Ah, Richard. I met Richard at BookFest Windsor a few years ago. He was one of the YA (young adult) authors in attendance at the festival, and he participated in the award ceremony for the student writing contest winners. By ‘participate’ I mean he gave a kick-ass, engaging, entertaining and heartfelt talk to the students and audience members. Since then, I’ve been a quiet fan of Richard. He’s a teacher, a writer, a poet…and he’s quite prolific (I’m also quietly envious!) with many published books to his name. It’s National Poetry Month and he is launching his latest book of poetry ‘Apocalypse One Hundred‘ (Turnstone Press) in Toronto later this month. I thought – it’s high-time (you like that pun?) to interview this fella! (I’ve bolded and underlined parts of his responses that spoke extra loudly to me, perhaps they will to you as well!)
VS: Can you describe the moment when you knew in your heart and soul that you were a writer?
RS: Yes, I can! I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it again here:
I was in Grade 6, and I had a great homeroom teacher who would give us these open-ended writing prompts, which I really liked. I was never really into “topics”, because if the topic didn’t interest me, I couldn’t write anything good, because I wasn’t invested in the story. Anyway, one day we were given a “topic” instead of a prompt: our teacher simply wrote “Hurricane Hazel” on the board.
None of us knew what Hurricane Hazel was, since we grew up in southwestern Ontario, where tornadoes are common enough, but not hurricanes. Eventually, a more dutiful student looked it up and discovered that Hurricane Hazel hit Toronto in 1954, which was a long time before any of us were born, and a long way from our little hamlet of Ruthven, Ontario, so I wasn’t invested in writing about it. Anyway, while all of the other kids were writing about what it might have been like to live in a big city when a hurricane hit, I decided that I would write a story about a backroad drag race instead.
In the story, I had this guy driving a ‘69 Mustang with a 428 Super Cobra Jet Engine, one of the fastest cars ever built (and still my dream car, so many years later). Anyway, another guy pulls up beside the Mustang in a ‘76 Chevette, one of the most underpowered cars ever built. The guy in the Mustang can’t believe it when the guy in the Chevette rolls down the window and challenges him to a drag race. So the guy in the Mustang sighs, “Okay, if you want. But I only race for ownership papers.”
The light turns green and the Chevette just takes off like a rocket, it’s gone. By the time guy in the Mustang catches up at the next stop sign, it’s over; he’s lost his awesome Mustang to this guy in a rust-speckled Chevette, and he wonders aloud, “How is this possible?” And the guy in the Chevette opens the hood of his car and reveals a V-12 Rolls Merlin from a Hawker Hurricane fighter plane wedged in under the hood. A classic “Don’t judge a book by its cover” story, I suppose.
At this point you may be asking, “Okay, what does any of this this have to do with Hurricane Hazel?” Well, the Chevette had the engine from the Hawker Hurricane, and in the last line of the story, we discover that its owner has painted a nickname for the car on its fender: “Hurricane Hazel”.
I wasn’t sure how my teacher would react to the story, because I had sidestepped the topic and wrote the story that I wanted to write, instead of what I was supposed to write. It turned out that my teacher loved it, and even let me read the story to the class, who also really liked it. And I’ll be honest, I really liked it when people responded positively!
And that was what got me started down the long road to becoming a “professional” author, I guess; it’s one of the few jobs in which you can break the rules, and you might actually be rewarded for it.
VS: Describe your writing process – where/when/how? What does it take to get your butt in the chair to write?
RS: Well, I create when I feel creative, and I revise and edit the rest of the time.
About one day out seven, I will have a new idea for a story, or a poem, or a “Eureka!” moment when I know what needs to happen in the next chapter of a novel I’m writing. The other six days I spend revising, revising, revising. The ratio of time spent revising work I’ve already written to time spent creating new material from scratch is about six-to-one.
What gets my butt in the chair, and keeps it there, is that I think of being an author as my full-time job, and everything else is “everything else”.
VS: When do you think about your readers? As you’re writing? Not at all? How important are your ‘readers’ to your writing life?
RS: Once the book is finished and published, I think about my readers a lot! My readers are important not just to my “writing” life, but to my “life” life, because, ideally, while I want lots of people to enjoy reading what I’ve written, it’s also a nice side effect when you sell enough books to pay a few of your bills.
While I’m in the process of creating something new, though, I think a lot more about what I want my writing to do, rather than about who is going to read it after it’s out there in the world. My first few books were YA novels, but I didn’t specifically write them to fit into that category; I just was trying to write a good books; and when my agent at the time referred to my most recent novels, The Indifference League and Rockets Versus Gravity, as “Adult Literary/Commercial” titles, I just shrugged and said, “Okay.”
I don’t tend to think much about the “market” for a book or story or poem while I’m creating it; I’m mostly just concerned with the work succeeding on its own terms. I trust my little creations to find the right readers for themselves once they are out there in the world.
On the occasions that I have attempted to write for what I think the “market” wants (based on what I’m seeing on TV or in theatres, for example), it has NEVER worked; I always have to go back and make it back into the story I originally imagined in the first place. Trust me on this one.
VS: How does your support system (family/friends/coworkers) work for and against your creative output?
