Interviews for Tom Averill's Secrets of the Tsil Café

Compiled from e-mails,  by Tim Averill

On Tue, 24 Jul 2001 chrostowski@kcstar.com wrote:

Tom: this isn't a question for the Q and A, but rather something I might work into the top of my review: How is reading a good novel like eating a chili pepper?

Keith Chrostowski
Dear Keith:

Good question. If the two are similar, I'd say it's in the distinctive character of both, the immediate taste of each, the lingering aftertaste in each and the desire for more of the experience. Both put you through a lot: joy, tears, pain, suffering, pleasure, memory and final satisfaction!

About the positive nature of the book: As I said, since the subject area--the environment--of the book is food, stimulating and maintaining appetite was important. That's not to say that the characters don't do unappetizing things. But that in the end, their appetites for each other, for food, for the positive connections that food usually brings--family, community, culture--are more important to them.

In my writing, I have vacillated between despair/bleakness/cynicism and, on the other hand, sentimentality. I mistrust both, and find them too alike. The hardest thing is to negotiate the middle, where the attitude accepts both goodness and evil, in the self and in each other. Good fiction allows us to do that (even when life sometimes precludes it), and so I aspire to that kind of fiction. In fictional terms, I'm trying to write with respect, love and affection for my characters and their culture--like Eudora Welty does. I'm not as dark as a Flannery O'Connor, and not as light as O. Henry. I strive to let every character have a positive as well as negative influence on Wes, and he's better for it.

Thanks for asking, and for your insights into the book. Later, Tom Averill

On Tue, 24 Jul 2001 chrostowski@kcstar.com wrote: Q & A with Thomas Fox Averill

Q: Why did you set this in Kansas City?

No one would believe this book if the restaurant were in my hometown of Topeka. Kansas City has a better restaurant tradition. When I grew up in the 50s and 60s, an excursion to the Savoy Grill of the Golden Ox was just the height of sophistication. And part of Kansas City's great restaurant tradition. Also having the restaurant near Westport seems appropriate. It's where so many people launched themselves into the New World; Kansas City was a blend of old and new. This was the 1950s/60s, and, because of liquor laws, restaurants did not thrive in Kansas. Also, when I first started reading and writing about food, I loved the work of Kansas City native Calvin Trillin, and my pilgrimages began to include Arthur Bryant's. I ate my first Cajun food in Kansas City, my first Greek food, too. I chose 39th street because it seemed the appropriate place in Kansas City. Steve Cole, who pioneered great food there with Cafe Allegro, went to my high school, and I've always admired what he's doing. I'm not sure a restaurant like the Tsil would make it in Kansas City. But if I can keep it alive in the reader's imagination, then why not?

Q: But you keep the city in the background, and don't describe it. Why?

Readers will probably notice that I keep a lot in the background. I use the places--Kansas City, St. Louis, Santa Fe and Albuquerque--more as touchstones and images than as physical realities. I made a decision early on in the writing of Tsil Cafe to focus intensely on food, and the world it could create. You'll notice that I never mention a date, a political event, a clothing style, a song on the radio--none of the markers of time and place that I would ordinarily include in a piece of fiction. My purpose in that? To keep the reader in the kitchen, in the intense relationship people have with food and with each other.

Q: What is it about food as a metaphor?

Writing about food is so much fun. It's bound up in many traditions--family, religion, nationality, ethnicity. And all of us remember those first tastes. You sort of define yourself by eating different foods from your family and trying new things. Many of us mark our maturity by what we were sophisticated enough to eat. It's so easy to write about food because you don't have to MAKE it significant, it is.

Q: Why the focus on New World foods in your book?

My father had a heart attack in 1988, and we discovered that turkey and buffalo are low fat meats. By 1992, the 500th anniversary of the Columbus voyage, I began reading and researching all the foods indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. Think about it: what must it have been like for the conquistadors to drink chocolate and taste chiles for the first time. What did this New World taste like?

Q: Do the recipes work?

