Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest today, Charles Souby author of Winifred and his most recent novel, A Shot of Malaria.
Norm: Good day Charles and thanks for participating in our interview.
When did you first consider yourself a writer and what are the preponderant influences on your writing?
Charles: I was interested in writing all the way back to grammar school where I had a teacher who encouraged me to write regularly. I also had a very supportive English teacher in High School who inspired me to start my first novel, the story of a teenager from Chicago who runs away to Nashville to become a folksinger. I wrote everyday and felt I had found my niche. I knew little about music at the time and researched it by picking up guitar and studying music theory. In many ways, I ended up becoming the main character in novel.
In 1975 I moved to San Francisco to become a musician. I was a student at USF and took a couple of creative writing classes, but both classes ended up focusing on journalling and didn’t teach craft, so my interest in writing waned. I became totally focused on jazz, blues and folk music.
In 1999 I moved to Marin County, California and started taking creative writing classes with a Bay Area author, James Tipton, who re-inspired me. He taught poetry and short fiction and his classes were rooted entirely in craft. I also concurrently began studying improv theater at BATS Improv in San Francisco. The combination of the two art forms completely transformed my life. In 2008 I started my novel “Winifred” and at that point truly felt like I was a writer.
The dominant influences in my writing were originally the beat/bohemian cultures. I was smitten by the vision of the vagabond sage, like Woody Guthrie or Neal Cassady. At that time I was unaware of the fact that most of the Beat writers had a strong academic background prior to their “subterranean” search.
Through my studies with James Tipton, my stylistic inspirations became Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien. I’m also a huge fan of novelist/poet Denis Johnson
Norm: What has your experience been like with self publishing? Do you recommend it over traditional publishers?
Charles: Self-publishing is extremely challenging for me; particularly in that, as an artist, I have so little interest in being a promoter. Although I truly want my work to be successful so that I can pursue writing fulltime, I have great difficulty motivating myself to do self-promotion. I have attended several Writers Digest Conferences in New York and have been convinced that self-publishing is the new wave in literature. I understand that publishing companies now do very little to promote their own roster of writers unless they are bona-fide best sellers, so the onus is on the author anyway. At least with self-publishing you have more control of your craft and business. The only advantage a traditional publisher gives you is their name and credibility.
Norm: What helps you focus when you write and do you find it easy reading back your own work?
Charles: Writing has become a discipline for me. I’ve recently started an exhaustive full time job so my current daily routine is yet to be arranged, but when I was working on both of my first two novels I was at my computer – usually in a café – ready to go around 8:00 a.m. and dedicated two to three hours in the morning developing the story and rereading the previous days work. Often in the afternoon or evening I would do editing. Typically I enjoy reading my work, at least while it is fresh, but many times, after some time has passed, I go back to review it and cringe at stylistic problems, punctuation, etc.
Norm: How did you decide you were ready to write A Shot of Malaria, what served as its primary inspiration and what were the major events along the way?
Charles: The seed of the story had been in my mind for a number of years but it wasn’t until I completed a “pre” final draft of “Winifred” and was desperate to find a new project that I started writing “Malaria.” It progressed so smoothly that the project pulled me in even though I wasn’t quite certain where it was going yet.
I had to stop working on Malaria when I was required to clean up “Winifred” for publication and didn’t get back to it for about five months. I was afraid the magic might be gone but it picked up right where I left off.
My inspiration had always been to put a human face on drug addiction. To date, so much that has been written and filmed about the subject sensationalizes the characters (even non-fictional) who become stereotypes or caricatures of the alcoholic/addict. A true alcoholic or drug addict could be anyone we know – in the workplace, the neighborhood, our local community organizations, etc.
At first the story was autobiographical (though not intended to be a memoir) based upon old case notes I had retrieved from a methadone clinic where I had been a client for three years. As soon as the story took it’s first fictional twist, I knew I had a potentially great novel in front of me.
Norm: What purpose do you believe your story serves and what matters to you about the story?
Charles: As I mentioned before, I think the story paints a human and compassionate picture of the disease of addiction. It is the story of someone with very sincere and genuine visions in life and an average morality who is torn apart by a compulsion that blocks him from having meaningful relationships with the world around him. The disease, like a demon, takes on a delusional storyline of its own and the victim cannot differentiate fact from fiction.
What drives the story for me are the many subtle clues that Daniel, the main character, seems to receive from the universe that attempt to awaken him to the reality of his situation. During the constant crash and burn there is a running thread of divine wisdom that tries to reach him. I believe such guidance exists for all of us. The Sufi poet Rumi says that from the moment we come into this world a ladder is placed before us to escape.
Norm: What challenges or obstacles did you encounter while writing your book? How did you overcome these challenges?
Charles: The two constant obstacles for me were time and concentration. Together they seemed to work against me although they were, for the most part, psychological. I often spent much of my “writing” time staring at the computer screen wondering what I was doing. Even after leaving myself copious notes the day before, I would have to go back to the beginning of a chapter or even the previous chapter and reread it to figure out exactly where I was. And then, it seemed that whenever I got on a roll and was clear about my direction, I would be faced with an important commitment somewhere and would have to pack up my laptop.
Norm: How much real-life do you put into your book? Is there much “you” in there?
Charles: Even in my most wild short stories, I believe there is an element of me in them. It’s inevitable because the story is born out of my own perception of reality.
With regard to A Shot of Malaria, I was a strung out street musician in San Francisco and on methadone maintenance for three years hanging out in bars waiting to “recover”, so the basic structure around the story was personal. However, it took on a life of its own as soon as I started writing.
Norm: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Charles: From a craft point of view, I learned a tremendous amount. I was in a constant edit mode, struggling to describe scenes and situations in the simplest manner I could. I also had to delete much of what, at the time, seemed important to me because it didn’t serve the story. This was a great learning experience.
From a philosophical point of view, I learned compassion and clarity as I endeavored to understand the mindset of the various characters in the book.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Charles: I have a BLOG, that currently features several interview links and event notices. I intend to start using it to share more personal writings about what I’m up to related to my work.
Norm: What is next for Charles Souby?
Charles: I’m approximately halfway through a third novel, a coming of age story about a college grad who hitchhikes to the Yukon, but am also focusing a lot on short fiction. I have recently had stories and poems published in The Saturday Evening Post online, E-Fiction Magazine, The Opening Line and 5 Poetry magazine.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you?
Charles: Perhaps discussing the relationship between Improv and writing.
I am a graduate and former student performer with BATS Improv in San Francisco. I also spent time over several summers studying with Impro pioneer Keith Johnstone, former artistic director of the Royal Court Theater in London. Keith’s teachings about narrative-style improv inspired BATS and hundreds of theater companies and troupes around the world.
Much of his teaching is based on the concept that there is no such thing as a bad first offer (idea.) The human mind is instinctually in a state of judgment and fear around creativity, but underneath our mental censors, there is a natural narrative trying to get out. On an archetypal level we are all natural storytellers but have been trained to block this skill by millennia of conditioning. This judgment makes it extremely difficult to start the process even the most simple sentence or line of dialogue is all that is necessary.
Keith teaches that we need to simply build a platform making sure it has all the elements needed for a story and then let the story happen without allowing fear and judgment block natural action. There is a logical sequence to how the mind creates, reads and processes narrative that is universal to all storytelling. One need only surrender to the process to find it.
I like to think of my writing as being “muse” driven and try to be a slave to the story as best I can. From this process comes much failure but within the failure one can often find gold. One of the most oft repeated improv adages is, “mistakes are gifts!”
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors