Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sustaining your career

It's time to introduce another Write Stuff 2010 presenter! Meet Bill Kent from Philadelphia. Bill is a journalist (including Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer), writing teacher (University of Pennsylvania, Temple University), critic (New York Times Book Review), and author of seven crime and mystery novels as well as two non-fiction books. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Bill conducted by conference chair Kathryn Craft.

Kathryn: You have a long and varied resume. What do you consider, so far, to be the highest peaks of your writing career?

Bill: The best moments occur when you're not thinking about your career, when you feel privileged, if not blessed, for having had an amazing experience and then being able to share it with people. You get a double whammy: the genuine, unique experience and the peak that happens when you've turned that experience into a work of art. All experiences, good, bad, boring, indifferent, painful, shocking, ecstatic, neurotic--have that potential. When I say work of art, I include all writing. We forget what an astonishing gift we've been given, until we give it away.

But you asked for a peak: I met a Philadelphia political insider who read one of my novels in which I discussed how corrupt things are, and said, "How did you know?" I didn't tell him that I made the stuff up. I just mentioned that I did research.

K: Do you find that your fiction and nonfiction/journalism feed one another?

B: They don't feed on each other as much as they are different voices in a larger, narrative tune. I'm aware that many writers specialize. Some of our greatest literary masters can't pound out a basic newspaper inverted pyramid lede, and many journalists are so dazzled by what they've personally experienced that they can't find their way to the greater truth that fiction provides. I can do both and, in doing so, I tend to avoid authors who include too much research in their novels. If I want journalism, or fun facts, I know where to get them. What I love to do in my fiction is fake facts, come up with things that should be true, might be true, could be true.

K: I once heard you say that the time to do research is when you are looking to start a new project. Why do you say this? And has this technique worked for you?

B: What I said was, the time to do research is when you are bored with what you're doing, or when the fire that burns to tell a story has been reduced to a few flickering cinders. The goal of research, then, is not to find out the facts about an aspect of reality so you can better trick the reader into believing the lies you're telling are true, but, rather, to invest in your own curiosity, your own spirit of adventure so that you may rediscover the sense of wonder, or experience an imaginative lift, or get a glimpse of the "wild side" and wallow in that soaring emotional epiphany that makes it easier to go back to your writing.

No techniques work all the time. Too much research can overwhelm the story. Say you want to tell people about all the cool things that happened when you went to Toronto. People who want to know about cool things in Toronto can get them elsewhere. What people want from a novel is a sense of being in a city that could be Toronto, even if the street names are different, the skyline is unrecognizable and the people don't say "ay" and "aboot."

For more from this interview with Bill Kent, check out the October print issue of GLVWG Offline or stay tuned for next week's post!

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