I've cooked this book _ probably started cooking these recipes 6 or 7 years before I conceived of the novel. So all those recipes are cook-able. They reflect what's going on with the characters and their lives. As for putting the recipes in the book, I wanted people to believe in Robert Hingler's restaurant. I wanted them there so people could taste them. When we eat, we use all the senses, so it's a very sensual book.

Q: Is the novel in any way autobiographical?

No, and that made it easier to write, because instead of working on my issues, I was able to work on the characters' issues. A few scenes are based on experience, of course. I found myself in a dumpster once, sorting through grade-school lunch trash looking for my daughter's retainer, just like Wes has to dig for a dental plate left by a customer of the Tsil. And in 1996, just two days before my parents' 50th wedding anniversary, my father died. All the guests and all the food would arrive no matter, and we had to turn a joyous occasion into a sad celebration of his life. I was aware of that in creating Robert Hingler's 50th birthday, during which Maria Tito Hingler's grandmother dies. But shared experience with the characters (just as shared food for a meal) doesn't make the book and me the same.

Q: The book has an optimistic, uplifting outcome, unlike many contemporary novels. Why so optimistic?

I was very consciously trying to tell a story where people did not always behave their best but in which nobody was really a villain. Everybody makes mistakes, but their passions are more important than their mistakes. And what makes a mistake ruin your life is not the mistake itself but how you handle the problems you create. Wes learns to go with appetite rather than mistakes. The positive nature of the book is dictated by the subject area. The environment is food, so stimulating and maintaining appetite was important. That's not to say that the characters don't do unappetizing things. But that in the end, their appetites for each other, for food, for the positive connections that food usually brings--family, community, culture--are most important to them.

Q: Why did you choose to write a "food novel?"

I've always been a cook, and have always enjoyed eating, stretching my tastes, learning about cultures through foods and researching food origins. In 1992, at the 500th anniversary of the Columbus voyage, I came to realize that the New World had drastically changed the Old World in terms of food. I tried to imagine a European world without chocolate, vanilla, potatoes, chiles, tomatoes, turkeys, pumpkins, or peanuts (just to name a few of the hundreds of foodstuffs indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. At that time, I began "tasting" the New World, and cooking exclusively with pre-Columbian ingredients. My experiments were interesting, tasty, and fun. I actually "cooked" my novel long before I knew there was a novel, trying recipes out on friends, giving food demonstrations to my daughter's brownie troop, to high school classes on Earth Day, and entering recipe competitions. I didn't know what I'd do with my interest, but, as a fiction writer, everything comes down to how to use it in the imaginative context--how to write about it. Finally, I decided I could create an imaginary restaurant, create a cook who would be my double in the kitchen, and write a food book about a boy growing up between that kitchen--the Tsil Cafe--and another kitchen, more traditional and Old World. The book simply followed as I relaxed into their world, and followed all the possibilities that food affords a writer--food is so sensual, rich in metaphor, so much a part of all our lives (from breast milk to funeral food), so associative. I simply followed the food.

Q: The recipes seem loosely related to the plot. What kind of signposts are they meant to be?

I had many more recipes than those in the book. I chose to include the recipes that revealed character, that showed a change in character, that showed the effect of the cook's personal life on the food served. When Robert Hingler is angry, for example, he cooks spicier food--then he can include the people who won't eat his spicy dessert in his general anger. Also, when he stops cooking for the Tsil Cafe, and begins cooking with his wife, they create a wonderful dish together, with the best of the New World and Old World foodstuffs. Place, too, is reflected in the recipes. Pablito, originally from Mexico, remembers the mole of his youth and tries to recreate it in Kansas City. Juan, from the Southwest, has Wes eat a posole stew, cooked by his wife, Conseca, before she dies.

Q: Do all these recipes doable? Did you try them out?

All the recipes are doable. And now that the book has been out for a year, I've heard from many people who have cooked from Tsil Cafe. Some, of course, take time--tamales can be intimidating if you've never tried them before. Also, some people are put off by what they think will be the extreme heat of some of the recipes. I encourage people to moderate--I do that, myself, depending on the occasion.

