Since the mid-70s, and particularly after 2001, it appears you’ve been quite a prolific writer. It also appears that you are quite an admired writer as well, given the number of contests that you’ve either placed in or won, the most recent being a 1st Prize award for “Remembering Teresa”, entered as a submission to the competitive “Ageless Authors Anthology”. Just looking over the titles of your works, it seems that you have selected a wide range of subjects to explore, from love to art, from dance to music. Indeed, you have a full novel written and ready to pitch titled “Legend Blues”, a tale about a Jazz musician with a past who “overcomes betrayals from friends, lovers, and enemies he’s made.” It’s often the case that writers write about what they know. How much of your work reflects your own experiences, or the experiences of those you are closest to, in real life?
I retired in 2002, so all those ideas that had been simmering during the years when life kept interfering with my plans, started nudging me to stop procrastinating. Actually, my own experiences had little to do with the work, except as starting points for my imagination to run with. For example, “Legend Blues” was a reflection of my love of Jazz, and I imagined myself as a talented musician striving for success. But none of the events in the novel happened in real life, and the other characters were based very loosely on people I’ve known.
Another example is “Remembering Teresa.” One day I recalled my first official girlfriend in grammar school and began thinking what-ifs about the future. That future never happened in real life.
So it is with most of my work, reading an article that piques my interest and twisting it to fit my what-if, or choosing one of the prompts on the list I’ve collected over the years and deciding how to make it my story.
Tell me a little bit about the characters in “Legend Blues”. Do you have a process that you follow in developing your characters, or do they just emerge organically from your imagination? More specifically, how did you develop the characters in this story into what they became?
I envisioned a protagonist, at least three antagonists, four love interests, various band members and townspeople in the two locations where the novel takes place. All the characters came from my imagination, but in their ongoing development, for my major characters, I used certain traits from people I knew, without exposing their real identities, and built the minor characters from who I imagined them to be.
Have you ever dabbled in playing music?
I never played music, but did fantasize about it.
What are some of your favorite jazz artists?
Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Errol Garner, and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
As can be seen by the acclaim that “Remembering Teresa” has garnered, you’ve managed to avoid the pitfalls that often transform a good “what-if” idea into a mediocre “wish-fulfillment” piece (again, congratulations on your top placement). Was this instinctive, or did this story require a lot of attention to keep it on the right path?
Once I had the main character fleshed out, his journey to the end of the story seemed to flow naturally to its bittersweet conclusion.
Does the story always flow that easily?
Rarely. If I have a good beginning, I can’t always see the ending until I’m into the story. If I have a good ending, most beginnings disappoint me at first. If I have both, the problem becomes getting from one to the other in a smooth logical way. That’s when I edit.
You’ve listed as influences throughout your career of writing as including “lost generation” icons Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Southern novelist William Faulkner, and more recently the entire catalog of works by Ray Bradbury. You also mentioned your admiration for Anton Myrer’s “The Last Convertible” (1978), reviewed by some as a ground-breaking coming-of-age novel, and others as a sophisticated attempt to bridge the gap between the generation who fought World War II in the 1940s, and those saddled with the fight in Vietnam in the 1960s. What are some of the ideas or techniques that these writers employ that you find the most interesting, or perhaps even emulated in your own work?
I considered Fitzgerald a coming-of-age writer and chronicler of a certain period in our history. Few writers have done it better. But Hemingway has always been my No. 1 influence for his ability to get to the point of the story by writing short, true sentences without flourishes or extraneous words that added nothing to further the plot.
Concision is always a good goal for storytellers. Are you able to achieve this in your writing in the first draft, or do you find the need to cut many extraneous words while editing?
I’ve never been satisfied with my first drafts. I need to cut extraneous words and anything else that jars my reading experience by editing until I’m satisfied that the writing is as good as I can make it.
Going back to your question, reading Bradbury challenged me to write with joy in the process, as he did, and push my imagination to conjure the unusual. Faulkner perhaps had the least influence on me, but I did admire his complicated plotting, his vivid characterizations, and his picaresque view of another part of our country.
Finally, Anton Myrer’s “The Last Convertible” had everything I wished for in one of my novels; a coming-of-age story, a group of complicated friends together and apart and together again through decades of turbulence and calm.
Tell me what you mean by “writing with joy in the process,” like Bradbury. How do you achieve this?
Bradbury rose each day eager to start, wrote every day, finished a story a week, and submitted so that he’d always have at least ten manuscript out there, in spite of rejection, writer’s block, or life’s intrusions. I’m still trying to emulate that joy-in-the-process attitude.
What do you think is the key to achieving that attitude?
You must write something every day, without fail, even if it is a sentence, a paragraph, a set number of words, or to paraphrase Oscar Wilde: taking out a comma from a story in the morning, and putting it back again that afternoon.
What would you consider to be an ideal story to emulate that doesn’t involve a coming-of-age tale, or is this the genre that you prefer to concentrate upon, more or less exclusively, with your storytelling?
My ideal story would a black comedy, much like Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” where the flawed hero finds hilarity in a tragic and bizarre series of events.
It’s said that Heller took much of the inspiration for “Catch-22” from Jaroslav Hasek’s “The Good Soldier Svejk,” a work that also finds humor from the same sort of absurdity that inspired his countryman, Franz Kafka, to write his most famous works. Does ideal humor necessarily require absurdity, or do you think there is there something more to writing good comedy?
I believe the humor in black comedy does require absurdity, as a kind of bringing one down from the horror of the events, if only temporarily; whereas good comedy focuses on humorous situations that most people can relate to.
What are some of the ideas that you are currently exploring that might someday make their way to the pages of some future story (or stories) of yours?
Three ideas have been clamoring for my attention. An eighty year old woman reflects on her life by having conversations with her deceased relatives in the neighborhood where she grew up. A private detective who was the unwitting subject of military LSD experiments in Korea returns home to find those experiments covering up a crime. A fake conspiracy which hides a real conspiracy threatens to shut down a near future New York City for good.
These seem to be quite complicated stories – almost stories within stories, if you will. Will they be more chronologically linear in construction, or do you have other storytelling structures in mind for these ideas?
The ideas are complicated, as I originally envisioned them, which is why I’ve struggled with them for some time. The detective story will be linear. The old woman will combine past, present, and a bit of fantasy. The conspiracy story will be a near future setting, with past researched history, and multi-character.
Did you serve in Korea?
I served in the peacetime Army from 1957 to 1959, stationed in the United States.
Do you have any real-world stories from your service that you think would generate any interesting plot ideas?
During my service I kept a notebook of character sketches of my fellow soldiers and story ideas. It might prove interesting to revisit those notes after all this time.
In as far as entertainment value goes, do you have any favorite conspiracy theories?
None, which is why I tried to come up with something outrageous.
The plot about the future abandonment of New York by a fake conspiracy which diverts attention from the real conspiracy to shut it down.
Do you carry out a lot of research while creating your stories?
The majority of my stories required minimal research.
When you have to do research for a story, though, do you do so during the writing, or do you carry it out before or after you write?
If there is something I’m uncertain of and need to know to give the story authenticity, I research during the writing. If a story requires more detailed knowledge, I research first, and then write. So far, though, that has never happened.