Writing is a way to explore contradictions. For me, a story gets going when I “hear” characters; and right away those characters start contradicting themselves, or wanting what’s bad for them, or hurting someone they love. Why does our head often contradict our heart? I’ll never know, but I like using fiction to try to figure it out.
I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That high desert landscape influenced me early on, even if it doesn’t always show up now in my writing. The vast, scrubbed-blue sky, the wide middle distances, even the dust storms, provided a way of observing the world that still informs my stories. It is a world of small motels, long open highways, truck stops, and state parks that somehow bends my perspective, even if I’m setting a story in London or New Orleans.
I give credit to my mother for starting me on the road to writing. Every gift from my grandmother had to be acknowledged with a thank-you note, and I could not say “Thanks for the sweater.” I had to say “The blue cotton sweater with the green felt daisy on it is exactly the kind of thing I love.” In other words, I had to be specific. Later on, for school essays, as I stared at the blank notebook paper, she would say, “Just write something down and then change it.” Excellent advice for a writer.
My earliest jobs involved technical writing for computer companies. Technical writing taught me two things: How much of writing involves staying in the chair; and how every piece of writing (yes, even a software manual) has a voice. Voice is the most critical and magical thing about writing. One of my heroes, Elie Wiesel, said, “Literature is a tone. It is a melody. If I find the melody of a book, the book is written.” I believe he was talking about the consequence of voice.
My favorite form is the short story. Often I start by simply following a character around, but I always hope that by the end of the journey some glimmer of truth will shine through. Something, however small, that connects us all. Another of my favorite writers, Michael Ondaatje, in his book The Cat’s Table, said:
“There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.”
I believe this is true in writing fiction and in one’s own life.