Bookpleasures.com is honored to have as our guest Randall Silvis author of thirteen books of fiction and non-fiction that have appeared on Best of the Year lists from the New York Times, the Toronto Globe & Mail, SfSite.com, and the International Association of Crime Writers, as well as on several Editor’s and Booksellers’ Picks lists. His work has been hailed as “masterful” not only by the New York Times Book Review, but also by Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Mystery Scene magazine.
Randall's short fiction
has been published in Prism International, Short Story
International, Manoa, and numerous other magazines. Editors have
submitted his work for literary awards such as the Pushcart Prize
and the Pulitzer Prize in Letters, and also for major genre
awards such as the Hammett, Edgar, and Thriller Awards.
Of his two most recent pieces of short fiction, one was selected for
the 2013 Best of the Net literary anthology, and the other for
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s prestigious Best American Mystery
Creative nonfiction publications include feature and cover stories for the Discovery Channel magazines on subjects of history, natural history, biography, and science & technology. Other short nonfiction has appeared in The Writer, Fiction Writer, Writers Digest, The Writer’s Handbook, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. “Why I Read,” an essay published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, has been adopted as required reading for all incoming freshmen at Monmouth University. His most recent essay, 10 Easy Steps to Becoming a Writer, enjoyed a run as one of the most popular pieces on The Chronicle website.
Much of the author’s
short creative nonfiction is now available in three Kindle ebooks:
Chasing the Boo, True Stories & Reflections from the Writer’s
Life; What I Know, More True Stories & Reflections from the
Writer’s Life; and 10 Easy Steps To Becoming A Writer, and
Other True Stories About the Writing Life.
Silvis’s twelve stage plays have been produced as winners of national playwriting competitions, with two Off-off-Broadway productions. Screenwriting credits include one feature film production, two additional screenplay commissions, and several film options from Hollywood producers.
His original screenplay
The Algerian was the Grand Prize winner of the Screenwriting
Showcase Awards, and his screenplay Marguerite & the Moon Man
was a top ten finalist for the Anything But Hollywood
Screenwriting Award and the New Century Writers Screenplay
Award. He currently writes a column for screenwriters on the
Virtual Pitchfest website.at
Randall Silvis’s literary awards include the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize, two literature fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Senior Scholar Research Award to the Caribbean, six writing fellowship awards from the Pennsylvania Council On the Arts for his fiction, drama, and screenwriting, and an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania for “distinguished literary achievement.”
Norm: Good day Randall and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started in writing and what was the first story you ever wrote? What happened to it? As a follow up, what keeps you going as a writer?
Randall: Thank you, Norm. It’s great to be here. As to the question, how did I get started in writing: The first thing I ever wrote that received recognition was a poem I wrote for a friend to submit for his college English assignment. The professor quickly recognized that my friend hadn’t composed the poem, and asked him who had. My friend ratted me out, and the professor asked to see me. But instead of chewing me out or threatening expulsion, the professor told me I had talent and should consider concentrating on becoming a writer. I promptly changed majors from accounting to English, and have never looked back.
I really can’t remember the first story I ever wrote, but the first to be published, I think, was a story titled “Murphy” that was published in Prism International, then reprinted in Short Story International. Over the next three years I published only three more short stories, but then my collection of unpublished stories was selected by Joyce Carol Oates to win the Drue Heinz Prize. That came with prize money, an agent in New York City, and national recognition. Pretty heady stuff for a country boy from the coalfields of Pennsylvania.
As to what keeps me going: Of the fifty or sixty jobs I have held in my lifetime, writing has been the only one I look forward to every single day. And the only one I found challenging enough to hold my interest. I love the solitude, I love the sense of discovery, I love when my characters start using words I don’t even understand and have to look up. I love the numinous quality of creative writing. There’s something magical, even spiritual about it. And that quality, more than anything else, is what I love being part of.
Norm: What has been the best part about being published?
Randall: Getting to live my life on my own terms. I am an introvert by nature, so I get a real kick out of being in my bathrobe while talking to an agent, editor, or Hollywood producer. Then, after a good morning’s work, I can take a leisurely cruise on my motorcycle, go hiking in the woods, read, watch a movie, whatever I choose. I have a wide range of creative and intellectual interests, so as long as I stay focused for a few hours of morning work, the rest of the day and night is mine to fill as I see fit.
Norm: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Randall: I have never taken a writing course, and am one of the few writers in my generation without an MFA, so I never had an actual mentor. I learned how to write by studying the writers I loved at the time, and that list is long. Hemingway, Faulkner, Marquez, Knut Hamsun, and, honestly, everybody I read. There’s something to learn from every successful writer. All you have to do is to figure out how a writer gets the effect he/she does. Sometimes the effect is negative, such as boredom or confusion in the reader, so it’s good to analyze what the writer has done wrong. But usually the effect is positive, such as the use of sensory imagery to bring a scene alive.
