I’m starting a new project where I will have author interviews up on the blog. I’ve read a lot of author interviews on the internet. Mine will be a little different. As a middle school English teacher, I have different questions than most bloggers. When I sub in classrooms, or have a long term job, I hear a lot of things that lead me to believe that middle schoolers are at a precarious literary place. Depending on how reading and books are presented in schools, this is a time when kids who were previously readers become non-readers. In schools that have librarians (fewer and fewer,
sadly devastatingly), there are more enthusiastic readers. In schools that have amazing literature teachers (still many, many!), students are still being introduced to reading and writing as an art form, but it’s much more difficult to inspire. Especially when there are 40 kids in a language arts class (seriously). So, my questions are (selfishly, I must admit) partly aimed at inspiring the kids I am aiming to inspire. Also, (selfishly) I’m hoping to get some hints at how to be a better writing teacher, and a better writer myself. If I can share that with my readers, then we’re all getting something out of this! Without further ado, I’m starting with our friend Anthony St. Clair, because he just published his third book, and thought it would be fun to interview him during this whirlwind time in his life (did I mention he’s also going to be welcoming another baby into his family very soon?).
Appropriately, we met Anthony and his family at the library. When our first-borns were wee little babies, we would go to Baby Story Time at the public library. I remember seeing Anthony and his family and thinking, “They seem cool. I want to be friends with them.” I gathered that they were musicians, and had a good sense of humor, and I could tell that their son was about Alma’s age. In the early days of first time parenting, I was anxious to meet other people in my boat. I have never been the type of person to just strike up a conversation with strangers, but having my baby gave me courage, and an excuse.
One time I was waiting for the elevator and I asked Anthony’s wife, Jodie, how old their son was. Just a bit older than Alma.
Just about three years later, we are all part of a magical playgroup. Anthony has published three books in his Rucksack Universe series. And he was the first who took the time to answer my questions. I really appreciate his thoughtful responses. I hope you do, too! If you want to learn more, or find where to buy his books, please head to his website!
1. How did you get into writing? When did you decide to be a writer?
I was about 13 when I knew I would be a writer and that my career would revolve around content. One day, while working on a short story for a school project, I knew that being an author was my future and that words would be my life. The path was as clear before my mind as the project’s sheet of paper was before my eyes.Over time I grew to understand how important expression can be. There are many times over the years where someone has told me I put something into words that they felt, thought, or believed, but couldn’t express. It’s a good reminder that there’s so much more happening that just the stories in my head; they matter to people.
2. How do you describe your genre?
My stories are both realistic and fantastical, and since they are all based in globetrotting and wandering, I refer to them as “travel fantasy.” There’s urban fantasy, the supernatural, alternate history, mythology, and lots of beer, but ultimately every story comes back to travel. Traveling the world has defined my life in more ways than I can count, and the world of the indie traveler is the world of the Rucksack Universe.Travel fantasy revolves around indie travel—not the book-a-cruise kind, but the kind where you backpack Asia for a year, live in another country, ride the same buses the locals do, or have been so many places you have to get more pages added to your passport. There’s often a large backpack involved, and dorm-style rooms in hostels where you can meet people from all over the world. There’s street food, friends you haven’t met yet, and a world where you treasure everything you experience, if only because you know there is so much more in the world than you can ever, ever know.This sub-genre is all about people who don’t have roots, gave up their roots, or had to go somewhere else to put down roots. These folks aren’t tethered to where they came from but seek fuller lives elsewhere. They’re vagabonds, globetrotters. The world is home, and home is the road.
3. Have you tried other genres and failed? Why do you think that certain style was more difficult to create?
There was a time in my late teens and early 20s where I tried to be more realistic, more literal and literary in what I was writing. That was a total belly flop wipeout disaster. The writing was technically okay, but there was no oomph. No soul. No grit. No fun.I failed at that sort of writing because it ultimately wasn’t true to how I see the world. There is an eternal little boy looking out at all around him. To this day I still see a shiny bit of magic underneath the grime and grit covering so much of what we see in the “real world.” Sometimes I think that my fantastical yearnings have to do with a lifelong quest to reconcile the dualities of life that make it both so sublime and so difficult, so enthralling and so terrifying.
4. Do you have any habits for your writing? Any rituals or routines?
I write 5-6 days a week, which I accomplish by getting up before everyone else, getting dressed, and making sure the coffee is fresh, hot, and strong. My writing day begins either with a book I’m working on at the time, or any articles that I’m on deadline for or have been assigned. Except for Mondays, when I begin the day by reviewing and planning out the week, each day starts with getting the writing done. That way, no matter what else the day brings, I know that my various projects are moving forward.There is one thing I do for every book that’s a bit of a routine and ritual: each one gets its own playlist. I go through my music and pick out pieces or songs that seem relevant to the theme of the book, or just that I find help my mind, heart, and imagination stay in the world of the story.
5. What takes up most of your time – writing, editing, marketing, publishing?
The best answer I can give is “it depends.” Usually about 30%-50% of my week is writing and editing work: planning, drafting, revising, polishing, going through reader and editor feedback. Marketing is ongoing, and that’s usually 10-25% of my time. When a book goes to my copy editor, that’s about when I start shifting more time and attention to the publishing side. As a book gets close to launch, publishing tasks can easily take up most of my time.The publishing side is something I really enjoy doing and being highly professional at, which is one of the reasons I am an author-publisher. It also makes a book more real—setting up all the admin things, writing the book description that appears at online stores, reviewing e-book and paperback proofs. So that marketing and admin time is a lot of fun for me too.