In the middle of writing Secrets of the Tsil Cafe, I celebrated my 50th birthday. I knew my restaurateur, Robert Hingler, would make his 50th an extravagant experiment in culinary pleasure and odd appetite. So, upon the suggestion of my agent, I set about doing the same thing for myself--a self-indulgent research. I invited nearly twenty friends and family members, and created a Tsil dinner from Robert Hingler's menu. Not everyone relished the idea of Buffalo Tongue with Chipotle Barbecue Sauce. Nor the lover's liver soup made with turkey broth, golden potatoes, green chiles and lightly shaved turkey liver. They approached the Hingler signature salsa, Sweet Habanero Pumpkin, with some trepidation. I didn't mind. I cooked happily for an entire day, I ate well, I received the compliments and the silence that the food merited, and I had a deeper well for writing Secrets.

Q: Just how hot is a habanero chile?

The habanero is the very hottest. Peppers are often measured on the Scoville scale. Most people have eaten a jalapeno pepper, which measures 2,500-5,000 on the Scoville. Habaneros measure 100-300,000 on the Scoville. Still, though the habanero can really burn, the heat is sweet, and I don't think it lasts as long or as intensely on the tongue, in the mouth, and in the innards as a hot jalapeno. That may be a matter of individual taste. I grow habaneros every year, and, like the young character in my novel, I generally eat the bottoms, for their flavor and leave the heavily seeded tops for those who love pain!

Q: Did you try them out on friends?

Actually, just before the publication of Tsil Cafe, my editor Greg Michalson called me at my office to ask that inevitable question: "You have tried all these recipes, haven't you?" I reassured him that all were kitchen-tested. Then, when I went home, I double-checked. One recipe, the one on p. 118, for habanero pumpkin pudding with ancho maple sauce, glared at me: I'd never tried it. I suppose I thought nobody would ever want to cook it. Robert creates the pudding out of his anger, his heat, and the recipe seemed to fit that, but seemed outlandish as a dessert. Still, I was hosting my weekly men's group meeting that same evening, so I quickly prepared the dish for them. Yes, it was hotter than Hades, but I enjoyed the flavors together. So, I called Greg and suggested we leave it in, but with parenthetical remarks after the hottest ingredients. The book moderates the recipe for the "sane, the mild and the tame." Once, at a reading I gave in Emporia, Kansas, I told the story of the last-minute kitchen test of that pudding. Some of the people in the audience had brought food from the book, and I heard a groan, and an "uh,oh!" Someone had made the habanero pumpkin pudding full strength and brought it. Many people ate it, though, and survived quite nicely.

Q: Was the novel difficult to write? Did it go through a lot of drafts? How long did you work on it?

The novel, like all pieces of writing, was both difficult and pure joy. Food is such a rich subject, and it automatically presents possibilities. With food, I had to have a seduction scene, an initiation scene, a contest scene, a funeral, a first tasting, a brush with putrid food, and so on. Also, when I found myself stuck in one part of the book, I'd make myself busy with other parts--food research for the "footnotes/foodnotes," the restaurant reviews, the recipes. I did go through many drafts, and even re-wrote the last third or so of the book after it was accepted by BlueHen. The book, then, took a total of nearly two years in the writing, though I couldn't have written Tsil that quickly had I not been researching and experimenting with the food for so many years before that.

Q: You're a folklorist? How did that influence the book?

I am an English professor, but I do teach folklore courses with my friend, the Kansas State Folklorist Jennie Chinn. I have learned a great deal about the relationship between people and their cultures, particularly in terms of food. My early research on New World food found its way immediately into class presentations and discussions. Also, in order to research the food more sensitively, I learned Spanish at my university, and went for a week to Mexico in 1994, to a language school in Cuernavaca. That was all part of what made it easier to write Tsil once I conceived of the characters and place.

Q: A happy ending is unusual in much of today's fiction. But in Tsil Café, Wes and his parents work things out. Why did you choose that outcome?

