Where do you get your ideas?

Here are four questions famous writers are always asked at readings and interviews, which I will probably never be asked. I am answering them out of wish fulfillment. I’m imagining Charlie Rose asking these over that famous oak table, though of course his questions would be more clever, and he’d at least sound like he’d read my stuff.

Who are your influences?

As a middle aged man? Myself.

As a young man, finding my voice? Everyone I read, and three key teachers: Sarah Grambling (4th grade teacher who encouraged my poetry), Peter Norris (high school teacher who encouraged my study of world religions and biography), and Al Wachtel (college prof who taught me the discipline of editing).

I’d say these writers had a particular influence.

  • Isaac Asimov on clarity
  • William Faulkner and Harper Lee on ghosts of the South
  • James Joyce on details
  • Vladimir Nabokov on humor
  • Stephen King on reeling them in
  • The Bible and Homer on rhythm

What time of day do you work, and what do you write on?

Whenever mood and opportunity strike, but I’ve found I prefer mornings with fresh coffee. When I was young, I preferred late at night with Diet Coke.

I write in Google Docs, on a laptop or tablet, sometimes even on the phone if I have an idea mid-day. The built in dictionary and reference search is awesome, and the automatic backup to the cloud makes it worry free, though I copy files to Dropbox periodically for safety.

What this question is really about, when a writer asks, is “Am I normal?” If you are a writer, no, you are not normal.

I read an interview with an author who says that, at a certain point in writing a novel, the characters “take over” and tell him what to do. Does this happen to you, too?

The characters show me how they respond to my events, but they don’t “take over.” Sometimes I find I’ve misjudged them, and need to reconsider things. But I am God, and they are my subjects.

This question reveals the difference between imagining a book and writing it. When you start writing sentences, you find out what works and what feels forced. That isn’t the character taking over so much as discovering the true direction of the story.

Is your fiction autobiographical?

Fiction is an art form that uses life experience, observations, reflections, relationships, and imagination as tools to make stories. It’s hard to talk about loss if you’ve never lost someone. It’s hard to talk about failure if your greatest is flunking French in 9th grade.

I am not a combat vet or a defense attorney for the mob, so my life is not that interesting. I write stories that feel true to me, based on my experiences and observations, but I am not Kurt in “300 Miles to Galveston” — he’s physically tougher and mentally weaker than me — and I am not Willy in “That Good and Righteous Place” (currently in progress) — he’s profoundly broken, and I’m just a bit beaten up, as we all are after a few decades on the planet.

In both cases, I am a father with daughters, I’ve lived in Texas most of my life, I know a bit about firearms and weapons and fighting, and I’ve lost people I loved to death, divorce, and just drifting apart. All that comes into the storytelling. I know what feels right and what feels like something shoved in for titillation. Knowing comes from related experience. For example, murder is an exaggeration of rage, built on humiliation. I know what it feels like to be enraged and humiliated, so I think I can tell a murder story, even though I’ve never killed anyone.

Bonus question: Where do you get your ideas?

Stephen King said “Poughkeepsie.”

I’ll be more serious. I took the Johnson-O’Connor Inventory of Aptitudes and Knowledge in 1990, and scored 90th percentile on “ideaphoria (flow of ideas)” which is a formal way of measuring creative output. My brain generates ideas constantly. My problem is picking one idea and sticking to it, not coming up with new ones.


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