Saturday, January 9, 2016

Writers in the Spotlight: David Atkinson

Featured today is writer David Atkinson, author of Not Quite So Stories. I dug right in with David about the writing process and how his book came to be. Hi David, welcome to the spotlight! 

I'd like to begin with a simple question: Writing fiction is hard. Why do you do it?

Writing fiction never seemed that difficult to me. Writing it well is more difficult, but certainly more forgiving than having to get facts right like in nonfiction. I write a lot of nonfiction as a patent attorney, and that's definitely a lot more pressure. Writing fiction seems like such a vacation after a day full of patents. I can't think of any other way to live life, without that dreaming.

I like that perspective. Thinking of fiction in that way, as a vacation, seems to turn the concept of "the work" on its head. When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and who/what were your early influences/inspiration?

It must have been before I could remember. Writing simply seemed like something people did. My parents were big on literature of all kids, taking me to the library all the time, fascinated with writers like Tolkien, Hunter Thompson, Hemingway, Harper Lee, and so on. Because of them, I could read chapter books by the time I started kindergarten, at least as far as I remember. They got me going and introduced me to all kinds of influences.

What's the last book you read?

The last book I read was Wake by A.T. Grant, but that will probably change by the time I finish these questions, certainly by the time anyone else sees this interview. I typically read about 200-300 books a year so this kind of question ends up being a little time sensitive.

That's a lot of books! I envy you. I am a slow reader, and I struggle to keep up with my to-read list. 

How did Not Quite So Stories (Literary Wanderlust, 2016) come together? Did you write these stories with the intention of compiling them?

At some point in the process I did. Some of these stories predated the idea for the collection though, they were simply odd stories that I wasn't sure what to do with. I think the first may have been as far back as a decade ago. I came across books by Etgar Keret and Amelia Gray though, and the idea started coming together in my head. Then I wrote stories with this collection in mind, actively pursuing it. Still, even at that point I was simply going one story at a time and seeing if the collection was where I would end up.

I'm a huge fan of short stories and often prefer the form to the novel (as both a reader and writer). Having just finished Not Quite So Stories, I identified one of the major reasons for this: I love infiltrating lives and getting to know characters by way of a specific and often outlandish situation. I also love stories that I can read in a single sitting. Your stories were great fun to read, incredibly imaginative and diverse, yet they all had a way of grabbing me immediately. 

This excerpt from "Cents of Wonder Rhymes with Orange" begins with a shot of adrenaline: 

"The young blond man in the wrinkled oxford shirt dashed across the tile of the elevator lobby. Hurrying, his hands juggled a laptop satchel, a dry and folded umbrella, and a lumpy plastic grocery bag. Lunging for the elevator button before managing to stop, the sole of his cheap dress shoe slid out from under him and he slipped quickly, and clumsily, to the floor."

Equally gripping, is this very different opening from "Home Improvement," which immediately made me wonder about how our character would reconcile his seemingly mundane day with this remarkably strange situation: 

"I think it was a Tuesday when my house left me. Gone when I got back from the updated SEC filing requirements seminar in Akron. There I was, fresh home from the hustle and bustle of the city, only my home wasn't there."

No matter the topic or character, I found myself immersed in your stories immediately. How do you come to your openings? Do you usually begin at the beginning, or does the beginning tend to happen for you, as it does me, after the rest of the story is complete?

I usually end up approaching each story a slightly different way. Some I just sit down and start exploring, some I outline and/or free write or note take heavily before starting, and some I write over and over in my head before sitting down with pen to paper. Still, I usually do try to write a full draft from beginning to end, if possible, when I do sit down to draft. Of course, it’s an iterative process after that. I write freehand first and then type. That gives me a round of tinkering right off the bat, see how things sound and feel. I’ll often have many rounds after that, often reading aloud. I may start with that first sentence on paper, but it will likely get tinkered afterwards. I’ve tinkered with quite a few openings in the stories of this collection to get more zing in them. However, there were a few stories in here, as I remember it at least, that started as an opening that flashed into my head and only later did a story grow from that.

What is your writing process/routine?

I tend to tell people that I don't have a process or routine, but I don't think that's completely accurate. I think I actually have a hundred different little processes. Sometimes I sit down and just start writing, other times I outline extensively and free write, while still other times I write a story for months in my head before ever setting a pen to paper. I blog at least daily so there's that, but the individual pieces I work on seem to each carry their own process that I have to follow. I just get an idea what that is and conform accordingly. I'm not exactly in charge, but it works so I don't worry about it too much. As long as I keep working it's probably all good.

Do you ever find yourself creatively blocked, and if so, how do you find your way through?

I don't remember ever really feeling blocked. Sometimes I won't feel any momentum on a particular project, but usually another one feels like it's building up steam and I can switch over. Sometimes I do feel worn out and take a break, but that break usually involves reading, reviewing, blogging, or something like that. There always seems to be something going.

