Bookpleasures today is
excited to have as our guest award-winning writer/editor Steve Marsh.
For many years Steve wrote for Life and Money magazines and
assignments for Fortune; also nine non-fiction books for Agate
Publishers and others. Scores of additional stories have appeared in
the Atlanta Constitution, Rocky Mountain News, USA Today, Newsweek
and many more. His recent work of fiction Solana del Mar has just been published.
Steve was born to a Fulbright Scholar in a literary clan, he was mentored to become a novelist, creating other fiction titles including Drac-18, Of the Dark House, Palace of the Puzzle Kings and Retaliation. After traversing the globe with extended periods in the Caribbean he currently lives in Colorado with his beloved wife of 23 years.
Good day Steve and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
I started writing when I was around 11 years old, wrote a poem about kids playing in autumn leaves, wrote and edited for the high school literary magazine, etc. I started freelancing in my early 20s, ferociously badgering editors until my stuff began to appear in pubs like the Atlanta Constitution, quite an odyssey, really, leading up to by-lines in Life Magazine and so forth. I can say I’ve worked for some of the toughest guns in the valley as past editors, which gave me an almost perverse enjoyment in having my copy beat up routinely. This is how you learn, in my opinion, through hard work, rejection, going back to get it right, then the all-important part: moving forward. Never let anyone tell you that you “can’t write” if you wish to try. Most of us can. It’s a matter of commitment.
What keeps me going? I love the sound of all language, the rhythm of the phrase and sentence structure, the musical sound of conversation and the ever startling way people react. I’m intrigued by the way language evolves over time. It truly is a living thing and all that.
The act of writing itself has always taken me far away. When I was a kid, I would sit down and just…start…writing. Hours later, someone would tap me on the shoulder and pull me away, as if I’d been in a time machine. Dawn became dusk in a seeming instant. The question is not so much about “what keeps me going.” It’s how to stop, especially in fiction.
What’s the most difficult thing for you about being a writer?
…Not being able to work at fiction every day of my life while making a decent living at it. I’ve made a living at writing every day of my adult life, but words that pay aren’t always the ones I want to put on paper - although they all serve as a means to strengthen discipline and form, meaning it’s all good.
One of my favorite quotes, likely paraphrased, came from Oscar Wilde who declared, “I’m bored by those (writers) who only write on rainy days.” …Something like that. You can’t expect much if you perpetually require perfect circumstances for writing, including appealing content and the rest. I can’t count the times that real inspiration came from adversity, like forcing myself to sit down and do it on sunny days, or times when everyone else was running off to a cocktail party.
Why do we like fiction?
Fiction propels us into a universe of unlimited possibility, impossible landscapes and characters forming a composite of the human soul. Fiction gives us worlds continually unfolding as a book progresses, giving the mind endless variations of color and light. I love movies but the “movie” in a book can have you living within that book for days on end; try to get that kind of bang for your buck with film/TV. Imagine a movie lasting, say, 94 hours without some kind of collapse in the story line.
Also, looking back at centuries of fiction, it serves its purpose in the chronicle of the human spirit, showing how we’ve evolved emotionally and more. Some might cynically opine that we’ve not progressed too much, but consider the norms of criminal punishment today versus the time of Christ. Fiction tracks human evolution in its own, distinct way, providing insights, of course, aligned with historic events.
What helps you focus when you write? Do you find it easy reading back your own work?
I sit down at the keyboard and start. That’s it. I lean into it and let the words do the pulling, sometime even writing aimlessly for a minute or two until the process kicks in. I never push, but I do keep writing. After a while, I find myself whisked away. Hours later I typically return to the beginning and rewrite, which generally propels the edit.
The hard part is to force a break, to get up and leave it behind because the interconnected thoughts must be recaptured.
Reading back my own non-fiction is a must. I do it constantly and as efficiently as possible. Reading back a long piece of fiction – a novel manuscript, for example – is tough because you get caught up in the minutiae, passionately re-drawing scenes and characters and dialogue. Aaaaagh! I have never been fully able to read my own fiction straight through, as another reader would, without fiddling with something. Part of it is probably some kind of narcissistic fascination with one’s own mirror image, which can turn quite ugly, even monstrous, if you stare into a mirror long enough. So, I tackle mine in sectional leaps and, at some point, I have to remember what a tough, bygone editor once told me: “Steve, we love to freak you out with last-minute breaking news; it’s when you do your best writing; it’s also fun to watch you freak out.”