RS: My partner Danielle is my “ideal reader”. Everything I write is for her, partly because I love her, and partly because she reads deeply, widely, attentively, and voraciously, so I trust her feedback. She is always the first reader of anything I write.
I also give a lot of credit to my parents. They both read to us a lot as kids, and there were always heaps of books and magazines of every topic and genre and style around the house for us to explore at will. Right now, they are both probably sitting in their rec room, mom devouring a novel and dad dissecting a National Geographic or some kind of technical manual. Reading was always a big part of the day’s normal routine in our household, and I am grateful for that now. I wanted to be a writer from a pretty early age, and our parents encouraged us to become ourselves, not merely carbon copies of them, and I am also grateful for that. So, thanks, mom and dad!
VS: How long have been teaching creative writing? How does being a teacher help/motivate/distract you from your personal writing?
RS: I’ve been teaching creative writing at the college level for over a decade, and my students have become part of the “support system” that we were just talking about. They are serious about becoming better writers, and they ask serious questions, which in turn gets me thinking seriously about aspects of the craft that I might otherwise sometimes take for granted. Their enthusiasm nourishes my own creativity in a lovely symbiotic way.
There is also another benefit: many of my former students are quite talented and have gone on to publish their writing, and so I’ve got a trusted inner circle of critics/editors that I can count on to give first impressions and proofread the pre-publication galleys of anything new I’m about to release (because at that stage I’ve seen the manuscript so many times that I can’t see any remaining little problems anymore). I am always happy to reciprocate by revising and editing whatever my volunteer editors are working on at the time, so I think it works out pretty well for everyone.
It reminds me of the famous equation from that Beatles song, “The love you take is equal to the love you make”; whatever small contributions I manage to add to the evolution of my students’ writing seems to come around and improve my own work, too.
VS: Are you conscious of a message/theme/intention when you’re writing? Do you feel compelled to affect your readers? Or yourself?
RS: Always. Whether I’m trying to write fast-paced, funny, plot-and-character driven YA, “serious” adult literary fiction, or poetry in any of its myriad forms and modes, I believe that the common denominators of great writing are thoughts and feelings. My first priority in writing anything is to tell a compelling and/or entertaining story (or, in the case of some of my poetry, to least hint at a larger story), but I also want to leave the reader with feelings and thoughts that will linger long after they’ve reached the conclusion.
VS: What do you do with all your ideas? Write them in a book? Email them to yourself? Staple a paper to your forehead? (Ouch.)
RS: Other than drawing out historical timelines for my novels with long narrative timeframes and/or multi-generational main characters, I don’t write much down ahead of time before I plunge into a new project, but I think about it for a long time before I get started. I don’t usually begin a project until I understand who the main characters are, and where the story is going to go.
When I’m lucky enough to collide with new ideas, I mostly just keep them filed away inside my head. If I think I have a “great” idea for a poem or story or a plot development in a novel, and I can’t remember what it was the next day, then maybe it wasn’t so “great” after all. It’s the ideas that don’t manage to fall through the gaps in my sieve-like memory that I will eventually explore further. The ideas that persist and gather momentum in my subconscious until bursting through into my “workday” mind, those are the ones that I’ll pour my energy into.
VS: You write in different genres – novels (fiction), poetry…likely articles (non-fictions!) – how do you negotiate your time and creative juices between these different genres?
RS: You’re right, my “style” of writing does tend to wander, and hopefully it’s learning and growing as it meanders. I’ve written four YA novels, four books of “Adult Literary/Commercial” fiction, two very different books of poetry, and nearly a hundred individual stories and poems, and I think they all have different personalities. I think part of the reason for this variation is that I treat every new project as a new adventure, and every new voyage changes me (and therefore my “style”) in some way.
Every human life is a complex and variable thing, and I think every artist’s output can (and maybe should) demonstrate similar complexity and variability. You don’t have to do the same thing every time! I write humorous stories when an idea strikes me as funny, “literary” stories when I’m feeling serious and thoughtful, and poetry when I’ve encountered an idea or feeling that is too big or slippery to contain with prose.
Each novel, story, or poem I write has a life of its own, and like a good parent, I try to let each one find its own “style”.
VS: In one sentence, describe your style of writing.
RS: I try to write the kind of poems, stories, and novels that I want to read.
VS: If you could lunch with any writer, who would it be and what are three questions you’d ask him/her?
RS: The list of authors whom I admire is almost endless, but off the top of my head, let’s say Ernest Hemingway, and, specifically, let’s say that we’ll be having lunch in the pool house at Finca la Vigia, his estate just outside of Havana, because that would be fun, and maybe also because one of his famous friends like Ingrid Bergman or Pablo Picasso might drop in for a poolside cocktail.
Question 1: So, Ernest would you please tell me exactly how I can get my finger on the pulse of my time and write novels both heralded by critics and popular with readers while also telling the kind of stores that I want to tell?
Question 2: That swordfish was delicious, and so was the story of how you caught it! Ahhh…. such a beautiful day. Would you mind if I went for a quick swim in the pool? Hey, is that Ava Gardner?
Question 3: Want to head into town for a drink? I thought so! A mojito at La Bodeguita, or a daiquiri at La Floridita? Decisions, decisions…
VS: Offer one last thought…
RS: Maybe I should have chosen a different author than Hemingway for the last question. Now I feel sunburnt and drunk.