Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Interview with Author Scott Driscoll

Scott Driscoll, an award-winning writing instructor at UW, Continuing and Professional Education, took several years to finish Better You Go Home (October 2013, Coffeetown Press), a novel that grew out of the exploration of the Czech side of his family in the 1990s after Eastern Europe was liberated. Driscoll keeps busy freelancing stories to airline magazines. 

What are some of the things that have influenced/inspired your writing?
            When I was 21 and taking a break from college to travel, I was sitting on the floor in an American library on an army base in Augsburg Germany (eating a lunch of peanuts in the shell on my break from the nearby American Express bank where I had taken a job so I could afford to stay in Europe) pulling books off the shelf to read when I came across Samuel Beckett’s trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, and the Unnamable. The writing shocked me.  Was it possible to write in this way?  (The words bore directly through to my inner being and I felt unprotected.) I slapped the book down on the tile floor.  But then I picked it up again and each lunch hour hurried across the Kaserne to continue my reading and became so absorbed I began to catch myself muttering in a voice that sounded like Beckett’s narrator. To see my writing today you’d never know that this was the beginning; what endures from that experience is the challenge.  I had to find out how he dared do that, and how he did it.

Can you share some writing experiences with us?
When my daughter was young (in the tough years shortly after grad school) one morning I just couldn’t get out of bed.  Rather, I crawled under the bed (it was a bed from a French hotel and rested on skinny cast-iron legs) and then couldn’t come out. Nothing was going well.  I wasn’t getting the teaching jobs I wanted.  My writing was being rejected (the nonfiction story I was sending around, which eventually was published in the Seattle Review and won mention in that year’s Best American Essays). My ex-wife was using my daughter to make my life difficult.  My paying employment—condominium complex caretaker—was the only part of my life that wasn’t screwing me to the floor that day. Sometime in the late afternoon it occurred to me that this was a wasted opportunity. I crawled out to fetch my clipboard.   Record this, I told myself. It occurred to me it would be easier to jot notes sitting at my writing table. Writing pulled me out of a deep deep hole.

Tell us briefly about your recently published book and what you feel is the most important topic/sub-message you share.
            Better You Go Home took a long time to finish. First I fell in love with my research, then I stopped and started over several times. I wanted this to be a great feast.  A compendium of all things connected to the pressure cooker that at one time had been home to one side of my family.  What I really wanted to write about was what it was like to be the adult progeny of émigrés who’d survived near catastrophe in Eastern Europe.  You cannot say that the boy who grows up playing sports in a sunny Colorado suburban town with wide streets and no traffic jams, originally built as a retirement community, has much in common with the daughter of Latvian escapees who barely spoke English when she was a kid. I grew up dismayed by the unbreachable superficiality of my familiar world.  It was a formless malaise, until I first traveled to Eastern Europe (mid to late 70s) and saw oppression and desperation first hand and felt, perhaps for the first time in my life, oddly at home.

Like all authors, you have had your fair share of rejection letters. You obviously did not let the letters deter you. How did you keep your determination without getting discouraged?
By the time I finished this novel, I had enjoyed enough letters of rejection for short stories that I knew the routine well. Still, I was loathe to send out my baby to be mistreated and misunderstood by total strangers. I only contacted a couple of agents and a couple of editors, and those were selected only because I knew people who knew them. That’s how over-protective I was. Coffeetown Press was no exception.  I knew one of the editors.  She had been tremendously helpful in developmental stages.  When she was hired at Coffeetown I thought I’d give them a try (this happily coincided with the press taking an interest in literary fiction).  No promises, she warned.  At best she could make sure my novel got read. That was all I could ask for. I sent the manuscript via email. I waited. Meanwhile, I feverishly rewrote the final chapters. When after a month I hadn’t heard, I contacted them to ask if I could send the revision? Luckily, they had been busy with other projects and mine had been on a back burner. The new arrival of my manuscript into their in-boxes prompted a read. Ten days later I got a phone call and a contract offer.
It has been my experience, some things come quite easily (like creating the setting) and other things aren’t so easy (like deciding on a title). What comes easily to you and what do you find more difficult? 
Physical descriptions of people and places come easily and I enjoy doing them.  Dense sequel. Ramblings in a character’s free indirect discourse. Love doing it. I was told by my writing critique group to tone it down, cut that stuff I enjoyed doing by about a third. It was killing the pace. It’s the scenes that trouble me. It is in these action/reaction dramatic episodes that I feel I have the least narrative control. Precisely when the characters must show who they really are under pressure, I get bogged down. Here is where I am most prone to suspecting that this is pure artifice, and not real writing at all.  This is probably a ghost of Beckett’s influence. Of course, in the end, these segments are the more enjoyable to read precisely because the characters are livelier.

