Tag Archives: writer
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Carry On the Story

1 Jul

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The Quotable Greek: If You Wish to Be a Writer

8 Apr

“If you wish to be a writer, write.”

~ Epictetus

Artists, Like Greek Gods

4 Mar

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“Artists, like the Greek gods, are only revealed to one another.”

~ Oscar Wilde

 

Exclusive Interview with Author Paul Maher Jr.

7 Sep

I am so excited to share my interview with Paul Maher, Jr.  He has such incredible insight on Kerouac and the writing process in general.  I think you’ll see why I enjoy working with him so much on Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

How did you first become interested in Jack Kerouac?

I remember one of the first books I ever picked up of Kerouac’s, it was Dr. Sax. I didn’t buy it at the time, I just looked at the back cover and read its blurb: “In this haunting novel of intensely felt adolescence, Jack Kerouac tells the story of Jack Duluoz, a French-Canadian boy growing up, as Kerouac himself did, in the dingy factory town of Lowell, Massachusetts.” That was the exact same sentiment of myself at the time, I must have been about 18 or 19, and my adolescence too was “intensely felt” as well as growing up in Lowell. I also grew up in Centralville in a French  Canadian enclave for about the same time period as Jackie Duluoz. Soon afterwards, when I did buy Dr. Sax, I related to Kerouac’s capturing of the whole scene, the sense of hauntingness; the dialects, the sensibilities, and the mystery of Catholicism. I attended Saint Louis de France school like Jack did, and attended masses there. My last time in the basement of that church, it was for my father’s funeral. I remember sitting in those little wooden pews, smelling the burning candles, and the hushed yet amplified sounds of murmurings, sneezes and the priest standing before us all. It brought me right back to my boyhood when I used to walk there every day. Except, of course, the cycle was complete for my father who had also attended that church as a boy, as well as his parents.

So, dipping into Kerouac was easy for me. That was my introduction, not, like many, On the Road. After reading Dr. Sax and Visions of Cody, my first Kerouac books, On the Road seemed a bit tame. A disappointment really, and it still ranks lower than those aforementioned visionary masterpieces. It is no wonder Dr. Sax was a novel that he was really proud of.

You grew up in Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, MA.  What was that like and how does it inform your understanding of Kerouac and his work?

I can’t objectively say what it was like, it just was. There was also a lot not to like about Lowell, like any other town or city. Growing up in Lowell was as natural as anything else. My home address was less than a quarter-mile from three of his Centralville addresses. His house in Dr. Sax was next to the Hildreth Street cemetery, and walking by that cemetery, as a child, the stone wall was high and there were iron gates surrounding it. It was padlocked with a chain. We never got in, so we wondered what was in there, and so that naturally retained a mystery for us. Adjacent to that house was a funeral home, and my father and grandfather were waked there (among others). There was a mystery to all of it, and I easily made those associtations captured so perfectly in his Lowell writings. However, I didn’t feel it so much with Maggie Cassidy or Vanity of Duluoz, because I didn’t grow up in Pawtucketville or attend Lowell High School. Those two books do more to capture an era than a certain mystical reverence for childhood.

I have a high regard for Visions of Gerard as well, because it captures more of the Franco-American sensibility of Centralville, and that sort of insular vibe common to the city. Like Kerouac, I was friends with kids named Plourde and Beaulieu, for all I know they were grandsons of his friends.

Which is your favorite of Kerouac’s books?

In no particular order, any of those books written between 1952 and 1954, especially those that have more of a mystical nature. I love The Subterraneans and Tristessa. The Lowell novels, Visions of Gerard and Dr. Sax; Book of Sketches and Some of the Dharma. I always carry Visions of Cody with me, though I am no admirer of Neal Cassady, I am fond of how Kerouac transmuted that person into his artistic sensibility to create a portrait of bygone America.

One of your greatest skills as a biographer is the thoroughness of your research.  Do you have any tips for aspiring biographers on how to track down hard-to-find material and incorporate the information into a work without it sounding like a Wikipedia entry?

I’m not a trained researcher. I took courses for my degrees on how to conduct research and much of it was rote, based on archaic practices and for the most part, teaching us to dispense with the piecemeal detective work of newspapers and archives, and instead operate backwards by working through secondary sources. For my Kerouac biography, I made it a point not to use the existing biographies as a resource. On the other hand, I had already retained much of what was written and having that knowledge, I could work on another level.

I also operate out of a sixth sense, almost intuiting where material might be, or something that may exist and is worth pursuing by surmising that it might be there. It may be as simple as spelling a name wrong, and then doing searches for it. The Internet has made it awfully easy to do much of it, especially in regards to newspapers and magazines. However, there is also room to abuse it, so that it does sound like a Wikipedia entry.

