Owen Thomas, author of the riveting novel The Lion Trees, gave us a TON of things to think about in his interview. Read on for one of the best interviews yet!
How would your advice for new writers differ from advice you would offer writers who have been in the game for a while?
I am obnoxiously full of advice for new writers. There are a lot of things that stand between the new writer and something authentic and original that people will want to read. New writers typically spend a lot of time thinking about selling and marketing the thing they have not yet written. Selling is not writing. In many ways, especially for the new writer, the selling mindset is inimical to the creative process. If you have written a dozen bestsellers and have cultivated a fan base with specific expectations that you are hell-bent on satisfying, then the creating and the selling aspects of writing are no doubt well blended. But first-time writers really need to concentrate on three things:
(a) nurturing a love of writing,
(b) getting a strong sense of your written voice and
(c) honing the craft of story-telling and written expression.
All of those things are critical to success and all of them require a lot of up-front attention in the early years of a writer.
That first one – nurturing a love of writing – seems obvious, but is often overlooked. Writing takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. It isn’t for everybody, just like the space program is not for those who, however much they love rockets, have a strong aversion to math and confined spaces. New writers need to give themselves a chance to settle into the creative process and decide if this is something they love enough to invest the time. If so, then the new writer should spend as much time as possible indulging in the writing life and making room for it, coaxing it out into the open. But if not, then the odds of success (let alone fulfillment) are rather poor and it is better to know that sooner rather than later.
Second, a new writer needs to spend a lot of time finding her voice. The written voice determines a million different choices on everything from what to write about to how to structure a sentence. Voice is not something you go shopping for, but something you hear inside of your own head. A writer’s voice must be authentic to the writer; it is an extension of her personality, experiences and worldview. By way of analogy, when a person speaks, she may change the pitch and volume of her voice and may even have the ability to affect various accents, but all of that tonal manipulation is still within the context of her own natural voice.
It takes time and effort to sort through all of the noise and to get past the voices or styles that are too self-aware, pretentious or imitative to come off as genuine to a reader. It is a fascinating exercise to look at the early voices and styles of experienced writers and to realize how they evolved over time into the writers they became. There is a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimenting, a lot of imitation, a lot of pretending, and a lot of rejection that goes on behind the scenes before the new writer ceases to be a “new” writer and finds that comfortable groove of expression.
Finally, creative writing, like any art, requires the mastery of a medium of expression. Artistic passion is never sufficient. The painter must learn how to use color and shape. The musician must learn how master an instrument in order to make the right note at precisely the right time. The dancer must train muscle to shape meaning. The new writer must develop a working intimacy with language. She only has twenty-six letters to use. The words she makes with those letters must be arranged in a particular sequence, one that will best accomplish her objective, whether that is describing ancient Rome or a thriving colony on Mars, building suspense, sowing distrust, seducing empathy, inviting sorrow or provoking laughter. There is a skill to writing a sentence. There are mechanics to the art of storytelling. All of that requires work.
So my advice to new writers would be to try kick the ‘commerce’ part of writing out of the room. Try to write from a place of genuine enthusiasm for writing. Avoid efforts to reverse engineer a creative existence from a success that you do not yet have or, worse, from the success of some other writer. Avoid ‘writing to sell’. Write for the love of writing. Hone your craft. Find an authentic voice. Be original. Take some risks. Amaze yourself. Enjoy yourself. The rest will follow.
When you take a break from writing, is it a full and total break or is your mind constantly parsing the world for fodder? What does that parsing look like? How does it make you feel as an artist? As a human being?
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that I am always writing. Putting words onto a computer screen, or editing those words, is only the last part of the process I consider to be writing. Writing is an extension of thinking and imagining. Writing is a process of distillation; bringing ideas, characters, plot lines and so on out of the head and into the world of language. Getting those ideas into the conscious brain and shaping them requires a lot of head time.
I spend a lot of time in which I am not fully present in the real world because I am thinking about whatever I am writing. Alternatively, I spend a lot of time actively mining the real world for things that I can use in the imagined world I am constructing, not unlike those guys you see wandering the aisles of Home Depot drawing things in the air with their fingers and muttering things like: I need a thingy about so long that has a little hook on the end and it bends enough to fit into a hole in that damn countertop at an angle of about sixty-one degrees. And forest green; it needs to be forest green. So there is a lot of writing to be done when I am not sitting at a computer. Taking a break from writing is a difficult idea for me to accept.
