William Luvaas won first place
for "Ashes Rain Down" in our
Winter 06/07 Fiction Open
William Luvaas at his home in Hemet, California
Linda (Glimmer Train co-editor): I understand that this story will be part of collection you're putting together now. What is it like "building" a collection? How does a person decide what stories will be in a collection?
William Luvaas: I think that stories in a collection ideally will share something in common. In my first collection, I have included stories in which ordinary characters confront trauma or loss and find in it opportunities for survival, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez puts it. So the stories are related thematically. There is also a breeze of the apocalyptic blowing through many of the works. This breeze becomes a gale force wind in the second collection, wherein the stories are linked, with characters, settings and situations repeated. I suppose the novelist in me finds it easier to compose stories that, while standing on their own, keep returning to the same narrative terrain.
This will be your second story collection, the first (A Working Man's Apocrypha) to be released by the University of Oklahoma Press in a few months, and I believe you have two novels (The Seductions of Natalie Bach, published by Little Brown; and Going Under, published by Putnam) out there. How did you go about finding publishers?
I have found publishers mostly on my own through persistence, that most essential writerly tool. The Seductions of Natalie Bach was rejected fifty-six times, mostly by agents, and I despaired, but my wife insisted I not give up (so perhaps the most essential writerly tool is a supportive mate). I returned home to Upstate New York from a family reunion in Oregon to a mailgram from Little, Brown, which read, “We have been seduced by Natalie Bach and would like to talk.” Mine was one of three books taken off the slush pile by L.B. in twenty years, so it was one of those writer’s fairytales. I saw that slush pile when I visited my editor in Boston–a small room stacked floor to ceiling with manuscripts and a dwarfed reader sitting amidst them, plowing slowly through. It was a scene right out of Kafka or Saramago. I think we must believe in small miracles as writers. Perhaps creativity is something of a small miracle in itself. Agent B.J. Robbins found a publisher for my second novel, and that went much easier. But the short story collection was taken without the aid of an agent after many submissions–and near misses. So it is something of a myth that a fiction writer needs an agent to be published. We just need to be bullheaded.
Are there things you wish you'd understood earlier about the business side of writing?
I wish that I had understood that, at least for major houses, publishing is little more than a business today. I likely would have tortured myself less about my publishing heartbreaks. (I have five as yet unpublished novels sitting in my manuscript closet and a new one I am now about to submit.) Sadly, few publishers care about whether work is of high or low quality as long as it sells. If they can’t readily identify a market niche for a book, they won’t touch it, no matter how strong it is. Then again, maybe it’s better that I didn’t realize this earlier!
How did you become a writer? (You're very successful and you're a university professor. People sometimes are just sure they need to have proper schooling to be a good and successful writer. What is the truth of that, in your opinion?
I wrote some very bad poetry in college. Later, I lived in the woods in a cabin I built in a huge redwood stump in “The Meadows,” an informal commune on California’s Mendocino Coast, and decided to write about it, more because I thought the story needed telling than because I hoped to be a writer–all the remarkable people who passed through (including the Manson Family), how authorities destroyed the place. Seven years and 1,600 pages later, I had a novel which a New York agent said needed to be cut by two/thirds. I didn’t know how to do that. Seductions, my second novel, was too long in draft form, too, but I bit the bullet and drastically cut it over a Thanksgiving weekend with my wife’s help. So I literally came to writing through writing, realizing that I had a flair for it, that I loved the creative process and independence of the craft, loved to experiment with language and narrative technique. How to say this as a teacher of writing? No, we don’t need formal schooling. But I do believe we must school ourselves in craft by studying others’ work. For some, a writing program can speed up the learning process, but academe cannot teach the longstanding discipline a writer needs, nor teach us how to find our own voice.
What kind of guidance or support have you gotten that's been particularly valuable to you? (What about that NEA grant? Did you seek it out or were you plain lucky? What about your wife? Any teacher who threw you an all-important bit of knowledge or perspective?)
My wife Lucinda’s support has been vital. She is always the first to read my work, and I trust her judgment. Together, we form a mini-artist’s colony and support network; she is a painter, film maker, and mixed media artist. I have learned about craft from writers like Faulkner, Joyce, Marianne Wiggins, Coetzee, Dostoevski, and others I admire. Accomplished writers are our most invaluable teachers. Jerry Bumpus, my professor as an MFA student at San Diego State and a fine story writer, encouraged me to develop the more outre/less realistic elements of my stories. This was good advice. Positive feedback can mean more to us as developing writers than negative feedback. Yes, writing instructors must point out weaknesses in student work, but they should also emphasize potential strengths. Jerry taught me this. The NEA grant came largely through perseverance; I’ve applied many times. Finally, everything came together.
Your dialogue is really top-notch. How do you do that?
Early on, my dialogue was stilted and artificial. Then I read somewhere that you should study the rhythms and diction of spoken utterance, even write down overheard conversations in public places word for word. So I did. You must learn to trust your ear: if dialogue sounds off, it is off. It’s those who can’t hear this who are in trouble. We should listen to our characters talking as we write them. They often speak in sentence fragments, incomplete thoughts, and repeated phrases. Ideally, each will have her/his own personal idiom. But, of course, written dialogue only mimics spoken speech; it is actually speech delivered in drastic shorthand. Work hard on your dialogue in editing. Think of it as the poetry of fiction, each word must be exactly the right choice for the character.Would you like to provide a link to more info about you or your writing?
Glimmer Train has been discovering, publishing, and paying emerging writers since 1990.
One of the most respected short-story journals in print, Glimmer Train is represented in recent editions of the Pushcart Prize,
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