I know that we don't all live happily, and I certainly know that we don't live ever after. But I think most people strive for happiness. In the world I created, one of food and appetites, I wanted Wes to be most like a plant, growing instinctively towards the light. People define themselves, often, not by their problems and difficulties, but by how they deal with them. I'm always amazed at how well people survive and thrive in spite of the potential for sad endings. I have written darker things, but, right now in my life, I'm more interested in light. Black clothes, pessimism, cigarettes and cynicism are all things I associate with the young. Of course, they have the time to get over those things! Wes goes through his difficulties, his hurts, the inattentions and overattentions of his parents. He finds out what difficulties they lived through. My own family had its share--my grandfathers both had disconnected lives, one an alcoholic who committed suicide (he'd lost two wives to disease), another an alcoholic who abandoned his family and struggled with cancer through much of his adult life. Yet my parents, in spite of not having much of it themselves, expressed themselves through love, attention to children, becoming part of larger communities. I suppose they are my examples for how families can function in spite of their potential for dysfunction. Cooking well is very hard work. Eating depends on appetite. If you have the capacity for hard work and you maintain your appetite, as Wes does, then perhaps you make possible an end that allows for light.

Q: Were you please with the attention and critical reception the book received?

Extremely pleased. The literary editors who weren't sure of giving Tsil a review often gave the book to the food editors. So I had more reviews. I was a little nervous about how "food people" would react, but the book was nominated as one of three finalists in the Literary Food Writing category of the Cookbook Awards given each year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and the food was reviewed positively in places like Gastronomica. The New York Times liked the novel, but was a little skeptical about one of the recipes, generalizing that the recipes seemed to be "the best efforts of a college professor." Actually, since I AM a college professor, I thought the reviewer was exactly right! Some of the food people found the preponderance of secrets at the end to be a little overwhelming, but as you can tell from what I've just said about my own family, I think most of us have currents, episodes, background in our families that we need to know, process and understand before we can become ourselves. Overall, reviews were much more positive than negative, and I continue to be very gratified by the attention.

Q: You're working on a second novel. Care to say what it's about? When will it hit bookstores?

My next novel, now titled The Slow Air of Ewan MacPherson, will be out sometime in May/June 2003. Besides being a love story with a very long courtship, it's also a celebration of things Scottish: the bagpipes (which I play) the poetry of Robert Burns (which I read) and the fine distillations known as single malt Scotch (which I drink--but can't afford very much of). Like Tsil, the book has an intense father/son relationship and plenty of family secrets and drama. And it moves towards light (a better term than happiness?).

Q: Tell us a little about Thomas Fox Averill.

The Thomas Fox Averill file:
Born: April 30, 1949, Berkeley, California
Family: wife Jeffrey Ann Goudie (who reviews books for the Kansas City Star), daughter Eleanor Goudie-Averill, 21, junior in dance at University of Kansas and son Alexander Goudie-Averill, 6, a kindergartner.
Home: Topeka, Kansas
Education: BA and MA in English, University of Kansas, MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, Writers Workshop, University of Iowa
Books (and other creative endeavors): Passes at the Moon, stories, 1985, Woodley Press (out of print); Seeing Mona Naked, stories, 1989, Watermark Press; What Kansas Means to Me: 20th Century Writers on the Sunflower State, 1990, University Press of Kansas (a collection of essays edited and introduced by me); Oleander's Guide to Kansas: How You Know When You're Here, 1996, Wichita Eagle Books (a collection of the radio commentaries I do for KANU, University of Kansas, public radio in the voice of an old man, William Jennings Bryan Oleander, from Here, Kansas).
Favorite book: (s) The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne, As I Lay Dying by Faulkner, and The Complete Short Stories of Eudora Welty.
Last good book read: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett--for its incredible celebration of people, love, music, and human potential all in the most difficult circumstances.
Advice to aspiring authors: Keep writing. Make daily writing as powerful as all your other habits. Write out of love and for the pleasure of it. Write to your strengths. Turn yourself over to language--it will control you better than you can control it.

Q: In our reviews, we also run two or three short excerpts from the novel. Do you have a favorite passage or two? I'll write the set-up graph introducing the passage, but if you want to tell me why you like a particular passage, I'll try to work that in.

