Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Interview with James Frey: Part I

Here is the first part of a recent interview Conference Chair Kathryn Craft conducted with Write Stuff 2010 keynote James N. Frey.

Kathryn: You have built a career helping writers achieve their dreams. Who were the writers or writing teachers who inspired you?

Jim: My mentor is Lester Gorn, whom I met in 1969 when he taught at U.C. Berkeley Extension in San Francisco. He did a manuscript analysis--he’d read your manuscript three times and critique it for $65. Then I took his regular Saturday workshop for about ten years. He was a real tiger who could growl the plaster off the ceiling; your job was to shut up and listen. He still is a tiger. He’s now 93 and reads my drafts so long as I agree to stay after and clean the blood off the walls.

Kathryn: What was the genesis of your first "How To" writing book?

Jim: I started my own workshop by renting a room at the YWCA on Sutter Street in San Francisco on Thursday nights right after I sold my first novel. I started HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL as handouts for my students.

K: Did you know from a young age that you would become a writer?

J: Yes. It was like I was a writer in a former life. I used to spend hours scribbling long before I could write, age three or so. I tried to do a novel at age 7. It was pretty bad, no plot. The characters were not nuanced.

K: Have you found that writers tend to share similar attributes? If so, what are they? Do you fit the profile?

J: Most writers either had parents that encouraged them to exercise their imagination--‘yes honey, I see the angel in the dust ball’--or had a horrible trauma in their childhood that drove them into their imagination. There is nothing quite as good for stimulating the creative nature of a writer as whacking them aside the head and sticking them in a garbage can for a day or two. Most writers had ugly childhoods, horrible to live through, but it’s an endless supply of material. My mother died in a botched surgical operation when I was five. My mind went down the rabbit hole soon after and has not come back yet.

My mind being down the rabbit hole when I was a kid, I spent most of my waking hours drawing crude story cartoons. I achieved the lowest grade point average in the history of Jamesville-Dewitt High School [near Syracuse, NY]: 68%. A record that still stands. Highest grade, 72 in Drivers Ed. An English teacher once asked me what I wanted to do when got out of school. I told her I was going to be writer. She had a grand mal seizure.

When I was in Junior College they started up a literary magazine. For the first issue they printed four stories. They had five submissions. Mine was the reject.

K: The world is going digital; we are inundated with media vying for our shrinking attention spans; and polls show fewer people reading even as manuscripts are piling up on agents' desks at record numbers. What do today's writers have to keep in mind to successfully achieve publication?

J: A killer attitude. You’re looking for that one agent or editor in a hundred or two hundred that shares your sensibility. Write what you feel passionate about and you will find an editor that shares your passion.

More of this interview with James N. Frey in the next blog post!

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