Many thanks to Betty J. Cotter for nominating me to take part in the My Writing Process Blog Tour. I met Betty when we were both students in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. As an alum I’ve admired Betty’s commitment to her writing and teaching, as well as her generosity of spirit. She is the author of the novels The Winters and Roberta’s Woods, and was named the 2006 fiction fellow by the R.I. State Council on the Arts. She teaches English at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Conn., and creative writing and journalism at the University of Rhode Island – I was thrilled to no end a couple of years ago, when she dropped me a note to say she’d used my essay “The Corner Booth,” first published at The Paris Review Daily, as a model for her memoir writing class. Betty’s work has appeared in Bibliophilos, Grace magazine, the Ocean State Review, and the Connotation Press, and she writes book reviews for the Providence Journal. She blogs at swampyankeewoman.wordpress.com.

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Now for the blog tour. I’ve been asked to answer the following questions:

1) What are you working on?

Over the past several summers I’ve been slowly churning out a novel-in-stories tentatively titled, WEST END GIRL. Set in the West End of Monroe County in northeastern Pennsylvania, the storyline centers on Jane Hinton as she enters high school in the wake of her father’s sudden death, and continues into her young adulthood. While her despondent mother sinks deeper into fundamentalist Christianity, Jane’s loneliness and grief drive her to seek out solace and wisdom from classmates and neighbors—such as the reclusive German couple who teach her to drive, and Phoebe, the unmarried, middle-aged diorama artist who recognizes Jane’s inherent artistic talents. Jane embarks on a fragile romance with her neighbor, Ward O’Connell, whose home life is fragmented not by death, but by well-worn habits and stubborn resistance to change. But Jane’s path pivots not so much on her romantic forays as her troubled alliance with her best friend, Robin Snyder, whose actions, albeit misaligned, lead Jane to possibilities beyond the farms, churches, and diners of Monroe County, PA.

WEST END GIRL grew from one of my short stories, “Shadow Boxes,” which was short-listed for numerous prizes and winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Award. I had not paid the story much attention, but the acclaim it garnered as finalist at numerous contests eventually caused me to step back and take note. I wondered if there was more to mine in that subject matter, if I had been shying away from exploring the rural landscape of my roots when something deep and resonating lurked there, begging to be captured in fiction. Thus far, the chapters function as stand-alone yet closely-linked stories, in which seemingly small moments contain great emotional power—and often the dark side of small town American life. Upon completion, I envision the book to capture characters and themes akin to Richard Russo’s fictional explorations of upstate New York and New England, and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

At this stage and with this particular project, I think the difference lies in form. Several of the stories border on novella-length, a form which is new to me and feels unwieldy—but may just be a matter of study and mastery. Linking the stories in a way that doesn’t feel forced or contrived is an increasing challenge as the manuscript develops.

It’s worth noting that I’m not aware of another literary writer who has explored growing up in the Poconos and Slate Belt region of PA at the end of the 20th century. If that’s the case, then the content may be unique as well.

3) Why do you write what you do?

From an early age, the injustice of life has gotten under my skin. Life to me has never been black-and-white, but a paradoxical and maddening grey. I’d like to think that Andre Dubus and I are kindred spirits in that we both grew up among the common man, in lower- to middle-class environs, and therefore we can relate to a vast array of ordinary people in situations where the only available choices are difficult ones. I spent a great deal of my formative years in my parents’ diner, eavesdropping on conversations between waitresses and counter regulars: state troopers, truckers passing through the Poconos on Rt. 80, the colorful salesmen from Easton Packing and Sysco who’d come by for their orders every week. So I had an unusual window into the adult world that other kids my age weren’t privy to, although I had no concept of this at the time. There was always some calamity going on at the restaurant, and my father would come home with these stories—dishwashers ODing in the parking lot, waitresses whose husbands beat them up, old people having heart attacks during Sunday brunch. I wasn’t shielded from any of that. It doesn’t surprise me that those surroundings would have had a lasting effect on how I see the world.

