You began your writing career with an anthology of poems, short stories, essays, and plays entitled “Songs for my Father” (2002), a work that basically follows your own life as an American male. Your next published work wasn’t for another seven years, but then you started in on a spree of books, starting with “Widow’s Walk” (2009) which explores the impact of a sunset relationship on a widow and her adult children; “Memoirs from the Asylum” (2010), an exploration of life in a state hospital; “Tales from the Dew Drop Inne” (2012), a sitcom-like story set in a modern pub; “El Catrin” (2013) a short story foray into the world of magical realism; “Broody New Englander” (2014), a three-story mini-anthology within which you share your love of your native northeast; “Times to Try the Soul of Man” (2015), a foray into the world of action adventure; “Sweet and Sour” (2015), a short-read anthology targeted to a young adult audience; “The Nettle Tree” (2016), a speculative fiction anthology you co-edited with Clayton Bye; “Ashes” (2019), a new play you wrote with Abdul Umar; and “Red and White” (2019), a story you describe as having been channeled from Brule Lakota warrior Plenty Horses, whose own life was spared as a result of a sort of unofficial courthouse exchange for the soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry who carried out the Massacre at Wounded Knee (the state of war between the Lakota and the United States prevented both parties from being charged with murder in actions surrounding the incident).
If you would, could you go through some of the processes you used to select the stories you’ve written, the inspiration behind some of your favorite works (if you don’t want to select favorites, all of your works sound interesting, and would love to learn more about all of them), and your writing process in general (or specific if it differs genre to genre).
Life has given me both my own battles and access to the battles of many others; I guess that’s one advantage of being a psychologist. Some of the characters in my stories are parts of me. Some are partly the people I’ve known along the way. And, some are just made up from my psyche or perhaps as with “Red and White” I’m channeling someone from the past. Many Ponies clearly is not someone I ever met. Still, I heard his voice as clearly in my head as I would were I psychotic and hearing a voice coming out of my clock. Not only did he tell me the story of my protagonist Lonely Cricket but also he told me all the short Native American style stories that are included in the novel. It was a monumental amount of communication.
If we are talking about channeling, I have to mention “The Stylite,” the first piece in “Broody New Englander.” I had written the beginning of that novella and loved it. However, I had hit a dead-end, what some call writers’ block. I stopped working on “The Stylite” and wrote “Tales from the Dew Drop Inne.” An entire book as gap filler, and a good book at that. Then, I just had to go back “The Stylite;” the beauty of the language demanded my return. With my wife’s agreement, I went to Arkansas, to the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, to work on the book. The first night at the Colony, I was awakened by the central female character shaking my bed. At least that was how I experienced it. When I was awake, she asked me one question. I won’t share that question because it would spoil the read, but she then took me to my keyboard and started talking. In three days the novella was finished. Yes, I did have it edited, but there were almost no changes.
The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas sounds like a fascinating place, one that I’d probably benefit from going to in a number of ways. One of the things I like about these interviews is that I learn so much from the experiences of other writers. Among the stories I hope to develop is actually based on a historical character from my family whose life events before and during the American Civil War took place mostly in Washington and Yell counties, not too far to the south of the resort. So going there is now a pilgrimage goal for me – thank you for that.
Could you describe a little more of your experiences there, and how retreats like this help writers, and when they might do their greatest good?
I’ve gone to writers’ conferences where we discussed and critiqued one another’s works, kind of an extended writing group. The Writers’ Colony was just the opposite; it was a place to retreat from the world and be by myself. Sure, I spoke to my wife every day and I didn’t just spend my time writing, but for the most part it was a wonderfully self-indulgent writing holiday. Provided with a bedroom and small study, I was free to walk in the lovely community, drive my rental car into the surrounds and enjoy their beauty, and most importantly to sit and create. After I finished “The Stylite,” I worked on a number of other projects including some fun essays, some short stories, and a couple of poems. The interesting thing for me was that it was like opening a valve and letting the creative energy flow.
While there were a few other people in residence and we took our evening meal together, basically I was able to spend over two weeks living only with the characters in my head. I have to say that when I understood how “The Stylite” had to end, I wept for those people in a way that I never could have had my wife been in the next room or if I was having lunch later that day with friends.
I’ve always wondered at Cormac McCarthy’s ability to exist in a vacuum, to avoid social contact; the time I spent at the Writers’ Colony made me both more appreciative of what he does and aware that I could not survive for long in such isolation. I would surely turn to drink as the problems of my characters overtook my soul.
So for you, even though the act of creation in writing is said to be a solitary act, interacting with other real people is vital, a survival technique if you will. McCarthy suggested that he regards only topics dealing with life and death as being worthy of literary consideration. Is this something that you feel to be true, or is this an idea more conducive to someone more introverted and less social?
