Today, we have a special treat, Paul Alan Fahey, a great friend and one of the best writers I’ve ever read. Paul has supported and encouraged me in so many ways, I doubt I’d be where I am today without him… and besides, his husband, Bob, is just the greatest person alive. To say nothing of the canine “kids”! Take it away, Paul…
Susan, thank you for asking me here today. I hope folks will comment and ask questions. I feel we’ve only touched the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
What is the one story you would like to write but just can’t?
When I first thought about this question my mind traveled back to the turbulent early days of the AIDS crisis. I knew someday I’d write about our dear friend, George, and our other friends who succumbed to the virus. But every time I tried to get into the story, my emotions, being so powerful, held me back. I did get as far as a hospital scene some years ago but couldn’t go any further. I talked recently about this issue in more detail on Anne R. Allen’s Writer’s Blog: http://annerallen.com/writing-memoir-think-outside-the-book/
About five years ago I started publishing e-book novellas for a small LGBT publisher, JMS Books. And it was then I began to dip my toes, so to speak, into the past and as a result a few of my earlier books and stories dealt with AIDS themes. When the Right One Comes Along and Words are two examples.
In 2012, JMS Books published my nonfiction anthology of personal essays, titled The Other Man. For this book, twenty-one gay writers—including myself—contributed essays on either being the other man, suffering him or having dealt with infidelity in the relationship. Many of the essays in the book touched on AIDS. Oddly enough, mine did not. I wasn’t ready to go there.
In 2016, I edited another nonfiction anthology published by Vine Leaves Press on the topic of equality. Equality: What Do You Think About When You Think of Equality? was released on January 15, 2017—Martin Luther King’s actual birthdate. Finally, the time was right and I wrote my essay about George and the discrimination we all faced during those times. So in a way, I wrote the story I couldn’t write. It just took me years to do it.
How many hours a day do you write?
I don’t write every day. Depending on where I am in the writing process, I might spend a couple of hours on the computer doing research for a story, or working on the prewriting strategy I use for plotting my books. I wrote a post on this process for Anne R. Allen’s writing blog. Here’s the link if you’d like to take a closer look: http://annerallen.com/why-novellas-are-hot-and-how-to-write/
My biggest problem with any story is the beginning, or what I call “finding my way in.” This can take hours or even days of trial and error. Sometimes I get so frustrated I think I’ll never write anything again. Or I just drop the story and start on something new. Usually I can resurrect a stalled story. I’ve actually published several of those pieces I began and filed away for later. There’s always a submission call for something that fits. A story can change shape over time. My story about George became a personal essay. Other short pieces became poems or vignettes. You see what I mean?
What are you working on now?
To be honest these interview questions.
I’m also working on promotion for Equality. We just released a video. You can view it here on UTUBE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptDjcuL_8hM
Mara Purl, the wonderful writer of the Milford-Haven novels and stories and also a contributor to Equality, and her team, and I are working on a reading/signing event at our local Barnes and Noble in San Luis. Hopefully in May.
I’m also querying higher education teachers, mainly in the social sciences, about the possibility of using Equality as a supplementary text for their classes.
Which comes first, the characters or the setting?
The story idea. The characters and setting may be part of the story idea but not always. Usually it’s the germ of a story unless I’m writing a series like the WWII Lovers and Liars, then it’s always me asking questions of my characters. What would Caroline do in such and such a situation, etc.?
Do your characters ever take over the story and move it in a new direction?
Absolutely. As you may have guessed, I’m a planner and don’t feel comfortable without having the safety net of an outline—no matter how sketchy—at my side while I write the book. Still, the characters will say things like, “Oh, I don’t want to do that. Let me…” These kinds of detours often take the book in a different direction and usually for the better.
Here’s an example: In A Manx Tale, the third book in Lovers and Liars, I originally saw Cyril and his wife, Caroline, taking a nice walk along the cliffs, but they both resisted something painful. I’d planned on them having a lively conversation, but Caroline scotched the idea. She wanted a solitary walk with the two shelties after she’d sent Cyril off to visit a popular tourist site. In the end, I was glad she took that cliffside walk as it provided a bit of menace to the story and actually turned into a much more exciting plot point to end Act II than I’d originally sketched out. Listen to your characters is really good writing advice. Not sure who told me that but it works all the time.
How do you decide where the story starts?
