The Writer’s Handful with Joseph G. Peterson

Joseph G. Peterson Author Photo

Mondays + Writers = Finally something to look forward to.

I first stumbled upon Joseph G. Peterson’s work with the publication of his novel, Wanted: Elevator Man. Joseph’s line-up of books (a half-dozen so far) is diverse (including a novel in verse!) and impressive. His most recent book, just released by the very fine Tortoise Books, is Gunmetal Blue. Kirkus Reviews calls Joseph “one of the Windy City’s best-kept secrets…” and says that Gunmetal Blue is “…a stark meditation on grief, Catholic guilt, and guns.” Intrigued? You should be.

Here is Joseph G. Peterson in response to The Writer’s Handful.book cover gunmetal

Did you write today? If yes, what? If no, why not?

I’m on vacation in a condo overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. A cold snap grips the north, but down here in southern Florida, all is sun, reflection of light off the water, and the greenness of palm trees, crabgrass, and shrub. Because I’m on vacation, I actually have an opportunity to spend a little time in the morning writing, and I’ve been doing so each morning I’ve been down here. Today, I was working on a comic novel about an old guy who lives with his mom. In general, I’m not a very systematic writer. I sort of noodle around in the small margins of the day and usually that means very early in the morning (5:30 am) I’ll have a moment or two; or very late at night >10:45 I’ll have another moment or two. With just a few moments here and there it’s amazing how much work can get done.

What’s the first thing (story, poem, song, etc.) you remember writing, and how old were you when you wrote it?

I probably wrote my first story when I was in first or second grade. It concerned a frog hopping around the log. I remember also telling stories in class very early on in my school career, and I was always appalled at how quickly my stories strayed from the truth. It wasn’t until later that I realized I just naturally liked to fabricate tall tales. My mother recently shared with me a prospective biography that I wrote when I was five or six years old and in that biography I had said I wanted to be a writer. I have no idea where that impulse may have come from, but it proved to be prescient.

What are you reading right now?

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. When I travel on winter break, I’ve discovered that this is a good time to read a classic. Last year at this time, I read a novel by Conan Doyle, the year before that I read James Farrell’s Studs Lonigon… a great book. I’m also enjoying the short book,300 Arguments, by Sarah Manguso.

What’s the most important advice you ever received? (Writerly or otherwise.)

When I was an apprentice writer, I used to search high-and-low for the holy grail of how to do it: how to write a novel. I read every Paris Review Interview there was, and I was most interested in understanding whether the writing process over the course of a novel was difficult, extremely difficult, or nearly impossible. For me, at the time, it seemed on the cusp of impossible. What those interviews taught me was that maybe persistence and doggedness might be the best tools for completing a novel. As to all the rules that writers liked to espouse in those interviews: show don’t tell, tell don’t show, use the Oxford comma, don’t use adjectives, write first thing in the morning, use a number two pencil, keep the iceberg submerged, &c.;  I never found one that was useful for me. As a rule, rules about writing bug me. At the end of the day the only writing rule that I subscribe to is this one: It doesn’t matter how you do it… whether you stay on the track of the customary way or veer far off course… all that matters is that the final product works.

If your writing were an animal, what animal would it be? Because…

Was it Isaiah Berlin who divided writers into two camps: Foxes and Hedgehogs? In any event, I like this binary classification, and as such I would put myself into the hedgehog camp. First of all, I like hedgehogs. There used to be quite a lot of them out along the Des Plaines river where I liked to fish, and I liked to watch them root around near their holes. Second of all, I think I’m the sort of writer that doggedly roots around his subject. You might even say, all of my books (six published so far) are an intensive rooting around the subject of what it means to be tossed out of the group or cast-out as the case may be. I study this subject mostly as it pertains to guys who have fallen out of the economy, fallen out of relevance, falling out of family, etc. I think of my broader work as concerns “The Life of Man”–and what interests me is what that life is like once the old social norms of white male status and privilege give way to a loss of power and marginalization, which, in this day and age is itself a subject that is getting cast to the margins of our literature.

