Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sing, Ronnie Blue

Today, I interview Gary Wilson, author of "Sing, Ronnie Blue." Gary's also an instructor in fiction writing at the University of Chicago's School of General Studies. Gary knows a lot about the writing process - and shares many insights. He's also generously going to give a book to someone who asks him a question about the writing process sometime before 5 p.m. today. I will randomly draw a question from the comments section and Gary will answer it here on Thursday!

Tell us about yourself.

I'm a native Kansan. I was born in a small town near Kansas City and grew up in a small town about fifty miles from Wichita, on the western edge of the Flint Hills. My dad worked at Boeing Aircraft in Wichita, and he didn't want his kids to live in a "big city." I was a pretty good football player in high school, on a pretty good team. My coach had gone to McPherson College in McPherson, Kansas, and encouraged me to take a look the school. I did and ended up playing football there and graduating with a degree in English. I then went to Wichita State University for a master's in English, because my future wife was finishing her degree at McPherson and WSU was convenient. After I got my master's, we--we were married then--went to Peace Corps in Swaziland, Africa, for two years. An incredible experience I would encourage anyone to take advantage of. Following Peace Corps, we came back to the US and were in and out of graduate schools for a number of years, including one stint for me that resulted in an MFA degree in fiction writing from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. We enventually ended up for twenty years in Baltimore, Maryland, where my wife was on the medical faculty at Johns Hopkins University and I wrote and taught fiction writing at the JHU School of Continuing Studies. I also founded and directed a writing center at a Baltimore City public school. Eight years ago, we moved to Chicago. I now teach fiction writing at the University of Chicago School of General Studies. We have two sons--one a headmaster at a Baltimore school and one a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.

Tell us about your new book, Sing, Ronnie Blue.

I suppose not surprisingly, Sing, Ronnie Blue is set in Bartlett's Junction, a small Kansas town at the foot of the Flint Hills. The story involves two young men--Ronnie Blue, son of the local junkyard owner, and John Klein, son of the president of the town's only bank--who were fast friends in high school but drifted apart after that. Five years later, on the Fourth of July and his birthday, Ronnie Blue, who has became an itinerant grease monkey, going from job to job, largely because of his foul temper, but always dreaming big dreams of who he might become, brings his girlfriend, Charlene, back to Bartlett's Junction to show her "the time of her life." There he crosses paths with his old friend, John Klein, who during that same five years has gone off to college and has come back to Bartlett's Junction, presumably to take over one day as president of the bank, just as his father did from his grandfather. At the time of the story, he is already vice president and active in the community and has a girlfriend, Linda, whom it is expected he will eventually marry. So here we have two men at opposite ends of the American Dream coming together on Independence Day for a reunion that has tragic consequences for them both. One reviewer said that from the first pages of the novel, you know there's going to be trouble; you just don't know how bad it's going to be. It's a tough book but is one that many people have told me they couldn't put down until they finished it. Music to any writer's ears.

You're a native Kansan now living in Chicago, how did you draw upon your background to build this story? Are there any characters based on real life people in your book?

I don't think you ever get the places that form you out of your system, no matter where you live at present. Kansas has always cropped up in my writing, just as Baltimore and Africa have. Chicago has already begun appearing in my fiction. But for Sing, Ronnie Blue specifically, a small town was the prefect setting for the story. When I was growing up, I don't think I appreciated the fictional potential of a small town. In fact, I found living in one downright oppressive in many regards. Everybody knew everybody and everything about them. I couldn't wait to get out of there and did eventually. I'd like to say I've never looked back, but that would be a lie. I've looked back a lot, as I've said, in my writing. As an adult, what continues to fascinate me about small towns is that they are really microcosms for society at large. In a place like Bartlett's Junction, you can find all the character types and economic and social pressures that you find in cities like Chicago or Kansas City or Wichita; but they are more observable in small towns, easier to get your head around, as they say. That doesn't mean, however, that John Klein and Ronnie Blue are less important than someone from a city. Not at all. My interest in having them act out their story in a small setting is so that story can, through its inevitability, transcend its setting to a more universal level that can be felt and understood by anyone anywhere.

The question about whether Ronnie Blue and John Klein and the other characters in my book are based on people from "real life" comes up all the time. The answer is no primarily but yes to some extent. Any writer's characters are based to some degree on people he or she has known or encountered. Writers by nature collect characters. Mostly, they end up being amalgams of lots of different people, which is the case in my book. Did I know people like Ronnie Blue and John Klein--sure I did--but I didn't base them or any of my other characters on any one person. They are a collection of parts, you might say, bits and pieces of people and ideas and emotions that came together as those characters in this book

Tell us how the writing process works for you. Are you a nighttime writer, do you have to be in a certain environment?

If I were left totally on my own, I would stay up until three in the morning and sleep till ten and get up and start all over again. But I have to live in a largely nine to five world, so I try to accommodate myself as much as I can. I get up at 6:30 or 7:00, have coffee and breakfast and read the paper. I try to be at my desk by eight and write until noon or so. I have lunch then and do errands and go back to my desk, usually to do work for my teaching. I make a point of getting in an hour or so of exercise at the end of the working day. Not very glamorous, I'm afraid, but it works for me.

