July's Author of the Month is Richard Scarsbrook. Scarsbrook is the author of six books including the short story collection Destiny’s Telescope, and most recently a poetry collection Six Weeks. His books have been short-listed for the Stellar Book Prize, the ReLit Award, the CLA Book of the Year Award (twice), and the OLA White Pine Award (twice), which he won in 2011 for The Monkeyface Chronicles. In 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Richard Scarsbrook (below), he shares a few thoughts about his creative process and let's us peek into his studio in My Studio: Richard Scarsbrook.
Richard Scarsbrook's s books with Turnstone Press are:
19 Questions about Process: An Interview with Richard Scarsbrook
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
My first published story, "Hell on Wheels", was published in The NeWest Review in 1996. Holding that magazine in my hands, with my name printed on the cover, felt something like a first kiss from a true love.
The next time that I saw “Hell on Wheels” in print, it was a chapter in my first book, Cheeseburger Subversive. It felt like a second kiss this time, the kiss that affirms that the first one really meant something.
Every time the author copies of my latest book arrive in my mailbox, I still feel the same way.
You also teach creative writing at two colleges, and you run workshops at schools, libraries, festivals and residencies.How do you balance the writing life with the teaching life?
I love teaching developing writers. Helping others find their narrative voice definitely helps refine my own, and it reminds me why I love doing what I do.
Time management is a very important skill when trying to make a living as a professional creator. Any block on my schedule which isn’t occupied with a teaching, promotional, or other necessary non-writing activity (cooking, doing laundry, washing dishes) becomes Writing Time. I try to protect this time as much as I can; I am grateful for my Writing Time, and I try not to squander it (by watching videos that Facebook promises will “blow my mind,” for example).
I wrote my first three books while still teaching high school full time, playing in a rock band, and acting for a local theatre group. If I hadn’t protected my Writing Time and treated it as sacred, I never would have written those first three books, and perhaps none of the others that followed. Eventually I stopped acting on stage altogether, and I just play music once in a while for fun now; writing and teaching have traded places as my evening and day jobs. And I made all of these changes to protect my Writing Time.
This quote from Isaac Asimov pretty much sums it up for me: “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I’d type a little faster.”
Has your writing routine changed from that at the time of your first publication?
In the earlier stages of my career, I tried to make each line perfect during the first draft stage. Since then, I’ve learned that good writing is really all about revision, so now I surge through the creative stage, writing the first draft of a poem, story, or chapter in a single, inspired rush if I can.
I now see the first draft as something like the framework upon which I will eventually build a beautiful (or at least functional!) house, or maybe like selecting the perfect chunk of marble from which I will eventually carve and polish a finished sculpture. The real work is in the revisions.
I revised my first novel maybe six or eight times before I submitted it to publishers; now I’ll revise a book twenty times or more before sending it out into the world.
Do you still submit work to literary journals and zines? Why or why not?
Absolutely! I love reading literary magazines, to get a taste of all of the new and exciting work that is being created out there, and I still get a thrill from seeing my poems and stories appear alongside other new work in magazines that I admire.
It’s also a “stamp of approval” to see your poems and stories published before you assemble them into books. Many of the stories in Destiny’s Telescope and the poems in Six Weeks were first published in magazines and journals, and these publications gave me confidence to assemble both books as entire works.
What inspires you?
Love, Beauty, and Destiny; especially Love that struggles against hate, resentment, and misunderstanding; especially Beauty that is disguised, hidden, or overlooked; and especially the potential for Love and Beauty that is Destiny. All of the stories in Destiny’s Telescope, all of the poems in Six Weeks, and all of my other works dance around these themes in one way or another, I think.
You write novels, short fiction, and poetry, each genre having its own set of charms and quirks. Do you have a favourite? Why?
I enjoy writing (and reading) all of them! Asking me whether I prefer writing poetry, short stories, or novels is something like asking a parent to name their favourite child; each form is wonderful in its own way.
I think that practicing one style of writing always feeds into the others. For example, when writing poetry, you have to choose your words very carefully, not only for meaning, but for their rhythm, nuance, sound, subtext. The discipline involved in writing poetry can then carry over into your prose writing as well, making everyday sentences more fluid, musical, rhythmic, or just plain better-sounding and easier to understand.
Do you know when you sit down to write something what form it will take when it is complete?
Most of the time, the answer to this question is yes. Whenever I get a new idea, I usually have a pretty good idea of which form will serve it best.
I like theidea of a work “declaring itself,” though; the shape and feel of a poem usually “declares itself” as I’m running it through many subtle revisions, and the nuances and supporting details in a story also “declare themselves” during the revision process.
Or: I’ve usually got the basic recipe in mind before I start cooking, and then I add the seasonings to taste once the meal is simmering.
Do you create an overlying outline of the story you hope to tell before drafting the narrative, or do prefer the story to organically evolve as you write? Do you know how it ends before you begin?
I know that there are some authors that write out every small nuance of a story before they begin writing the first draft, while there are others that simply drop characters into a situation and then figure out what happens after that as they write about it. On this spectrum, I am somewhere in the middle.
I have never created a physical outline for a story or novel, but I usually spend some time thinking about where I want the work to go before I ever sit down to create the first draft. At minimum, I always like to know how a story is going to end before I begin it. I like to aim my arrows at a specific target in the distance, rather than firing them randomly and seeing where they land. The arrows may end up landing in a different place altogether, but I like knowing at least which way to aim.
