whorton-215x300Q (Meg Pokrass): As a reader, which writers do you feel closest to?

Lately, Ross MacDonald.  He wrote in the mode of detective fiction, but his interest was clearly in the people and how they are getting by.  How the life takes shape according to some weak spot that the character is trying to protect.

I gave myself a little course in Graham Greene over the summer.  The library at my school was having a Greene dump, so I got a bag of Greene books for a dollar.  Our Man in Havana has a good sentence in it.  “It was the evening hour when work was over and the last gold light lay flat across the roofs and touched the honey-colored hair and the whiskey in his glass.”  You have to know that the honey-colored hair belongs to the man’s daughter, and she is his main preoccupation.  He’s worried about her.

Greene’s troubling in lots of ways but I admire that he went out and tried to see the world and get it into his work.  Harder than it sounds, I think.

At different points as a writer, have you had mentors? Do you mentor?

Frederick Barthelme is the writer I imitated most shamelessly from almost the time I started to write (well before I met him), and then later studied with and learned from.  When I was in grad school at Southern Mississippi we had Rick and Steve Barthelme, Angela Ball, Kim Herzinger, and Mary Robison.  I was all attention and tried to absorb everything.  It was a good place to be.

I do teach writing now but am probably not much of a mentor.  Just trying to keep it together at the moment.  If freshness is a virtue, I have that, because I forget what I said.

How do you stay creative? What are your tricks to get “unstuck?”

Keep paying attention.  Look at what is in front of you.  Keep looking.  You don’t really have to be creative much, if you can get something down half accurately.  I think paying attention is 80% of it, and beyond that you have to have your idiom at the ready, if you know what I mean.  If you want to write novels, you need to have absorbed the form somewhat so that you can think in terms of the long story.  But then, the trick is to not let the idiom speak for you.  You have to keep your eye on what’s really in front of you in the world.  Like with Ross MacDonald–he’s working in the idiom of the hard-boiled detective novel, but when he renders, for example, a sexually frustrated college professor, you get the sense that he is drawing from life.  He’s listened to them talking.  The way they will wring a sentence to death sometimes.

Favorite writing exercises you would like to share?

My favorite exercise is to get up early, get some coffee and start typing before I am completely awake.  You don’t know what will come out.

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?

I guess I start by thinking of real people I have known, and how their faces work and so on.  And then at some point, one hopes, the world of the story is fully imagined enough that you can follow the people through that world, and see what happens there.

In fiction you have the advantage of being able to give your character a very clear choice about something or other, and this helps them seem alive.  For example, there’s a story by Chekhov called “Anyuta” is which a medical students is kicking his mistress out of the apartment.  “Mistress” is not really the right term.  She’s sort of a concubine/housekeeper.  So he tells her to go, and as she’s leaving, she gives him this packet of sugar.  In real life the gesture might be meaningless, or else it might be so complicated that it’s hopelessly ambiguous.  But in the story, because it’s fiction, Chekhov is able to simplify and frame the moment so that we are able to read what she does in a certain way, and it’s illuminating and affecting.

Plot: how it evolves for YOU… anything on this subject.

I enjoy a knotty plot, so I plan ahead, then improvise, then plan again.  Of course it has to be built out of the choices the characters are making, and these need to make sense.

Plot.  When you are writing a novel in first person, the plot is partly derived from the narrating character’s sense of the justice of his own actions.  He is saying, “Then we did this, and here is why it made sense at the time.”  So there’s some pathos in that, too.  In a certain kind of novel, the tortured plot is really a manifestation of the characters’ self-deception.  The flowering of their self-deception.  Think of P.G. Wodehouse.

angelasloanHow did your new novel Angela Sloan find you and you, it? Anything on this subject about the writing of your new novel!

It started when my daughter and I were watching C-Span.  She fell asleep, and I got interested in a panel discussion on Watergate.  I started reading Watergate memoirs, and what I said above about tortured plots and self-deception applies here totally.  Almost everyone who had a part in Watergate wrote a book about it, and each one is the story of why it made sense at the time.

Then I started reading CIA memoirs.  You know, the CIA had an interesting moment in the seventies, post-Watergate, when they got overwhelmed by this new culture of exposing everything.  If there is nothing to be ashamed of, why keep it secret?

So it was kind of as though the country itself had its private life revealed.  Novels, at least the kind I’m into, are typically more about the secret lives of individual people, not of countries.  But there is something interesting there, putting a person’s secret life against the background of his country’s secret life.

That sounds a little grand, I am afraid.  I also wanted to try writing a Chinese character.  I was living in Tennessee when I started the book, and we used to go to one of those humongous Chinese buffet restaurants.  This was in Johnson City.  All the big eaters went there, and the staff was made up of these very thin Chinese young people, fresh off the plane, who could basically say “More drink?” and “Thank you” and that’s about it.  I wondered, and still do, what life is like for those people and how we look to them.

Tell us about what you are working on now.

A story set in Rochester, New York, which is where I live now.

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.

  1. Gary Percesepe

    jim whorton is a helluva writer and this is a fine interview, meg–

    wonderful insights, tucked in, in jim’s modest way—on chekov, greene, barthelme


    thank you both–


  2. Ann Bogle

    Twice yesterday and today, I read a brief interview, and twice I learned something valuable from them. The other interview was with Amy Hempel from 1997. Someone at Twitter tweeted it at Bomb. I hadn’t known that she writes her sentences mentally before writing them on paper. I like this interview with James Whorton and his idea, for one thing, that paying attention is 80% and — keep your idiom about you. He noticed the purpose of that single gesture in the Chekhov story, and now I’ll look it up and read the story — a world opened in sharing it.

  3. Luke Tennis

    James Whorton is a writer who uses modesty to a most powerful effect in his work. I also like the idea of getting up early to see what “comes out” when you are half-awake. That is how fiction should be written–without too much thinking going on. Thoughts will bottle you up. Mr. Whorton’s fiction reads like it came straight out of a dream.

    Thank you, Meg Pokrass, for the interview.

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