February's Author of the Month is Bob Armstrong. Bob is the author of a baker's dozen threatre plays, countless trade and governmental articles and publications, as well as one comedic novel. Dadolescnece was shortlisted for the Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for Best First Book. In 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Bob Arnstrong (below), he shares a few thoughts about his creative process.
Bob Armstrong's book with Turnstone Press is:
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
Although I’ve been writing for money since I landed my first newspaper job at the age of 20, I don’t think I used the word “writer” to describe myself until I managed to write a creative work that found an audience, which would have been in my mid-30s. That was when my play Fred Turner Tames the Last Frontier won the Alberta Theatre Projects 24-hour playwriting competition and, following a year of rewriting, was performed by Edmonton’s Workshop West Theatre at their new play festival.
You are a freelance writer for a number of publications both for government and trade. Have you always wanted to be a professional writer?
I think I always thought of myself becoming a writer, specifically a novelist. Journalism appeared to me as a career when I was in high school and read Hemingway and became convinced that the way to become a novelist was to work as a reporter until one could simply emerge as a novelist like a butterfly breaking out of the chrysalis of the newsroom. Of course, butterflies only live a couple of days, so this may or may not have been a very apt career metaphor.
Has your writing routine changed from that at the time of your first publication? How?
I’m busier with my contract writing now than when I wrote Dadolescence or my earlier plays. I’ve written three novel-length reports for a government environmental advisory body since 2012, so that makes it harder to find time to write my own stuff. As a result, I have to takes steps to keep myself producing my own work. One step was forming a writing group in 2014, in order to ensure that every second month I will need to have a piece ready to show the group (and in order to help with generating thoughts for rewrites). A more recent step was adopting the Jerry Seinfeld Writing Productivity Technique. Seinfeld advises writers to get an empty calendar and write an X on every page in which new material is generated. This is as an alternative to the more common commitments, like “I’ll get up every day at 5:30 and write 1,000 words.” Since all you need to do is write a sentence to get your X, you can enjoy the feeling of accomplishment as your line of Xs grows. And that feeling of accomplishment will encourage you to spend more time and produce more words. With these two prompts to writing, I work to find an hour here, an hour there, and sometimes actually do find myself with a full day when I can work through 3,000 words in one long push.
What inspires you?
One big inspiration would be travel, or, at the least, getting out of my regular routine and environment. I’ve had short stories grow out of things I’ve seen and heard or moods I’ve felt while travelling in Newfoundland, Belize, Arizona and northern Manitoba. Another story grew out of standing in the background at an Occupy demonstration in downtown Winnipeg, so the travel need not involve great distances. I think being away from my day-to-day environment just makes me a bit more receptive to things that can grow into an idea for writing. Another inspiration is work, specifically other people’s. I’m fascinated to learn about the workplace challenges of other people, whether they are fisheries biologists, flooring installers or home-care nurses.
You write in a variety of modes—non-fiction, fiction, and drama. Do you have a current favourite? Why?
I enjoy writing fiction the most these days, and I’m most focused on producing a new novel. In my contract and freelance work, I write speeches, environmental impact reports, magazine articles on health and research, and book news tidbits. I enjoy fiction because I’m not bound by the needs of others, as I am in my (much appreciated) day-job writing. I enjoyed writing plays for a number of years, but there is something limiting to the challenges of telling a story with a financially manageable number of characters, taking place on a single surface of hardwood, told almost entirely through dialogue.
In your creative projects, do you know at the moment you start to write something what format it will take when complete?
I usually know from the start whether something is going to be a play, a novel or a short story, but to be honest I don’t always know if something will actually work as a play, a novel or a short story, so I do have a number of abandoned projects, including one 145,000 unpublishable monster of a novel and a play that spans 15 years and thousands of miles and requires a minimum of eight actors, which hardly any theatre company could afford to produce.
Your novel Dadolescence was originally conceived of as a play. What made you want to take the story and shape it into a novel instead?
Pure opportunism. Seriously, I performed the play with my son Sam at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival and we received some very nice reviews and actually managed to sell out a few shows. One of the reviews said the play would be a great read if it were in book form. That got me wondering if this monologue-intensive two-person play could grow into something bigger and find a new audience.
Dadolescence was a comedy and it seems several of your plays were as well. Is comedy an important element in your writing?
