Known Again

I am beginning this essay twenty minutes before I am scheduled to record an audio interview with the British novelist Santa Montefiore. As always, I do not know what we will talk about. This used to concern me. What if I have nothing to ask the author? And so I would write down a series of questions and draw upon my nascent acting skills to sound natural as I asked them.

I have since abandoned the prewritten questions. The conversations are always so much more interesting to me when I don’t have them. In this way, the interviews are like writing, the blank page like the author with whom I’m speaking. Whatever vague ideas I have about what I might write or what I might ask a writer must be tested against the reality of the blank page or the author.

Strange how the blank page teaches us as much about reality as other people do. Other people are continuously teaching me about reality, teaching me that I cannot predict it or control it, just as I cannot predict or control what another person will say. So too with the blank page. I cannot really predict or control what arrives when I face it.

Oh, but I wish sometimes it were otherwise, just as I have wished sometimes that I were a puppeteer king of all those around me. When I drive a car do I not have complete control over it, and does not this very control determine whether I live or die? Do I not earn my bread from this blank page, and do I not require the cooperation of those around me to do what I wish to do?

The flesh is indeed quite weak, that it would require what it cannot have. Best to come to the page, to the world, not as a king to his subjects, but as a traveler finding comfort in a strange land. Here is where our safety lies, that moment when the unknown sheds its shadow and life is known again.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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What’s Been Learned

I have taken recently to asking all my interviewees to finish this sentence: If writing has taught me anything, it has taught me . . . what? When I thought of this question I had imagined the answers would be as varied as those received from the question it replaced: “What advice would you give someone wanting to be a writer?” To that question I received everything from, “Write what you want to read,” to, “Don’t follow trends,” to, “Write every day.” One writer answered, “Get an agent.” Another novelist advised, “Don’t write novels; get into video games.”

However, from the dozen or so writers to whom this has been asked I have received two answers nearly to the exclusion of all others: Trust, and Persistence. Trust and Persistence. Interesting, because, as far as writers are concerned, aren’t they really the same thing? How can you persist without trust? How can you write in the face of rejection, of bad reviews, of the very unknown that is every single book before it is published – how can you live with this continuous uncertainty without trust?

I can see why an established writer might not bother advising a newer writer to merely, “Trust yourself.” How easy that vague encouragement is to disregard. When gathering advice, we are drawn to specifics. Write 2,000 words a day; start your story with action; have only one antagonist; put your hero in peril as quickly as possible.

All good advice, I suppose, but all of it useless unless the writer trusts himself. I was at a Seder once whose leader explained to the children gathered around the table that God did such and such to show His people He was real. This was the leader’s interpretation. All I could think upon hearing this was, “How convenient. This way no one has to have any actual faith.”

Everything can be disbelieved, from burning bushes to needing to write sympathetic protagonists. It’s as easy as thinking, “I don’t believe that.” It’s as easy as thinking, “I don’t believe I’ll find an agent for this book,” or, “I don’t believe anyone will want to read this story.” Nothing is easier to do, and nothing is harder to live with. Trust me.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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My First Interview

I was fifteen and had decided to take my first creative writing class. The class was aimed at adults, having been one of many classes (French Cooking, Ballet, Repair Your Own Car) offered in a booklet that arrived in the mail one day, and was held in a room adjoining several others above an Italian Restaurant.

As is my wont, I arrived early to the first class. Another class (Discovering Calligraphy, I believe) was still in session where Creative Writing For Beginners was to be held. I took a seat in the small waiting area and found a magazine.

There was only one other person waiting there that evening. I remember nothing about her except that she was a woman about my mother’s age and that she was wearing a dress.  I was dissatisfied with my magazine and drifted to her side of the room in search of another. Before I could make my selection, she asked me what class I was waiting to take. I told her creative writing. She asked me if it had been my idea to take this class. I told her it was. She asked me why I wanted to take creative writing. I said because I had always loved to write and that I wanted to be writer when I grew up.

And then she asked me what I liked best about writing. And after I answered that she asked me what sorts of books I read and were these the sorts of books I would like to write. She never ran out of questions. While I answered her questions, she sat perfectly still, listening to my every word.

After about the fourth or fifth question, I began to feel a little guilty. I wasn’t used to anyone taking such a complete and unselfish interest in me. But every time I would try to diminish myself, would try offer a polite out for this kind woman who was perhaps just passing the time by chatting with this talkative young man, she would ask me yet another question, just personal enough to be about me and no one else, and yet not so personal as to be intrusive.

Soon it was time for the class. She thanked me for sharing what I had. I hope I thanked her. I know I never found out what class she waiting for. Sometimes when I interview writers I remember that woman. I had done nothing at all to earn her attention, and yet she listened to me as if I were the most interesting person she had ever met. I am sure I was not. You cannot listen like that unless you are interested in everyone you meet.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Look Around

I had the great fortune of being interviewed yesterday on Susan Wingate and Joshua Graham’s excellent podcast “Between The Lines.” If you did not have a chance to listen to it, you may do so at any time here: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/dialogue

Susan and Joshua were quite generous and allowed me to roam freely through many of the subjects that most interested me. This included my work editing the video interviews we post every month. I have never thought much about this part of my job. Video editing was something I simply had to learn to do in order to have an online magazine.

As Susan pointed out, her interview, as seen on Author, was but a fraction of the conversation we taped. In this way, editing is like rewriting a very wordy novel, diving into voluminous raw material to extract a coherent and focused narrative. If I have had any success as an editor it is due in large part to the instincts I honed writing fiction.