As dark as I am and as often as the precipice between life and the plunge to death occurs in my work, I do write about more that topics of life and death. McCarthy has written two plays, of which I am familiar with one, “The Sunset Limited.” I, too, have written a couple, but I will only mention one that is in the queue to be published soon. The publisher, Mwanaka Media and Publishing, which is in Zimbabwe assures me that we are close.
“Ashes,” which I co-authored with a friend from Nigeria, deals with a Black man and his mother who have taken his father’s ashes back to Nigeria to be spread. Premised on the use of DNA testing to identify tribal origins of American Blacks, “Ashes” is about identity. The pilgrimage is the idea of the mother, but the hero, Wyndel, learns far more about who he is and whom he wants to become than Momma ever anticipated.
For me, figuring who we are is perhaps the central theme that makes writing worthwhile. The best example of that is “Red and White,” a book that reflected so much of my own struggle to decide who I am. I love the fact that I have used Native American themes to explore something so central to myself, especially since I have never once claimed to have been a Native American in a previous life.
I think one of the great skills I bring to writing is my ability to deal with that central issue of identity in characters from a wide range of backgrounds and life stories. Wyndel, Lonely Cricket, Ephraim and Cal, Mary, the unnamed narrator of “Memoirs” and his fellow principal characters Marilyn and the psychiatrist: the list of people figuring out who they are goes on and on.
Now, what about the lives of other people. Somebody asked me if I had written myself into “Widow’s Walk.” He was pretty sure I was the eponymous widow’s lover, Arnie. Nope. I was the Black home health attendant who tells the grown, quadriplegic son that he has to get to rehab and have a life. I had actually done that with a family when I had made a home visit. Mary, the widow, is based on the mother of that family.
Perhaps the book that most reflects another person’s story is “Times to Try the Soul of Man.” The narrator and many of the events are based on somebody I know well and his life. He actually was involved as a reporter in chasing the story or the murder that is at the heart of the book. And, yes, as unlikely as it seems, the events in Peru and with the Mossad and the Latin Kings happened.
Sometimes, however, I just allow characters to live in my head without any other source, not even my own “mishegas,” craziness in Yiddish. The stories in “Tales from the Dew Drop Inne” fall into that last group. I started thinking about any local bar and the people who might hang out there. Lo and behold, a book was born.
Perhaps the most complex inspiration was for “Memoirs from the Asylum.” The characters reflect me and my struggles, clients with whom I’ve worked, coworkers from when I worked in a psych hospital, and a few people just made up to fill the gaps. The one character who I want to mention particularly never actually appears in the book. The first person narrator refers to his cousin and the manner of that cousin’s death; that cousin was my cousin and my best friend from childhood. I think the pain of Herb’s death many years before was finally exorcised by writing “Memoirs.”
I don’t know what I’ll write next and have no idea from where the inspiration will come, but I am quite sure that it, too, will reflect a complex relationship between author and characters.
I like the idea of writing to exorcise pain. It’s been two years since my father died and I’ve yet to mourn him, though I loved him very much. I actually greatly fear that the weeping will come out at some inopportune time, that it’s just waiting for the worst possible moment to spring out. How do you think that writing could be used to exorcise what is perhaps unrealized loss in a relatively controlled manner?
This is when I tell you to hop on my couch and start charging you by the hour. (Yeah, more of my dark humor.)
I think that the key to letting emotion—including but not limited to loss—find its expression is not to focus on it but rather to write or engage in some other form of art and let the emotion find its own way through the labyrinth of your creative process. I cannot tell you what personal scab lies underneath each of my works, at least not until the piece is finished. Take “Red and White.” When I started working on it I thought I was writing a book about my anger at my mother for her lying and my having to deal with her delusions as well as her failure to protect my brother and me from our father’s rage. While there is still an element of that, ultimately, I now realize that I was writing about growing up in a world in which I was considered an outcast.
I grew up in a small city outside of Boston—and, yes, in Maine. That city had about 50, 000 Irish Catholics, 50, 000 Italian Catholics, 3, 000 Protestants, and about 100 Jews. I always say that the 3, 100 of us were grateful that the Irish and Italians hated each other so much that they often ignored us. However, not always. I remember, for instance, being called a “Kyke.” No, not by some thug on the street, by the principal of my Junior High School. To be fair, the other side of it was my mother’s determination to keep me from the treif world of non-Jewish people.
If that use of “treif” and its opposite “kosher” seems a bit strange to you, then you really need to read “Memoirs from the Asylum” where I use her madness to inform a great deal of the book.
That sense of isolation wasn’t relieved when I went to boarding school where I was the only Jew in my class of 50.
I’ve dealt with the topic of difference and exclusion in a number of essays, some of which are on my website. Still, it finds its way into my fiction.