Per incorporating it, that can be tricky. You always want to use it where it adds to the narrative and doesn’t seem like filler material. I could have easily added anecdotal information on every town Kerouac passed through when he traveled across America. However, the emphasis is on Kerouac, not the town. However, if it was a documentary on the Travel channel, then it works.

I feel like you and I have worked really well together on Burning Furiously Beautiful, but collaboration is not desirable to many people or can be intimidating for those interested in it, particularly artists who want to leave their personal imprint on a work.  However, there is a grand tradition of collaboration; Kerouac himself collaborated with Burroughs on And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.  What would you say to someone who is contemplating collaboration?

You just have to operate on blind trust and intuition. I like collaborating, but I can certainly understand the desire to want to have your own book, with just your name beneath the title. I am past that; it doesn’t matter to me if my name is on there at all. Films are created in collaboration with others, books are no exception.

In addition to various biographies on Kerouac, you’ve written Tom Waits on Tom Waits, Miles on Miles, and One Big Soul: An Oral History of Terrence Malick.  You’ve recently started writing your first novel and are documenting the process through your blog Scrivener Notes.  Why are you documenting the writing process?  What do you think are the positive and negative effects of lifting the curtain to expose the work that goes into writing, especially this early on when the work is still at its nascent stage?

I have always been very open about my work, sometimes to my detriment. To write inside a vacuum, to sit on your idea and let it gestate in isolation doesn’t seem like fun at all. I feel with this little adventure, that the book can just as well bloom when it is fostered by a like-minded community. I think there is something perilous and reckless yet strangely beautiful in throwing your ego out the window and letting the world watch you try to invent something out of nothing.

I have finally arrived to the point in my life that I don’t care about how any book of mine is received, because they are written out of a pure volition of wanting to do it, not having to, and in wanting to do it, once it is done, the act of creating has already been accomplished. The rest is just grist for the mill.

Documenting it just seemed right to do. I always wanted to see someone else do it, and I haven’t found it done to my satisfaction. I could write an entry how thrilled and elated I am to finish a chapter, and the next day write how much I suck. There is a reality television vibe to it. I do understand that it will only appeal to maybe 1% of the people out there, if anyone at all, but since I am doing it for myself, it doesn’t matter to me who reads it in the end. At the very least I will eventually get a novel out of it for better or for worse.

In happenstance, I could say the negative thing is that someone can lift your ideas and run with it. This has already happened with a reputable person in Kerouac studies. However, I think once the writing on the blog is exposed enough, it is more or less on public record so if someone does lift from it, then they are pretty much hurling themselves and their work into disrepute.

You write a little on your blog about why you wanted to make the leap from biography to novel.  What I want to know is how, if at all, do you think your biography work will influence your fiction?

I’m not sure that it will. The work ethic is already ingrained in me. I wanted to free myself from the world of facts and I have started resenting having to prove myself to publishers any longer. I have come to recognize that it isn’t an art form, it is a business, and I do not have a business mindset.

Also, a recent incident when my research and ideas were stolen from me has totally killed the spirit of writing biography, though I do admire others that are more honest in their profession. Operating out of my own intelligence and imagination keeps my ideas and impulses sacred and pure. I guess that’s it.

You also are a photographer and a filmmaker.  While these are notable in their own right, as a writer I am curious if you see any correlation between those art forms and the literary arts?  You and I have spoken before about how the narrative of film has influenced your scene-setting in your books.  Can you talk a little more about this?

The only correlation for it is personal, in that I am creating out of my own impulses to satisfy me. Taking a photo is immediate gratification, writing keeps me constantly busy, and it keeps my depression at bay. It keeps me in books and it serves to keep my mind occupied and focused since it is always burning at both ends.

Through chance and not design, I have a natural tendency to see things cinematically. That takes in imagery, dialogue, and creating a setting. This is how our collective minds are trained, and to bombard a reader with minutiae just for the sake of being all-encompassing with the facts is just an exercise of indulgence. We live in new times, where the facts are available if we want them, within a few keystrokes. I think pointing to the heart of the matter, isolating a biographical scenario like it was a storyboarded scene adds to the appeal of the book tremendously. I think Kerouac also had that in mind with his “bookmovies.”

How do you find time to do everything?  How do you balance all these various projects?

If I had to itemize my time, I couldn’t do it. I live this stuff. I breathe it. If we were taught at the beginning of our lives that we had to make sure we breathe at least eighteen times per minute, and it wasn’t automatic, that we had to go about our daily lives having to count, then we would crumble, sooner or later, under the pressure of it all. It would be too stressful. Instead, it comes to us automatically; we don’t have to make room for it. I just do it because it is all I think about. If I don’t do it, then I feel like shit. My mind turns to mud. I get lethargic. Unbalanced. So, like I said, it has become a survival mechanism for me, whether it is a book, a blog entry, an email or a photograph, all of it is tied into the daily phenomena of my being.