Poetry is a bit different. I usually start chasing the idea or feeling as soon as it presents itself, and then the job is helping the form, rhythm, feeling, and meaning of the poem to “declare itself” during the revision process.
I might think about a poem for an hour or a day before I start working on it, while I might have the plot of a novel arranging itself in my subconscious for a year or more before it is ready to burst out into the world. So in that respect I suppose I do create an outline, but it’s vague and mental rather than detailed and physical.
When writing a story, I like to have a target to aim at, but with poetry, I just launch the arrow and follow it.
You write for both Young Adult and Adult audiences. Are there specific things you consciously try to do differently when writing for one or the other?
No. Every time I write a new book, my only concern is to write a good book. I simply try to write the kind of stories and poems that I want to read myself, and I never worry much about what specific “market” they will appeal to. I try to have faith that my work will reach the readers that it is supposed to reach.
As many adults as teens have enjoyed my Young Adult books because they tiptoe so close to the line that separates YA from Adult (and it’s a blurry line anyway). When it comes down to it, I just let my publisher decide how each book will be sold. At some point the bookstores have to know which shelf to put the book on!
What role does research play in your writing?
It depends on how much I already know about a story or poem, and how much I don’t know and need to find out. A writer has to assume that the reader knows everything, and will disconnect from the story or poem if you fudge the “real world” facts.
For example, in my story “The Doppler Effect” (in Destiny’s Telescope), I wanted to use this phenomenon as a metaphor for human behaviour. Without giving away the story (which is still one of my favourites): I researched how the Doppler effect differs between sound and light, because the scientific facts had to be correct for the metaphor to work.
In Six Weeks, many of the poems contain references to romantic golden age movies, and of course I re-watched every single film that I mentioned in the poems to make sure that they made sense in context—and I changed a few of them as a result. There are also quite a few references to places and things in Paris (the most romantic city in the world), so I revisited Paris with my muse while working on the poems. (There is no rule that says research cannot be fun!)
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?
I see both stages of the process as equally important, and I find them both exciting for different reasons. During the first draft, the thoughts and feelings that drive the story or poem are created, and watching the work come alive for the first time is wonderful. The revision stages are about helping these initial thoughts and feelings to reveal themselves fully.
Perhaps writing the first draft is like giving birth, and then the revisions are like parenting the story or poem to adulthood. And then you release it to the word, and you hope that it succeeds out there on its own.
What do you think about a writer’s need to be part of social networks?
It’s a necessary part of promotion these days, and social media is a great way to reach lots of people in an indirect way. Personally, though, I greatly prefer engaging with real people in real time in the real world. So, if by “social networks” you mean socializing with other writers and readers, then, yes, I’m all for that!
Do you enjoy touring and participating in public readings?
Definitely! Maybe because of my teaching and acting experience, I love reading and performing my work as much as I enjoy writing it. Stories and poems are means through which we can connect as human beings, and I very much enjoy sharing my work with people and receiving their responses in return.
What are your thoughts on touring to promote a book? Do you think it is still important in this instant, electronic age we live in?
As I’ve noted above in different ways, I almost always prefer “real” interactions over “virtual” experiences (although I would rather experience a simulated ride over Niagara Falls than actually doing it).
I enjoy meeting real people in real time, having real conversations, and travelling to real places, as opposed to experiencing these things through electronic filters. I also prefer teaching live classes over designing online courses, and I still enjoy the tactile experience of flipping the pages of a real book over reading one on a tablet or other electronic device. Maybe this makes me old-fashioned; I’m okay with that.
And now a few fun questions:
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
My writing space is full of books by authors I admire (many of them signed), along with pictures and trinkets that remind me of the people and places and ideas that I love; there are photos of my muse and places that have inspired me, stones I’ve brought back from places where I’ve travelled, things I collected and found interesting when I was a kid. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but these little tokens from my past maybe help me keep pushing forward into the future.
Do you draft first in longhand, or on a computer/keyboard?
The seeds of many of my poems are planted on location, wherever and whenever the inspiration hits me, and I’ll jot down the embryo of the poem on whatever I happen to find. When I’m on location to get the details of certain real places right for my fiction, I will often draft the entire fictional scene in longhand, while I’m in the place where I imagine it happening. Otherwise, I almost always draft stories and chapters of novels on my computer at my writing desk. It’s just easier to juggle words, paragraphs, and sequences on a computer!
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write? How about when you edit?
While I’m creating, it is almost exclusively coffee. When I’m revising and editing, it’s wine, beer, or an old-school mixed drink. As a professional writer, finding that elusive balance between stimulants and depressants is very important!
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
Rock of all kinds, Blues, Jazz, Old Country, Classical—it depends a lot on the mood I want for the work I’m creating. When I’m revising, I lean toward instrumental music, so the lyrics don’t interfere with the words I’m trying to perfect on the page.
Also, I listen to records rather than digital music when I’m writing, because it gets me away from my desk every so often to flip or change the record!
If you could not be involved in the literary arts, what career might you have?
I was and still am a teacher, and I would continue to be.
If the creative dice had tumbled differently, I suppose I could have stayed in stage acting or music, too.
The romantic side of me would like to be an explorer, a pilot, or an astronaut.