What is the title of your class?
People should take Writing Jerks if…
…they are struggling with a protagonist they have created, who—it has come to their dismayed attention—is totally unlikable. This class is also for people who want to learn how to create an effective anti-hero, for whom the reader roots rather than hates. Either way, it’s for those who want to cover this ground in one exuberant, jam-packed afternoon.
People should take Crowding the House if…
…they want to learn how to manage multiple or shifting points of view in fiction. Ideally, they crave an intensive exploration of the hows and whys of basic point-of-view manipulation, yet also possess a burning desire to dabble in more advanced, contemporary techniques. Ultimately it’s for those who are ready to spend six weeks immersed in the excellent cacophony of stories that can only be told by a chorus of characters.
Can your students connect with you on social media? If so, how?
I’m always happy to receive an old-school email from students. Facebook I’m still sorting out, in the hopes that I can create a space that is something other than a really weird cocktail party attended by elderly relatives, former employers, members of my rock band, professional colleagues, and elementary school friends I haven’t seen in 35 years.
Are any of your works online and available to the public?
In the online archives of Narrative Magazine, under my name, are two short stories. Registration is required but viewing of those authors who have not yet attained the status of literary luminary—ahem—is free.
What excites you about the material you’re teaching?
For Writing Jerks: Perhaps perversely, I’ve always found myself drawn to teaching subjects that I myself have struggled with as a writer. (Unlikable protagonist? Mine?) Invariably, I’m excited by the prospect of exploring the ways in which we, as authors, can more completely inhabit our roles as the masters of our fictional universes. There’s just as much pleasure to be had in redeeming a character who seemed hopeless as there is delight to be taken in indulging the sordid, sorry ways of a character who is unrepentantly bad.
For Crowding the House: Although the story being told—and the characters who bring it to life—are of course paramount in fiction, I love the nitty-gritty mechanics of fiction writing. Nothing lights my brain up brighter than picking apart the machine to see what makes it tick, examining the historical precedents that created the forms we see now, and exploring the effects of different techniques that can help to tell a story in the most effective way possible. I hope to impart that same geeky relish to my students.
Tell us a bit about your previous teaching experience.
I’ve taught composition and introductory fiction writing at the University of Arizona, at the online writing studio for She Writes, and in lots of workshops over the years. I’ve also volunteered with 826 Seattle, Writers in the Schools, and programs for at-risk youth. I’ll be teaching at Write on the Sound (the Edmonds writers’ conference) for the first time this fall. I’ve taught classes at the Hugo House since 2007.
What do you like best about teaching at Hugo House?
The energy students bring to the classroom. They come from all walks and stages of life, and they bring with them a diversity and richness of experience that you typically can’t find in, say, a traditional college workshop. I get excited by students who are motivated by their own desire for knowledge and the improvement of their craft—at any level of writing experience—rather than by earning a grade. It’s an environment that naturally encourages enthusiasm, humility, and kind clearheadedness toward the work of others. Not to mention goofy moments of humor. I approve of those.
What’s the best piece of writing you’ve read in the past year?
Three books that are quite belatedly on my reading list, which I suspect will make me feel this way once I finally have them in my clutches: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (stories) as well as Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, both by Ben Fountain.
What books made you want to write?
I would say these books made me want to keep writing: Mark Helprin’s Freddy and Fredricka; Jane Smiley’s Moo; Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections; Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek; Gish Jen’s short story collection, Who’s Irish?; Nabokov’s Lolita; Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter.
If there was one piece of advice you could give an aspiring writer, what would it be?
Here are three pieces of advice, all courtesy of far more articulate minds than my own:
“We write not to be understood. We write to understand.” –Cecil Day-Lewis
“Fail. Fail again. Fail better.” –George Bernard Shaw
“Know yourself. Listen to a lot of music. Don’t whine. Maintain your sense of humor; indulge your sense of play. Persist, persist, persist.”—Kathleen Krull
If you were to meet your favorite writer in person later today, what would you say to them?
Fantasy answer: “Is it just as hard for you, or is your brain just bigger than mine?”
Closer to the actual blurted answer: “I’ll make you some enchiladas, if you want.”
What are you reading now? If you could pair it with a beverage (alcoholic or otherwise), what would you choose?
Approximately two years’ worth of neglected back issues of Poets & Writers and The Writers’ Chronicle magazines (many, many cups of hot, strong, unsweetened black tea). Theft, by novelist and essayist B. K. Loren (ice cold water from a clear mountain stream). And, oh yes, in stolen moments, Louise Ames’ Your Four-Year-Old: Wild and Wonderful (a shot of tequila, served in a racecar-shaped shot glass).