You ask how that makes me feel as an artist. It makes me feel that creative writing is an integral, inseparable part of my life, which is what any art should be. It should hurt the artist when artistic expression is denied for too long; like holding your breath. When I feel like the writer in me is looking through my eyes, no matter what I am doing in the world, then I feel whole. When I do not have that sense of my own creative consciousness, I feel unnatural and alien. I feel like I am wasting time.
You ask how that makes me feel as a human being. It makes me feel complete. But I would be remiss not to add some mention about being in a relationship with a writer. There is a passage in my book The Lion Trees that fairly represents the difficulty:
Away. I say that word. Away. As if to imply some geographical distance. Writers are away as they sit across from you. They are away as they eat their dinner and nod as you talk about the neighbors. They are away in bed. They are away as they drive the car back from Christmas dinner at your parents’. Writers are always away. Always leaving you alone as their eyes glaze over and they disappear down into their secret rabbit holes. Writers inhabit other, half-formed worlds. We live other, inchoate lives. No one can come with us. No one can follow us into those dark, crenulated warrens. Everyone must wait until we decide to reappear, triumphant with pages in our hand like the head of some foreign king that we have severed with the nib of a pen.
You can see the problem. I have a special sympathy for the people who are in relationships with writers. Always waiting for that laptop to close. Always waiting for him or her to come back to the here-and-now. I have been extraordinarily lucky in that regard.
From your perspective as an author, what do you feel is the biggest challenge to the publishing industry today? Is there a way to solve that challenge?
The big challenge for the publishing industry is the same big challenge confronting the music and film industries: the digital revolution and the democratization inherent in binary code. For better and for worse, the Internet has placed the power of publication and distribution into the hands of the writer (as it has with the musician and the film maker); the good and the bad, the moneyed and the impecunious, the serious and the dilettantish.
For the publishing industry, that means contending with a supernova of content. Finding the talent worth promoting is simultaneously easier (because the opportunities for discovery, no longer limited to traditional channels, have multiplied exponentially) and harder (because the number of writers – including really bad writers – slinging their manuscripts has multiplied exponentially).
For the writer it means that getting your content published and distributed is easier, but getting recognized is as hard or harder than ever amid the growing oceans of writers trying to do the same thing. Writers and publishers are living in very interesting and, yes, challenging times.
You ask if there is a way to solve those challenges. The challenges are simultaneously opportunities. The way to take advantage of the opportunities presented in the digital age are the same, ironically, as it was when writers were dipping their nibs in inkwells and writing by candlelight: keep writing; finish one thing and start on the next; work on getting better; write the thing no one else has written; don’t give up.
What books are you currently reading?
I just finished Purity, by Jonathan Franzen. I am currently reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, and Lamb, by Bonnie Nadzam. Cued up on my nightstand are The Dolphin People, by Torsten Krol; A Good Hard Look, by Ann Napolitano; Wash, by Margaret Wrinkle; The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber; The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, by Andrew Greer; and The Likeness, by Tana French.
Which authors do you think are underappreciated in the current market, and why?
In all honesty, that is a tough question to answer because I do not claim to have any real sense of which writers are underappreciated, over-appreciated or appropriately-appreciated. I enjoy a very wide variety of writers, most of whom may fairly claim themselves to be successful and probably all of whom nevertheless wish they were more successful, except Stephen King, who is likely to write his next six-hundred page novel on the face of five dollar bills.
So let me answer the question this way: I would like to see an uptick in appreciation for works of literary fiction, which I think is an underappreciated genre. Actually, to call literary fiction a “genre” is a bit of a misnomer since literary fiction is characterized less by plot convention, subject matter or even the style of writing than a fidelity to character and the exploration of the individual’s relationship to family, society, the environment, time, space, life, etc.
Genre fiction really gets the lion’s share of market attention, at least in this country, and while there are some spectacularly entertaining books in each of those genres, they tend not to offer the same depth, reflective opportunity, and emotional resonance that well-written literary fiction can deliver. We are awash in television, movies, and social media applications. All of that video culture has a place and, believe me, I am a consumer.
