For this week’s author spotlight, I’m pleased to present jack-of-all-trades author Bill Soldan. Like several of my previous interviewees, I met Bill through Sanitarium Magazine where we both toil away as slush pile readers. During the course of our interview, Bill shared his thoughts on everything from balancing work and family to what it’s like to hang out at Emily Dickinson’s house. Good stuff all around for both aspiring and working writers!
A few icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?
Well, I’d like to say I sprang from the womb with writerly ambitions, but I first fell in love with the idea around age 12. I stress the word “idea” because, although I was a ravenous reader my whole life, I never really tried to write anything of my own. When I was about 12, I was reading Stephen King’s The Shining and discovered my mom’s electric typewriter at about the same time. The result was about a paragraph of something called “The Deadman’s Shortcut” or something equally ridiculous. I had no idea what I was doing, but King’s novel was the first book to make me cling to the idea of writing stories.
But I was more into visual art as a teenager and didn’t really write fiction after that sad first attempt. There was a period, however, during which I thought I was Jim Morrison reincarnated. I had the role down, too: the attitude, the hair, the reckless abandon, the concho belt—pretty much everything but the leather pants and the talent. But then, I was only like 14 and a total idiot. Nevertheless, that was the beginning of writing poetry and songs for me. I did that for many years, still not knowing what the hell I was doing, and eventually I took a fiction class, because deep down that was still something I had an inkling to do. For the last, say, four years, fiction has been my primary focus. I’m still figuring things out, though.
As for favorite writers, I can never answer this question without listing the following authors: Donald Ray Pollock, Richard Lange, Daniel Woodrell, Benjamin Percy, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Flannery O’Connor, Jim Carroll, Sherman Alexie, Stephen King, Clive Barker, and many other seemingly dissimilar writers. Quite recently, I’ve just discovered the work of people like Craig Clevenger, Brian Evenson, Mitchell S. Jackson, and Denis Johnson (people seem to be shocked and appalled that I haven’t read his work before—and after reading some, so am I). Those are some of the big ones for me right now.
You’re currently working on your MFA while simultaneously teaching undergraduates. How has teaching affected your own approach to writing?
I can’t say that it has. Not yet anyway. I have recognized that I need to practice what I preach a bit more when it comes to certain things: trusting the revision process, reading my work aloud to find the hiccups in syntax, etc.—but this really applies more to my own academic writing. When writing multiple critical papers at any given time, sometimes it’s all you can do to get them written, never mind toiling over multiple drafts. When it comes to my writing, however, especially my fiction, I don’t have this problem so much. I’ll toil as long as it takes, and then some.
In terms of how teaching and being a student (and a husband and a father, among other things) has affected my writing routine, well, it can be draining, downright exhausting wearing so many hats. With my writing, it’s become a matter of fit it in when I can. But then, I never had a solid routine to begin with. I’ve tried, but I haven’t found what works best for me in terms of a schedule. I invariably do something writing related every day. Often it amounts to little more than brainstorming or jotting down potential first lines, but some days that’s enough to make me feel accomplished. Some days…
You recently returned from the Juniper Summer Writing Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts. What was the most unexpected or surprising thing you learned during the writing intensive?
I learned a lot while at Juniper and met some terrific people. The workshop I was in was revision based, so I didn’t generate much new material while I was there, but I came away with the beginnings of a few new things, several more pages of a work-in-progress, and some excellent feedback on some of my stories. I was so inspired by the atmosphere and sense of community that I had trouble readjusting to life for a couple days after I got home. The passion and talent there was nothing short of invigorating.
Without outlining specifics, I can say that what I got most from the instructional programming were the tips and insights I received from Brian Evenson and Mitchell S. Jackson.
I had the privilege to work with Brian all week, and frankly everything that came out of that man’s mouth was brilliant. He helped me see some areas in my own writing that worked well and some areas that could be better. He also held a craft session that focused on the distinction between people and characters—it was great.