You don't seem to favor one point of view over the other in this collection. Do you consciously set out to write a story from a particular point of view, and if so, what makes a story right for a first/third person narration?

I operate a great deal of the time from instinct. When I get the idea for a story, a lot of parameters for approaching it often come with…as if they’re simply conditions I have to follow for writing the story. Point of view can sometimes be part of that, though I have changed a story before when it just wasn’t working under one point of view and found it to work much better under another. I think this all comes under the larger scope of psychic distance as opposed to only point of view. The big question is where does the reader need to be. Sometimes they need to be focused in on one character to be moved the maximum amount, at varying distances (outside the character while looking at them, spoken to by the character, in the character’s conscious thoughts, in the character’s mind prior to consciousness coalescing into conscious thoughts, etc.), and sometimes a bigger picture is needed. I think it all depends on how the story needs to make the reader react and how the point of view and psychic distance will affect that. Trying to be a little more concrete, sometimes a story doesn’t work unless the reader has a little estrangement, separation, from a character and so third is needed. Other times, I need the reader to have a more personal connection to the character and use first instead. I don’t think there’s necessarily a point of view from which a story has to be told, but they way point of view can be used to affect how a reader will feel while reading is another tool at a writer’s disposal.

What is the most important part of a story?

It seems like the most important part of any story is whatever isn't working at the time. If it's non-functional, then that part is critical. I suppose I mean that they all seem equally important, though I do have a bias towards stories having particularly good endings. The end is where it all has to come together to really soar, the last word. If everything else is great and the ending is only average, I'd likely end up assessing the story as average as opposed to the other way around.

Do you ever use prompts?

I've used them from time to time, but not heavily. Usually I'm already driven towards so many projects that I don't have enough time to check out prompts that I might like to work with. Midnight Circus often gives prompts for the themes their issues are based around and I've gotten significantly interested in a few of those. Ended up with a few good stories that way. I'm also messing around right now with Flash-Nano (flash fiction's answer to National Novel Writing Month) and have been messing around with the daily prompts Nancy Stohlman has been posting with some pretty good (in my mind at least).

What is your favorite prompt?  

I don't really track prompts after I've used them, so I'll have to pick something recent. I got into the one Nancy Stohlman put up for day 1 of Flash-Nano (Write a story that takes place in a car), not so much for the prompt itself but more because I knew this was going to involve a Ferris Wheel and Henry Kissinger demanding to know what I'd done with his Chevy convertible.

Many of the characters in Not Quite So Stories are hit with the unexpected; something happens that breaks them free from routine, if momentarily. I like the contrast this creates, especially because it seems that the most unprepared and unlikely characters face the most outlandish external circumstance, adding comedy to your knack for suspense.  This made me think of the Tolstoy quote: "All great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." Do you believe this is true of your fiction? Do you believe it's true of fiction in general? 

I think it is, but I think that can be deceptive. The human mind works well with patterns and we can make something fit a framework if we want it to. I mean, aren’t all people on a journey of some kind? Isn’t story something that grows out of a happening that changes the routine of some character or another? That would seem to make it that you could fit almost any story into either or both of those categories whether or not it is really accurate as intended. Since stories for the most part seem to involve a change of some kind, it seems as if the above breaks down into a character going to look for something that will be a catalyst for the change or the catalyst arriving without them having to look. I think you could stretch that to cover almost any situation.

What advice do you have for other writers?

Write, read, and try to be a decent human being while doing the previous two. I think everything else will work itself out if those three things can be managed. There are so many ways up the mountain, I think any advice more specific than that would need to be individually tailored so much that I shouldn't even offer it. If something works for you, keep doing it. If it doesn't work, you should stop doing that. The trick is figuring out whether it's really working or only seems to be and you can't see how it isn't.

What is the best advice you ever received (on writing or anything)?

I think the best advice I've ever been given was more of a witty observation rather than advice. It was from my favorite professor in high school, Mr. Eck. I didn't even have Mr. Eck for a real class, just study hall. I was talking to someone in the hall, doubtlessly something quasi intelligent and angst ridden. Mr. Eck overheard as he was walking by and said: "David, you are such a self imposed outcast." I think of that statement regularly.

What are you working on now?

I'm always working on something. I've got various projects I'm still tinkering with as I try to find them homes (a novel about an endless series of apocalypses, a realistic novel about a character trying to live within the impossibility of his own conceptions about life, an essay book about the original 8-bit NES Legend of Zelda, and so on). If you mean more immediately, I'm working on a series of flash pieces that is much more absurd than I've ever really done…and may one day also end up as a collection (perhaps titled Roses are Red, Violets are Stealing Loose Change from my Pockets While I Sleep?). 

David Atkinson

Given David's author shot, a good prompt this week might be to imagine all that goes on while you sleep. Write about a character's life, and this character is someone who wakes when you rest and rests when you wake. Write for ten minutes. Go!

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