Please describe to us your relationship between you and your editor. What makes an author/editor relationship a success?
            I have had a very good relationship with the editor in chief at Coffeetown Press.  Catherine Treadgold understood my story, made only very small changes in my prose, but was careful, careful to a fault to make sure that everything said and portrayed was as accurate as it could be. Also, she shortened some of my most obtuse sentences. What makes it work? Trust and respect.  She respected my work and I respected hers. Once I learned that I could trust her with my baby, I enjoyed our repartee.
When they write your obituary, what do you hope they will say about your books and writing? What do you hope they will say about you?
            I hope they will say that I wrote about things that mattered, even if they were sometimes gritty or dark. I hope they will say that I was a helpful teacher. I am an enabler.  I want people with the inclination, to embark on this journey of writing.  Recently on NPR I heard part of an interview with a semi-well known writer teaching at NYU who said essentially he doesn’t teach.  He tells his students to go out and eat pizza and come back and write about it.  If I were paying tuition at that school I’d want my money back. So not every aspiring writer will win a Nobel Prize.  If they are earnest, and respect the process, they deserve any guidance they can get. I’ve learned a few tricks.  Why not pass them on.
Is there any particular book when you read it, you thought, "I wish I had written that!"?
            Oh, yes.  Most recently, Mark Slouka’s The Visible World. Such command of telling detail.  Such lovely prose.  Such necessary subject matter. Yes.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If yes, how did you ‘cure’ it?
            Not really. But, now, about to get busy with the next novel, knowing what will inevitably go wrong, I find myself crouching psychically with dread.  But, I also know that as soon as I get busy with the text, that dread will evaporate and in its place will materialize exultation. 

What type of books do you mostly write?
            What is known as literary fiction.  Or, just fiction.  No special genre. I would write erotica for money if I thought I had a knack for it.

Who or what inspires your characters and/or plots?
            I believe in grabbing things as they appear. Any story I commit to writing is going to be inspired by something I read or saw or experienced personally. But once a story idea is planted, much time (without doing any actual writing) is devoted to mulling over just who the characters are.  While in this mode, I might read about someone who seems to fit the profile. I will steal that real world character profile as much as possible. I see this as directed chance.  For example, I am immersing myself into the world of a Latvian composer.  The one I have in mind loved to use folk music as the basis for his own compositions. While working on a dossier for this character, I happened to read about the Hungarian composer, Bartok, going out of his way to record songs straight from the lips of peasants who’ve always sung their songs and never thought twice about it. Chances are my character, the Latvian composer, will develop an interest in Bartok. Yes, it will be backstory, but it will be imbedded in my understanding of his personal history.

Tell us about your writing space.
            Basement office in a windowless corner, concrete walls on two sides, open on two sides to the Rec space and the laundry space. There are three basement windows that do bring in an indirect natural light but I have to work with lamps on perpetually. I do interviews and rough draft writing at a writing desk overly crowded with the detritus of abandoned and on-going projects. I then turn to my PC computer desk with the sizeable screen.  No cell phone.  A land line on the rough writing desk. Shelves lined with books, stacks of books on three sides. It’s a cluttered cobwebby space, but it’s mine and no one else wants to go here.

Is there anything you'd go back and do differently now that you have been published, in regards to your writing career? 
            I should have gotten more serious about writing a novel using everything I’d learned from writing short stories about ten or twelve years ago. I now have a much more real-world view of what will be tolerated.  If I had had that practical know-how then I’d probably have spent less time playing around with unusable material.   On the other hand, who knows.  Maybe I needed this tortured path.

How do you see the future of book publishing, both traditional, electronic and print on demand?
            I know people who have E-readers and who will down load books for easy travel, but who also want to buy and read hard copy books when not traveling.  I do believe there is something about cracking open a book and holding it in your hand and twisting it this way and that and leafing through (and jotting notes) that is a tactile experience that cannot be reproduced electronically and that is fundamentally more sensorally engaging and therefore more desirable.  Print on demand is a good thing because it allows small presses to compete and to produce books at much lower cost. I see it as a model that will simply grow.  Electronic and hard copy books will co-exist.  The coda that is a book is as old as western civilization and I do not believe modern technology will eliminate it.

Do you do a lot of research for your book(s)?
            Yes. I read books on related topics.  I interview people. I am not averse to checking Web sites for actual photos or physical descriptions. YouTube videos can also be useful. You need an idea of what a barn fire looks like? You can find examples and steal the sensory information.  All that is there.  Why not use it?

What voice do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
            I prefer first person, only because it causes me to lose some of my natural narrative distance. When writing in third person, which I have done, I tend to create a narrating persona that is too aloof from the rough and tumble of immediate experience. The advantage of third person is it allows you to look more critically at your narrating character. The advantage of first person is it allows you more easily to inhabit that character’s inner world. 

Have you received any awards?
            A few.  When in grad school I won the UW’s Milliman Award for fiction. Writing magazine articles in the meantime, I have won eight Society of Professional Journalist awards. Also, in 2006, I won a UW Educational Outreach Teaching Excellence Award.

What advice would you give to a new writer?
            Devote as much time as possible to writing. Don’t be afraid to imitate a writer you particularly admire (great way to learn), take classes (it will boost your professionalism), and don’t write entirely in a vacuum.  Be aware of your potential audience. And, by all means, be part of a writing critique group composed of people similarly earnest and if possible including one or two writers who’ve already had some success.
You can find out more about Scott Driscoll, his books and World of Ink Author/Book Tour at

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