Oliver Wilks Images
Source: ptes.org

 

Joseph G. Peterson grew up in Wheeling, Illinois. He worked in an aluminum mill and in the masonry trade as a hod carrier and he attended the University of Chicago. He is the author of five novels: Beautiful Piece, Inside the Whale, Wanted: Elevator Man, Gideon’s Confession, and Gunmetal Blue. He is also the author of the short-story collection, Twilight of the Idiots. His stories have appeared in numerous anthologies including, The Pleasure You Suffer: A Saudade Anthology, and Daddy Cool: An anthology of Writing by Fathers for & About Kids. He works in publishing and lives in Chicago with his wife and two daughters.

The Writer’s Handful with Dan Burns

DB Cover Photo for Book Jacket

Mondays + Writers = Finally something to look forward to.

Chicago author DAN BURNS came at this writing thing by a different path than most, arriving at it after years of corporate work. But taking the long way around hasn’t kept Dan from getting where he wants to be. He’s just released his second book, a story collection called NO TURNING BACK, and most days (ok, maybe not today, but most) you can find him at his desk working on the next one. Impressive.

Welcome Dan!

Did you write today? If yes, what? If no, why not?

I did not write today, and it kills me to say so. I just released my new short story collection, and I am in the throes of a full-on, all-out publicity push. So, I set aside the day to promote my book, make some contacts, and set up some future publicity events. I certainly realize the importance of the publicity and promotion aspect of a writing career, but I’d much rather be in my office, writing. Only when I am getting the words down onto the page do I really feel a sense of accomplishment. It’s a good thing that I’ll be back at it tomorrow. I’m in the process of revising my next novel, A Fine Line, which is a crime mystery that’s set in Chicago, and my year-end deadline is fast approaching.

What’s the first thing (story, poem, song, etc.) you remember writing, and how old were you when you wrote it?

It’s hard for me to think back that far. However, I can remember the first “real” short story I wrote after I made the decision to pursue writing as a career. I wrote the first draft of the story, No Turning Back, in August of 2006. In coming up with the idea for the story, I tried to think about what might be one of the most difficult acts a person might be forced to do in life, and then, what would it be like if the person had to do it twice?

I was 43 years old at the time and I remember how excited I was after completing the draft. I read the story and revised it at least a dozen times and I really liked it. I also remember the criticism I received after sharing the story in a writing workshop. Instead of providing guidance on how to improve the story, the instructor suggested that I change the story, and quite drastically. I remember she said, “If it were me, I would change the plot altogether and . . .”

Well, needless to say, I didn’t feel very good after that discussion. I thought about the instructor’s comments and I re-readNo Turning Back Cover Final 4 the story many, many times. In the end, I decided that I liked the story just the way I wrote it. I can live with that decision. It may not be the best story I ever wrote, but it’s important to me in that it really defines the beginning of my writing career. I’m happy to say that the story is included in my new short story collection—which also carries the title, No Turning Back—that was just released on April 29, 2014.

What are you reading right now?

I tend to have a number of different books going at the same time, and I’m juggling a bit right now. I’m reading The Tenth of December, the new short story collection from George Saunders. I’m also reading Brown Dog, the new collection of novellas by Jim Harrison. Lastly, I’m reading the new novel, Lost in the Ivy, by my friend and fellow Chicago Writers Association member, Randy Richardson. Each of the books is so very different, and I like switching back-and-forth between them based upon how I’m feeling on a given day. Diversity—it’s good for me.

What’s the most important advice you ever received? (Writerly or otherwise.)

I am a student of The School of Prolific Writers. I find that I am able to learn the most from those writers who have come before me and who have produced the most successfully published stories. You can take your pick of your favorites and there are a lot of them, but they will all suggest the same advice: get the words down onto the page.

We can talk about writing, plan for it, and study for it, but in the end, the only way to become a successful writer is to actually sit down and write.

If your writing were an animal, what animal would it be? Because…

I’m going to stick my neck out (did I really say that?) and say that my writing is most like a giraffe. I don’t think I necessarily do it intentionally, but sometimes when I am finished with a story, it seems that what I’ve written ends up being a bit outside of my comfort zone, that I’ve stretched out and reached beyond what I thought I might do as a writer. As a result, I might question myself on occasion. What will someone think of what I’ve written?

