[*Late breaking news addition~We got a mention in the LA Times blog today! Woohoo. Now on with the interview...]
Nominated: Pulitzer Prize, ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award, Pushcart Prize, Frankfurt eBook Award (IEBAF - International eBook Award Foundation), and National Book Award. [I stole this from Harvey's site because I knew he'd downplay his accomplishments, of which these are only a few.] Read more at his website Stonethread.com and check out Harvey's new blog - Writing the World.
1.) When, how and why did you start writing?
I'm not sure. When I was about 9 a teacher asked us to write a story we made up. Mine explained why the US Capitol sits on a hill. Had something to do with the dome falling off and pushing up the ground. Around the same time I wrote a short story about atoms. It was prompted by a trip to the principal's office. A test question was "Can mankind exactly measure a mile?" I answered No. When asked to explain, I said since we know atoms exist but nobody had seen one yet, we obviously couldn't measure a mile "exactly," as in "from one atom to another atom a mile away." The principal eventually agreed with me and the teacher was miffed. Anyway, I enjoyed telling a story and have been writing ever since.
2.) One of the quotes on your Writers' Quotes page is from Sylvia Plath: "Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing." You've published quite a bit and in different genres, but must have tons of other work sitting in files and old spiral notebooks. Does it taunt you and beg you to submit it?
I do have quite a bit of work sitting "in desk drawers," but no, it doesn't bother me. The gestation period for different pieces of writing varies, and when it's ready, it's ready. Some of it might never be ready, yet it serves a purpose. It might fit in another project or it might take a different direction than I might have forced on it earlier. Besides, it's all writing: some has been seen by others and some has not. Some will never be seen by others, but I still had to write it.
3.) Between writing prose and poetry, editing, doing the conference circuit and everything else you have going on, how do you find time to work on your own stuff? Is there a secret to balance and productivity?
Well, I don't travel the conference circuit anymore. It's become too wearing on me. Now I edit others' works from my home as a day job, and I teach half-day seminars twice each month, one in Huachuca (pronounced wa-CHU-ca) City and one in Tucson. Occasionally I might take the seminars on the road and teach a two-day intensive, but otherwise I just don't have the heart for traveling anymore. As for my own writing, I'm thinking about it most of the time, even when I'm working on something else. When my own work tugs at me, I stop whatever else I'm doing and write for awhile. Once I've drained my pen and left a jagged edge (so it's easier to take up later), I return to whatever other work I have.
4.) What's a typical day in the life of Harvey Stanbrough look like?
Boring. I'm generally up around 5 a.m., dressed and out for a few-mile walk while the coffee's making. When I get back, I usually water the garden (unless the monsoons have brought rain), then drink a cup of coffee, answer emails, shower, dress and head for my laptop. If I'm not writing my own stuff, I open whatever I'm going to edit for the day, glance over the last few paragraphs I've edited, then go outside and take care of whatever chores need doing. There's always brush to clear, rocks to stack, etc. When I come back in, I sit down and get to work, usually around 8 a.m. I usually eat lunch at my desk, work until around six, then fix supper and maybe catch a movie. After the movie I usually find something to write for a couple hours, then zonk off to bed. Oh and somewhere in all that I feed my two cats and my chihuahua dog a couple times. Told you it was boring.
5.) About how many personal writing projects do you juggle at once?
I'm currently working on three novels. I recently wrote a few short stories that were picked up by AmazonShorts. I'm also constantly either developing or revising my Writing the World writing seminars, composing and sending instruction to new writers, etc. I don't really think of it as juggling, though. I just write what's there. I don't really feel a sense of urgency about it.
1.) Do you prefer prose over poetry?
No. Each genre has its uses, and usually the subject matter tells me in which genre it wants to express itself. The main difference, of course, is that the Sentence is the basic unit of fiction, nonfiction, plays, etc. The basic unit of poetry is the Line. As Howard Nemerov once wrote in his essay, On the Measure of Poetry, "Prose is a way of getting on, poetry a way of lingering. ... Poetry shares with prose the phrase, the sentence, and even something which the strophe has to do with the paragraph; only the line, the idea of the line, is distinctive. ...[The poetic line illustrates] that being somewhere matters as much as going somewhere...." That's a much better answer than I could have come up with on my own.
