Interview With A Writer

January 2009 finds me enjoying the subtropical heat of Brisbane and slowly returning to my regularly scheduled program of writing, reading, teaching, and repotting — though with the addition of a girlfriend named Tara, and a three-legged kitten currently known as Dali (a kitten who blithely ignored Wendy, 99, Yo-yo, String Theory, Tassels, Gingersnap, Catapult, Spandex, Plummet, and a host of other names). We’re hopeful she’ll answer to Dali eventually, won’t get tangled in another tassel, and won’t tumble off the top-floor balcony when we’re not looking…

But on to the interview…

The Rules:

1. Leave me a comment saying, “Interview me!”
2. I will respond by asking you five questions. I get to pick the questions.
3. You will post the answers to the questions (and the questions themselves) on your blog or journal.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions. And thus the endless cycle of the meme goes on and on and on and on…

The interview below is thanks to Ben Francisco, my co-writer on last year’s This is My Blood, in the Dreaming Again anthology, and a wonderful writer in his own right.

1. The “So what?” factor in the stuff you write (both fiction and nonfiction) is pretty high, and you often explore big philosophical questions.  Is there a particular philosopher(s) or school of philosophy that you’re drawn to, and how does that influence your life and work?

I’ve been influenced a lot by philosophical Taoism, and to a much lesser extent Buddhism. Zhuangzi, one of the two foundational Taoists, expressed his philosophy through (knowingly) fantastical vignettes. I’m pretty sure he’d be writing spec-fic if he were alive today — he was the one who wondered whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. Zhuangzi is the playful side of Taoism, and the mysterious Laozi (credited with writing the Tao Te Ching) is the monastic side. Both are present in my writing; polarities like yin/yang and east/west are central to my understanding of my life and my writing. My introduction to Taoism was through Raymond Smullyan’s The Tao is Silent, and it’s still one of my favourite books, both whimsical and wise.

When it comes to Western philosophy, I enjoy the menagerie that is the ancient Greek philosophers. Much of my writing explores  questions of knowledge and reality and truth, so Descartes is a useful springboard, even if he has a lot to answer for. For similar reasons, gnosticism also fascinates me, as a playground rather than something I subscribe to personally. But if I had to choose one western philosopher, I’d choose Spinoza. I once listed myself as a ‘Spinozan’ on the religion question of a census form, though I may have been drunk at the time. Spinoza has been described as an atheist and a mystic, and so have I.

2. You write not only in many genres, but in many forms: short stories, longer fictions, dramatic plays, haikus, blog posts, and nonfiction.  Some of these modes (e.g., the haiku and the drama) have tight structural constraints.  Do you feel you learn something from writing in these modes that you can then carry over to the more free-for-all forms?

Definitely. Dialogue has always been one of my weaknesses, and I was originally drawn to plays as a way of forcing myself to tell a story completely through dialogue. My characters have a tendency to monologue (an actor once told me I was the only playwright he knew who wrote in paragraphs), but I have learnt a lot about dialogue in the process. I also find the tight constraints of plays and haiku and even genre useful because they limit my natural inclination to make things insanely complicated, and help subsume my grand themes and ideas into a conversation or an image, where they belong. I’m fascinated by form and style, but I’m not a post-modernist, so I’m slowly learning to give priority to substance, which I often (incorrectly) assumed was out of my head and on the page.

3. You’re working on a book about your experience walking across the entire length of Japan.  Are you looking for a narrative arc in your journey, or a philosophical framework, or some other way to bring your experiences together in a cohesive way?

I’ll be tying it together in a narrative arc with a central theme, for the very practical reason of getting published. Life is a series of random events which we tie together into a story with ourselves as the hero, and I’m interested in exploring the fiction of non-fiction and the non-fiction of fiction. My friend Ian, who began walking Japan in the opposite direction but had to pull out due to injury, is also writing about his journey, and we hope to combine our narratives into a single work of alternating chapters. We had very different experiences, and very different interpretations of the experiences we shared, so that should keep things interesting.

4. Among the many kernels of wisdom you shared during your hike across Japan, you said, “I should be spending most of my time doing the things that are most important to me.” Being back in Australia, going through the process of reacculturation, do you feel you’re able to integrate that advice to yourself, and other learnings, into your day-to-day life?

It’s challenging. I’m still in the process of renegotiating and integrating many things, and I don’t feel like I’m there yet. But being on the path is enough — as Laozi wrote, and I painfully learnt several times over, the journey of a thousand miles really does start with a single step. As a good friend pointed out to me recently, if returning was easy then you’d have to wonder if the experience changed me at all. Reacculturation is definitely going to be something I explore in my fiction; in what form I don’t yet know.

5. Please share a haiku that incorporates at least one spec fic trope and at least one line of dialogue.

“As you wish, my friend.”
And with that the wanderer
passed out of the tale.

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3 Responses to Interview With A Writer

  1. benfrancisco says:

    Whoa! #5 just blew me away a bit. You even snuck in some metafiction there. I guess my questions were not so tough after all. 🙂

    Okay, now you get to take a stab at me….

  2. hydrolith says:

    Questions for Ben Francisco:

    1. What are three of your creative keystones — books or experiences from your childhood that had a big impact on you as a person and writer?

    2. Imagine you're writing a thesis proposal. What's your thesis topic?

    3. You sometimes worry that your stories are light and upbeat — though I think too few do it well, and nothing beats a well-earned happy ending. But in any case, you've expressed a desire to torture your characters a bit more. Most of your stories explore identity in some way, so creating identity out of a struggle with darkness makes a lot of sense. But I wonder what darkness you think lies within identity. Have you ever explored, or considered exploring, identity through an anti-hero?

    4. Can you name a writer or book you love to hate? Someone who gets under your skin and really annoys you, but who you can't stop reading. Why do you like and dislike them?

    5. What's a marginalised group you'd like to see more stories from and about?

  3. benfrancisco says:

    Thanks for these great questions, Chris. My answers are here: http://benfrancisco.net/2009/01/31/further-interv

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