Today, I’m joined by Gary V. Powell. His work has been published for decades, and he’s here to share some insight with y’all. Enjoy!
1. When did you start writing?
I’ve been writing stories for as long as I could write, and before that I was making them up and telling them to anyone who would listen or to myself failing an audience. I come by it honestly, born into a long line of storytellers and crooners on both sides of my family. My earliest oral stories were “fan” fiction, stories made up and acted out about my favorite TV characters (Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger) that expanded their exploits beyond what the thirty-minute TV shows allowed and more to my personal satisfaction.
My earliest writings were parables, crafted to imitate those I learned in church. After a while, I moved on to Mark Twain-style “yarns,” and later to lyrics for songs performed by a local rock band with which I was loosely affiliated. During my college years, my friends endured beat-poetry, Kerouacian, and Hunter Thompson phases.
I published my first short story in a literary magazine way back in 1981 or 1982.
2. Are you a pantser or a planner?
Definitely a pantser.
My flash fiction and short stories typically begin with a character, a situation, or a snippet of dialogue, and grow from that seed. I have to write the piece to discover voice, arc, and character. Novels are a little different. I have a general idea of plot, the themes to be explored, and the characters that will play a part. But again, I have to write the novel to “figure it out.” Sometimes, characters I never envisioned at the outset appear. Typically, the plot turns in unanticipated and, I hope, delightful ways. Always, it’s only when I re-write that I really understand the novel thematically, and what I’ve been trying to achieve.
3. Can you give us an idea of your writing process?
I tend to have several flash pieces and/or a longer story going at the same time I’m also working on a novel. I begin early in the morning by reviewing the “stories in progress” and work on the one that “catches” for me. After a break to get my son off to school and walk the dogs, I turn to the novel. First, I revise what I’ve written the day before, and make any necessary revisions to the entire piece, based on those revisions. Next, I work on a new scene and try to complete a first draft of that scene before calling it a day. Later in the evening, I usually make notes, revise, or start new stories for later work, based on what has “bubbled up” that day.
I’m a firm believer in writing every day, not just when the mood strikes. I worked as a lawyer, long hours for years, and have only recently had the good fortune, time, and energy to write fiction nearly full time. But even in those years when I worked sixty-hour weeks in the office and help raise a family, I wrote nearly every day. Even if it was just a few words, I felt a need to keep in touch with my inner self.
The work writers do is important work. To not take it seriously, to fail to honor your gift is the only real sin.
4. Which authors have influenced your work?
Oh, so many.
Early on, I loved James Joyce and the poetry of Dylan Thomas. I went through my “Hemingway” phase, but also fell for Flaubert and the Russian masters in those years, Dostoyevsky, Chekov, and Turgenev, in particular. I enjoy some of Harry Crews’s gritty novels, Tim O’Brien’s work, and am in awe of Bobby Ann Mason and Alice Munro. Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy stands out, along more recently with Junot Diaz’s two novels.
I also find that some of our best story tellers and writers are totally ignored by the “literary” establishment. The lyrics of Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen, Guy Clark, and Ray Wiley Hubbard are full of amazing characters and imagery. I find inspiration here.
I suppose Ray Carver is my greatest influence, although I gave up trying to write like him a long time ago.
5. What are your plans/future projects/new releases that we should be aware of?
I had a good year in 2012. Three of my stories appear in new anthologies, Tattoos, edited by Alice Osborne, Aftermath: Stories of Secrets and Lies, edited by Rayne Debski, and the Press 53 Open Awards, edited by Kevin Morgan Watson. I’m especially proud of my story, “Super Nova,” which appears in the latter anthology and received Second Prize in the Elizabeth Simpson Smith Contest. Most significantly, I suppose, my novel, Lucky Bastard, was also published in December of 2012.
I have a short story collection I hope to publish in 2013. Sixteen of the seventeen stories and flash pieces in the collection were written and published since 2005. Many of the stories were finalists in or placed in national contests.
In addition, I’m looking to self-publish a collection of my flash fiction. I love this form, and published nearly twenty pieces in 2011-2012, mostly in online venues. Collecting, arranging, editing, formatting, and marketing pose fascinating challenges.
Also, I’m currently at work on a new novel, tentatively titled Whole Life. Unlike Lucky Bastard, which is set in modern-day North Carolina and explores conflicts arising from the rapid cultural, economic, and demographic changes we’ve seen here in the last few years, Whole Life is set in1988 Chicago and focuses on a week in the life of a high-flying life insurance agent living on the twin highs of cocaine and his next sale. I’m about two-thirds through the first draft of Whole Life.
Finally, I plan to remain active on Fictionaut. It’s a terrific writer’s community filled with supportive, interesting, and talented writers. I post a combination of previously published and new work there, because the work attracts a readership that surpasses the circulation of most literary magazines.
6. Any tips for new writers?
The first, of course, is to read. Read the great writers, but also read the new and emerging writers. See how the best of the emerging writers, Sherman Alexie, for example, have incorporated and enlarged upon what they’ve learned from the masters in their work.
Second, write and submit and write and submit some more. I’m a firm believer in Truman Capote’s direction that writers should expect to throw out their first million words. You don’t learn to play any sport or do any job solely by studying. Similarly, you don’t master craft solely by solely by earning an MFA; doing, making mistakes, fixing those mistakes, and pushing yourself are essential.
Third, new writers tend to be inwardly focused, and their writing tends to be overly personal. It’s important to “write what you know,” but that doesn’t mean writing about yourself. I think an important step for new writers is to get out off their own skin, get off campus and into the real world, and put what they know into the heart and soul of a character that is not them.
7. Any tips for old writers?
Few things irritate me more than old writers saying they aren’t understood by the young student readers at literary magazines, and that they aren’t getting published because the quality of their material is underappreciated. Few things irritate me more than old writers complaining about the declining numbers of readers, or the declining numbers of book sales versus “reads” on the Internet. Few things irritate me more than old writers complaining about the poor quality of writing put forth by “youngsters.”
Mostly, this type of thinking is no more than “sour grapes,” and those that espouse it need to get past it. Good writing stands out, because poor writing abounds. The medium in not the message, the writing is the message, and whether the reader acquires it via electronic or print media is of small import. Reading must compete with video games, TV, streaming video, etc., if it doesn’t, the writing simply isn’t good enough. Finally, the best young writers today are as good, or better, than the Philip Roths, Kurt Vonneguts, Thomas Pynchons, etc. of an earlier period.
Author, “Lucky Bastard,” a novel from Main Street Rag Press
“Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”