Many thanks to all who commented on Gigi Amateau’s post last week. She has picked a winner for her book giveaway. Congratulations to Kipley Herr!
And now please welcome novelist and teacher Hardy Jones to Write Despite. Hardy joins us today to share his thoughts on the persuasive powers of T. Coraghessan Boyle, the litmus test of revision and the importance of answering the phone when opportunity calls.
If you haven’t read Hardy’s novel “Every Bitter Thing,” please check it out. The writing is powerfully observant, and the story will stay with you long after you finish the last page. Also an essayist and short story writer, Hardy is an associate professor of English and director of creative writing at Cameron University. He also serves as Executive Editor of Cybersoleil Literary Journal.
Please welcome Hardy Jones to Write Despite
1. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I have had many great teachers and mentors, so it is difficult to single out the best writing advice I received. But I want to highlight advice I received from Moira Crone, Thomas Russell, and Randall Kenan. Crone, with whom I studied fiction writing as an undergraduate at Louisiana State University, explained short story form to me and enabled me to write with more control and understanding of the components of fiction—hooks, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. While the Aristotelian structure is not the only way to organize a story, learning it was a great help to me as a beginning writer.
My first graduate workshop was with Thomas Russell. It was a Fiction workshop and in it he said: “Many authors write the same story over and over.” We were reading D.H Lawrence, and Thomas Russell explained how Lawrence primarily wrote about the sexual tension between men and women. As a student, Russell’s comment did not make sense, and I did not want to write the same story over and over. As I have matured as a writer, I now understand what he meant. One does not literally write the same story over and over, but an author explores the same themes and tropes in one’s work. For example, I often write about dysfunctional families with an only child and about father/son relationships.
In a Creative Nonfiction workshop at the University of Memphis, Kenan said: “I’ve come to believe that there is enough time to write everything.” This comment stuck with me because I have a bad habit of pressuring myself and often feeling rushed.
2. Please tell us your favorite three authors
Picking only three is difficult. Some authors are my favorites for specific lessons I have learned from reading them. Others are my favorites for that reason plus sheer enjoyment. The Brazilian fiction writer Jorge Amado fits both of those criteria. The first work I read by him was the novel Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. I am in awe of how his prose blends erudition with humor and bawdiness. Next is the nonfiction author Joseph Mitchell. I appreciate his ability to write about marginalized peoples and not make them into caricature. Third is the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her writing possesses an emotional intensity that I admire. A fourth author I want to mention is T. Coraghessan Boyle. In a sophomore literature course, I read his story “Greasy Lake,” which I enjoyed and then sought out more of his work. I read his story collections If The River was Whiskey, The Descent of Man, Without a Hero and his novel World’s End. He is the writer who convinced me to be a writer. His subjects of teen angst and rock-n-roll, writing infused with a few curse words, and the comedic approaches to history and storytelling grabbed me. By the time I finished World’s End, I had decided to major in English and fling myself into writing.
3. Briefly describe your journey to publication
My first publication was a short story titled “Moving Day,” and it appeared in the LSU undergraduate journal The Delta. I wrote it for an undergraduate fiction workshop I was taking with Moira Crone. She had given us the assignment to begin a story with the words “I remember.” When I sat down to start the story I didn’t know what I was going to write. I sat in front of the computer for a few minutes repeating “I remember” and in what seemed like an unconscious act, I placed my fingers on the keyboard and typed: “I remember when Mama told us we were moving out of the trailer park.” With that sentence, a young boy’s voice took over and led me to write eight pages.
For my novel Every Bitter Thing, I wrote the initial draft between August 2000 and May 2001. The opening scene came out in one sitting. I had been kicking around the opening line, “Dad was always friends with butchers,” in my head for about three years, and one afternoon, frustrated with something else that I was writing, I started a new file and typed out the sentence. The rest of the scene came out in about forty-five minutes in one of the moments that writers live for: the characters, the setting, the actions, even the dialogue simply flowed out. After such an auspicious start, I was unable to write for several weeks, and when I did return to the manuscript, I fluctuated between continuing with it as fiction or making it into a father/son memoir. Once I had written fifty pages, I decided to go the route of fiction. By releasing myself and the characters from what I perceived as the constraint of memoir, I was able, ironically, to be more truthful about the father’s bigotry and the protagonist’s sexual abuse by an older boy.
While the novel’s initial draft took nine months to complete, it took seven years of revising and submitting the manuscript before it was accepted for publication in April 2008 by Black Lawrence Press. At that time, my wife and I were in the process of buying a house and I was tired of the numerous phone calls from banks and finance companies. I was on the phone with a colleague when a beep let me know I had another call. Assuming it was probably another loan officer trying to pressure us, I decided I wasn’t going to click over. Luckily my colleague was more level-headed and said I should take it; the call, he said, may be important. He was correct. It was Black Lawrence Press’ then Executive Editor Colleen Ryor saying that they had decided to accept Every Bitter Thing. After all those years of work on the manuscript, I almost did not answer when opportunity called.
4. Advice for those now on the road to publication?
Never submit something that has not been revised numerous times and start small. Don’t start at the top with a prestigious journal that primarily publishes established authors. Doing so sets one up for disappointment, and the writing and publishing life is full of that. Normally, young authors are working in short genres: poetry, short stories, and personal essays. Therefore, journals are a perfect match. With an established track record, an author then has the “credentials” to submit to larger journals, agents, and presses.
5. Do you write every day?
I wish I did. When I was composing Every Bitter Thing, I did write every day for those nine months it took to complete the initial draft. With my teaching schedule, I try to work in a few minutes when I can between classes and meeting with students. In that way, I follow the advice you give on the blog: twenty minutes a day. That is good advice, because writing is like physical exercise: your muscles become stronger as you work regularly, and eventually one is maximizing those twenty minutes. When I feel as if there is not enough time to write, I like to use the image of the poet William Carlos Williams, who wrote in between seeing patients in his medical office. That writing schedule worked out well for him.
6. What are you writing now?
Currently I am revising a memoir, People of the Good God, which is forthcoming from Mongrel Empire Press. I have a short story collection, Grandmother’s Coconut Tree, for which I am seeking a publisher. The stories are set in Southeast Asia and the American South. The ones set in Southeast Asia are flash fiction and are more experimental. I am also working on a personal essay collection, Resurrection of the Unholy, which is about my childhood and growing up in the South during the 1970s and 1980s with a bigoted sexagenarian father. My father was born in 1917 in east Texas and he never let go of the racist ways he was taught and witnessed growing up. As a child, however, I felt that something was not right with his attitude towards African-Americans, and as I grew I knew that his attitude and words were wrong.