Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest today, Dr. William H. Coles. Dr. Coles is a former ophthalmic surgeon who specialized in ocular trauma. He is the author of Story in Literary Fiction: A Manual for Writer, Literary Story as an Art Form: A Text for Writers, Facing Grace with Gloria and Other Stories, The Necklace and Other Stories, The Spirit of Want, and The Surgeon’s Wife.
He has attended workshops with several well-known authors, worked with mentors Tom Jenks, Dianne Benedict, Anne Wood, Ben George, Holly MacArthur and Otonne Ricci. He created the WEBSITE STORY IN LITERARY FICTION with resources for writers.
His work has appeared in the Chattahoochee Review and Miscellany. For eight years he reviewed poetry for the Journal of the American Medical Association and won the Callenwolde Prize (Atlanta) for best poem (”Unwed Girl”). He was finalist (short story) in the William Faulkner Creative Writing (2007) Competition short listed the novel (2007), previously, placed five times as a semi-finalist for novel (2004-2010), and a finalist (2006) for short story. He won both first and second place in the Sandhills Writers’ Competition 2006.
In 2008, seven stories placed as finalists in the Faulkner Competition, one as three equivalent winners. He was a finalist in the 2010 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. In 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, eighteen of his stories received awards. He also wrote scripts and presented editorials and weekly radio segments on jazz for the NPR affiliate WBFO.
Norm: Good day Dr. Coles and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going? As a follow up, what was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
Dr. Coles: Thanks, Norm. Great to be with you.
I was a scientific writer throughout my career writing scientific papers, textbooks, lay articles, and educational material, but it was fictional stories that I loved to read. I majored in humanities in college and wrote stories.
I studied with Benjamin T. Spencer, a Shakespearean scholar who was a strong influence. During specialty training after my MD and MS degrees, I began to write poetry with success being published and wining prizes and was featured poet at the Atlanta Arts Festival. In the 90’s I began writing fiction seriously.
I wanted to write great stories of the quality that might pass onto future generations in the tradition of the past; I thought that goal was the best motivation for learning to write fiction and tell stories. The first story I remember writing was about a civil war soldier saved from a bullet by a Bible his sweetheart had given him that he carried in his breast pocket. A story lost to humanity, I fear, with a certain amount of justice.
Norm: Why do we read fiction?
Dr. Coles: As many answers as readers, probably. But I believe at the core we read for story. Story is an essential and integral part of human existence--for communication, learning, and entertainment. And prose literary fictional stories are unarguably a unique effective way to tell how humans can maneuver through the obstacles and miracles of living in ways that film and TV cannot, that drama and song cannot.
Prose literary fiction deals with human change, for the good and the bad, and only in prose can we know through a character’s thoughts and feelings, and desires and rationales for behavior, that promote understanding of human mistakes and successes--and who and what we are--in depth. In literature, story is more than just entertainment, and it’s more than just outcomes or discovery or resolving fatalistic challenges.
Literary story is about how to live. I have proved there are fiction readers who seek literary story; for example, on the Internet alone my short story “The Gift” has had 225,000 readers plus. The novel Guardian of Deceit had 168,000 + readers online in a year, not counting other media.
Norm: Where do you see book publishing heading?
Dr. Coles: Who can know? Mainstream publishing of mostly agented fiction is ailing in sales and acceptance. Literary publishing efforts have become dominated by insular efforts, mostly in academics, that publish through nepotism and cronyism to keep academic authors legitimate.
Although the public is still wary about the Internet as the future of fiction, I’ve used the Internet--with print, audio, graphic novel, eBook as support—to reach readers of my fiction.
My website, Story in Literary Fiction, is viewed by more than a million and half visitors, about half for fiction and half for my educational material on how to write fiction. I’ve found a following that indicates the potential of the Internet for authors to test the quality of their work by finding readers who appreciate what they do. And with confidence, I think the Internet represents the best path for great fiction to survive and thrive. We will never see a publishing industry of the ilk of the last century. I’m glad. I don’t think the blatant profiteering at the expense of quality artistic achievement that mainstream publishing has nourished on should survive as a dominant source of fiction reading for the public.
Norm: Why have you been drawn to writing short fiction? As a follow up, are there aesthetic advantages and disadvantages peculiar to the short story?
Dr. Coles: Faulkner is frequently quoted for claiming something like novelists who fail write short story writers and short story writers who fail become poets. I saw the short story form as the way to learn about writing fiction and telling effective stories in fiction that engage, entertain, and enlighten. It took a decade of hard study, but I learned and turned to write the novel with confidence. To write even a good, much less a great, novel is a considerable challenge and I think the short story is a good way to prepare.
A beautiful short story is the height of aesthetics. Well done, it is a considerable achievement. Some fiction stories deserve the form as the right treatment for their potential success. If the right story is chosen to fit the short story form, there are no disadvantages, only advantages.
Norm: What do you want your work to do? Amuse people? Provoke thinking?