Well, this kind of goes with the “finding your way in” part of my writing process. Sometimes I start writing and realize what I have isn’t necessary to the story. It might be background that deepens the characterizations but isn’t really needed as a scene or even a whole chapter. Or it might be the wrong POV. Asking yourself: Whose story is it really helps clarify a lot. Sometimes the story as written in the draft starts out too slow. Nothing is happening and doesn’t happen till page ten or so. Not good. The computer lets you move scenes and chapters around so easily that I often keep on going and worry about where the story starts after I’ve written the first draft. Then I can move, delete, or add to my heart’s content. Rule number one for me: Always get through the first draft.
They say you should write what you know. What do you know that you’ve included in your stories?
That works up to a point, but since I know so little about a lot of things, I’d never write another word if I stuck to that maxim. Half the fun is making up stuff. In Lovers and Liars, I use setting and events for atmosphere and I try to be as true to the times as I can. It’s not my intention to present everything with 100% accuracy. A few readers have commented that I take took many liberties with actual events. Maybe. But I’m writing historical fiction here. Not nonfiction. People may disagree, but I like to have fun with the characters and if they do seemingly improbable things, so be it. My yardstick in writing Lovers is this: Can I see Caroline—the bravest of my characters and to me the most interesting—doing this or saying that? If I can, I use it. If not, I toss it.
Part B: What Do I Know that I’ve Included. Well, I’ve been a teacher most of my life and mainly in higher ed. So writing about characters in academe is great fun and comes easily. My novella, What I Want For Christmas centers on a professor in a small liberal arts college in New England who is terrified to fly but discovers he has to face this fear if he wants to save his ex-partner from making a terrible mistake. (Note I put this in bold because this is the logline/throughline I followed when I wrote the story.
What childhood event shaped (or scarred) you the most?
Where to start on this one? I would guess growing up an only child and being raised by a single mother in the 1950s was scary enough. Knowing I was gay from an early age and wondering what the hell to do about it added quite a bit more to the mix. Not that my childhood was any different from similar children during those times, but it left its mark. Also being dropped off in foster home situations when Mom couldn’t keep us financially afloat was pretty scary. I’ve never forgotten that feeling of being alone. Hope I didn’t make it sound more Dickensian that it actually was.
What kinds of things in your writing have your dropped (or changed) as you have learned and grown?
I started writing fiction in the early 1990s and focused mainly on flash fiction. I also went the “write what you know” route and did a lot of flash memoir. I don’t do much of either anymore. When I wrote flash, I couldn’t imagine how any one tackled writing short stories beyond 1000 words. But as I continued to write and publish in small lit journals and in online magazines, I began to stretch the length of my work from 750 words to 2K and 4K words. With the advent of the E-Age, I stretched even more and now have several published e-book novellas that top 25-40K words.
In early 2016, I actually published a short writing book on this subject. I owe you, Susan, a debt of gratitude. I couldn’t come up with that title to save my soul. But you certainly hit the nail. The book is titled, The Short and Long of It: Adapt, Expand, & Publish Your Short Fiction.
What have you written that really surprised you?
Almost anything I write that gets published surprises me. I’m my own worst enemy, as my grandma used to say of my mom. I never like what I write, am never satisfied, and always want to change it. Usually right after I hit the send or submit button.
I think what surprised me most was putting together The Short and Long of It so quickly. I queried my publisher, got the go ahead to write the book, and wrote it in one month. That’s the fastest I’ve ever written anything. True, many of the pieces included in the book were already “finished.” But the actual text of weaving together the ideas and themes of the book wasn’t difficult at all. But thinking about it now, I was talking about my writing process and that’s actually something I can easily do.
Thank you again, Susan, for having me here. Hope everyone thinks it was worth it. And hope we get lots of comments.
And thank you, Paul, for your insightful answers. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. It was fun being able to title your wonderful little book, The Short and Long of It. Funny how I can think up titles for other people and have the worst time finding titles for my own work! Life sure is strange, sometimes.
Now it’s up to the rest of you. Paul wants your comments and questions. Have at it!
Paul Alan Fahey, is the editor of Equality: What Do You Think About When You Think of Equality? He is also the author of the writing reference and 2016 Rainbow Award winning The Short and Long of It: Expand, Adapt, and Publish Your Short Fiction, as well as the Lovers and Liars gay wartime romance series. He is the editor of the 2013 Rainbow Award-winning anthology, The Other Man: 21 Writers Speak Candidly About Sex, Love, Infidelity, & Moving On. For eight years Paul was editor-in-chief of Mindprints, A Literary Journal, an award- winning forum for writers and artists with disabilities. Paul lives on the California Central Coast with his husband, Robert Franks, and a gaggle of shelties.