Willamette Writers’ Meeting – Feb.7th: Leading a Literary Life with Kevin Sampsell and Monica Drake

This month’s meeting touches on a subject close to my own heart – leading a literary life. And it’s very important cousin – being a good literary citizen. Being a good literary citizen is all about supporting other writers, buying their books, going to their readings, and cheering on the successes of each of our counterparts while working toward our own literary goals.

The evening began with readings from both authors. Monica Drake read from a non-fiction work-in-progress, and Kevin Sampsell read his short short “Gloves” from his short story collection.

Next, Kevin led a discussion with Monica regarding the literary life. Both authors agreed that good writers must do these four things: Read – A LOT; Be around other writers; Go to Readings; and Participate in a literary community. Interestingly, another key aspect of being a writer is having plenty of things in your life that have nothing at all to do with writing. See Lorrie Moore’s story “How to be a Writer”for more. As Monica explained, her life was full of all kinds of random jobs – animal behavior intern at the zoo, art gallery employee, office worker, clown (which directly influenced her novel Clown Girl) and more. Because of this rich range of job experiences, she can pull various details that lend her characters believability and authenticity. This mirrors advice I once received from Portland author Vanessa Veselka, who said every writer must give him or herself permission to not write – i.e. to do other things that build the experiences that inform our writing. For instance, Vanessa once took off some number of months to work on a fishing boat in Alaska. She’s also a Kung Fu badass. She gives herself permission to take weeks and months away from the page to do the things that interest and intrigue her. And of course, that time ends up generating rich work.

As regards education, each author had very different experiences, with Monica completing a more traditional graduate program through University of Arizona, while Kevin said he taught himself to write through reading. Monica also got her start with Tom Spanbauer’s class, now titled Dangerous Writing. In general, writing workshops can be key to keeping a writer motivated, staying connected to a literary community, and finding support in that community. To that end, here are some additional links to workshops here in Portland that I have been part of and can highly recommend:

Willamette Writers’ Workshops

Literary Arts Writing Classes

The Attic

Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop

In addition, community colleges around Portland offer a range of writing classes that are economical and a great opportunity for developing work. My current writing group came out of a Literary Arts class and I have been in other writing groups formed after Attic workshops and PCC community ed workshops.

Now, let’s cover the Q & A portion:

Q: Monica, how did you complete and assemble your story collection The Folly of Loving Life?

A: The stories were written over 20 years, created intermittently while Monica wrote Clown Girl and The Stud Book. The publishers of her two novels as well as her agent dismissed the idea of a collection out of hand, but Kevin once said, “hey, do you have a short story collection?” At that point, Monica explained that she took all her short stories and laid them out on the dining room table. She looked for cohesive elements and themes, and once identified, pulled out the stories that didn’t seem to connect with that linking element. She felt drawn toward connecting and linking her story collection with a narrative arc, something she said isn’t always necessary for story collections to be successful, but which she felt was important for this particular collection. Once she had her core set of stories, she then developed a few additional stories that further enhanced and linked the stories, making revisions to previous work to also improve the linking between them. She explained that it took somewhere around 1-2 years from when Kevin first suggested a collection to when it came out in print.

Q: What are the advantages of publishing with the Big 5?

A: Money. Monica explained that in her experience with Hawthorne Books and Kevin’s press Future Tense Books, small presses do as good of a job with editing, cover art, etc. – i.e. all the smaller steps of publishing a book – as the large publishers. She said, “ultimately, you’re going to make your money in different ways,” but that each writer has to decide what “success” means to him or her. Thus, you should determine where to submit based on what your desired outcomes are. For more help finding local, small presses, take a look at Literary Arts’ Guide to Small Presses and Magazines. You can find some helpful information about the 10 biggest small presses here: Lit Reactor’s 10 Portland Press Powerhouses.

Q: How much of what you write is what you’ve lived versus researched?