Mitchell likewise helped me identify some things in my own writing. I had a manuscript consultation with him, during which he went through two of my stories with me line by line, showing me areas where the narrative was strong and areas where I should capitalize more on my strengths, which he said are “the acoustics of the sentence,” “dialogue,” and “description of setting, especially natural setting.” These comments were very motivating and encouraging, as these are three elements of prose that are particularly important to me. He also held a craft session that focused on “the poetry of prose,” which was an absolute goldmine.
What was most surprising, though, was the community of writers. I probably got more from spending time with all these awesome people, from our trips into town, our nightly readings, than from anything else. It was a time I’ll never forget, and I can’t wait to cross paths with some of them in the future.
While in Massachusetts, you posted pictures from Emily Dickinson’s house. In my past travels, I’ve always searched for any opportunities to visit the workrooms of famous authors. What kind, if any, inspiration do you find from visiting the home of famous writers, and how does it inform your work?
Visiting Emily Dickinson’s home was the first time I’d ever done anything like that. The most inspiring part of the tour was seeing her bedroom, which they’re in the process of restoring to its original state. Seeing her tiny writing desk and looking out the same windows she gazed through while penning many of her poems was surreal. (I still want to visit Robinson Jeffers’ home in Carmel, CA. That’s supposed to be one hell of a sight.)
Being there only informed my work insofar as it reinforced something I’ve always believed: that great art can spring from anywhere— if only we pay attention.
In what directions would you like to take your writing (e.g. more short stories, novels, nonfiction)?
I want to do it all. Poetry, nonfiction, novels, story collections—you name it. Right now I’m focused on getting some more of these short stories out of my head and working on my thesis, a (tentative) collection of linked pieces. I do want to tackle a novel at some point, but I haven’t taken that plunge just yet. I’ve got an idea brewing, but I’m keeping myself busy with several other shorter projects for the time being.
I have the urge to write creative nonfiction, but whenever I think of an experience I want to write about, I end up turning it into fiction instead. I’ve come to realize people will believe a lot more of your insane life history when you present it as fiction. Much of my fiction has autobiographical moments, sometimes entire scenes wrenched more or less from memory (a lot more than many people would be willing to swallow if I presented it to them in an essay or memoir) but I’ll leave it to readers to decide which of those are fabricated and which are not.
Out of your published pieces so far, do you have a personal favorite?
Though it’s far from my best work, I’m still in love with my story “Patchwork,” which appeared in Sanitarium magazine issue 13. It was the first story I ever completed in my first fiction class as an undergraduate, so there’s some significance there. The story has a lot of flaws, the least of which not being that it’s virtually all surface, meaning there’s little to no emotional undercurrent. I have a tendency to write fairly “detached” first-person narrators, but since doing this for a few more years, I’m learning the importance of emotional weight and resonance, even in characters that at first seem cold and indifferent. It’s something I think I’m getting better at, slowly but surely.
The story I consider to be my best, in terms of published pieces, is one called “Something Special,” which appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Floyd County Moonshine. Not only do I feel this piece contains an emotional undercurrent while maintaining a relatively hard-edged surface, but it’s much more representative of the type of work I’ve been producing for the last couple years. Most of what I’ve published, with the exception of maybe two pieces, is quite different from (and in many ways not nearly as good as) what I’m writing now. Which is why I’m often reluctant to link people to my earlier work—I’m just not as happy with it as I once was. Nevertheless…
Any links you’d like to share?
If you’d like to read something for free, here’s a link to the only creative nonfiction piece I ever published. It’s a decent blend of the kind of prose I’m writing now and the more “speculative” stuff I haven’t written for a while. A bit of a mashup of fiction and nonfiction. There’s a lot about it that I like and some minor things I don’t. For one, there are some typos, which horrifies me, but I’m human, and so are copyeditors, thus it happens. Anyway, you can read it here: http://www.jennymag.org/fall-13-issue/sad-beauty
There are some others out there. Somewhere in the ether.