I get good responses when I read the following pages (you can see the scenes that start and stop on them):
5-8
15-18
55-58
140-146
216-218
241-245
the epilogue

I'm also going to forward you some things that I wrote for some student interviews, just in case they work for you, or spark something else. They haven't been printed anywhere, just in student academic papers for classes.
 

Dear Shannon: Here are some answers! Let me know when and if you need more from me.

1) What brought you to writing? Or, what is your particular history with writing? When did you begin or decide to write?

I began to write short stories in high school, when I realized that some of my teachers would let me substitute stories for papers--and the most they said, usually, was "interesting." I got A's, and started learning how to shape the language into story. But in college I really decided to become a writer (after a two-year stint--very unsuccessful--as a pre-med student). I loved my English classes, did well, had many opportunities to write, and to publish in the KU literary magazine, and never regretted that decision.

As to what brought me to it in the first place, and can I be a little abstract here? Language, first and foremost. I love words, and what they can do. Writing is interesting, because it's linear. One word at a time, one word after another. But it begins to have layers--of meaning, of imagery, of relationships between scenes and characters--and it becomes incredibly complex. Good writers--and I strive always to be one--can make the simplicity of the linear add up, without seeming to. I try to help myself and my readers by being very accessible, and yet still going on a journey that becomes complicated in meaning and emotion. I write to go on that journey first, then take readers along. All the writers I admire think about language as I do--making it seemingly simple, yet very deep. I'm talking here about Eudora Welty, William Stafford, Langston Hughes--writers like that.

2) Could you describe your writing process? Do you write everyday?

I write every day, yes. When I finish a novel, I take a break. But I write other things than fiction--essays, commentaries, letters, even e-mails. I do the creative writing as often as possible, because I do my best and most creative thinking when I'm actually in the process of writing, rather than just "thinking" about it. I also read constantly, and learn a great deal from reading outside my genre of fiction--good poetry and nonfiction often inspire me more than the novels I read. I "exercise," following along with in-class writing with my students, trying new moves in situations where process is more important than product. Finally, I write a variety of things just to keep writing--hence the essays and radio commentaries as well as fiction.

3) What was your inspiration for "Secrets of the Tsil Cafe"? You created your own recipes for the book. Why did you feel that was necessary to the novel? What kind of research did you do?

My father had a heart attack in 1988, and we discovered that turkey and buffalo are low fat meats. By 1992, the 500th anniversary of the Columbus voyage, I began reading and researching all the foods indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. Think about it: what must it have been like for the conquistadors to drink chocolate and taste chiles for the first time. What did this New World taste like? Since I'd already discovered and begun cooking with the New World meats of turkey and buffalo, I started researching other Western Hemisphere foods, and then began trying for recipes that used ingredients exclusive to pre-Columbian America. I read and read, books like Sophie Coe's "America's First Cuisines" and all the others I list in my acknowledgements.

As for creating fiction out of all the research, I already knew that writing about food was so much fun. Food is bound up in many traditions--family, religion, nationality, ethnicity. And all of us remember those first tastes. You sort of define yourself by eating different foods from your family and trying new things. Many of us mark our maturity by what we are sophisticated enough to eat. It's so easy to write about food because you don't have to MAKE it significant, it already is.

I cooked the book--probably started cooking these recipes 6 or 7 years before I conceived of the novel. So all those recipes are cook-able, and the book can be "tastable." Also the recipes reflect what's going on with the characters and their lives. As for putting the recipes in the book, I wanted people to believe in Robert Hingler's restaurant. I wanted them there so people could taste them. When we eat, we use all the senses, and I wanted it to be a sensual book.

4) Describe your experience in your graduate writing program. Do you feel it helped you as a writer? How? Why or why not?

My graduate experience at the University of Iowa was, in one word, "lonely." A very competitive program means it's sometimes hard to make friends among fellow students. I had an office mate in the English Department, where she and I were teaching creative writing, Mary Swander, who was both poet and fiction writer. She helped me more than anyone else in the program, teacher or student. The plus side was this: I had lots of time and was expected to write a lot. I did. There were some who would get blocked, but that made no sense to me--just plow forward while the time is there, and write for the future, not for the nasty people around the table. Another plus: wonderful readings by writers I'm glad I got to hear in my lifetime (and theirs)--Borges, Carver, Coover and on down the line.