Sure, there are shrinks who recommend using diaries and journals to explore one’s emotions, and there is nothing wrong with doing that. However, I find that most of the people who do so are already knee-deep in their emotions so it doesn’t really help much. I think we need to find ways to allow emotions, including your sense of loss, to express themselves. That’s one reason I think the arts are so important. My wife paints; you can find some of her work on my website. Our son works in film. Another person may use music. Some people who find creativity more difficult go the route of consuming art: reading, listening, going to theater and movies, going to see art. It’s all good.
So, my advice—and at no charge—is do your art thing and your sense of loss will find its way into that artistic side of your life.
That sort of reminds me of the advice shared by multimedia artist Laurie Anderson in her commencement address at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan in 2012. It apparently came from an older artist friend during a period in which she was stressing about how she was going to pay her rent and create her art back in the 1970s. “He kept saying in the most irritating way possible, ‘Just do your work.’” I’m not sure you ever ran across this on YouTube, but it’s an interesting idea about priorities. If you concentrate on making rent, that’s all you’ll do. If you concentrate instead on doing whatever you aspire to do as a creative person, you’ll find a way to do both that and survive. Do the two ideas, yours and Anderson’s, relate?
Well, to be honest, I took up writing when I was ready to retire from my earlier career plus I had inherited some money so I didn’t have to worry about paying the rent. That said, I believe that living is like sailing a small boat. There are three separate parts, the wind in the sail, the keel or center board, and the rudder. All three have to work together. However, the most essential is that wind; without it there can be no movement. For me, the wind of life is the passion we bring to it. Yes, I’m enough of a Freudian to say it starts with those primitive drives of eat, drink, eliminate, and screw. However, we can and should rise above those more primitive drives and sublimate them into creativity. That’s when we take the wind of passion and steer it firmly towards the horizon.
Your description of the real life events behind “Times to Try the Soul of Man” sound intriguing. Is there much else you can share about it, how you learned of it, what you did to transform the story into your own literary creation?
The protagonist is based on a good friend who is quite a bit younger than I. Let me start by saying that he spent a year in South America supposedly studying and in reality, mostly screwing around and growing up. He took a trip to Machu Picchu and during that trip he did travel with a small group of Mossad who were doing a training activity.
In fact, my friend called me twice during that trip, first from Lima where he had met them and they asked him to join them on the trip. He wanted my advice if he should accept their offer. I guess he was a bit leery of going off with a bunch of strangers. I told him since he was already putting himself in danger by travelling in South America all by himself that it made sense to at least have support while up in the mountains. Two days later he called again having found a cache of weapons under the seat of their jeep. I told him not to worry, that he was probably never going to be that safe again since it was clear they were Mossad and most likely doing some kind of physical training. I said, “They’re using you as a beard. Nobody in Peru is going to question them with a middle-class, Anglican, American in the party.”
As they realized that he knew who they were, the agents befriend him and when one was stationed in New York City he looked my friend up. I exaggerated how much consulting went on between them and they never shared a girlfriend, but when my friend was in danger because of what he had learned about the crime that forms the background of Times, the Mossad was providing him with a body guard.
When my friend returned to New York, he did get a job with a small newspaper and he covered a number of stories. One of them was the scam that was being carried out in Alphabet City, which is on the lower east side of Manhattan. There was an Hispanic community center. In fact, it was dear to my heart as one of the major influences in starting the New York Fringe Festival. The director of that community center, who was fighting the development scam, was murdered and there is strong evidence that the police were involved. So, yes, a lot of the book is based on events.
I extended the web of deceit and tied it to 9/11. While the Mossad agent, who had in fact shown up in New York and did help my friend survive, did call just before that attack as described in the book, the two crimes were unconnected as far as I know. I pulled them together.
I also took great liberties with my friend’s character. For me, the story is more about a character trying to find himself than it is about crime. This is really a love story that happens to take place in the gutter. I will say I think I do a pretty good job of capturing the seamy side of New York and the desperation of an adolescent who eventually finds his way.
By the way, I do have a movie company nibbling around a screen version of “Times to Try the Soul of Man” which I co-wrote with a friend. Who knows? We can hope.
You are doing the screenplay? I’ve always been fascinated about different writers’ perceptions of the differences between writing for screen and writing for readers.
I co-wrote the screenplay. However, I give much credit to Brian who took my story and made it work. I think the collaboration was a great learning experience for us both.
The biggest difference between writing for the screen and for the reader is that when writing for the screen you have to recognize that all those words are actually in service to the images created. While some people write their script and make the movie, most of us authors are just supplying a storyline and some, not even all, of the dialog. It’s humbling to realize how different the two types of writing are. And, of course, writing plays and creating poetry for recitation are also different types of writing. If there’s one great thing I’ve learned it’s that writing like painting is multifaceted. Do you paint in oil, water, acrylic? Realism, surrealism, impressionism, super-realism, etc.? Well, that same breadth of creative choices exists for the writer, which is a good thing since that makes the process of creating all the more wonder-filled.