Norm: What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
Randall: There is lots of
bad advice floating around, especially now that the internet has
given everybody a public voice. One is that a writer should write
what she knows. How limiting that is! A writer should, instead, write
what she wants to know. With fiction, that usually means human
nature. And that is something we should all be striving to better
understand. This includes all of the unanswerables, such as why we
are here, and what is the purpose of human existence. Fiction can
help us to better understand these big questions one small world at a
time. But we can never become experts. Not in this lifetime anyway.
Another piece of bad advice is that a writer
needs to get an MFA. I have taught in quite a few MFA programs, and
one of the first things I tell my students is that no degree will
turn them into published writers. A degree means only that the
student has completed a course of study. The degree in no way
suggests that the graduate possesses the required talent,
self-discipline, or passion to become a writer.
Most of the students I encounter expect to move straight from
the MFA program into a university teaching position, and they have no
idea how few fulltime teaching jobs exist in creative writing. Nor do
many programs provide any practical instruction in how to teach.
Thanks to the proliferation of MFA programs, there are now probably
tens of thousands of individuals holding MFA degrees but unable to
land a job teaching creative writing. Only a fraction of them will
ever be published.
I would also argue
that, prior to the proliferation of MFA programs, our country
produced a more adventuresome and original breed of writers. In fact
I have advised several young people that they can become much better
writers, as well as more insightful and compassionate human beings,
if instead of spending $20,000 or more on an MFA, they use the money
to travel the world by train or motorcycle or foot. That type of
experience will put an aspiring writer a whole lot closer to her
subjects—the earth, nature, humanity, God, and how they all
interact—than will sitting in a classroom for two years or more.
This is not to say that an MFA program cannot help a writer. It is the contemporary form of a writer’s apprenticeship, and as such it does impose a discipline upon students to regularly produce and analyze written work. Unfortunately, it does so within a false atmosphere of encouragement and support, an atmosphere the writer is not likely to encounter when turned out into the real world. For this reason I think the best model for those in pursuit of an MFA is the low-residency model. It provides mentorship and peer support to aspiring writers who continue to live and work in the real world. It does not, however, necessarily improve the very stiff odds against being published that every aspiring writer will and should face.
Several of my other published nonfiction pieces can be accessed at HERE
Norm: How long does it take you to write a book? What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
Randall: I wrote one novel, Under the Rainbow, in fifteen days. Another one, In a Town Called Mundomuerto, took fifteen years. It all depends on when I feel the book is as good as I can make it. Sometimes the plot gives me problems, sometimes the voice isn’t working. But when all of the elements come together, I write fairly quickly. Usually over a thousand words a day. And when all of the elements come together, two drafts is all I need, a first draft and a polish.
In regards to my writing schedule: Before I was married, I wrote whenever the inspiration seized me, which could be at any hour of the day or night. Later, when my first son came along, I started getting up before dawn to write while the house was still quiet. These days I couldn’t sleep past five a.m. even if I wanted to, and I don’t want to. Mornings are very special to me; the dim light and silence allow me to quickly settle into that heightened state of consciousness necessary to immerse myself in the story at hand.
Typically I write for three hours or so, some days more, some days less. I work until I feel I’ve done a good day’s work. And I try my best to adhere to Hemingway’s advice of stopping when I still know what the next scene will be. That way, the possibilities of that future scene percolate through me all the rest of the day and night, and, come morning, I can’t wait to get to my desk again. By then I’ve probably rolled over a few beginning sentences like a stream rolls stones, polishing and polishing and polishing. I simply adore a beautifully wrought sentence.
Norm: Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
Randall: I have always been a voracious reader. And a voracious listener. And a voracious observer. But I don’t actually “get” ideas in the sense of actively looking for or gathering them. This is part of the magic of writing; it would be more accurate to say that the ideas find me. Sometimes I think they are as plentiful in the air as oxygen, and that I just have to breathe them in.
Norm: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
Randall: One of the saddest things I’ve learned is that good books—by which I mean well-written, meaningful books—can be less attractive to editors and agents in this age of bottom-line conglomerization than poorly written, superficial books penned by celebrities or others with huge platforms. Talent now matters far less than marketability, both to publishers and, unfortunately, to many readers.
Norm: Why have you been drawn to writing thrillers and crime stories? Why do we like to read thrillers and are there aesthetic advantages and disadvantages peculiar to this genre? Does it have a form?
Randall: I wrote my first
crime novel after learning that rave reviews and literary prizes did
not always translate into a livable income. And, since I wanted to
make my living, or most of it anyway, as a writer, I knew I had to
make an adjustment.