But as an individual pastime, reading offers a unique potential for substantive change, development and understanding. Much of today’s genre fiction seems to mirror the paint-by-numbers predictability and the shallowness of run-of-the-mill video entertainment, almost as though the novel is a draft of the screenplay yet to be written. One of the best things about good genre fiction is that it is immediately compelling and entertaining and is responsible for a lot of interest in reading, particularly among the younger set. I shudder to think about what would become of our national readership if it were not for genre fiction. So my point is not to run-down genre fiction, but simply to lament the lack of balance and to observe that as a ‘non-genre’, literary fiction seems underappreciated in our culture.
Which new writers do you find most interesting, and why?
I am awestruck at the quality of the some of the debut literary fiction in recent years. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton comes to mind (actually, I think The Luminaries might be her second book, but still, to win the Mann Booker prize with your second book is a phenomenal accomplishment and bodes well for the quality of her future work). Other new authors I am interested in keeping an eye on include Bonnie Nadzan (“Lamb”), Margaret Wrinkle (“Wash”), Eowyn Ivey (“The Snow Child”), Andy Weir (“The Martian”), and Max Berry (“Lexicon”), who may or may not be so new, but who is new to me. Although they come from wildly different backgrounds and create in wildly different voices, they each know how to write, how to tell a story and how to grab hold of their readers.
Finding the discipline to keep writing can be tough. Which “get writing” techniques are most effective for you?
I think it is less of a “technique” than a “mindset.” One of the most formidable barriers to progress is the mentality that keeps you from making any effort at all until you are comfortable that you will be able to accomplish a lot as a result of that one effort. So, for example, stories of writers who will not stop writing for the day until they have written fifteen pages abound. That is a great approach if you have the time and inspiration to produce fifteen pages, let alone fifteen good pages. But, with that standard of accomplishment, if you do not have either the time or the inspiration to fill fifteen pages, then you will never even turn on your computer.
In the long run, a much more productive mindset is the willingness – the eagerness – to spend whatever time you have, however brief, to advancing your story even just a little. I have spent hours with nothing more than a paragraph to show for the effort. Sometimes the only thing I accomplish is a bit of editing work or just filling in details here and there. Sometimes I only have ten or fifteen minutes to polish a section with which I am unhappy or to make an outline of what comes next in the story.
When you realize that all of that work counts as writing, that all of it is important and will need to be done sometime, then it is not necessary to find a four-hour block of time in order to “get writing”. Writing progress is often measured in very tiny increments. But those tiny incremental steps can accumulate over time into an amazing literary distance. Furthermore, you will be amazed at how often the little ten or fifteen-minute commitment develops its own surprising momentum that keeps you writing for several hours that you did not think you had to spare or the creative inspiration to fill.
Don’t worry about making “big” progress. Take the pressure and intimidation out of the equation. Carve out whatever time you can, even little bits of time, and do something with it. It all adds up.
Can you give us a sneak peek into your current project?
I could, but then I would have to kill you. And I’d have to do that before my wife killed me because, try as she might, I do not open that door for anyone. Our wedding vows – sickness and health and all the rest of it – included n0thing about sharing unfinished work.
This is a bit of neurosis that I have never been able to shake. For me, writing creatively requires a kind of internal pressure. The more I share about my unfinished writing projects, the less pressure there is in the creative pipes. Sharing, I think, leads inevitably to caring what the other person thinks, which leads to course-correction, which leads headlong to an abandonment of creative instincts in favor of writing on spec.
I prefer to write in the isolation of my head and my heart and then release the finished product into the world. It is not an approach I necessarily recommend, for the world may well send it back with a note attached reading Just what in the hell were you thinking? But I have always been that way and I am more likely to win the lottery than to start giving away plot points before the last edit.
But I will say this much: I am actively working on another novel, very different from The Lion Trees, that I hope to have out in late 2016 or early 2017, and another book of short fiction, very different from Signs of Passing, that I hope to have out in early to mid-2017. I am also in the process of sketching out a large, multi-volume novel that I would like to finish sometime before the Grim Reaper shows up looking at his watch.