Q (Meg Pokrass): What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired and does it work to trick the brain into working?
I’m a big proponent of not waiting for inspiration while writing. I think for the initial seedlings of a story, inspiration may need to strike—it usually strikes me when I’m not at my desk, often in another city or in part of the world, very often, for some reason, while I’m physically moving around. But once I’ve said yes to putting something down on the page, I usually treat the work of words a lot like that of a woodcarver (albeit one who strongly believes in removable parts). I’m very wary of waiting for the perfect writing moment, because I know from experience how horrifically rarely those moments arrive. In fact, usually those perfect writing moments are only acknowledged in retrospect after you look over what you’ve written and say, “okay, no shame in this.” What I do is treat writing as manual labor: you will sit down for the next three hours and you will put at least five paragraphs down. I can usually start finding the current just by sailing out a few sentences. But yes there are fingernails bleeding from frustration and dialogue that sounds as if it’s been translated from Arabic to English by an Internet program. I think it’s important to accept that there will be days of bad writing—that even bad writing keeps you close to the story.
What makes us care about fictional characters as readers?
It’s lunacy. We shouldn’t. There is nothing reasonable about actually caring about a character that we know from the outset is completely made up. Some day aliens will see us crying over Katherine in Wuthering Heights while still not giving any poor beggar the change from our coffee, and that alone will either be a warning not to land here or enough reason to wipe us off the map. But caring about fictional characters IS important if you believe the imagination is important, if you believe that living outside of your immediate periphery is important—and specifically if you were a lonely child and you spend most of your time dreaming of places and people that didn’t match the place you grew up (i.e. fiction as survival mechanism). We would probably be holding on to the change from our coffee whether or not we were good fiction readers, but I believe that fiction does push us in a direction toward empathy. We care, yes, when an author is particularly skillful at applying flesh and yellowing teeth to a character to make them believable. But, I think a lot of the credit goes to the reader: can the reader get there, can the reader inhabit those shoes, can the read shut off the million distractions and invest. Am I the only person who would not go on a second date with someone who says a book has never made them cry or at least want to join a peaceful cult group?
What is your feeling about having mentors as a writer? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance to a writer…
I’ve had a number of writers I’ve looked up to, a few I’ve met and still looked up to afterward, and a number of professors and teachers in my undergraduate years that have helped me with my work. But to be honest: after I left college I never showed my writing to a mentor or listened to criticism as I went or even allowed a friend to read a single page before the story was completed. I don’t mean to discourage mentoring or writing seminars. But, for me, I was of the state of mind when I began writing my novel that any harsh criticism early on (or “great ideas for trying something different” which to me equaled criticism) would have stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t hear no, not right, I’m not feeling it, don’t. It would have destroyed the excitement I was having with telling the story, No, instead I locked the door and shut the windows and wrote all alone for almost three years before I finally showed just a few dozen of the hundreds of pages to a perspective book agent—who kindly liked what he read and became my agent. That was Bill Clegg and he was a great soundboard for me when I was working through ideas. But still I like to think of writing as something you primarily do alone, with just you and the keyboard. I’m being absolutely serious when I say that writing is a lonely profession. A writer needs to be able to deal with deep pools of loneliness. I fear even meaningful interventions can dissipate the voice of a writer—until the editing stage and then it’s a free-for-all.
Suggestions for making characters live? Do you know who they are before you write or do you find out who they are in the writing? Do you already know these people?
Of course, I try to get in the mind of a character when I invent him or her, and tread carefully to lay down a specific, idiosyncratic backstory. But I think first and foremost, it’s important to reveal not how they are similar to the rest of the characters but precisely what makes them different—what are their hangups, their tics, their bizarre romantic histories (the way a person treats love and sex is, I’m afraid, very telling), how do they dress and how does what they do and wear fail to cover up what they are insecure about. I don’t know the characters before I put them down, but I usually know them either after the first few lines of dialogue or by the first few choices of description. I don’t like my characters looking like fashion models (except, in one case, where one was something of a model). I want them to have food stains, lopsided shoulders, and uncontrollable habits. And by in large I do not use real people I know as templates. They never sound as authentic as the person they are modeled on and, as a writer, you have drawn yourself into a prison of having to think in someone else’s head in order to uncover motivations. I think usually good character come alive pretty quickly. It’s the ones that feel formless after a few pages that you really have to worry about.
What are some good habits for a writer?
I don’t really believe in giving advice because 1. I’ve only written one book so what do I know? And 2. Everyone is so different. But I would suggest the following: stick to a routine and make sure you write every day. Also if you have a day job, say goodbye to nights and weekends because novels are like seven-month old babies. They demand every second of your attention. You need to sit down and deal with them even when you’re exhausted and just want it all to stop. The only method for not losing your way in a story is to stay with it, day by day, not letting weeks come in between.
Tell us about Lightning People – how it evolved, where is sprung from – anything relating to this process.
Lightning People came into being mostly by the determination that I had not started writing a novel in my twenties, so I sat down at the age of thirty and began. I knew I wanted to write a book about New York, but I wanted to describe a New York I wasn’t seeing in the books, films, and televisions of the last decade—a charade of a city seemingly built for constant shopping and dating. That wasn’t the hard, dark, rough, survivalist’s version of the city I knew. I felt there was still so much desperation to the place. I also wanted to write a character-driven story where the men and women who filled this New York in LP weren’t these especially cool, young, celebratory downtown folk. That seemed like another stereotype. I tried to chisel out characters with very real and sometimes very sad and stark operational systems For example, I begin the book with a marriage at city hall. So many books begin with a marriage, but I wanted this marriage to be instantly undercut by the fact that it wasn’t done just for love but for a Greencard. Already there is a canker in the rose in this story, and those cankers grow and grow as the book progresses.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs athttp://megpokrass.com.