Much of what I write has an element of comedy in it because to me the human experience is essentially comic. Comedy grows out of the gap between perception and reality, particularly self-perception and reality. As humans, we can’t help but think of ourselves as something higher and purer than mere animals. We’re made in God’s image. Our souls journey to enlightenment. Our minds contemplate perfection and eternity. And yet these souls and minds are tethered to a noisy, and, at times, noisome digestive tract that depends on the work of billions of micro-organisms. As I put it to my creative writing students “homo sapiens is the angel that farts.” I try to embrace both sides of that duality in my writing (though I can’t actually think of anything I’ve written that has employed a fart joke).
Do you create an overlying outline of the narrative you hope to tell before drafting the work, or do prefer the story to organically evolve as you write? Do you know how it ends before you begin?
I sometimes start with nothing more than an image. For example: “Rotting fruit and tropical heat as a Canadian slowly walks toward a Belize fruit stand.” Other times I’ll have an action: “Man searches for stolen tuba.” Or a predicament: “Mutual fund marketing guy needs heroic image for ad campaign.” Then I start writing, thinking, and thinking while running in an effort to see where it leads.
What role does research play in your writing?
I majored in history at university and spent several years following ideas and events, not very systematically, through the library stacks. So depending on what I’m writing, I am likely to do a lot of reading to feel comfortable with the place or period. I’ve spent time at the Manitoba Archives, wandered the streets of Lower Manhattan, and planned holidays around specific destinations in order to get a feel for places or people.
In your opinion, how necessary is it for authors to be widely read in the genre they are working in?
You have to be widely read. You have to know how words work. Reading also gives you some necessary humility, by reminding you that you aren’t the first person in the world to have ideas. And, to be mercenary for a moment, reading in your particular genre can tell you whether or not there’s a market for what you want to do, or can help you see how to differentiate your work from what’s out there already.
Some writers prefer the process of composing a first draft to a story while others prefer the editorial stage of fine tuning and polishing. Do you have a preference? Why?
Composing a first draft is more enjoyable at those times when the first draft is moving ahead well, when you can hear the characters and see the action and everything seems to be making sense. When your first draft is hitting those “now what?” moments it’s not quite so fun. I’d rather have the more predictable pleasures of polishing an existing draft than those terrors.
What’s your favourite moment in the life of your work? And why?
I sometimes start with an image or a situation and will begin writing before I really know if I have a story. So one of my favourite moments would be when I first realize that, as rock climbers say, “it goes.” That is, when I see that I can turn that image or situation into a story that goes somewhere in a satisfying way.
What are you currently working on?
I’m about 60,000 words into a new novel. At one point, early on, I thought it might be a YA novel, but then I realized that I don’t really want to write a YA novel. It’s set in Gilded Age New York, Appalachia and the American Wild West and it’s got all the things I look for in a novel: street criminals, period slang, gunplay, wolves, circuses, steam engines, cameos by figures from history, stand-up comedy, and a role for Daniel Day Lewis in the movie adaptation.
And now a few fun questions:
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
I have a framed footprint of my son from when he was in Kindergarten on one side of my computer and on the other a cheap reproduction of an anonymous painting, signed on the back by my friends from grade 1 and given to be at a going-away party when I was six years old. Also a framed poster of my first professional theatre production.
Do you draft first in longhand, or on a computer/keyboard?
I write long-hand in my travel journal, but I feel that my IQ is about 30 points lower when I use a pen to compose anything other than notes.
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write? How about when you edit?
Coffee until 11 am, then tea. Kicking Horse Three Sisters blend is my coffee of choice (French press, Nespresso milk foamer) for writing or reading. My consuming weakness is cereal: oatmeal with blueberries if it’s a cold day, Shreddies otherwise.
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
These days I’m likely to call up an internet radio station (alt-country, or what Americans call Americana music, despite the fact that the genre was created by The Band) and have it play in the background while I work.
If you could not be involved in the literary arts, what career might you have?
My wife, Rosemary, says I should manage a backcountry hut in the mountains, but frankly, too much of that job is about keeping the composting toilets functioning. I’d say, looking back on my summer jobs in university, that being a park interpreter in Banff, Jasper or Kananaskis would be pretty sweet.