I write about ideas, topics, and things that interest me and that come to me based upon everything that I’ve crammed into my head over the years. I write what I feel I am supposed to write. In the end, it’s important for me to just go with it, to finish the story and share it. Every writer has likely encountered the situation where he or she has questioned the validity of his or her writing. I know I have done it, and I think it’s healthy. It’s good to evaluate yourself and your writing. However, you have to push your own boundaries. You can’t let what anyone says, or what you think someone may say, stop you. You have to keep sticking your neck out.

giraffe

 

After a twenty-five year career in the corporate world, Dan Burns gave it all up to pursue his two, true passions: teaching and writing. He is a teacher at the DePaul University Kellstadt Graduate School of Business and a full-time writer of short stories, screenplays, and novels. He published his first book, the non-fiction career guide The First 60 Seconds: Win the Job Interview Before It Begins (Sourcebooks, May 2009) and embarked on an eighteen-month public speaking and book tour, talking with thousands of people about how to be more effective in their job search and career efforts. He recently published his first novel, a contemporary family drama titled Recalled To Life (Eckhartz Press, June 2013), and he just released his newest book, No Turning Back, through his new publishing company, Chicago Arts Press. No Turning Back is a collection of his short fiction that includes custom illustrations by Chicago artist Kelly Maryanski as well as his personal notes regarding the thoughts and ideas that inspired him to write the stories, adding a unique behind-the-scenes perspective of the writing process. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a new novel, A Fine Line, which is a crime mystery set in Chicago. For more information about Dan and his various projects, please visit his website at www.danburnsauthor.com.

→Thanks, Dan, for breaking away from the desk for a bit. Good luck with the new book, and the next one as well! And as always, thanks everyone, for reading. -PMc←

The Writer’s Handful with Rob Roensch

rob-profile

Mondays + Writers = finally something to look forward to.

Week six of The Writer’s Handful welcomes Rob Roensch, a writer who comes to us from Baltimore, and whose new story collection The Wildflowers of Baltimore is an impressive award-winner. Before you skip on down to Rob’s answers to my handful of questions, check out this wonderful book trailer by Nick Gardner. You know you want to read this book!

Welcome Rob!

Did you write today? If yes, what? If no, why not?

Yes, a little. I’m in between stacks of composition essays at the moment so this morning I had the time and brain to sketch out the first scene of a new Baltimore story–a homeowner looks out of his second floor window to see a handful of tweens goofing around on his garage roof. What happens next I’m not sure.books

What’s the first thing (story, poem, song, etc.) you remember writing, and how old were you when you wrote it?

The first piece of writing I felt possessive of was a long piece of Star Trek: The Next Generation fan-fiction I wrote in maybe the fifth grade. It was about a mysterious planet and the transporters malfunctioning. It was not the last piece of Star Trek fan fiction I ever wrote.

What are you reading right now?

At the moment I’m just starting The Death of a Beekeeper by Lars Gustafsson and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. They sort of go together.

What’s the most important advice you ever received? (Writerly or otherwise.)

The best advice about writing I ever heard was an overheard comment from one of my teachers in Graduate School, the great Dan McCall. The advice was simple: Be Better. It’s maybe not really advice, but it is a statement that challenges while also giving hope, because telling someone else, or yourself, to be better implies that, yes, it is possible to be better.

If your writing were an animal, what animal would it be?

Probably a big weird blue bird that does not know how to fly but really wants to.

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Rob Roensch has an MFA from Cornell University. Currently, he is a Lecturer in the English Department at Towson University. He lives in Baltimore with his wife and two daughters.

He won The International Scott Prize for Short Stories in 2012 from Salt Publishing for his collection titled The Wildflowers of Baltimore. He is working on a novel.

For more about Rob and his work, check out his website: robroensch. And don’t forget to watch this book trailer! book trailer | robroensch

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→Thanks so much, Rob, for joining in the Monday conversation. And thanks to all of you for reading! -PMc←

On All That Goes Into It + an Interview Excerpt

Who would have thought that when one works with a small, conscientious, and very professional independent press on a book release that there would be so much for a writer to be part of along the way? I am stunned by how much it takes to make a book, and even more stunned by how much my publisher and editor and book designer, et al, continue to do to make this debut come to life. Each day something new has to be undertaken, accomplished, sent off, put to bed, etc. And I am lucky to be able to be part of so many of the decisions. I can’t help but think of those authors I know who talk about how they weren’t happy with this decision their publishers made, or that image on the cover, or how they weren’t consulted along the way. Not so in the case of The Temple of Air. I can’t tell you how fortunate I am to be working with Elephant Rock Books under the thoughtful direction of Jotham Burrello.

