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Meet Ted Olinger Author of The Woodpecker Menace: Stories from an Accidentally Unseparated Island
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Norm Goldman


Reviewer & Author Interviewer, Norm Goldman. Norm is the Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com.

He has been reviewing books for the past fifteen years when he retired from the legal profession.

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By Norm Goldman
Published on June 16, 2013
 










Author: Ted Olinger: Illustrator: Tweed Meyer

Publisher: Plicate Press
ISBN: 978N -0-984400-3-8 


Today, Bookpleasures.com is pleased to have as our guest Ted Olinger author of The Woodpecker Menace: Stories from an Accidentally Unseparated Island.

Good day Ted and thanks for participating in our interview

Norm:

Please tell our readers a little bit about your personal and professional background.

Ted:

 I grew up in California but went to college in New York City. After graduating, I started out working as an editorial assistant at Putnam thinking I would learn how to write and launch my nonexistent career as an author. I learned a lot about writing and publishing in those years, but mostly learned that I didn't want to be an editor. I moved back to the west coast and wound up in Seattle paddling a kayak for a living. I started writing nonfiction about my adventures doing that, which evolved into regular freelance jobs publishing travel stories, then news reporting, and then finally back to fiction. That took about twenty years in all.

Norm:

How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?

Ted:

I always wanted to be a writer. Some of my earliest memories are of writing books and stapling them together in my dad's office. I believe I must have drawn pictures and dictated to him what the words were supposed to be, since I can still see his writing and my pictures in memory. I've worked at it a lot and published a lot of articles and essays, but I think I'm really only just now starting to get it. I want to see how much more I can improve.

Norm:

Why have you been drawn to short story writing. As a follow up, are there aesthetic advantages and disadvantages peculiar to the short story? Does it have a unique form?

Ted:

Short stories are probably the original art form. When you look at the prehistoric cave paintings that have been found in France or South America, or the Native petroglyphs on the coast of B.C. and Alaska, you know you're looking at a story, and a story they thought important enough to capture. Although their creation and themes are far removed from our experience, the more you look the more you get a sense of what is written there, embodied in those images. I don't think that our own short stories are so different. The better ones take the reader somewhere he or she could never reach without the author, like the past, for example, or into the recesses of a character's heart. That is what draws me to short stories. I think the peculiar advantage, or distinction, that short fiction has over other forms is the unswerving demand it places on the writer to get the feeling or the image that's to be conveyed just right the first time. It's unforgiving in that sense in a way novels or memoirs are not. A few words out of place, the spell is broken, and it's all over. 

Norm:

Is your work improvisational or do you have a set plan?

Ted:

I always imagine that I have a plan. I spend a lot of time making up the plan, in fact. Once the story is underway, however, I've found it's important to let it take the lead. Sometimes something unexpected creeps in, and then there's a new story underway. I keep what I want to achieve in mind and keep aiming for that goal, but sometimes I've found that goal is too modest or dull. More often, I find it remains just out of reach. 

Norm:

How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

Ted:

I had a very strict, conservative upbringing, but was also fortunate to spend a lot of time in fairly rugged places where there wasn't anything to do expect play outside, swim, sail, climb on cliffs, and so on. That external space provided the internal space, I think, to let me spend a lot of time in my imagination as well. Those years hardwired me to see the world and its inhabitants in a certain way. I've mostly lived and worked in cities ever since, which inspired a fair amount of published nonfiction but nothing else. It's only been in the last decade, since moving to a rural area, that I've begun to return to my roots as it were and write things the way I imagine them and their effect on the world, good and bad.

Norm:

In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?

