Welcome to the one hundred and fourteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with poet, critic, short story author and novelist John Brantingham. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hi John. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
John: I was hard of hearing as a child for periods of time. Because my hearing loss wasn’t permanent, I never became a part of the deaf community, so I had long periods of time when I didn’t really connect with anyone. That put me into the world of books. I read all the time, and I think writing became a natural outgrowth of that. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write. I never thought of it as a career until later. It’s just what I did.
Morgen: Something good coming out of a difficult situation. 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
John: I write in a number of styles. I’m a poet, a critic, a short story writer and a novelist. I love all of them, but fiction was my first love. There’s something about the short story structure that I find incredibly elegant. If I had to put myself in a genre, I’d say I do literary fiction, but I hate the sound of that. So many people use “literary” as a synonym for “good” suggesting that it’s in some way superior. I don’t believe that, and I think it’s a genre rather than a rating. Lately, I’ve been getting into the mystery / crime genre as well. It was something that I’ve always read, but I never even thought about writing one of my own until a couple of years ago.
Morgen: I’ve gone the other way… well, full circle; short stories to novels and back to short stories. 🙂 What have you had published to-date? Can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
John: I have one full length poetry collection (East of Los Angeles published by Anaphora Literary Press), three poetry chapbooks, a short story collection on the way, and about two hundred magazine publications. My biggest publication is on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. What a thrill that was. The first time I saw anything of mine on the shelves was when I came upon a critical primer for the poet Gerald Locklin called Gerald Locklin: A Critical Introduction. I was just one of the contributors, but seeing it on the shelf took away my breath. I’ve never stumbled on my own book because it’s usually on the shelves because I’ve done a reading in the bookstore.
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
John: I guess I do most of it. I love doing readings. I’m a professor during the day so I’m comfortable in front of a crowd. I’m a Luddite though, and it hasn’t been until this year that I’ve been introduced to web promotion by my friend, Sunny Frazier.
Morgen: Ah Sunny, a popular lady. 🙂
John: It’s been great. I try to do one or two things a day to promote my work. I also run a couple of poetry / fiction reading series. Those are good for promoting my work, and they’re fun. One of the many things that I love about teaching is that there are periods of time that I can really devote to my other profession, writing, and during those times, I try to get out constantly.
Morgen: That’s what it’s about really, reminding people that you’re there… the jumping up and down saying “pick me”. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
John: I entered contests a lot when I was starting out, and I won Pearl Magazine’s short fiction contest and a couple of others. I’m trying to stay away from them now. I don’t have any problem with them, and I know that magazines need to raise money, and this is a good way to do so. I’d rather see my name in a regular byline than as a contest winner.
Morgen: I do tend to agree… I’ve had more success with competitions but time to concentrate on the eBooks. Do you have an agent John? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
John: No. That depends on what you mean by success. As a poet, I don’t need one. I don’t think they’d give me any more success. As a fiction writer, I think it would be great. If they could get me a good deal, I’d be all for that. There’s monetary success, and they bring that to many writers. They do a great job at that, and I think they do a great job in other ways. However, that’s not the only kind of success I’m looking for. Along with all the spiritual satisfactions that come with writing, I’d like more and different teaching experiences. I love teaching, and I’d love it if my books allowed me to travel a little more around the world. I did a festival in Wales this year, and I had the best time.
Morgen: I love festivals… but then I’ve been on the Joe-Public end… what a buzz it must have been to be a ‘star’. 🙂 Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Morgen: Not yet? 🙂 What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
John: The first acceptance was to a short story magazine that’s no longer in business. It was amazing. I bored everyone with my excitement. It’s still a thrill. The idea that someone might read my work and be moved by it is incredible.
Morgen: That’s what we all strive for… I do, anyway. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
John: I am rejected all the time – more than I am accepted, and I don’t know anyone who isn’t. I really don’t mind them any longer. I’ve worked as one of two fiction editors for The Chiron Review, which is currently on a kind of hiatus, for about ten years now, and knowing what goes into choosing a story, has taken the sting out of a rejection completely.
Morgen: Me too. I’m on a judging panel for a yearly short story competition and that helps (I start at 10/10 and knock marks off for grammar, punctuation, mistakes etc – I’m quite harsh… no, firm; it’s the fairest way). What are you working on at the moment / next?
John: I’m working on a group of travel poems and a collection of short stories about a man and his son who runs away from home. I try to have a couple of things going at all times because that’s just how my mind works. I need to diversify. I am also writing reviews for a British magazine called Tears in the Fence and working on a couple of blogs.
Morgen: Ooh not heard of that one… will have to check it out. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
John: Yes, I’m a workaholic, so I generally write 500-1000 fiction words, 300 non-fiction, and poetry every day.
Morgen: Wow, that’s some going… like a constant NaNoWriMo. 🙂
John: In addition, I’m writing a textbook for my students. I try not to write too much. I mean, I never want to write 5000 words in a day or something like that because to do so, I’d have to use up my creative ideas. It’s like dieting. You shouldn’t binge and starve. It just doesn’t work.
Morgen: 🙂 What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
John: This is one of the lectures I give to my students actually. Writer’s Block is an illusion that comes from one of two places and both can be easily cured.
The first is when writers write a short story and get about 2-4 pages in and have nothing more to say. When that happens, they’re suffering from a lack of story. Story is defined by character, desire, and conflict. There should be two levels of desire, what the character wants in the long term in the deepest part of the soul that he/she might not even be aware of, and what the character wants right now. Usually when someone is stuck in a story on about page 3 or so, it’s not writer’s block. The character just doesn’t have enough of a short term problem.