5) How have you approached each manuscript (especially the story collection "Seeing Mona Naked")? How do you put it together or sense that it is complete?

I wrote most all of the stories in "Seeing Mona Naked" during a very fruitful sabbatical. They came, one after the other, and were, in some ways, "exercise" stories. Some, like "Spicy Food," are celebrations of something I like. Sometimes I'm thinking of plots I like, and re-telling them as in stories like "Dear Abby," and "Let Down Your Hair," and "Sleeping Ugly." Sometimes I'm figuring out the meaning and nuances in family stories, as in "My Father's Back."

There are also the sources of inspiration that come from working with technique and language. Sometimes I write a story just for the voice, like the "nearby" informational narrator of "The Man Who Loved McDonald's. Or I'll try out the present tense, as in "Resurrection Run." Or the first person plural, as in "Garden Hose." These kinds of ideas, like the one-syllable words in "Small Talk," are always a strengthening in creativity--they help me learn new moves, new ways of thinking, new ways of writing and engaging the language. That's part of what I was doing. Then I put them in an order of youngest to oldest narrator/character.

6) At this point in your career, with several books and successful publication, what is your next step?

I'll have another novel out, The Slow Air of Ewan MacPherson, next June. After that, though probably a little more slowly, I'll begin another one I have in mind. I'm going to be noodling around with that idea soon. My next step is the same-old step. Keep writing, keep seeing what happens. Time is always a problem, and yet, like everything else, if you're passionate about something, you find time for it.

7) As a teacher, how do you think your career and craft as a writer influences your interaction with students?

I try to get my students, as you know, to write a LOT. For me, that's how I improve most quickly, how I engage the realities of what we can talk about in class, how I can think. When a group is thinking together, and listening to each other, and reading each other, all this can happen just a little faster. So, I am a little selfish: I do in class what I wish I had been able to do in a class, and I benefit from it probably about as much as my students do.

8) How do you balance "living" and writing? How would you advise aspiring writers to do the same?

I treat writing, after all these years, like any other kind of job. I think it's more thrilling than plumbing or banking, but I don't romanticize the creative person as difficult, or moody, or obsessed any more than I would the passionate banker. I figure most everyone balances their work (whatever it is) and their lives as lovers, husbands, wives, fathers, friends. Balance is good for life and good for writing. So, I guess I recommend balance in everything. By the same token, if your writing is your work, you have to do it--even when you don't feel like it. Plumbers don't just call in to the office to say they aren't inspired on a particular day. Bankers don't either. Why should writers?

9) How would you articulate the writer's role in the world today and how, if at all, do you hope that changes?

Being a writer means being connected to traditions. Being connected through that ultimate human endeavor, the language. It means caring about characters, stories and readers. It means rendering an experience--sensual, felt and deep--that can change yourself and the people around you, helping all towards greater humanity. That's a little romantic, but I believe it, and it keeps me wanting to be a writer. As for social change, or changes in the way writers are respected, published, and so on, I'm more pessimistic in terms of those changes. In Scotland, where I traveled last spring/summer, we kept seeing monuments to great writers--Stevenson, Scott, Burns. How heartening to see how a people can respect writers and their work. But those writers tried hard to speak for a people, to bring out their passions, their desires, their triumphs and their humanity.

10) Kansas is predominant in your work. What is your particular attachment -- to the history, the geography, the people of Kansas -- and why have you chosen to return to it, as both setting and character?

I write Kansas because I know it best. And to know it is to love it, at least in its historical complications, its subtle landscape, its people who contain so many contradictions. When my parents moved here (one was from the East Coast, the other from the West, both had terrible family situations in their backgrounds) they really wanted to find a HOME. And what better place than Kansas in the 1950s and '60s, a place that was celebrating historical centennials of territory and statehood, a place famous in the U.S. for "There is no place like home," (OZ) and "Give me a home" (Home on the Range). Perhaps their longing for home and stability made me try to understand this place they adopted, made me try to understand as someone would a grandfather, a heritage. Besides, to know any one thing deeply is a gift--no matter what it is--especially for the writer.