6. After your book/story is published, do you keep going back and editing it, or wishing you could?
Once a project published, it’s done. I’m a believer in done being better than perfect, so I move on to other projects. When I work on a story, I make it the best I can at the time, and just try to do better on the next one.
7. How do you write? Computer, handwriting, typewriter, etc?
Computer! I used to draft long-hand and then type it up, but I do everything on my Mac now. I’m a big fan of the program Scrivener, which saves me lots of time, is easy to take notes and organize the different sections of my books, and it’s really easy to create e-book files.
8. What would you do (or do you do) if you weren’t a writer?
I have no idea. Being a writer is as much a part of me as needing to draw breath.
9. Who are your five favorite authors or books?
1. Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series. I’ve read every Discworld book at least once. They are both hilarious and completely fantastical, yet also completely profound and serious, far more than they’re usually given credit for.
2. Louise Penny and her Inspector Gamache/Three Pines mysteries. I’m not usually one for whodunits, but Penny’s writing is heartfelt, clear, and beautiful. I’ve read about half the series so far, and every time I do I wish I could have dinner and a drink with the fascinating, complex characters in her fictional town in rural Quebec. In the meantime, I have to make do with wishing I can be half the man Inspector Gamache is, and that I continue taking to heart the 4 statements that can lead a person to wisdom.
3. Neil Gaiman. American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane especially are favorites. The way he combines mythology and recognizable, everyday life is especially gripping to me.
4. Bill Bryson. The first book of his was Walk in the Woods, and I laughed myself hoarse. His Australia book, In a Sunburned Country, is another favorite for when I need to do some armchair traveling.
5. Lord of the Rings. Because, well, Lord of the Rings. No one does words and worlds like Tolkien.
10. What book do you wish you had written?
The one I’ll never get around to. I’ll always be wishing I could get just one more story out.
11. Is there a book you have read over and over again?
My favorite grown-up book is Terry Pratchett’s “Thud!”. I’ve read it about 5 times now. No one turns fantasy tropes on their heads like Pratchett, and anytime I need a fresh take on writing, I re-open “Thud!” and take another trip to Pratchett’s hilarious yet insightful Discworld.
12. What book are you reading now?
I’ve always got a few going, usually one novel and a bunch of different non-fiction books. For fiction, I’m reading Louise Penny’s “A Rule Against Murder,” the fourth book in her Inspector Gamache/Three Pines series. For non-fiction, I’m reading Graham Robb’s The Discovery of Middle Earth, about pre-Roman Celtic civilizations. I’m also in the midst of lots and lots of yoga and parenting books.
13. Did you ever take a really great writing class? What made it inspiring?
In college I took a wonderful creative writing class. It was a very supportive environment, and helped me explore my voice and style. Though someday I’m sure I’ll get out some of those old assignments and shudder at how over-written and pretentious they were. Occasionally at conferences I’ll go to classes on craft, and those are good ways to give me new ideas too.
14. Were you a reader? What was your favorite book as a child?
As a child, my favorite books were about space or about dinosaurs. As a dad, my favorite book to read to my child is “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” It has everything: imagination, the Hero’s Journey, and themes of exploration, self-reliance, and inner guidance—all told with short sentences, simple line drawings, and one color. Now that’s story-telling!
15. What was your favorite subject in school? What were you like as a child?
English and anything related to books and literature! I loved reading. My mom likes to remind me how impossible it could be to get me to do anything but read. That’s changed very little over the years!
16. Do you practice? As in, do you do exercises that you know will never be in a story or in a book?
Somewhat. My Rucksack Universe world is pretty expansive. Sometimes, if I’m in-between books or other projects, I spend time just tinkering with the world and characters. Usually this means picking a book idea, a new character, something in the history of the story line, and just riffing with it for a couple thousand words.
17. If one of your stories or books were to be made into a movie, who would be on the soundtrack?
Cowboy Junkies, Muse, The High Kings… and probably a few other musicians from various Celtic and Tibetan origins.
18. Do you make other types of art? How does that process compare to the writing process?
I love to cook! I once read somewhere that writers need to do something with their hands other than write, and cooking gives me that additional creative outlet. I’m in the kitchen a lot, plus cooking is good for me and my family, and we have lots of fun. There’s both process and free-form, intuitive creativity and proven timeless techniques and combinations. And, most importantly, tasty food!
19. What’s your favorite type of figurative language? Can you give me an example?
Personification. People tell me that my writing has a way of making things and places seem alive, like this bit from my third book, Forever the Road:Approaching Agamuskara, Jay now understood that India was four things: heat, humans, history, and gods. They shaped India not so much into a country or a culture but a world. India was all of the world, all of time in every passing moment, and every emotion, every depravity and transcendence, every hope realized and every futility suffered, of all the human race.
And, gods, was India heat. Humid, blazing, sopping heat. India felt as if wet blankets had been baked for an hour in a pot of water, then, steaming and boiling, wrapped around the country. Even Jay’s sweat glands felt sluggish. The humidity jellied the will. It softened the wood of the few meager trees. Even the concrete blocks of houses and shacks seemed to sag, drip, and simmer in the midday, clear-sky blaze of sunlight.
20. What’s more important – the first sentence or the last sentence?
The first sentence. If you don’t impress readers and earn their interest, they’ll never get to the last sentence.
Thanks, Anthony, for being part of this new series!