Although I grew up reading soft science fiction by writers like Ray Bradbury ( a genre that now would be called slipstream or fabulism or New Weird), I wasn’t scientifically inclined, and simply had no interest in writing fiction that was. I had grown up, however, in a violent time and place, knew a lot of hoodlums and delinquents, and even harbored a secret fantasy of being a cat burglar, just for the thrill and challenge of it. So writing crime fiction seemed the easiest adjustment for me to make. I decided that I would alternate writing commercial fiction and literary fiction, and hoped that the commercial fiction would subsidize the literary fiction.
As to the aesthetics of crime fiction, they have been rising steadily over the past twenty years. In fact I find it delightfully ironic that a story by the writer who awarded me the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for my first book appeared with my novella in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2013.
My most recent novel, The Boy Who Shoots Crows, was never intended to be a crime novel or thriller, but a study in the effects of guilt and random chance. So I was very surprised when Berkley Prime Crime, a Penguin imprint, made an offer on it. My editor called it a HItchcockian thriller, which I thought was an accurate description of a novel about the corrosive power of guilt.
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?
Randall: I have always believed that the best stories are organic. In other words, they grow to fit their own form. Plot must arise from character, which is then altered by the ordeal of the plot. In short, character determines how an individual will respond to conflict, and the outcome of that conflict then results in a change of awareness or insight for the character. Those are the kinds of stories that matter to me—stories that are more about character development than about plot resolution.
When asked to describe myself as a writer, I always answer that I am a literary writer who has never abandoned plot. For a novel to be meaningful, not only to the writer but to the reader, I think it must contain all the elements of good fiction: character development, voice, style, evocative sensory imagery, and a compelling plot.
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing and do you have a specific writing style? Do you work from an outline?
Randall: I’ve already talked about growing up in an atmosphere of violence, so I won’t revisit that. Probably the other biggest influence has to do with my love of nature. I grew up in the woods and fields, and the sight back then of a huge dragline ripping up the earth for its coal always made me furious. We humans are so short-sighted when it comes to plundering and profiting from the earth. Many of my protagonists seek solace in nature, as do I. Urban areas make my skin itch. I need greenery and wildlife to truly feel alive myself.
Norm: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing and do you find it easy reading back your own work? How do you keep yourself focused?
Randall: Coming up with stories that people will want to read, and not just stories I want to write, is always challenging. But I thrive on that challenge. Because I am still doing self-chosen work.
Norm: How did you get into screenwriting and how different is it from writing novels?
Randall: Not long after I won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, I was awarded a residency at the McDowell Colony in New Hampshire. I decided to use that residency writing my first play. At that time I had never seen a professionally staged live play, but I was a big fan of American Playhouse and other staged dramas broadcast on television. And I was looking forward to the challenge of writing a story that is moved forward in a limited space principally by dialogue.
That play, Riddle of the Sphinx, won a national competition sponsored by a local university. And the play had been easy to write; it took maybe three weeks. So for a couple of years or more, I churned out one play after another. And to my surprise all of them won national competitions; two even had Off-off-Broadway productions. Unfortunately, it was the last such production that made me realize I was spending more money attending rehearsals for a week in New York City than I would earn on the play’s entire run. So I went back to concentrating on novels.
Then I was contacted by a young director in Hollywood who wanted to make a short film from one of my short stories. I was eager to try my hand at screenwriting, because it, unlike playwriting and prose fiction, tells the story mainly through images—another challenge that fascinated me. The director was originally from New York City, and planned to return there for a visit, so we met for a couple of days and talked about the possibilities. I ended up combining two of my stories into a single screenplay, which the director then showed to his agent in Hollywood. The agent liked the screenplay so much that he broke his own rule and offered to represent me without first meeting me in person. He represented me for film projects for the next fifteen years or so, and we never once met in person.
Norm: After your phenomenal success as an author and screenwriter what, if anything, remains "undone" for you? What is the one thing you haven't done, that you are still "itching" to accomplish?"
Randall: I have maybe a dozen projects outlined and in-progress: upmarket crime novels, slipstream novels, literary novels, TV pilots, nonfiction books, and screenplays. I just want to stay creative until I take my last breath. Nothing is more enriching or fulfilling to me than sharing stories with others, and to be told that I moved them or touched them in some way. I recently tweeted a line from the movie Chef that sums up why I write and will never stop: “I get to touch people’s lives with what I do, and it keeps me going, and I love it!”
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Randall: MY WEBSITE: at my Amazon page; and by following me on Twitter @randallsilvis. I will be announcing anything new, whether a new print publication or e-publication, on my website and Twitter.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Randall: You have asked all the right questions, Norm. Thanks so much for the opportunity to connect with your readers. Writers are nothing without their readers. The true joy of this profession is when we can come together. It’s a way of saying what is expressed by the ancient Sanskrit gesture of bowing, called namaste: The light in me recognizes and embraces the light in you.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
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