[See the interview on the Crack the Spine website.]
How long have you been writing?
Do you write full-time?
Every morning (6 or 7 to noon) that the world does not require my presence elsewhere.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment as a writer?
Winning a Mass. Artist’s Grant for my fiction (Mass. teems with writers, as you might imagine).
What is your greatest challenge as a writer?
Writing something good enough to show someone else.
Tell us about your work in Crack the Spine.
“Mr. Mason’s Camera.” Story of an eleven-year-old boy who goes a long way to growing up on one particular summer day.
What inspired this “Mr. Mason’s Camera?”
Mr. Mason’s camera is the movie camera I bought secondhand as a boy (a boy slightly older than Sandy). I still have it – the camera sits on my bookshelves and would still work, I imagine, if one could find a roll of 8mm film to fit over its sprockets. The camera caught my eye one day and, like a grain of sand in an oyster, around it began to accumulate the ingredients of a story.
How long did it take you to complete this piece?
A couple of weeks for a workable draft, but then the manuscript went through numerous edits.
Tell us about another project you have published or are currently working on.
“Someone To Watch Over Me:” a novel of the 1937 Little Steel Strike in the steel industry. A project I have just begun.
What inspired this work?
I worked (summers) in a steel mill, my father worked all his life there, both my grandfathers worked there, even an aunt worked there during WWII. Pretty much everybody’s father worked there. Western Pennsylvania and its crockpot of nationalities are all I have ever written about. I have a Gazatteer (as I call it) with a list of some 300-400 named characters and close to a hundred business that populate my stories and novels. Fundamental to the story of Ganaego is the founding of that mill, the importation of thousands of laborers, the 1937 strike, and the ultimate shutdown in 1983.
Where do you write?
My home office on the third floor of our house – me and the birds.
What time of day or night makes you most productive as a writer?
Mornings. By noon I’m brain dead.
How many drafts do you generally go through before you consider a piece to be complete?
Way too many, dozens.
What is your usual starting point for a piece?
Something gets it going, a camera, for instance, a fellow shopper in Trader’s Joe’s, a fragment of a dream, the detritus left over from a sleepless night (there are a lot of sleepless nights). Once it starts, things begin adhering to the original idea as if it were a flannel board. Long walks help to sort things out, also staring out the window, playing the piano (poorly).
How do you react to editorial rejections of your work?
Everything is personal, everything negative burns like hell. Writers who pin up their rejections notices are, in my opinion, mad.
What is your best piece of advice on how to stay sane as a writer?
Well, one, don’t pin your rejection notes up around you; two, find someone you love and hold on to that person with all your might. You’re going to need help.
What is your favorite book?
The single book I am permitted to carry off to my Elba would be my Pelican collection of Shakespeare (Penguin Books). This tattered volume has sat by my bed for decade after decade offering me its wisdom and joy.
Who is your favorite author?
See above. Plus, the geniuses of the third-person, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Malcolm Lowery, and now Hilary Mantel.
If you could have dinner with one fictional character, who would it be and why?
Falstaff. Maybe because Falstaff possesses more life than any person I have ever met.
What is the greatest occupational hazard for a writer?
What’s in that cup on your desk?
Black tea (Assam, Darjeeling, Keemun) with powdered milk and honey. I know why you’re asking this: the beer stein I use for a teacup. But I can’t find a large cup that will keep my tea warm and that I can manage up the stairs without spilling.
How many of your character have you ended up killing off?
I remain continually and pleasantly surprised that my characters haven’t killed me off by now.
Cats or Dogs?
Cats, but dogs get on well with me.
Beer or Wine?
Wine, but prefer a dry martini straight up with a twist.
Pen or Pencil?
Fountain pens are a personal affectation.
The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?