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Long Story Short Interviews Author, Robert Flynn

Added: Friday, January 18th 2008 at 9:22pm by robertflynn
Related Tags: poetry, art


Long Story Short, an ezine for writers, interviewed Robert Flynn this month - here's what he had to say.

Robert, we're thrilled to have a chance to chat with you - you're certainly an accomplished author! Tell us about yourself, your life, your background.

I was born at home, the doctor was late, I have never been a hospital patient.  I was a Depression baby but my father was a farmer-stockman.  We raised crops and livestock and were almost self-sufficient.  We had an orchard, two vineyards, two gardens, one of them irrigated.  We took wheat and corn to the mill in Chillicothe and for a percentage of the grain they returned it as flour and cornmeal.  We sent wool to Fort Worth and they returned some of it as blankets.  We grew sugar cane for syrup, slaughtered our own beef, pork, chickens and sold wheat, cotton, hay, butter, eggs and vegetables.  

How long have you been writing? What made you put that first story down on paper?

Growing up on a farm meant that I spent a lot of time alone herding animals, harvesting grain, driving a tractor, chopping and picking cotton.  To entertain myself I invented stories,silly, childish stories but I learned that the most exciting thing that ever happened to me was likely to happen in my head. My father didn't ask me to do a lot of things outside of farmwork but when I enlisted in the Marines he asked me to keep a diary.  My grandfather was murdered when Dad was eight-years-old.  School meant walking four miles each way when he didn't have to help his mother hang on to the farm.  He didn't graduate from elementary school.  However, when he served in France during the First World War he kept a diary and he wanted me to do the same.  I got in the habit of rethinking and recording each day at the end of it.  I returned to college afterthe Marines and a professor, Paul Baker, said I could write.  He didn't say I could write well or could be a writer but he gave me the permission I seemed to need. 

Do you write in a particular genre? If so, what genre is it?

I don't fit into an genre.  "North to Yesterday" is kind of an anti-western myth.  "Tie-Fast Country" is a story of a contemporary ranch woman who was raised to be the son her father never had and to hang on to his ranch.  Neither is a "western."  "The Devils Tiger" has mystery, murder and suspense but it's not a genre mystery.  "The Last Klick" is set in Vietnam but it is more about reporting the war than about fighting the war.  "The Sounds of Rescue, the Signs of Hope" is set during World War Two but it's more about spiritual, psychological survival than physical survival. 

Have you been published?

I have published seven novels, a memoir, two collections of short stories and one of essays and have been a contributor to more than 25 other books.

What was the first story? Where was it published?

My first story, "The Dog That Knew Better" was accepted by Story Magazine and I received a check but the magazine failed before the story was published.  Contrary to popular rumor it was not my fault.  The first published story was in Yale Review.

How long did it take to write and publish?

I don't remember an exact date when I decided that I would write but I did make a definite commitment to write.  I wrote some plays that were produced by students, I was commissioned to write a one-act play for a summer camp, but the first publication came five or six years after I committed to writing and the first novel was published about 15 years after I confessed to my wife that I wanted to be a writer. 

What was the process?

I had been working on a play about a knight that morphed into an old cowboy who had given up cowboying and adventure to marry but still dreamed of buying a herd of cattle and driving them north to market, taking his son with him and turning him into a man.  However, the son knows the days of trail driving are past and he dreams of being a railroad engineer.   When the old cowboy's wife died, he sold the store, bought a herd and started north with his son.  But the setting and stage directions got longer and the dialogue shorter and after a time I reluctantly accepted that it was going to be a novel about dreams but there is that herd of cattle.  I feared if it were published as a genre western those who loved such books would hate it.  Writer's Market said that Knopf did not publish westerns so I wrote a cover letter that the book was no more a western thanDon Quixote was a western and dropped it over the transom.  They kept it six months writing an occasional letter that they wanted another editor to read it.  By that time I had a play agent, Robert Freedman, so I sent the manuscript to him.  He didn't handle fiction but had a colleague, Robert Lescher, who did so he gave him the manuscript.  Lescher called Knopf and told them to send a contract or return the manuscript and three months later I had a contract.     

