen months later, I have retired from it, earlier than I would have otherwise.  Issues which seemed important before no longer are.  I am questioning every aspect of my life.  I am continuing a discerning process.  I may turn to totally different career options.  I may leave writing altogether.  Probably not, but it is a very real possibility. 

With that in mind, I believe the writing I have done since the surgery is weightier, deals with larger issues.  While I love flash, and owe much to it, it is not exactly read by a large audience.  If I am going to continue as a writer, I have to find a larger audience and share something significant with that audience.  I have a finite amount of time left and I have to make it count, and I have to value the time of my readers as well.  Early in my recovery I was reading John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, a book dealing with cancer.  He has masterfully shared something real.  I am unlikely to ever write about cancer, but I also cannot write any more about lighter issues.

Len – I think according to the script were now supposed to talk about genre. But those discussions always annoy me.  I think we’re allowed to skip the questions we don’t like or understand.  So let’s move on to the next question, which is:

“Why do you write what you do?” 

Len – I’ll go first.
When I was winding down my business career ten years ago, I had a vague notion that I would try to be a writer again.  That’s what I had planned to be when I went to college (well that was my stated plan; my secret plan was to become an NFL wide receiver in the mold of Fred Biletnikoff, but that didn’t pan out.) I abandoned my nascent writing career after my paper on Thoreau was harshly criticized by my freshmen English professor.

I changed my major to Economics and became a business guy.  For me, at that time in my life, it was the right decision. 

But after thirty years of building up life experiences, I had more confidence and more resilience to criticism and I started taking writing classes. I naturally chose to write about stuff where I had experience: factories, sports, work life dynamics.  

I don’t think you only have to write what you know, but I think you have to sort of know it.  For example, I worked in a foundry for a few months.  Long enough to know that I really didn’t want work there the rest of my life. It was hot, dangerous, but worst of all it was mind-numbingly tedious to stand in one place for eight hours.

I certainly don’t “know” that job.  Not like someone who had been showing up at the foundry every day for years.  But I had enough of the experience to convey convincingly (I hope) what that life was like.

You mentioned career possibilities and even the possibility that you might give up writing.  I find even when I’m not writing, I’m writing.  Most of my contact with the world is online so I probably write thousands of words a week, just communicating or perhaps bloviating on topics that of interest.

One of those is fitness.  I compete in triathlons. Hope to continue doing so after my surgery, but can never tell. Maybe I’ll not be able to return to levels I was at before.  Nevertheless I expect to keep physically active and I’m thinking be an opportunity to write about the subjects of aging and health and staying fit. 

Okay, your turn. 

Andrew: Why do I write what I write? An unanswerable question, so of course I’ll go on to answer it.  (Still more laughter.)

 The first and most obvious answer is “because I have to.”  Very much like “why climb Mt. Everest?” Because it’s there.  At a certain point all these words started bubbling to the surface and I had little choice but to put them on paper.  There is a Slovak fairy tale (I am extremely indebted to fairy tales, and of course to my Slovak background) in which the porridge pot goes into overdrive and the porridge keeps pouring out, out of the pot, all over the stove, fills the kitchen, the house, the village and on and on.  Sometimes I have that sensation with my stories.  Words rush out, more and more and more.  That is probably why no matter what I end up doing with my life, I’ll have to keep on writing, simply because the words won’t stop pouring out. 

I wrote a large number of stories based in Slovakia, usually with young protagonists, or older men returning to Slovakia.  After a lot of judicious pruning I started thinking maybe I have something there, maybe these are not just for my own amusement.  Eventually I took a writing workshop with one of my idols, Alistair MacLeod, and at the end asked him point blank whether he saw hope in my work, and he not only unequivocally said yes, but asked me to revise a story he’d seen, and he published it in The Windsor Review where he was fiction editor.  He died recently and I truly miss him.  He was one of the great writers of the 20th century and an enormously kind and supportive human being.  But since Alistair’s encouragement, I’ve been sharing my outpourings.  Mirko, one of my continuing protagonists, now has about thirty stories published and he’ll have a collection at some point.  I’d like to finish a short story collection.  I have those two novels on the go.  But why, why I cannot answer.  I have to.

Len – That seems like a good reason.  It reminds me that as writers, we all need feedback but maybe more important, we need encouragement.  It’s amazing how beneficial a sincere compliment can be.  I think the last question to tackle is

How does your writing process work?
Len -  I have a broad definition of what constitutes writing time. I include the time I spend reading and reviewing because all of that helps me to be a better writing.  I also spend a significant amount of time thinking about a story or chapter or scene that I am working on while I’m running or on my bike or swimming. Or in the shower. Sometimes I take really long showers.