I tell my students and believe firmly that it's important to be selfish about your time. You have to tell people that this is my writing time, don't bother me, and mean it. I was speaking at a writing conference one time and told the audience my selfishness theory, and a woman came up to me afterward, in tears, and said, "Thank you, you've just saved my marriage." I was a little taken aback, but I understood what she was saying--that I had given her license to tell her husband to bug off. But the second part of the idea is that once you have established "your" time, you have to make sure you use it. This is the discipline aspect. You have to make yourself go to your writing place and be there during your writing time, regardless whether you get anything done while you're there. Usually you will, but even if you don't, you've established the pattern. For me, this is important. I need time, space and emotional energy to write well. And I achieve that best in my own space, at my own desk, with my own routine.

How do you organize your research materials?

If I'm writing about something I'm interested in but don't know much about, I do lots of research. For instance, I recently wrote a short-short story about dressing Lenin's body in his tomb. I'd become obssessed with how this was done and started looking into it. In the end, I probably had two hundred pages of material on everything from Lenin the man to the cult of Lenin and, of course, how scientists changed his suit. When I'm doing that kind of research, I have a designated space on my desk for that project--my Lenin pile, so to speak. But in more practical terms, I usually research a single subject--the make of a car, the title of a song, who said what and when--and write notes to myself about it and keep them in another, smaller pile on my desk. Strangely, I know which pile is which. I've been doing better lately with file folders, but even that get cumbersome. Most of my research is topical, having to do with details that lend verisimilitude to my writing. For instance, you can't have a character reading a book that hasn't been printed yet or wearing clothes that aren't available, that sort of thing.

How did you find your agent/publisher?

In the beginning, I had an agent for Sing, Ronnie Blue. She was a wonderful woman, who believed strongly in my writing and in my novel. She tried hard to find a publisher for the book and ultimately, after many near misses, wasn't able to and turned the book back over to me. I began looking around on my own and came across Rager Media. I read excerpts from things they had printed or were in the process of printing and was impressed with their seriousness. I wrote them, asking if they were interested is seeing my novel. They said yes, and the rest is history.

This is your debut novel. However, you've had a long and prestigious writing career. How long has this book been in the making and why now?

Sing, Ronnie Blue took me three years to write originally. I've spent probably another two years putting the final-final prepublication touches on it. Someone told me once that you never stop tinkering with your writing until it's in print and then begin tinkering again when you get it ready for the second edition.

There are so many variables in placing a book for publication that it's hard to say why Sing, Ronnie Blue was accepted now but not in the beginning. The mood of the reading public may be different, the economy, people's political sense, who knows? Vibes, karma? Writing to Chris White at Rager Media at just the right time? Whatever happened happened, and I couldn't be happier about it. The book sold out of the initial printing in the first month after publication and rose to number three on the Small Press Distribution list of best selling fiction. It's been well reviewed. I've had lots of radio and print interviews. It's all been good. 8). You have an MFA in creative writing. It's something a lot of writers think about (including myself). I've talked to writers who want to immerse themselves in learning more - others say unless you're going to teach, it isn't worth the considerable financial investment. How has it helped your career?

I should preface my comments by saying that I don't believe you can teach people to write fiction. In the end, producing good fiction really is a matter of talent, and that's not something you can teach. On the other hand, you can teach skills and techinques to help make that fiction better. You can teach people how to read as writers, which any would-be writer simply must do. You can help people develop a better critical sense and vocabulary.

All of these skills can be accrued via creative writing classes in continuing studies departments at most universities or through more formal MFA programs. Having a degree in writing, such as an MFA, does give you a credential of sorts. It can help open doors to teaching or other writing-related jobs, but it doesn't guarantee a position anywhere. For teaching in particular, it's far more important that you have a strong publication record--usually with books but sometimes with a string of individual stories, poems, plays or essays, if they are in reputable periodicals. In general, I would say that the greatest benefits from an MFA are in the unfettered time you get to write, the community of like-minded people you talk with, and the network you form while you're in that community.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to aspiring novelists?

Read, read, read. Good writing, not hack work. Read the greats and those now on their way to greatness. Also, write, write, write. Know that eventually, if you're good enough, you will get noticed. You do, of course, need to let people know you're around by sending works out for editors to consider for publication. No one is going to come seek you out.10). What's next for you and where can people find your book? Do you have a website/blog where people can learn more about you?

I currently have one novel marinating, as I call it, in my files. I'll pull it out soon, tweak it and start sending it out--presumably first to Rager Media, the publisher of Sing, Ronnie Blue. I am also in the midst of writing another novel. I'm maybe half way through with it. I have a couple of collections of short stories in circulation as well. And many ideas in the hopper.

If people are interested, they can read more about me and the first chapter of my novel at http://www.singronnieblue.com/ There is a "how to purchase" page at that website with direct links to places where the book is available--at a local bookstore (ask them to order through Small Press Distributors) or online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Borders or http://www.ragermedia.com/

Gary's eagerly awaiting the 10th question...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you belong to a writing critique group? Who do you have read your writing to critique it or are you your only critiquer?

8:20 AM CDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you have any advice for switching from nonfiction to fiction? I'm an old newspaperwoman, now freelancing, and have always written nonfiction. I have some fiction ideas I'd like to play with, but am stymied on how to start. I've taken fiction writing classes before, and couldn't stop myself from always writing ledes. (BTW, I read voraciously, everything from Lee Smith to Shakespeare.)

8:50 AM CDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:28 AM CDT  

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