Hope these answers work for you. Let me know, Tom
 

Dear Erin: I'll answer the questions below, then if you'd like more elaboration on any of them, or have others, let me know. Thanks, Tom

On Mon, 25 Mar 2002, Erin Mindell wrote:

1) What rituals are part of your creative process?

I write as often as possible, because I do my best and most creative thinking when I'm actually in the process of writing, rather than just "thinking" about it. I also read constantly, and learn a great deal from reading outside my genre of fiction--good poetry and nonfiction often inspire me more than the novels I read. I "exercise," following along with in-class writing with my students, trying new moves in situations like that where process is more important than product. Finally, I write a variety--essays and radio commentaries as well as fiction.

2) What gives you satisfaction in your writing? What frustrates you?

I have greatest satisfaction in pulling off a good scene, in discovering something I didn't know about a character, in being led to a surprising plot possibility and in finding language that truly captures an experience, whether that's in dialogue, description or narrative. My chief frustration is in how seldom I achieve the "satisfactions" I've just listed!

3) How do you deal with writer's block?

The same way that William Stafford recommended: lower standards. Writer's block comes from the inevitable tension between desire and capability--we know what we WANT to say, but we are unable to do it, especially in a first draft. So we're hard on ourselves, we freeze up. Lowering standards means taking the pressure off, seeing writing as process rather than product (as I said above), and coming to the activity at a slant.

4) Why do you write?

I write because when I'm writing I feel most engaged with myself, with the world around me, and with language in its most pliant, inspiring state.

5) Who is your audience?

First, myself, and that helps me get a first draft. Then, any person appreciative of good language, subtle story, humor and whatever subject I find myself trying to make sense of.

6) What connects you to your readers?

Language, first. Writing is interesting, because it's linear. One word at a time, one word after another. But it begins to have layers--of meaning, of imagery, of relationships between scenes and characters--and it becomes incredibly complex. Good writers--and I strive always to be one--can make the simplicity of the linear add up, without seeming to. I try to help my readers by being very accessible, and yet still taking them on a journey that becomes complicated in meaning and emotion. All the writers I admire are like that: seemingly simple, yet very deep. I'm talking here about Eudora Welty, William Stafford, Langston Hughes--writers like that.

7) What does it mean to be a writer?

Being a writer means being connected to traditions. Being connected through that ultimate human endeavor, the language. It means caring about characters, stories and readers. It means rendering an experience--sensual, felt and deep--that can change yourself and the people around you, helping all towards greater humanity. That's a little romantic, but I believe it, and it keeps me wanting to be a writer.

8) Where do you get your ideas?

Ideas come from nearly every aspect of story writing. Sometimes I start with a character who interests me--I think of my story "Bus," about a mentally slow man, holding down menial jobs, who still manages to best a bully. Sometimes it's thinking about place, and what could happen there--I think of my story "The Musical Genius of Moscow, Kansas," about a little girl with an incredible voice born into a place that is not musical, and how they learn from her. Sometimes I am simply celebrating a subject, like bocce in "The Bocce Brothers," or the lure of spice in "Spicy Food." Sometimes I'm thinking of plots I like, and re-telling them as in stories like "Dear Abby," and "Let Down Your Hair," and "Sleeping Ugly." Sometimes I'm figuring out the meaning and nuances in family stories, as in a story I wrote called "Matty" and in "My Father's Back."

9) In Your Seeing Mona Naked Collection, you used a couple of specific writing ideas, such as writing a story using only one syllable words. Does that limit your creativity or strengthen it?

These are more sources of inspiration--technique and language. Sometimes I write a story just for the voice. Or just to see what it's like to write in the second person (the "you" as in a recipe). Or to try out the present tense. Or the first person plural, as in "Garden Hose." These kinds of ideas, like the one-syllable words in "Small Talk," are always a strengthening in creativity--they help me learn new moves, new ways of thinking, new ways of writing and engaging the language.