For instance, Dan Prazer, book editor for ERB, came to my office (HE came to MY office!) and spent a good long time asking questions and follow-up questions about the book, my process, etc. This he did for the Reader’s Guide included in the collection. Below is a small sampling of what we talked about:

Q: What was your starting point for The Temple of Air?

A: I wanted to write about this place, a place that became New Hope. It’s a loose composite of Mount Vernon, Iowa, where I went to school, and Solon, Iowa, where I lived for a while, and Mount Carroll, Illinois, which is a small town where I have a house now, and upper northern Michigan. All of these places, to me, are very much Midwestern, but at the same time, very rolling and very woody. A lot of people think of the Midwest as Nebraska, flat plains, and I wanted to challenge that perception somewhat.

I also very much wanted to write about faith, religion, magic, superstition. What can we believe? What matters to us? What is at the helm? I mean for a number of these stories to be, for lack of a better word, spiritual, full of faith, but not blinded by it.

The story “The Temple of Air” came to me when I was watching a bad cable show about magicians and this one guy, this hip new magician actually floated. He lifted himself up a few feet in the air on a New York city street. There was a girl in the show who was watching him, and she totally freaked out. She started shaking and squealing and said something like, “It’s my birthday, and I saw a man float.” Something about that combination of words stuck with me. I also happen to be a bit of a birthday baby, so these things, observation and emotion, came together for me. In the story there’s a girl who sees something (or perhaps doesn’t see something) similar on her own birthday.

There’s a relationship mentioned between a couple of characters, Michael and Sky, toward the end of that story. As I was writing that story, I knew—in that way writers seem to know things about their characters—that they’d been friends a long time ago, but aren’t friends anymore. It took me about a year to figure out what their friendship was a long time ago and how they had separated. And that’s when the first story, “Something Like Faith,” came to me.

“Something Like Faith” was inspired from something I witnessed while riding on the big Navy Pier Ferris Wheel in Chicago. These parents were just letting their kid run around the gondola as we were going in this huge circle high above Lake Michigan and Navy Pier. It made me queasy to even watch. It made the ride so incredibly unpleasant for me, and I couldn’t get the idea out of my head — what would happen if this kid fell?  I had to write it out to find out what would happen, and how this tragic event might affect its witnesses.

Once I finished SLF, I had the first story and the last of the collection.

Q: Is that useful to you as a writer, to know the bookends in order to fill in the middle?

A: I think once I figured out that this was the inciting chapter, for lack of a better word, and that the other was the ending chapter, then the rest began to fall into place. So it became useful to me the more I wrote and explored.  Only it took me a while; I didn’t immediately recognize it as a place to start putting together the collection.  I am not certain I knew I was working on a collection in the beginning. I was just writing stories that pulled at me.

I think we write a lot of things by accident. In the story “The Way It Really Went,” there is a section where the couple is in bed and the husband starts to have these dreams and the wife cuddles up to him. That was just an exploration in a journal, and I was sitting in on a class with (Fiction Writing Department Chair) Randy Albers just to keep the writing going in my first semester of teaching full-time at Columbia College Chicago. And I read the journal entry out loud but said, “This is just an exploration. This isn’t going to be part of the piece,” and somebody in that class, who is now also a faculty member, said, “What the hell are you talking about? It’s got to be in the piece.” I don’t know that I would have figured that out without somebody telling me. Maybe I would have, but it probably would have taken me longer.

I use my journal a lot to discover various parts of story, and it has happened more than once that I’ve written something then forgotten about it, only to fine it later and put it to good use.  Sort of like when you drop your jigsaw puzzle pieces on the floor, and try to put it all together but there’s still this hole. In frustration you start searching, turning over cushions and looking under things. Then you move the couch, and there it is, the piece that had gone missing. And now you can fill the hole. (from “Interview with Patricia Ann McNair,” by Dan Prazer, Reader’s Guide, The Temple of Air)

—I’ll add more interviews and the like as we move forward with this project, but just wanted to take a minute to marvel over—and express gratitude for—what we have accomplished so far.

Thanks Dan.  Thanks ERB.