The second kind is feeling that the writer has nothing to say. That’s why I don’t ever write 5000 words a day. I stick with 500-1000. It doesn’t make a difference how much a person writes. Whenever you do something, anything, regularly, you begin to see the world according to those terms. It happens to me all the time with teaching. I’m constantly thinking about how I can incorporate everyday events into my lessons. I can’t help it because I’m teaching so much. The same will happen if you write regularly. You will begin to think of the world in terms of poetry or short stories.
And the most important thing to do is to read all of the time.
Morgen: Absolutely, practice and study. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
John: I try to think of fiction in terms of story instead of plot. As I’m going on, I’ll sometimes realize that this is one or another kind of story, and then use that plot structure, but I’m really mostly interested in characters and their ever shifting desires.
Morgen: Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
John: My wife, Ann. She reads everything first, and really the biggest thrill is when I can tell she’s been moved by something.
Morgen: Some people would think that family would be biased but they can also be a writer’s harshest critic – I’m very selective as to what I show my mother (also called Ann!) but my brother is a great editor; sadly stupidly busy so I have a professional editor (Rachel) who’s equally firm. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
John: I do a good deal of editing, and I enjoy that process a lot.
Morgen: Do you? Mmm, I think I prefer the writing. My eyes glaze over with editing. I do 3-4 run overs then pass to Rachel. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
John: I like first and third both, and I did write a second person story called “It’s None of my Business Anyway” that was actually published in Monomyth which is a British magazine.
Morgen: Another new one on me… it probably wouldn’t be if I actually submitting things. 🙂
John: You have to be careful with second person though. Some people think it adds a layer of intensity, and it generally is successful in doing the exact opposite.
Morgen: Absolutely. I’d love to read that story if you still have it and wouldn’t mind? Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
John: Yes, many many. A lot of them I don’t want to see the light of day and I’m grateful to the publishers who so generously rejected them. Otherwise, I’d be known for a lot of rambling, post-modern novels that go absolutely nowhere.
Morgen: 🙂 What do you like to read?
John: I try to read as broadly as possible. My favourite author is probably Graham Greene. I don’t know why but he always moves me, and I go through periods of reading just one author. I love Laurence Block, Sunny Frazier, Dick Francis, and Rex Stout for detective fiction. For poetry, I love anything done by any of the various Barnstones, Sharon Olds, Gerald Locklin, T. Anders Carson, and the list goes on and on. Roddy Doyle, is a great influence. I also try to read a lot of non-fiction. I did about 75% of a master’s degree in history, and I tend to like world history books like Plagues and People and Guns, Germs, and Steel. Everyone should read Guns, Germs, and Steel and The Death and Life of Great American Cities. They aren’t exactly new titles, but they’re brilliant.
Morgen: I saw Graham Greene’s ‘Travels with my Aunt’ at the theatre recently, it was so clever. In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
John: I’m American. I live in Los Angeles. There’s a really vibrant poetry scene out here that’s different than I’ve seen anywhere else, so that’s been an amazing help. I read constantly and see other people read their work too.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
John: I’m on http://walnutpatch.com, which is a kind of local newspaper online, and of course, Facebook. I think they’re incredibly valuable, but they can be time wasters too. I force myself to get off them when I find that they’ve become a distraction.
Morgen: Ooh, I’ve not heard of walnutpatch (so I’ve taken a quick look; I think it’s the sort of site you could easily lose a few hours over… and I love the fact that there’s a city called ‘Walnut’). 🙂 Getting back to why we’re here John, how can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
John: If we want to profit, we’ll have to change the way we reach people, but that’s the only real change that I see. I think we’ll always have paper books because people like them, but we also need to get into e-books because people like them. I also think we’re going to see new kinds of writing explode. The blog is the most obvious example of this. It’s a new art form and needs to be thought of as such. As this generation grows up, I think we’ll see more and more people taking it more and more seriously.
Morgen: Thank you John. I then invited John to include an excerpt of his writing and I’m delighted to be able to bring you two of his poems from his collection ‘East of Los Angeles’.
In the backyard, the Oldsmobile that hasn’t started
in three months has become a table for men.
They pour Cutty Sark over ice in day glo plastic cups
and talk car repair. I’m there too, eight years old
and almost completely deaf, hiding from the sun
under the car and licking my hand for its salt.
Their muffled speech comes to me “ronronron”
as though they’re chanting a prayer to Ron,
the god of auto repair. When I’m bored with my hand,
I turn to watch their shuffling feet until their chant
brings me peace, and the salt on my tongue,
the valley heat, the smell of whiskey
and cigarettes, the browning grass beneath me,
and Ron’s soothing blessing helps me to drift off to sleep.
When I Call
As I talk to her,
I like to think of
our paperback copy
of Thomas More’s
on the phone table.
No one reads Utopia.
No one has ever
No one has ever
wanted to read
even Thomas More.
The only action
it will ever see
is when she absently
flips its pages while
she talks to me. When
I call, I like to
think of her doing that.
John Brantingham’s is the author of East of Los Angeles, and his work has appeared on Garrison Keillor’s daily show Writer’s Almanac. He has had poems and stories published in the United States and England in magazines such as The Journal, Confrontation, Mobius, and Tears in the Fence. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for a poem in his chapbook Putting in a Window, which was published by Finishing Line Press, and his second chapbook, Heroes for Today, was published by Pudding House Press. He is a full-time professor at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California and one of two fiction editors of The Chiron Review, a nationally distributed literary magazine, and he lives happily in the city of Walnut with his beautiful wife Annie and their canine companion, Archie.
Morgen: A friend’s dog is Archie (a mad white Bolognese). One of the podcasts I listen to is the Writer’s Almanac so I may well have heard your poems, John. 🙂
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