Remember this post? I remember writing it, very clearly: sitting at my kitchen table at our old house – armed with my laptop, inspiration from my co-authors, and a pot of coffee.
Well, today is the day that our collaborative stories get reincarnated into real paper and ink books that get to live on people’s shelves! Hooray! Many, many thanks to Jodi Cleghorn and Paul Anderson for their tirelessness in producing and promoting our work. You are amazing.
To celebrate the release of the Yin and Yang books today, I’m interviewing my yang opposite, Dan Powell. Dan and I had fun getting to know each other and our characters through this process, and it’s my pleasure to introduce you to him.
Meet Dan Powell.
Who is Dan Powell?
90% of the time I’m simply a husband and a home-dad, taking care of my wife and three gorgeous children. The rest of the day I am a writer focusing mostly on short fiction though I have just started a three year online MA in Creative Writing during which I will either complete my first novel or I will fail the course. I’m aiming for the former. I am an avid reader and love to immerse myself in fictional worlds, often to the point of obsession. I spent the early part of this year devouring Chekhov’s short work, reading his letters, watching performances of his short comic plays, while starting to branch out into reading Russian literature a little more widely. My wife would probably tell you that I do this sort of thing quite often, immersing myself totally in whatever grabs my attention at a particular time. I can be a bit geeky like that.
Do you think you were born to write or is writing something you discovered along your life’s journey? Either way, when did you decide to do it in earnest?
Not sure about being born to write but I have certainly always wanted to write, as far back as I remember, in fact that’s what I told my careers advisor at school when I was 16. He unhelpfully suggested that I work in a bookshop to prepare myself for a career in literature. Instead of doing that I got myself to University and studied English Literature and History for three years, all the time writing comic scripts and short stories in my spare time. Then I became an English teacher which required so much work in the evenings that I did little in the way of writing for a fair few years, until, about a year after the birth of our first child, my wife decided she wanted to go back to work. So I happily gave up my job to spend my days as primary caregiver for my son, then his brother when he came along and now my little baby girl. It was while taking care of son number two that I began writing in earnest, using what little time he napped in the day to write. Now I cram writing in every available nook and cranny of the day, in between sorting loads of washing, climbing the mountain of ironing steadily growing each day and attempting to keep a house clean while three children do their level best to make a mess. Right now finding time is made even harder in that I am taking care of a toddler and working part time but essentially it was the swapping of domestic roles with my wife that gave me (a little) time to finally focus on my writing.
Who has been your biggest supporter/influencer as a writer? In which ways has this support/influence spurred you on?
In terms of literary influences, my main ones, for short fiction at least, would be Raymond Carver and Anton Chekhov two of the all time greats whose rich bodies of work provide a masterclass in how to write great fiction. More contemporary authors like Michel Faber and Amy Hempel inspire me to try and better my work with every subsequent piece.
In my personal life I am lucky to have had supportive parents who have always encouraged my writing. Today, however, it is my beautiful wife without whom I would not have time, space or confidence to write; she is my harshest critic, often brutally honest about my work, as well as my single biggest source of support.
I am also lucky enough to have a support network of fellow writers via twitter, facebook and Google+ and the groups that live there. Most notable amongst these is Jodi Cleghorn, editor extraordinaire over at eMergent Publishing. Her beta reading of my work always challenges me and many of my stories accepted for publication have benefited from her keen eye for what works in a story and what doesn’t.
Can you describe your writing process for us? ie: How do you get from having an idea to finishing a first draft? And, are you a plotter or a seat-of-your-pantser?
My stories tend to start with a key image, most often the closing image of the story. The rest of my process is working out how to get there via the shortest and most satisfying route possible. Traveling the shortest route hopefully ensures that the reader will have no time for their attention to wander but instead be carried by the pace and impetus of the narrative. To answer you second question, I fall somewhere between a plotter and a pantser. I know where I am going in a story, what my end point is, but I tend to get through my first draft by the seat of my pants. Short fiction author Adam Marek says the first draft of a story shows him what the story is about and once its completed he goes back and reshapes the story to properly explore the themes and characters revealed in the process of writing the first draft. When I read that I realised that was what I was doing with my first drafts, finding out how the characters got to where they were going and why. Drafting a story multiple times helps reveal to me exactly what the story is about.
On the heels of question #4, do you think in words or images? How do you craft your scenes? Do you see them? Hear them?
I tend to see my endings. Many of my stories close with what I hope is a strong visual image. I literally see them in my head and writing the story, as I have said, is an exercise in discovering how my character gets to that point. When I am drafting dialogue I tend to speak it out loud, particularly in the redraft stage, to hear how it sounds. Often with dialogue I will hear the character in my head. That’s when you know the characters are coming alive, when you hear them say something you simply wouldn’t say. So I tend to work through a combination of words and images.
Do you believe in the concept of a muse?
Soon after starting to seriously devote time to my writing I realised that, for the most part, I keep returning to a handful of key themes, father-son relationships, love and death being the big three most obvious in my work. This probably stems from the fact that the death of my father was closely followed by my getting married and having a family of my own. While my characters are fictional, the emotional experiences of the last ten years or so of my life definitely escape into my work. If I have a muse at all, mine is found in this exploration of the emotional landscape in which I live.
What do you find to be most challenging about being a writer? The most rewarding?
Having a young family, one of the most challenging things is finding time and space to write. I cram it in whenever I get the chance. When baby is sleeping. While waiting for the washing machine to finish a cycle. Parked up outside pre-school waiting to pick up my four year old. I always carry a notebook (often two) to capture my random insights and bolt from the blue ideas. I have yet to suffer from writer’s block, but I have written on my blog about how I can suffer from writer’s grump, often finding myself frustrated by how many ideas for stories I have and how little time I have to realise them. The most rewarding thing about writing? When a reader reacts honestly to something I have written. Whether good or bad I want to get a response from the reader. The worst thing in the world would be to write something that no one can connect with.
What is your most memorable/meaningful moment while working on your Chinese Whisperings Yang Book story? What is your opinion about collaborative writing?
This may sound contrived, considering this interview is appearing on your blog, but easily the most memorable moment was seeing my characters appear in your story. Seeing my characters through the filter of another writer’s view showed them back to me more clearly than I could have hoped to see them on my own. This experience was repeated later when Annie Evett used my characters in her CW story and told me things I didn’t know about them. Finally reading Jason Coggin’s story, I realised one of his characters had a part to play in the lives of my characters. This back and forth, firstly between the pair of us as we wrote our stories concurrently, later between the whole cast of authors assembled on the Yin and Yang books, showed me the unique opportunity collaborative writing provides to get to grips with your characters and ultimately your craft a whole lot better. I think collaborative writing, when entered into with openness on the part of all the authors as it is on Chinese Whisperings, has the potential to create work that is truly special.
Do you have any current projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?
I am currently working on collecting my best short fiction work to submit to publishers later this year or early next. In addition to this I have a number of stories in various states of completion which I hope to submit to various short story prizes. I have also had some great publishing credits this year in the pages of Neon, The View from Here, Red Asylum, Dirty Bristow and Staccato. The overall plan is to keep the pressure on and keep putting out good work that, hopefully, people will want to read. Other than that my writing time is being taken up with the reading for my MA course. I am currently plowing through ten novels, picking apart how they work and taking part in online tutorial discussions with my group. It’s challenging and exciting in equal measure. In January we start developing our writing with an eye on crafting our novel. I have an idea of what my story is but it’s in a very delicate, infant stage. Hopefully by the end of next term it will be up on its feet and saying its first words.