Up until now these particulars of where I grew up didn’t appear so plainly in my work. With this project, however, it’s as if I’m staring at them straight on and sketching what I see. Maybe the end result won’t read so differently from Munro, Russo, or Kitteridge, or whoever else has fictionalized small town life in the Northeast. But that’s not for me to worry about. My job is simply to write the stories. In the case of WEST END GIRL, it’s an opportunity to explore an alternative family history if you will—a healthy way, I hope, of unearthing the psychological drama and dysfunction, the “might-have-beens” that haunt many of us into adulthood.

4) How does your writing process work?

I almost never start a story immediately upon the premise entering my mind. Maybe I ought to be more spontaneous, but I let them stew. Often a story starts with a “what if?” question. I’ll write that down in my spiral notebook, and maybe some notes. Maybe a lot of notes, a page or two. Sometimes I’ll start working on an opening then; sometimes the premise will sleep in my journal for months, along with a half-dozen other ideas. Then I return to my journal and peruse these premises, see what I’m interested in exploring.

Also, I tend to write in spurts. This means for long periods, months even, I often don’t write. But when I pick up my notebook again and begin, I’ll often write two or three stories in a very short amount of time—something like six weeks. Then I’ll sort of sigh, emotionally exhausted, and turn to another area where life beckons me—a long-awaited trip or a new semester of teaching, or focus on submitting work to journals and author promo. Maybe I’ll write a few poems, or participate in a collaborative or community arts project. For a long while I danced in a Middle Eastern folkloric troupe, and really enjoyed that. So I’m happily pulled in lots of different creative directions.

In terms of the physical process, I move around a lot—sometimes I write for days or weeks on the same spot on the couch. Then suddenly I’ll find myself sick of being indoors and spend way too much money on chai lattes and scones at nearby coffee shops. Before starting a new project or diving into a major rewrite, I’ve got to clean my workspace if not the entire condo. I can go for days, happily holed up, a stockpile of food in the fridge, and not see anyone, just work, work, work. While writing my novel, which is set in Colombia and will be released by Curbside Splendor in fall 2015, I wore a Peruvian poncho, listened to classical Spanish guitar music nonstop, and ate lots of arepas, beans and rice.

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Next up in the My Writing Process Blog Tour, let me introduce you to three terrific writers I am honored to know, and who happen to also be part of the ever-growing Florida lit scene:

Philip F. Deaver is has lived in Florida since 1984, and since 1998 is writer in residence and a professor of English at Rollins College which is where I met him. He was my first writing instructor, and since then has become a neighbor (he and his wife, Susan, live just around the corner) and good friend. Also interesting is that he grew up in Tuscola, IL, close to where my paternal grandmother’s clan is from. In 1986, Philip became the 13th winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, resulting in the publication of his collection Silent Retreats, re-released in paperback by the University of Georgia Press in the spring of 2008. He is the author of a collection of poetry, How Men Pray, Anhinga Press, 2005. He co-edited an anthology of writing from central Florida entitled Orlando Group and Friends (Arbiter, 1998) and was the editor of an anthology of creative nonfiction essays on baseball, Scoring From Second: Writers on Baseball – a terrific anthology and must-have for anyone with a sincere affection for the sport. You can find him online at www.philipdeaver.com

I had the pleasure of getting to know John Henry Fleming this past spring, when Burrow Press released Songs for the Deaf, his excellent story collection, along with my debut, Train Shots. John’s also the author of The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, a novel just re-issued in a 20th Anniversary Edition ebook and which I can’t wait to get to in my Kindle queue of summer reading. He’s also written Fearsome Creatures of Florida, a literary bestiary, and The Book I Will Write, a novel-in-emails originally published serially and now available as an ebook. His short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, The North American Review, Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, Kugelmass, and Carve. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of South Florida, and he’s the founder and advisory editor of Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. His website is www.johnhenryfleming.com.

Nathan Holic teaches at the University of Central Florida. He is the author of the novel American Fraternity Man (Beating Windward Press), and the editor of the annual anthology 15 Views of Orlando (Burrow Press), a literary portrait of the city featuring short fiction from fifteen Orlando authors. His novella, The Things I Don’t See, will be released this Fall from Main Street Rag Publishing. He lives in Orlando with his wife and son (twin boys forthcoming this Fall). I’m in awe of Nate and have huge respect for his talents both on the page and in life, as he juggles writing, teaching, editing, and fatherhood with grace and good humor. Visit Nathan online at www.nathanholic.com.

 

 

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