Dr. Coles: I write fictional stories to engage the reader’s interest and for them to be drawn into the story to make the story a memory of their own experience in reading; to entertain the reader, to give them pleasure; and to enlighten. I define literary fiction as character-based storytelling with dramatic plots. Literary fiction is about people. And great literary fiction has a purpose to let us ponder or discover knew ways of understanding those pesky but profound metaphysical questions about our brief time in this world.
Norm: What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Dr. Coles: Not starting to make serious writing as a career early in life.
Norm: What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
Dr. Coles: I’ve taken over a hundred workshops and studied with more than seventy-five teachers of creative writing. I’ve been first reader for two literary magazines and I know the inner workings of contests that require submission fees and run their contests for profit--well, operating funds—and advise writers to submit because they’re in a certain age group or to write about familiar subjects on their opinions of hot topics, all to increase income.
Fewer creative writing courses teach fiction exclusively and claim to teach fiction mixed with students writing memoir and character sketches, and often essay too. So writers who want to write fiction, and specifically literary fiction, are urged by others to write about themselves, about their family, about their experiences, about their opinions. “Tell me what you know,” is the demand. Bad advice for fiction!
Fiction is an art form structured for a purpose. It is imagined and created, not remembered and described. It requires broad knowledge of the world and a deep understanding of the human soul and intellect that is then created as an imagined story for an enjoyable lasting impact on a reader.
Description of self and reliance of self’s view of the world is rarely if ever sufficient to write from the broad worldly knowledge needed to create successful fiction. Literary storytellers need to objectively think as others might for characterization, and they need to imagine situation responses other than what they would do to be good writers of fiction. This idea of tell-me-about-yourself-and-your -life is what memoir is about, but it doesn’t necessarily work for literary fiction and great storytelling.
Norm: Which of your books/stories are you most attached to and why?
Dr. Coles: I love the stories that move readers. “The Gift,” “The Activist,” “Speaking of the Dead,” and “Facing Grace with Gloria” are a few that seem to achieve that without strain. There are forty of my short stories now published and each seems to have its own effect on certain readers. Of the novels, Guardian of Deceit and The Spirit of Want have touched a lot of people. The Surgeon’s Wife was loosely based in a subplot on a true story about medical malfeasance and attracted attention. I believe the newest novel, McDowell, to be released in a few weeks, will become one of my favorites.
Norm: Which of you fictional characters would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Dr. Coles: Hiram McDowell. He turned his life around after his precipitous downfall from fame and riches and I’d like to find out more about how he did that and why
Norm: 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?
Dr. Coles: There is no harm in sharing, regardless of your worth as a writer. Are we good enough? We need to define our goals. Do we write for fame and success or do we write to create a work of art that is the very best we have in us? And every writer has the obligation to speak truth and to shape his or her visions of life and the world with lifelong learning.
If, as writers, we’re doing that, we’re valuable in our own unique way, we’ve given it our best shot, and we hope it benefits someone. But we must keep the measure of success on quality of writing and storytelling, not convincing people of how great we are, or even measuring success by income or fame.
Write to be embraced by the contemporary human consciousness to be passed to those who will come after us. What will happen will happen. Be confident if you’ve done your best. The current perception of authorial success by beginning writers as hobbyists is a fantasy, fantasy that they can never achieve no matter what they do.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your work?
My Website: STORY IN LITERARY FICTION
Everything you might want is either online or there are clear links for reader-friendly access. All my works are on audio books, online, in print, eBook, Kindle, and through publishing houses such as AuthorHouse and/or IngramSpark.
Norm: What is next for Dr. William H. Coles?
Dr. Coles: A new novel out about the first of next year, as yet untitled. About five new short stories. Educational material online—stories, essays, interviews. And increase participation and online interaction with the SILF workshop for creative writers.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Dr. Coles; A generous question. Thanks. The question:
“What are your goals, Dr. Coles, as an educator of fiction writers; what have you done, and do you recommend teaching as a part of a writer’s career?”
I created a website for teaching the writing of fiction. I’ve had extensive and unique education. And I knew teaching would make me a better writer and storyteller. I’ve published more than thirty essays, twenty-nine interviews with editors, authors, comedians, and graphic artists about how to write and tell stories. I blog. I recommended resources. I created a successful interactive workshop for creative writers that had 30,000+ visitors last year. And I used my work as examples and created specific examples in my assignments, which have been well received.
My goal in teaching was selfish at first—to become known and be a better writer. But with time, I’ve really enjoyed helping writers find the right paths to accomplish what they want to in their careers. The beginning of their quest is to learn what they really want to do as a writer is to get beyond “I want to be a published writer” to “I want to create well and have readers enjoy my work as the prime impetus to bring recognition and I don’t care if that recognition may or may not come as long as I give writing my best effort.” As a jumpstart to success, a writer needs to believe: “My goal is to achieve my best quality writing and storytelling I’m capable of in the genre and mode I chose.”
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
Dr. Coles: My pleasure. And continued success in all you do for writers.
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