2.) Can you name the most common mistakes writers make, judging from the tons of editing you do?
Taking as gospel what they hear in critique groups. If you're a member of a critique group, you certainly should listen to every criticism, but you should write it down and then consider it later, when the emotion of being critiqued has passed. Then you should apply only those criticisms that You believe improve your work and ignore the rest. You have spent a great deal more time with your work than have members of your critique group or anyone else, so only You know what will really work or not work. I know writers who have rewritten the same novel (we're talking 100,000 words) several times, each time based on a different person's critique. Very sad. The other major problem I see is over narration. Every time the narrator speaks, he's coming between the reader and the story. The narrator's task is to describe the scene, then step out of the way. For example, the narrator should never tell the reader what a character says or thinks. The character's right there, so why not let the character himself speak in dialogue (or express unspoken thought in italics) so the reader can hear it first hand? The more the narrator stays out of the way, the more deeply the reader will become engaged in the story. Imagine going to the theater to watch a stage production of Hamlet. Just as the actor is about to deliver his soliloquy, a little guy in a tuxedo walks on stage and says "Okay, folks, here's what's about to happen." That's the same effect over narration has your reader.
3.) What's more important to a story/novel -- plot, characterization, technical ability or some other aspect?
Characters. You can have the best plot in the world (there are only about 20 or something anyway) but it won't work if your characters aren't interesting or if they don't ring true.
4.) Is an MFA essential to a writer's success, or can one learn enough on one's own?
I don't have an MFA, and I know (or know of) many successful writers who do not have an MFA. A writer certainly can learn on her own, but doing the work to attain an MFA is just another way of learning. Getting into good writing classes or seminars like mine is a good idea too, but no matter the route a writer takes to learn the craft, in her own mind, with her own mind, she should Question Everything the instructor says (yes, even instructors in MFA programs, and yes, even in my own seminars).
5.) What one thing can writers do to spruce up their dialog?
Buy a copy of Writing Realistic Dialogue & Flash Fiction (Central Ave. Press, 2004) of course. :-) The main thing is to let the characters Be who they are and Say what they want to say in the way they want to say it. Sit in the park or the mall or Denny's at two in the morning and eavesdrop. Listen to the inflections people use. Let characters use contractions. Okay, and a thousand other things, but mostly it boils down to letting the characters be who they are and say what they want to say in the way they want to say it.
6.) Is what and how much a writer reads reflected in his/her writing?
I've always heard that writers should read in the genre for which they want to write, and that sounds right to me. How much they read, I think, would only affect their writing if it cut into their writing time. There is one wrong myth I'd like to debunk: Some writers believe reading others' works will harm their ability to develop their own voice or style. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The fact is, reading others' works will certainly Inform your style, but it won't replace it or adversely affect it. The trick is to read authors whose work you admire, and then question it. Would you have written a line or stanza or sentence exactly that way? Why or why not? That's how you learn by studying others' works.
7.) If you could give one piece of advice to those slaving over a manuscript, what would it be?
Keep slaving. Don't make excuses. Most would-be writers experience an "application error," meaning they have a problem applying the seat of their pants to the chair in front of their writing.
8.) What's the biggest writing mistake you ever made?
I don't recall one. The biggest problem I have with my own writing is the inability to "just write" and save editing for later. I tend to edit as I go, and sometimes I forget part of the story.
9.) Tell us a funny or strange story about writing.
As I lay soundly sleeping several years ago, my muse visited. I was teased awake at 3 a.m. by a beautiful line and I knew I had to write it down. I groped in the darkness for my journal and my pen, but unfortunately, my Early Morning Pen and Journal Indicator shorted out and sent a warped message to my Right Hand Guidance System, causing it to veer slightly to the right. My little finger brushed the volume control on my radio, turning the alarm to its loudest setting an instant before the heel of my hand depressed the Wake Up Now! button.