Who's your favorite author and why?

William Faulkner with Herman Melville a close second, but sometimes it's Franz Kafka.  Faulkner because of his insight into the south,  Melville because of his insight into obsession, and Kafka because of his insight into the Twentieth Century.

How did you deal with rejection letters, if you received any?

I've received many rejection letters and still do.  It's as much part of writing as a pen, typewriter or word processor.  After Pearl Buck became the first American and still the only American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, she wrote that she still received rejection letters and they hurt more than ever.  If she received rejections how could I imagine I wouldn't?

What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?

Character, use of language and insight.  I don't read stories if the characters are not important to me or the language is facile or if the writer has nothing to say.  

How do you develop your plots/characters, ideas/concepts ? Do you use any set formula?

I usually begin with an idea or concept.  With "Wanderer Springs" I knew only the texture when I began.  I wanted the stories woven together in a ball so that each time one character passed another another there was a history or backstory that impacted each.  "Tie-Fast Country" was the only novel I tried to outline before writing but the outline became a detailed chapter summary.  I had to change the placement of a chapter but otherwise the plot fell out before me.   I did probably fifteen rewrites but I always knew where the story was going.

What do you do to unwind and relax?

I used to run but after knee surgery I now walk.  Exercise is the best way to get away from your chair and mind.  To get away from writing I have to leave home so my wife and I travel.  I may keep notes or ideas may come about some project I am working on and I jot those down and a couple of times I have written travel articles while traveling and twice stories but that just happens. 

What do you like to read?

Mostly history, especially about some country I have visited.  I sometimes wish I had majored in history but the professors I had didn't excite me about history.  I discovered that on my own.  I read poetry.  I find it dangerous to read fiction while working on a novel because I sometimes discover someone who is trying to do the same thing thematically or regarding character or language that I am doing.  So, I stop reading it at that point. 

What does your family feel about your writing? Are they supportive?

My wife has always been supportive and that has sometimes meant financially supportive.  When the children were small my wife was sometimes at work and I was responsible for them.  When I left my office for a cup of coffee, I was still writing but they wanted me to enlist in a game, answer a question or settle an argument.  I began wearing a hat when I was writing and told them if I had a hat on they were not to interrupt me unless something was on fire or one of them was bleeding.  Once they came into my office and said they weren't hurt but there was something they wanted to show me.  I knew what it was before I turned around.  A baby skunk.  My mother was proud of me as a writer but she feared someone would think everything in a novel was something that I had done or that people would think every mother in a story was her.  Mymother-in-law once asked what I was doing when she was visiting and my wife explained that I was writing.  "I thought he had finished his book," said my mother-in-law who imagined writing was like burying a horse rather than having to feed it every day. 

What inspires you? Who inspires you?

Almost anything.  Once at a public reading I saw a friend in the audience and dedicated the reading to him since he was the one who told me one of the stories.  Afterwards he denied that anything like the story had ever happened to him and I realized the way it happened wasn't the way it should have happened.  I had corrected his story.  Once I overheard a woman say, "Thank God I'm not like my sister."  That made me wonder what her sister was like and what she was like and that became a story.  Once I expressed concern over an elderly woman I had met and people who knew her said, "Don't worry too much about her.  She's killed two men."  I didn't want to hear any more. Anything else would have been a limitation.  I knew then that I would invent a woman who killed two men, who they were, why she killed them and what happened to her becauseof it.  That was "Tie-Fast Country."

Are you working on any projects right now?