A: Both authors expressed that the majority of what they write comes from personal experience. Kevin said he will do plenty of research into topics that he’s passionate about, such as collage art, and when it’s a topic you love, it’s not as hard to do the research. As mentioned before, Monica’s research has largely been her own life and experiences. As we’ve all experienced, a fair amount of fiction writing is speculation, but those speculations are still drawn from what we believe we might think or feel in a given situation, even if we haven’t directly experienced it. Here, I’ll insert my own two cents based on the novel I’m currently trying to find an agent for, which is mainly set in Bath, UK in 1804 and heavily involves the life of Jane Austen. Because I was already a rabid Jane Austen fan, I didn’t need to do much research, and the research I did have to do was just more of the kind of reading I do for fun. This goes back to that adage: write what you know. (Yes, yes, there’s plenty in that other camp that say write what you don’t know, but you can find their blogs and read them later ) And I would suggest that writers choose topics that they are already drawn to. That is, don’t write a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars because you think it’s a cool idea. Write a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars because you also happen to be a nerd for the Napoleonic Era outside of your life as a writer. Otherwise, you’re just slogging through research that you otherwise couldn’t give two figs about.

Q: What are your thoughts on publishing online while attempting to find other publishers?

(Here, I think the questioner was asking if we should self-publish our books, such as through kindle or Nook, while also looking for a traditional publisher. If this is the case, then what I’ve discovered in my own research is: DON’T DO IT! At least not if you ever want to see your book in print. Many book publishers won’t come near a book that has already been published online. And yes, there’s those outliers who were discovered through self-published books and then given a huge book deal, but we’re talking lottery chances here. For more on this, read my post below as Dong Won Song addressed this very question. As regards short fiction, poetry, and essays –  the same applies. My experience is that when a journal asked for previously unpublished work, this includes your blog or website; they want work that has never appeared anywhere before.)

A: Publishing online is the way to go these days. Ten to fifteen years ago, there was a stigma around online publishing, as if it weren’t as legitimate as print publications. Both Monica and Kevin expressed that this stigma is largely done away with since online publications get much more traffic and can be much more easily shared than their print counterparts. Online publications are especially key for poets, short story writers, and essayists/creative non-fiction writers to get their name established. They tend to be more open to new voices than print publishers, as well. Monica suggested Long Reads as a journal that accepts longer form works, which often have a hard time finding a home online. For more on both online and print publishers, see my posts: Resources for Writers: Print and Online Literary Journal Databases

Q: What is your process for getting in the creative mood?

A: Monica shared that because she’s balancing so many responsibilities between parenting, teaching, and writing, she often stores quite a bit of material in her head and when she has a moment to write it down, she’ll do that. She also expressed that having a deadline, such as the Willamette Writers’ meeting that very night, can be key to getting the writing going. In fact, the piece she read for us was written that day for this particular meeting. Most writers agree that deadlines can be key to productivity, and this is another reason why being part of a critique group or signing up for a workshop can generate work.

Kevin also expressed that he has no set schedule. He balances two full-time jobs between his work at Powell’s and his press, and is also a collage artist, so he doesn’t always have a lot of time for writing. However, on his days off, he’ll set aside 2-8 hours to dedicate to his writing. Kevin also shared that he’s a very careful writer and will spend a long time thinking about the words before putting them on the page. The benefits are that the words tend to come out just as he wants them, with little revision necessary. He also expressed that his novel came out very quickly – written in about 2 years. He said that snippets and pieces would come to him and he’d bang out 1-2 pages in the 10 minutes before bed, accumulating a novel through that process.

Q: What advice would you give to those who want to seek work in the world of publishing?

A: Kevin fielded this question as a publisher, saying that there are many tracks to entering publishing. One could do the traditional thing and move to New York and work one’s way up from reading slush, but that success could be found in other avenues. For instance, in his work at Powell’s, he’s seen people start as cashiers, get promoted over a section, become the buyer for that section, and then move into the role of buyer for a large publisher. Great experience can be had working in bookstores, small presses, and magazines. Finally, he said, you could always start your own press. Future Tense Books began as Kevin’s endeavor to see his own work in print, and then writers would come to him and say, “can you help me get my book out?” This then led to being a publisher now listed on Lit Reactor’s site as the first small press publisher of note in Portland.

This concludes our evening with Monica and Kevin. Many thanks to these writers for sharing their experiences and wisdom. If anyone feels I’ve captured something incorrectly or missed a key detail, please add it to the comments section.

 

 

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