But isn’t this so with everything? Before I waited tables fulltime I acted, and the voice I trained on the stage I brought to the tables where I trained it further to be heard clearly in a more intimate surrounding, a voice I would then bring to this magazine to be used in interviews. What I write in this column I bring to the dinner table, and what I learn at the dinner table I bring to this column. I write better the more that I talk, and I talk better the more that I write.

And so on. Writing classes and conventions and magazines are great and helpful, but nothing can replace your constantly expanding web of interest. Look around at all the activities and friends and things you gathered to you, all these things you call your life. You think one is not connected to the other? Their separation is an optical illusion, a trick that allows getting about in the world easier. They are all connected to you, and you they, and the closer you look at all you do and think about and say, the harder it will be to tell one from the other.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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A Question For You

I interview many different types of writers, and for every type of writer there is a different type of interview, but with every writer one thing remains consistent: the person matches the book. This is not to say that the writer and his or her work are one in the same. Instead, it’s as if the writer is in a life-long discussion with the world, and a book is one part of that discussion. When I meet the writer, I feel that discussion still in process, as though the writer has asked a question of the world, and the answer is coming and coming and coming.

This is particularly helpful when I read books about which I am not excited. It is easy to feel that somehow the writer has set out to waste my time. But this is only because when I read a book I am hearing it in my own voice. If the writer is posing a question which I have already answered to my own satisfaction or am simply not interested in asking myself, then what I hear in my head sounds like a song played in the wrong key.

On the other hand, once I meet the writer, and hear their voice, the question the book posed makes perfect sense—for the writer. It’s then I realize that what bothered me most was the dissonance between my voice and that of the author’s, not whether the book was any good or not.

It is impossible for me, once I meet someone, not to feel the integrity of that person’s life question. Not the integrity of their answers, for none of them are ever meant to be final, only guideposts—but the question. That is the tension of life, just as it is the tension of fiction. But it is a dynamic tension, a creative tension, and it does not matter how far from my own question the dramatic arc of another person’s life is drawn—it bends as necessarily and unstoppably forward as mine. I see this, and I am relieved. I am relieved as I am once again reminded that nothing in life can be gotten wrong, that the question is pure, and the answers are nothing more than cobblestones in the road you are paving in its pursuit.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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A Willing Listener

I always end my interviews by asking the writers with whom I’m speaking what advice they would give to a less experienced writer. While this is by far the most generic of all the questions I ask, and is in fact the one question that has remained essentially unchanged since Author’s very first interview, I still find the answers as compelling as ever.

For although the writers appear to be entering teacher mode, appear to be speaking from a pinnacle – however high – of wisdom and experience, this moment is often the most intimate and personal of the entire interview. With few exceptions, the writers are talking to themselves. The advice they give are the lessons they needed to learn to find themselves in the chair across from me. The advice they give are often lessons they themselves must continue to learn, and in that moment they become both parent and child, speaking backwards and with love to that part of themselves perhaps still not convinced that he or she has arrived at a destination that had once seemed unreachable.

I wish everyone in the world could be given a chance to be interviewed in this way. I wish this for the same reason that I know everyone has an interesting story to tell. Whether you grew up on the streets of Bombay or the suburbs of Philadelphia, you have an interesting story to tell. Not everyone, however, is ready to tell that story. Not everyone is convinced yet that their story is different enough, or exciting enough, or dramatic enough, or heartbreaking enough, or triumphant enough to bother sharing with another person.

Which is why my success as an interviewer will always depend on my willingness to listen without judgment. Everyone has their fears, even bestselling writers, and the open space offered by the attentive listener is the friendliest platform from which to speak. Sometimes it takes only one wiling listener for a voice to feel heard. Sometimes, as on the page, the one listening and speaking are one in the same.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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No Surprises

Once a month I perform an interesting task: I must select a single frame from a 20-minute interview to serve as that author’s image on the Interviews Page. To do this, I scroll through a portion of the interview frame-by-frame looking for a shot that is both flattering to the author and compelling visually. In so doing, I have made this discovery: people look funny when they talk.

You must trust me on this. You would not want to watch yourself talking in slow motion, especially if you are being interviewed and are trying to be expressive and interesting. The face contorts, compresses, and elongates as our lips shape words and our eyes and eyebrows drive the point home. We look cartoonish and strangely uncomfortable.

Yet it is an illusion, isn’t it? Played at normal speed, there is nothing quite so appealing as watching a face animated in conversation. Even the most self-conscious among us cannot keep the mask intact at all times, as the truth of what we feel from moment to moment blooms and submerges, blooms and submerges.

The lie of the camera is the captured moment. It doesn’t actually exist. We are incapable of stasis, and so what is funny in isolation becomes beautiful in context. It is why I tend to avoid the news. Life out of context means nothing—it is shocking and absurd. In the news, things seem to just happen. But nothing ever just happens; everything evolves from something else, and even lightening requires an accumulation of energy to be released.

So much of storytelling is about context. Though for marketing purposes a story might be billed as shocking or bizarre, the writer’s true job is to remove the shock, to show the connection. It doesn’t matter what kind of story you tell, one thing must flow naturally into another, and what is called shocking is merely a result of the author withholding details for dramatic purposes. True beauty is in connection, not isolation, and we weep or cheer at the end of a story, from understanding, not surprise.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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