 Wings Press is publishing a limited edition, letter press printing on handmade paper of a short memoir, "Burying the Farm."  It's about the farm that I now own, that I was born on, that has been in the family for a 120 years.  That takes you back to Wild West, Indians and coming of the railroad in that part of Texas.  I have a novel scheduled for Spring publication but we haven't agreed on a title yet.  I have about 140 pages of short pieces, some of them already published.  I'm working on some other stories along the same lines for another story collection.

How do you handle Writer's Block?

If it's not knowing what the next line should be, how to write the scene, how to end the story I sometimes try to write it ten ways it shouldn't be written or how different writers would do it.  Once I get beyond thinking there's only one way to do it I loosen up enough to do it.  I once went several years without publishing anything.  I returned from Vietnam, my wife was, wrongly, diagnosed as having Multiple  Sclerosis and our youngest daughter died all in less than two months.  I had to reinvent my life and reconstruct my psyche.  I kept writing every day although nothing I wrote worked. Out of that wreckage came two novels "Wanderer Springs," and "The Last Klick," a memoir "A Personal War in Vietnam," a story collection, "Seasonal Rain," and a couple of the stories in "Living With the Hyenas."  Everything I have written since has beeninformed by that slough of despair.  The silence had been one of my most productive periods, although I didn't recognize it at the time.   When I broke out of silence a fan wrote that he had been searching for something new I had written and had decided I had died.  He seemed happy that I hadn't.  A number of writer friends remarked how prolific I was.  

What is most frustrating about writing? Most rewarding?

Waiting for the publisher to respond to a submission, waiting for the galleys knowing they have to be corrected and returned the day you get them and you have other plans, waiting for the story to appear in the real world.  The most rewarding thing in writing is writing, recognizing that there among the scores of bad paragraphs is a jewel of a sentence, recognizing that you just wrote something you didn't know you knew, hearing a line and knowing it's a good line before you realize that you were the author of it. 

Do you have any kind of writing schedule?

I wake up, do squats, sit ups, push ups, pelvic thrusts, crunches, leg lifts for 30 minutes while listening to classical music, have breakfast and follow a cup of coffee to my office.  I write until early afternoon, have a late lunch and spend the rest of the afternoon editing or rewriting although sometimes something fresh springs up.  I check email, spend 40 minutes to an hour on the Walk Fit, read or watch a movie on DVD, read in bed until I fall asleep and hope I don't start writing again because if I do I can't sleep. 

What is the best piece of advice you've been given as a writer? What's the worst?

Write for the wastebasket.  Eugene McKinney, a playwright and professor, meant don't wait for an immortal line to appear on a blank page followed by another immortal line.  Write knowing that one good page out of twenty is a high average.  Keep writing until something magic happens at the end of your fingers.  The worst advice-Only a blockhead writes for something other than money.

If I were sitting down to write my very first story, what would your advice be?

Ask yourself who your censors are.  Who looks over your shoulder and tells you that you can't do that, you shouldn't do that.  Neutralize them.  Be patient with yourself and have confidence that if you keep writing you will eventually understand what you are trying to do.

What is your best advice for getting published?

Keep writing and keep submitting.  No one is ever likely to read something you hide in a closet.  Don't go on a long vacation because you may return to a couple of dozen rejections of submissions that were going to pay for the vacation.  If you can't take rejection then be a trash collector.  Landfills reject nothing.  

What has been the single most important part of your success?

Not recognizing or accepting success.  Success is the next book or maybe it's the one after that. 


SEE ROBERT'S WEBSITE www.robert-flynn.net

User Comments

Fascinating and encouraging---thanx 4 posting this. I'd like to get my hands on a copy of BURYING THE FARM. And how amazing that your slough of despond actually ended up functioning as something of a "grain silo" for your writing.

Thanks to all of you for reading and responding. To soultrawler, you can get a copy of Burying the Farm from Wings Press, San Antonio, Texas. To plvz1025, I don't know what a blogroll link is. Please explain and I'll consider it.

Thank you. Please pass on to others any of the blogs you like.

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