Hemingway/Gertrude Stein/Ezra Pound taught us to strip out the fat, hone it all down like a hot verbal rod and get to the meat. This is not easy. Reading-back and the re-write make it happen.
What has been the best part about being published?
I’ve been published hundreds of times in non-fiction, so nowadays it means giving the final product a once over, enjoying the sensation of the layout (hopefully) then moving on. I recently had an editor lay an atrocious headline on an otherwise decent write, which is a typical trade hazard you learn to live with.
The best part of being published comes with fiction. It comes from the soul. Giving people the ability to actually read one of my novels, out of the closet, out of the bulky manuscript box, is ecstasy. Even if they hate it, I get a twisted pleasure out of hearing them react to something absolutely ‘out of my mind.’
Are you a plot or character writer? As a follow up, do you write from an outline?
I love plot, narrative prose and good dialogue. I devoured ‘Canada’ by Richard Ford which is largely prose. I still go back to Hem, Cather, Wouk, Twain and more for dialogue reminders.
Characters are the essence of some of my favorite novels. For all the glory of painted landscapes we mostly remember the people don’t we? Gulliver and the Lilliputians; Chinese passengers fighting to the death of the tumbling hold in Conrad’s Typhoon. This is why Solana del Mar has had some push from behind the scenes, I suspect. I love strange, quirky characters, humorous oddballs with an agenda, devious characters. From the somewhat curious life I have led, I know I’ve subconsciously drawn from a number of unusual individuals encountered on the road.
As for outlines: Yes and no, depending on the project. For academic and technical work, including collegiate papers, work from an outline if you know what’s good for you (in most cases).
I had to move on from there to more spontaneous forms of organization per short-fuse deadlines in journalism and the spontaneous nature of fiction. After so many years in non-fiction I learned to highlight and “stack” materials, reshuffle the deck a few times, write a draft, then return and sift: “it’s all in the re-write” as one of my dearly departed agents used to say.
Fiction is another world altogether, which is why I love writing fiction. I once took to heart one of those literary guidebooks by a famous literary agent, who went into a famous chapter about outlining. I studiously followed this technique and wound up with 140,000 of the most dreadfully wooden tomes of my career. In fiction, I generally see far ahead into the story before I write, yet I allow for a distant mist on the horizon, so to speak, to let things happen as the story evolves itself. To a point. If you have an imagination, characters will naturally appear and insert themselves, nothing you can do about it. Yet, I do work from story points as I go, careful to allow for flexibility while waiting like a hunter for opportunities to appear. Fiction is a wonderfully living thing for me, and it should have a controllable life of its own as I go.
The caveat: I personally need to see an increasingly distinct ending begin to evolve, typically after a developed middle is ready to launch the final denouement. If you don’t begin to see the end when you reach the middle, you could be in trouble. I once had a manuscript that refused to resolve itself; 174,000 words later it still refused to die; I was going crazy, my wife was quietly threatening to walk out. She didn’t, thank God. The manuscript remains a massive shadow of many parts, in the closet.
What served as the primary inspiration for your most recent book, Solana del Mar?
Hah-ha! …Belize and the colorful, less traveled waters in that neck of the Caribbean. We lived there for extended periods and I was enchanted by the people, all kinds of people from every corner of the globe. This is former British Honduras. It isn’t Mexico, North America, Argentina or western-Europe. It is uniquely Belize. In its modern incarnation, which began around 300 years ago, it was a Maya nation-turned haven for castaways – escaped English/Irish conscripts, French pirates on the run, African slaves/multi-colored refugees of the Spanish empire, adventurers and European aristocrats competing for turf. Mennonite farmers settled on the mainland, Lebanese shop owners appeared. I can’t imagine what the original Maya people must have thought; where in the world were all these people were coming from?
When I was there, the lush, musical variety of so many accents and dialects created a daily revelation: Dutch, Russian, British, the latter contributing to one of many beautiful Caribbean dialects. Creole, gulla (sic), south Texas, you name it, you’ll hear it eventually. I would sit under a palapa on sultry afternoons along a nearly always empty beach, and eavesdrop. Add the lime and turquoise waters, Euro/North American expats wandering through – many living down there full-time – and you had one irresistible setting for a tale.
I can’t guarantee the same place today. This was at a time when Belize was still a magical, rumored haven-apart from global tourism. One or two Hollywood stars had places, along with a pop- music star or two – for that seclusion. But I can say almost without exception that everyone down there at the time, including expat North Americans, made for the greatest collection of people I’ve ever encountered. My wife and I knew we were in a special place at a very special time, circa 2005 in a little world likened to “Key West in the 50s.”