10) How do you encourage writing to your pupils? Your family?

I think reading, especially out loud, encourages story telling and writing. I read a lot to students, and read a whole lot to my children. My daughter, Ellie, and I read aloud the 14 books by L. Frank Baum (Wizard of Oz was only the first) the summer just after she turned four. As for writing, the activity itself encourages the activity--many people naturally find it fun and rewarding. I like what the poet William Stafford said when people asked him when he started to be a writer: "When did everyone else stop?"

11) What keeps you writing? What would you see yourself doing if not writing?

The daily rewards of getting it right. The dailiness of it. Being part of an activity I admire in others, and am inspired by as I read what others are doing. If I wasn't writing I'd continue to teach, to garden, to cook and to play bagpipes--all similarly rewarding things.

12) Do you have role-models? Are any writers? What do you learn from them?

I admire longevity--anyone who keeps doing something for a long time. Among those people are some writers like William Stafford and Eudora Welty. I also admire people of passion, and that includes writers, too, like Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner. I admire innovators and inventors, too, and some of them are writers, like Raymond Carver and the young poet Kevin Young. I admire people who genuinely care about other and about the environment (political, social, cultural, natural), and among them are writers like Barbara Kingsolver. I hope that their care, their passion, their inventiveness, and their longevity will rub off on me, making me better as a person and as a writer.

13) Will you give me your background?

I was born in Berkeley, CA, where my father was a student at the University of California. He went on to med school in San Francisco (he was originally from Dixon, CA, a very small town in the Sacramento Valley), and then came to Kansas to be trained as a psychiatrist at Menninger, in Topeka. The state paid for his education, with the proviso that he give several years, post-training, to a state institution. He ended up as Clinical Director of Boys Industrial School, the reform school that is now called Youth Center at Topeka, and stayed for 17 years. So, I grew up in Topeka--Southwest (now Whitson) Elementary, Capper Junior High (now Alternative Center) and Topeka West High School. I have an older brother, Tim, who teaches AP English and coaches debate in Manchester, MA. My younger brother Ric has a children's theater in Lawrence, KS. My younger sister Libby Rosen is a childbirth educator, nurse, and breastfeeding consultant. All of us have been creative, and all of us remember the atmosphere in our home that promoted the arts, particularly reading, storytelling and music--we all played musical instruments, and Ric and I still do. I went to Kansas University on a pre-med scholarship, thinking to take after my father, but I soon found the science courses overwhelming, and, frankly, boring to me. My literature and writing classes, on the other hand, were wonderful. So I switched, took as much creative writing as I could, went on to a Master's at KU, then took the MFA at the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. I always intended to return to Kansas. And I still teach courses in Kansas Literature, Folklore and Film as well as Creative Writing.

14) What do you enjoy the most of your writing?

I enjoy most what I have yet to write, because I never know what will happen, what will come out next. There's an excitement in both leading and following the language towards an unknown destination.

15)> Can you tell me about your first publishing experience?

When I was at the University of Kansas, some people in one of my story writing classes really liked a long piece I was working on--it was loosely based on my summers working at Mt. Hope Cemetery. Someone suggested I send it to the KU literary magazine, Cottonwood, so my first publication was there. I was excited, and got copies of the magazine for payment, and gave them to all my relatives. Now, of course, that writing seems like what it is--the first attempts of someone who is beginning to take writing seriously. I always hope, when I publish, that I'll find my work lacking after I've gone on down the writing road several more years. That way, I'll know I'm getting better. But writing is good that way--the bar always goes up, and there's no upper limit. Each time I've had a breakthrough--won a prize, had a national publication, been paid well for fiction, gotten my first novel contract--I'm totally excited. After a while, though, it's on to the next thing--the second novel contract (which I just signed with the same publisher, BlueHen/Putnam, that brought out Secrets of the Tsil Cafe), or whatever else I haven't yet written, haven't yet accomplished. Sometimes, the high bar is discouraging--because you can't ever rest. But mostly, I'm glad it's that way: sure beats pumping gas.
 

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