It was a seriously stormy night that kept threatening to go dark inside Elan Gallery in Rockport and after much flickering of lights, compliments of Hurricane Noel, finally did.
A battery operated tape recorder saved this writer’s chance to interview Joe Hill, the pen name of best- selling author, Joe King, who hails from Maine’s royal writing family – the Kings, as in Stephen and Tabitha.
Joe and his brother and fellow writer Owen King were in town participating in the 2007 Maine Literary Festival, held in early November at the Camden Opera House and other local venues. The festival, in its second year, is a scholarship project of the Midcoast branch of the American Association of University Women, helping to send Maine residents to college.
Hill, along with several of the festival’s participating writers, had just taken part in a festival challenge: to expand upon the following sentence. “In the midst of chaos, she took the wallet and disappeared into the laughing crowd.”
There was something different about Hill’s ability to "tell" a story from a stage as opposed to the more likely scenario writers are used to, of writing a story from the page, which stood out. Pressed about it, he offered, “When I’m on stage I worry about being someone who is droning away. I try to find that good voice to hold people’s attention. It sounds very Victorian but when I was a kid it was very normal for us to all sit together and pass a book around and read together. Around the dinner table our conversation was literary conversation. We argued about books. What we believed about characters. And in some ways, we’re still having it,” he added, although his family members don’t often get to all be together at the same time.
Earlier this year, King’s first novel, The Heart-Shaped Box, was on the best-seller list for seven weeks. Despite his lineage, King was not an overnight success. “I wrote for ten years as Joe Hill when people didn’t know me. I had a long time of getting books rejected, getting short stories rejected.
“I had a lot of time in private, away from public scrutiny, to craft my voice. The best thing about it was my mistakes were made in private. You know, people didn’t get to say, did you read that stupid story that was written by Steve King’s son? If I wrote a really bad story it just never got published.”
He had a long time, he recalled, to daydream about what it might be like to have success as a writer and once it came, it far exceeded his daydreams, he said.
Regarding the handling of rejection, King commented, “It’s kind of a Harry Truman thing. If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen. Rejection is definitely part of the process. Time can be a writer’s best friend. It’s always through the process of rejection and gradually, acceptance that you learn what works and you learn your craft.”
Another writer and festival participant Gary Goshgarian, a professor at Northeastern University and author of six thrillers, said his publisher suggested a pen name. “We want you to change your name to fool the bookstore,” he recalled them urging him, in an effort to get stores to order more books than the previous numbers his preceding book had sold. He has sold three of his six titles under the name Gary Braver, which, he remarked, is a translation of a family name.
Writing Tips from a King
Asked to share some writing tips for a creative writing class in process, the amiable and generous King offered:
“I would say don’t tell yourself you’re going to write a story because that’s too frightening. Tell yourself you’re going to write a scene.”
And what would the key ingredients in a scene include?
“I think a great way to start is a scene is action. And dialogue, which is another kind of action. Action and dialogue. A scene can be almost play-like. There almost doesn’t need to be any description. There just needs to be a couple characters. I think a great exercise is to write a scene where one person wants something and the other person isn’t going to give it. And they talk about it. Because contention is exciting. Two people agreeing with each other, that’s not interesting. That contention, that back and forth works. If you’re on a bus and you hear two people bickering, you listen in. You can’t help it,” he said, getting caught up the scenario.
“Another thing is, if you must write a story instead of a scene, if you feel like you want to write something complete. One great first story to try is the list story. The most famous list story is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Writing about soldiers in Vietnam he tells you what each of them has in their (back) pack: lucky rabbit’s foot, photo of their girlfriend... And gradually through finding out what these soldiers are carrying, you find out who they are.
“Everyone can write a list story. A kid in high school can write about the cars their dad has owned. You know, the truck with the snowplow on the front. The Datsun. Gradually, over the course of a few hundred words, a portrait is painted. Not of some cars but of the man who owned them,” King explains.
A Writing Muse
Does King have a writing muse? “Well there’s my wife because if she doesn’t like it, it never goes anywhere. She is not a writer, he says, but “a great first reader."
“Another muse would be who I was when I was ten years old in 1982. It’s very important to make that kid happy. If he’s not happy with what he’s seeing than I’m not happy with what I’m writing,” King observed.
As for his writing habits, he said he writes every day for six hours and in the evenings he reads fiction by other writers. King said he knows many writers avoid reading while they are in the process of writing but not him.
“I think other writer’s fiction is the whetstone you sharpen your blade against. If you’re not reading you’re gonna get dull. Somehow you have to steel yourself to resist being tainted by the voice of the great book you are reading. You have to try to remain yourself but still you need to hear those other voices. You don’t want to plug your ears to them or you’ll miss an important opportunity to learn,” he concluded.
Just Do It.
Like so many journeys in life, writing a book is an interior one that we must travel on our own. And no two journeys are the same. During the course of the three-day festival, listening to both individual and group presentations from the nearly twenty participating writers, this thought crystallized.
How did they find their writing voice? How do you keep writing in the face of rejection? Where do their story ideas come from? How do they create characters? What comes first, the beginning or the end of a story and which do they think is more important? The answers to these and myriad other questions that were posed and addressed, were as different as each author who appeared.
A non-pattern emerged. Each author walked a different path, learning how to be a writer, by writing. By sitting down and doing the work. No smoke and mirrors, not so much divine inspiration as putting pen to paper. No big mystery. The words create the mystery. The words are everything.
During the panel discussion on New Voices in Contemporary Fiction, Christina Baker Kline said she gave herself the task of learning how to write a novel, as she was writing her second novel, Sweet Water.
The only thing they all seemed to have in common is that they did the work and learned how to be a writer by being a writer.
Agents, Publishers and Authors
During a panel discussion of mystery writers entitled "Did the Butler Do It?” moderator Tess Gerritsen, whose latest title is The Bone Garden asked the participants who is in charge: the agents, the publisher or them? Matthew Pearl recalled arguing a manuscript point with his first editor, who said he would give into Pearl's suggestion but noted “This is going to be in your obituary, not mine.”
It is a different era for writers, as agents are more and more taking on the role that editors used to perform, it was noted. But for each author, the relationships between agents, editors and publishers varied.
Writer Gary Goshgarian said he would welcome more control over the marketing of his work. “Sometimes, a lot gets lost, between the editor’s tower and the marketing tower” he said, explaining that work can wind up “in the hands of people who don’t even care about words.”
Literary Festival 2008
Asked what having the festival in Camden means, as both a nearby resident and bestselling writer, Tess Gerritsen said, “You know what it means to me is this is a really lively arts community. And if you don’t have this stuff, I think a town is dead. There’s always an interesting mix of the population that wants to bring art to town instead of us having to go chase after it. We live in a really lively and alive town.”
© 2007 Teresa Piccari