David Rocklin grew up in Chicago. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in Literature. After attending law school, he pursued a career as an in-house attorney and continues to serve as a mediator. He lives in California with his wife and children. The Luminist is his first novel.
What is your feeling about having mentors as a writer? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance to a writer…
I met my mentor, novelist Susan Taylor Chehak, via the UCLA Advanced Novel workshop. I can say without hesitation that my writing and its possibilities – for a career, as well as for my own understanding of writing and its place in the world – emanate from that relationship. She knew when to guide me and when to step back and let me stumble along. She gave me insight into the business of writing, and served as wordless inspiration to make writing a part of each day. She took joy in contrary opinions about all writing, even her own. She never worried about how to sell, only about how to tell. She unabashedly loved every writer who came into her view, even the ones who drove her nuts. She didn’t simply stay in touch after the workshop ended; she made me a reader of her in-progress work. She made me feel real when I picked up a blank page.
I think it’s not merely helpful, but critical that a new writer find someone who will serve as a mentor, a voice of reason when the task of writing proves overwhelming (as it does for all of us, usually once a week), a voice of encouragement when isolating ourselves to find the right words suddenly seems an odd and maybe nutjob thing to do (see above, once/week), a beta reader and pointed critic of the work, not the writer. Above all, a mentor who pushes a writer to find their own voice (as opposed to refining the mentor’s) – it’s just so central to how we form ourselves.
What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired and does it work to trick the brain into working?
I’ve been doing this long enough now to be able to differentiate between the sort of stuck that requires in inward nudge (go for a walk, go to the gym, go somewhere where’s there’s people and motion and sound, and just sit for a while), or an outward nudge (talk to someone who gets it without a lot of effort from me to explain). One of those two approaches always seems to work for me.
Are there favorite writing exercises or prompts which you use regularly & will share?
I don’t really use any, as I’ve grown used to compression – with a full time job and a toddler at home, I point all my energy to that moment in the day when I know I’ll be able to write; by the time I reach that moment I’m like a horse at the starting gate. That said, in the formative stage of a new piece, I like to write down questions and answer them. A variation on the ‘what if’ exercise that helps me get a flow of thinking/imagining going.
A favorite exercise is one I’ve talked about in workshops, on setting and how to make it more evocative. Take two people and place them in a room. Give them the task of briefly, physically describing the room; however, tell one of them that they’ve been in the room before, and something wonderful or horrible happened at that time. Then, read their writings aloud and see the difference that infusing the room with a back story makes in the writing. The physical description in the second piece will be much more evocative and alive.
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 would say that the written creation of a character in a novel really shouldn’t differ from the way a friendship is formed. When you meet someone for the first time, they don’t normally spill out all their backstory and how it’s relevant to the moment you both find yourselves in, not unless they’re on the way to the electric chair. Friendships – and that’s what our relationships to these characters are, as writers and readers – form over time. They deepen. We learn things gradually and offhandedly. We make our own connections between the small intimate moments like a picture on the wall, a habitual gesture or phrase, a seemingly inconsequential personality trait, and the histories that gave rise to them.
For me, the characters come to life slowly, over the course of many drafts. I may have a vague idea of who they are in the very beginning, but if they remain the person I thought they were after several drafts, then I’m not really letting them reveal themselves to me. I’m simply forcing them to remain the person I want or need them to be. Much like friendships that thrive v. the ones that die.
What’s the best writer’s advice you ever got?
The feeling of being inadequate to the task of telling a story will never leave you, so stop worrying about it and just get on with the work.
How did your novel, The Luminist find you, and you it?
I visited the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. They were exhibiting photographs from the earliest days of the art, including a number from Julia Margaret Cameron. I’d never heard of Ms. Cameron, or her work, but the photographs I saw that day really moved me. Those faces were at once immediate and gone, long before I’d ever encountered them.. The first image I encountered, of a woman half-shrouded in shadow, was stunning. Her face emerged from the dark into a muted light. She was unreadable. The model, as it turned out, was Julia Jackson, the mother of Virginia Woolf (I wrote a blog about that image, and the serendipity that caused it to become the cover of the novel.
After the Getty, I did a bit of research on Ms. Cameron. She was unique for her time, a Victorian woman who obsessively pursued this then-unknown art and science despite all societal expectations or barriers. She saw something like prayer in her work, and saw possibilities to rival painting.I found a quote of hers: “I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me…” I read that she lost a child shortly after birth. Her quote took on a newly relentless, tragic meaning. An image of her started to form, but from a vantage point outside of her, as if she were observed from under the cloak of an old camera.
That’s where the story started. What transpired is completely fictionalized, but my jumping-off point began the day I met her at the Getty.
What is next for you?
I’m at work on a new novel, tentatively called The Daylight Language. It came out of research I did for The Luminist. It tells the story of a boy taken from his home at a time of war, and brought to nineteenth century London and Queen Victoria’s Court. I’ve also been batting around a contemporary story idea, a love story at that. Finally, I’m working with a group of LA-based writers to create a new reading series that extends a concept currently being done in San Francisco. I’ve got high hopes for that, as I’ve been missing a sense of writerly community. I hope this fills it for many writers!
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 at http://megpokrass.com.