I never have considered how it is all balanced other than I keep my own schedule. When I need a break from one project to let it breathe, I move to another. Eventually I return to all of them.

Actually, managing writing projects is a lot easier than trying to manage a practical everyday life for me. To that end I am a colossal failure.

 

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9/7/12, 10:28am: Several minor edits were made to this interview.

Social Media Lessons from SXSW 2012

11 Jul

Calvin Reid makes insightful remarks about the role e-technology and social media are playing in publishing in “SXSW 2012: New Publishing Models and the Rise of the Referral Economy.”  If you’re new to publishing and looking to make your mark on the industry and find readers, I’d highly encourage you to read the entire article.  To his point on “curating,” here’s some remarks of his that you might find especially helpful:

  • “Altounian said he’s targeting a demographic under the age of 40 that wants to read on an array of devices anytime they want and they don’t want to pay much, if anything, for the content they read on them. … Altounian was making the point that, at least for emerging artists, getting their content in front of readers through traditional publishers is an uphill battle that doesn’t work for everyone; that his goal is to build a list of self-branded artists (using social media tools) and by offering some free content now, and some for-pay content later when the freebie-oriented audiences for these artists reaches critical mass and wants more of their stuff.”
  • “Certainly one of the most intellectually vivid panels was Curators or the Curated, a panel examining the phenomenon of content sharing—essentially the practice of any and everyone linking to content and sending it out to followers and friends around the web—and what that means to publishers, creators and the curators themselves. … In theory curators bring attention to content and drive traffic to the original site; in practice some curators are having more impact than the publications they curate from. And its generated a debate about the practice and what it means—and of course how to monetize it.”
  • “He also rejected some of the anti-advertising curatorial comments, noting that business platforms were important and that he had worked for a Minn.-based newspaper that did away with escort ads and the loss of revenue killed the newspaper.”

What I take away from this is the following:

Writers need to start building a platform NOW—as in, even before we’ve written our book, we need to start curating content on our subject matter.  This means tweeting, forwarding, and “liking,” other writers’ posts related to our subject and also blogging, tweeting, and writing our own status updates on our subject.

Generate content and don’t be afraid to give it away for free.  It’s better to give our writing away for free in the beginning so that we can establish ourselves as authorities on that topic and/or as interesting storytellers.  Eventually, people will love you and want to buy your writing—but it might take a lot of giving your work away for free first.  Michael Hyatt is a big proponent of giving away free content.  Not only does he give away valuable information on his blog, but he also created an ebook that he gives to anyone who subscribes to his blog.  Both the blog subscription and the ebook are free.

Don’t be all holier than thou about advertising.  Solicit advertising for your blog.  I personally would suggest keeping your advertising in line with your brand—and your brand should probably be consistent with how you’d want to be thought of by your friends and parents as well.  What I mean is, I personally would rather go hungry than earn money from escort ads.  The best ads are going to be ones that relate to your subject matter.  So if I’m writing about Greek identity, ads about learning how to play the harmonica aren’t going to be controversial but they won’t be as relevant as ads about learning how to speak Greek.

Humbly consider the rights to your content.  Bloggers may quote rather heavily from anything you post—and by heavily, I mean they might use your work entirely and just give you credit via a link.  This might be a breach of your copyright, but before you get your knickers in a bunch consider if their promotion of your work might be helping you out with some free advertising.  Maybe it’s bringing new readers to your work.  …But then again, maybe it’s not.  Therefore, always be careful with what sort of content you put on your blog.  Sure, someone could pirate your whole book, but it’s more likely someone will repost a blog entry than your entire book.  With that in mind, be prepared that what you publish on your blog might end up elsewhere.

Pay attention to your e-rights.  Landing a book contract is about more than just the print rights these days.  Make sure your contract expressly states an agreement about electronic and print-on-demand editions.

It feels like writers—and artists of any sort—get a raw deal.  We have to give a lot of free content away.  Professionals in other industries don’t seem to have to do this to the same extent.  Lawyers may work an occasional pro bono case, but they’re not expected to work for free before making it big.  Doctors may do Doctors Without Borders to give back and help people, but this is a personal choice they make.  I suppose in some ways artists giving away their work—and having it stolen from them in the case of extreme curating—is an internship of sorts, but the difference is that artists are expected to intern their entire lives or at least until they hit it big.

Therefore, I’d encourage all artists to be savvy.

Yes, you might feel pressured to build your platform and give away content for free, but make sure you’re getting something in return for your investment.

Don’t let your platform overtake your writing.  Your platform is a means to an end—your book project.

Use the system.  There’s nothing wrong with giving away content for free.  There’s nothing wrong with soliciting ads.  There’s nothing wrong with social media.  Don’t let anyone or any platform rule over you.  Keep your goals in perspective and use the system to your advantage.  Find your target audience, make connections, earn money, promote your projects.

You can find me not only here on this blog, but also on Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.