Ted:

It's a mysterious thing, but I believe readers know when they're being lied to. This goes for fiction as much as nonfiction. The very first thing a writer has to do, if I may pontificate, is earn the reader's trust. In nonfiction, that's a fairly straightforward task. It's most difficult in fiction since one is appealing to a different set of senses, not the rational, logical machine side of the brain. If, however, having gained that trust a writer abuses it to advance some agenda, it undermines the whole work. If the story is too "good," too pat, "with the sheen of fiction" as Sherlock Holmes once said, it's over. Good characters are flawed, good stories describe difficult things. If it all fits together too well, good readers get suspicious, and the spell is broken. Of course, there also basic rules of courtesy. One does not exploit others. One doesn't listen to a friend's troubles and then put them in a story. I have created characters inspired by people I've met, but only one was sufficiently undisguised to be recognizable to himself or others. Had I not received his permission to do so, I would never have written his story.

Norm:

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

Ted:

Doing it. Even after decades of laboring in obscurity, I find starting a new project as daunting as ever. I find myself wondering if this is the time I'm going to fall off the cliff, or get blown overboard, or get struck by lightning. It's discouraging, but it keeps me alert.

Norm:

How long does it take you to write a short story and how many revisions do you do before you are satisfied?

Ted:

I think even the shortest stories I've written, meaning 700-1000 words, took on the order of 40 hours or more. That includes staring at the page for hours and then changing one or two sentences. The stories in my book went through three or five major revisions, at least, and maybe six or seven more drafts. By this I mean I went from major surgery, such as taking out entire plot lines, all the way down to striking out a single sentence or adding a word or two.

Norm:

Do you have any suggestions to help our readers become better writers? If so, what are they?

Ted:

I can think of only one piece of advice, and it is one I wish I had heard thirty years ago. It's from Ira Glass, who produces the National Public Radio show "This American Life." To paraphrase, his message is that every new writer has a certain amount of garbage they have to get out of the way before they start to get it right, and that this is extremely demoralizing because of the yawning gap between what you want to write and what you are able to write. But, he says, you have to get through that to get anywhere else, and if you persist you will find that yawning gap getting narrower and narrower until, after much work and time, it's closed. Of course then you have a new problem, I think, and that is how to recognize the next gap, and improve enough to close that one too. And the next.

Norm:

What was your favorite story in The Woodpecker Menace: Stories from an Accidentally Unseparated Island?

Ted:

That's a tough one for me because they all do certain things well, I think. A few of the stories were conceived as part of this collection, but one that wasn't and one of the strongest is "My Anarchist Neighbor." I believe it conveys a lot about a certain type of person out here where I live in the Pacific Northwest, and about the Northwest itself. It also gets a lot of laughs at readings.

Norm:

Are the characters in your short stories based on people you know or have encountered?

Ted:

Only one is based on a real person, and that is the title character of "My Anarchist Neighbor." He read and approved the early drafts, or I would never have pursued it. Unfortunately, he passed away before it was published and I rewrote it to include his death, with his widow's approval. I read that draft at his wake, a standing room only affair at our local tavern, and it brought the house down. But that was because the story was true to the man, not because I had written anything that great.

An interesting corollary here is that readers frequently ask me what "really" happened to a character in one of my stories, or where they are now. I learned quickly that it is a mistake to say, "It's all made up, that character isn't a real person."  The questioners are not only offended, they seem hurt, as if they've been taken in by the first person narration of these stories. I've since learned to answer that I wasn't trying to fool anyone or get away with anything, that the narrator was a character too. And if they were concerned enough to ask me about the fate of a fictional character, they are to be congratulated for letting a story touch them.

Norm:

Where can our readers find out more about you and The Woodpecker Menace: Stories from an Accidentally Unseparated Island?

Ted:

I have a number of works floating around on the web under my name, but the best place to see more is at the BOOK WEBSITE: 

Norm:

As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.

Ted:

I suppose "What is coming next?" And the answer to that is complex. I have been working for some time on a nonfiction account of my mom's slow death by dementia, which I touch on in Woodpecker. But the response to this collection has been so positive I may have to return to the dark woods and cold waters of my home here and expand on some of the stories that didn't make it into the first book.

Norm:

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. It's been an absolute pleasure to meet with you and read your work. Good luck with The Woodpecker Menace: Stories from an Accidentally Unseparated Island.

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