What would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read Solana del Mar?
It’s different from much on the current market (knife-and-gun club/vampire thrillers). I took a chance, thinking some people might be ready for something fun, exotic, witty, tropical, with the kind of colorful adventure you might find in motion pictures. I loved the Pirates of the Caribbean series; I’m still a sucker for James Bond (loved Skyfall and M’s courtroom message to the world), which isn’t high-brow literary inspiration, just great entertainment. Solana has some of that, with layered subtext for those who care to look for it.
In the past I’d written thrillers/detective stuff with requisite evidence techs, body bags, etc. After deciding that many very talented people do that and do it well, I took another tack. When you take on a novel, you live in that landscape for a long time.
At that particular time, I very much needed to live in the bright, colorful world of Solana del Mar. I hope I can find readers looking for that kind of lift as well.
Did you know the end of Solana del Mar at the beginning?
I had a sense of it. End Phase One: some kind of massive island rave gone hay-wire, beyond control of the well-meaning residents who unwittingly let it erupt around them – a message in there somewhere, I guess. But again, I like to leave a mist on the horizon. Everything else evolved within that framework.
And, of course, the surprising little twist at the end - End Phase Two - was there from the beginning, hence certain references in the opening pages. I don’t want to reveal much more, but I like the way it turned out, leaving the readers with a somewhat bitter-sweet moment (subconscious Updike/Cheever emulation…can’t say.) But again, the little twists and turns, and a range of end-scene characters all seemed to appear quite naturally, forming one of my favorite parts of the book – not all that common for ends of things.
I made myself stop writing at that point, having learned from rather painful lessons in the past.
What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
I’d say: “Of course you are. Of course they are. You just have to start. Don’t stop.” I mean, keep going until you find yourself in the midst of another world, and maybe it’s best not to reveal a thing about what you’re up to until you’re done. Also, choose your early readers and editors very carefully. Sometimes writer workshops include people with issues.
That said, I have never met a soul without some kind of story to tell. Often, your more profound moments are in the minutiae you least admire. In other words, how do you know what I know about what you know? People who doubt they have a story to tell should re-visit books like My Antonia (Willa Cather) or The Sun Also Rises (Hemingway). The first is a close-up memoir of life in rural Nebraska, the latter basically an account of people on a drunken tear in a foreign country…hmmm: No, his were young, post-collegiate. Mine are a mix of ages including wild, Viagratic boomers who don’t know when to quit. Like this writer, I guess.
What do you think of the new Internet market for writers?
I think it is virtually saving the integrity of the written word, while allowing for virtually every other kind of voice at the same time. I absolutely support and hope the best for traditional publishing houses and the old protocol, but a relentless era of consolidation absorbed many fine, smaller publishers, until there where basically three or for monoliths left in control of various imprints. Like everyone else in my world, they were whacked by the great recession, the onslaught of internet marketing and the fade of physical bookstores, a tragedy. The end result is that agents and publishers have to be extremely selective, leaving a growing crowd of very good writers to their own devices.
I’ve heard that many good agents are sending their writers to the internet as a result, where you sink or swim. On the upside, it’s thrilling that anyone can download my stuff for $3.99, opening up the written word for people who either were reluctant to try fiction or who couldn’t afford a book. This has opened up an amazingly accessible avenue for new voices to be heard. Kind of gives me the chills, thinking that someone in Dubai could be reading this right now, punching a few digits to make the words of Solana del Mar appear.
On the downside a tsunami of books are out there without much attention to quality. The reader is thus challenged without the filtering mechanism of agents and traditional publishers.
Where can readers find out more about you and your books?
…The paperback bio, the inside-flap of the hard cover version, and at the end of the book itself. I’m after the publisher to park the bio on the web; it somehow was left out. People can contact the publisher or find me directly through MY WEBSITE, my bio/profile continues infinitum - I’m years behind posting scanned images of most book titles; technical barriers per vanished web master abound. People in the publishing/film industry will find me on my Linked-In page.
What is next for Steve Marsh?
I’m working on a sequel to Solana del Mar. I love this story and the ridiculous, whacked out characters, some of whom I dying to re-birth in another locale to be announced. Also, I’m thinking about a companion mini-book to go with the Solana series, in order to help people “live the life.” More on that in a moment…
As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer?
Q: Would this book make for a fabulous movie?
A: Without a doubt. It’s a natural for film.
Thanks once again and good luck with all of your endeavors.
Thanks Norm, I hope this
works. I really appreciate the opportunity and wish YOU the best for
doing this for all of us.
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