For the writing part of writing – I usually try to write a scene at a time. I have an idea how I want the scene to work, but I don’t have a lot of specifics until I start writing it. When I’m done with the scene, I print it out and lie down on my couch and read it and mark it up. I like revising and I will revise it for a few days usually and then go on to the next scene.

I guess that process reflects the kind of writing I do. Most of my stories are dialogue and action. There is not a lot of interior.  I tend to show what is going in my characters heads through their actions and words.  That is probably because I’m not good at making lengthy narrative ruminations interesting. It is an area I’m trying to improve.  In the sequel to “American Past Time” the main character is starting to lose his memory and I think I’m going to have him alone in most of his scenes  as he struggles to hold on to his memories.   

So what about you, Andrew?  What does your writing process look like?

Andrew – Another impossible question.  I’d like to say that there is a routine, and that A is followed by B and then C.  But no such luck.

 Until a month ago I was working full-time so all my writing time was stolen in snatches from various parts of the day.  Often I hoped to write at night, but found I was too exhausted from the day itself, work, family.  Weekends, sometimes, always piecemeal.

And as I mentioned earlier, I usually have a large number of projects on the go, and don’t necessarily return to the one I was working on the previous day.  Usually I work on the computer, sometimes long-hand. 
It is quite amazing I got as much done as I did.  Now I may have more time.  I am discerning and perhaps I’ll throw myself into some other career, lion-taming, juggling, levitating, or perhaps just exploring other parts of the universe.  Bringing about world peace may be an option, or finding a cure for the common cold. Not sure yet.  Or perhaps the stories will continue pouring out and I’ll try to put them on paper before they get too soiled.  I’d like to put closure to the large projects before trying something totally new, but who knows?

 Here are links to two recent works: 
Len:  I think we can end there.  Andrew, it’s been a pleasure, as always. 
 Len Joy's first novel “American Past Time” was released April 19, 2014 with 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 Creative Arts, Johnny America, Specter Magazine, Washington Pastime, Hobart, Annalemma 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.

 Andrew Stancek grew up in Bratislava and saw tanks rolling through its streets. He now writes, dreams and entertains Muses in southwestern Ontario.  His work has appeared in Tin House online, Every Day Fiction, fwriction, Necessary Fiction, Pure Slush, Prime Number Magazine, r.kv.r.y, Camroc Press Review and Blue Five Notebook, among many other publications.  He’s been a winner  in the Flash Fiction Chronicles and Gemini Fiction Magazine contests and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The novels and short story collections are nearing completion.


Next up on the Writing Process Blog tour: Bonnie Zobell,  Sequoia Nagamatsu, and Michelle Elvy.

Bonnie ZoBell's new linked collection from Press 53, What Happened Here: a novella and stories , is centered on the site PSA Flight 182 crashed into North Park, San Diego, in 1978 and features the imaginary characters who live there now. Her fiction chapbook The Whack-Job Girls was published in March 2013. She received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction, the Capricorn Novel Award, and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. She received an MFA from Columbia University on fellowship, currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College and is working on a novel. Visit her at www.bonniezobell.com.

Sequoia Nagamatsu's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as ZYZZYVA, Redivider, The Bellevue Literary Review, Puerto Del Sol, The Fairy Tale Review, and One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories. He is a visiting professor at The College of Idaho.

Michelle Elvy lives and works as a writer, editor and manuscript assessor based in New Zealand and currently sailing in Southeast Asia. She edits at Blue Five NotebookFlash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction, and Awkword Paper Cut, where she also curates the Writers on Writing column. She is an Associate Editor for the forthcoming Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015), and has guest edited at Smokelong Quarterly and lent her reading eye to a number of competitions. Her poetry, prose, nonfiction and reviews can be found in a variety of journals and anthologies, most recently in JMWWWord RiotThe Linnet’s Wings, TakahÄ“, IkaHtml GiantPANKEastbourne: An Anthology and 2014: A Year in Stories. She has been interviewed about her somewhat unorthodox lifestyle in The New York Times, The Review Review and the Family Adventure podcast series. More at michelleelvy.com (editing), Glow Worm (poetry & prose) and Momo (sailing).





Michelle Elvy said...

Enjoyed this heartfelt, honest exchange. Thanks for opening up for us. And I like that you skipped the questions you just didn't care to answer. Better than a bogus answer... Nice to see what you're both working on. I'm familiar with Andrew's work -- and I'm glad to become acquainted with yours, Len. Your American series sounds quite interesting. I'm the right target audience in terms of age and geography.

Len said...

Thanks, Michelle.