As you may well imagine, things got hectic for the next ten seconds or so. The alarm went off, my wife at the time screamed and fell out of her side of the bed, and I sat bolt upright, straining to turn off the noise. My wayward hand accidentally hit the Touch Me/Light Me Lamp, which immediately sent it to Ten Million Watts.
Then, with amazing agility for a man my age, I leapt from the bed and cracked both my shins on the bedside table while deftly avoiding my wife's bedside lamp. With a sinking feeling (and once my eyes focused), I realized my pen and journal weren't on the bedside table at all. I hobbled around the corner into my study, again groping in the dark, and finally found them lying on my Official Writer's Desk in front of my Official Writer's Computer.
The whole time, of course, I was trying desperately to retain the beautiful, iambic line that had awakened me in the first place. Frantically I reached for my journal. My pen fell to the floor and rolled under my desk. By the time I retrieved the pen and began to write feverishly—you guessed it—the line was gone.
10.) How many cups of coffee do you drink per day?
I'm a caffeine-based life form, but I drink only about three cups of coffee on a typical morning. The rest of the day I maintain my levels with iced tea and/or Coke.
11.) Is there some easy way to understand POV?
If, like most modern novelists, the writer uses a limited-omniscient narrator, the narrator can describe only what the POV character can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel or think in that character's chapter(s). You can have different POV characters for different chapters, or one POV character for the whole book. You can even switch POV from one character to another within a chapter if there's a chapter break (e.g., the story changes in mid-chapter from one scene to another).
12.) Why do you offer writers a free edit/critique sample?
I feel it's best to let my work sell itself. Providing a free sample edit enables the writer to see what I can or can't do for her, and it also enables me to see a bit of the story line, the writer's style, etc. I only agree to edit a story if the writer's style and/or the story line interests me, but that way I get to read what I want to read so I'm able to charge much less than the industry standard.
1.) Rhymed or not? Why?
Depends on the poem. When I wrote poetry, I wrote mostly unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse). That gave me the freedom of unrhymed lines and the underlying structure of the iambic rhythm.
2.) What did you do when you heard you'd been nominated for a Pulitzer?
I didn't do anything that I can recall, other than smiling quite a bit. That was in the late 90s. My most recent poetry collection, Beyond the Masks, was nominated for the National Book Award in 2006 or 2007. That was a really good feeling.
3.) Would you share your thoughts on the importance of strong end words in a poem?
As I mentioned above, the poetic line is the basic unit of the poem. Because it occurs just before a brief pause, the end of the poetic line is the strongest position in the line. If you read down the right side of a poem, reading only the last word or two in each line, you should get a sense of the strength of the poem. The end of the poetic line should never be populated with prepositions, conjunctions, state-of-being verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been), or other weak words.
4.) What are the Stanbrough top three poetry pointers?
I have only one: send me an email at email@example.com and request a copy of The Craft of Poetry: Structure and Sound. Those (structure and sound) are the two most important aspects of poetry, and all my tips are in there. *It's a PDF file, and it's free.* style="color:#000000;">
5.) What's your favorite poem you've written so far?
"A Prayer." Although, like Howard Nemerov, I'd have to say "I love all my children, even the squat, ugly ones." Your readers can see a sampling of my poetry here. "A Prayer" and several others are displayed there.
6.) Do you believe in the muse/inspiration, or is poetry written through plain old hard work?
Yes, of course I believe in the muse and inspiration, but mostly because we have to believe in something. And yes, it's written through plain old hard work. As Yeat's wrote in "Adam's Curse" about writing poetry "a line will take us hours maybe / but if it does not seem a moment's thought / our stitching and unstitching has been naught." And Wordsworth defined poetry this way: Poetry is the result of a spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility." The "spontaneous overflow of emotion" has to do with the muse, inspiration, and the first draft. But "recollected in tranquility" has to do with revision, polishing, the hard work you talk about.
7.) Why do you write poetry?
Actually, I haven't written a new poem to speak of for the past few years. When I wrote poetry, I wrote it because I couldn't not write it.
Harvey, thanks so much for your time.
Thanks for allowing me this opportunity to share my thoughts.