Friday, January 30, 2009

Louisiana Saturday Night with Neil Connelly

I am so excited about today's interview. Author Neil Connelly lives right here in my town and I've never had the pleasure of meeting him. Years ago he spoke to my writers' group, Bayou Writers, but I was unable to attend. I was invited to hear him speak to a reading club, but I didn't make that either. I'm thrilled to host this interview and that Neil took time to answer my questions.

1) First, tell us about yourself, what you do, or even what you want to do.

I take care of two sons, 2 and 4, with my wife Beth. Beyond that, I am Director of the MFA program at McNeese State. It’s a job I’d do for free, because I get to talk about what I love with people who love it.

2) Tell us about your path to publication, how long you’ve been writing, how long it took you to publish

I joined the program at McNeese as a graduate student in 1993, though I’d been hack writing for maybe 7 years before that. My graduate thesis, a version of which was submitted in 1995, ultimately became my first book. St. Michael’s Scales was published in 2002. It was followed by Buddy Cooper Finds a Way in 2004, which was done by Simon and Schuster. 2010 will see my next novel, currently titled, The Healer Boy’s Sister. I just signed a contract on that one.

3) How much do you know about how your books are going to be structured, who the characters are, and what the plot is going to be, before you start writing, and how much comes to you during the writing process?
My pre-planning is very loose. I believe in following the characters over one’s plan, even one’s intellect. Doubt, to me, seems an essential element of life, and when trying to recreate a sense of life, uncertainty should be there. So, for example, my first book follows a boy as he contemplates suicide in the 14 days up to his birthday. And yes, sure, I had a notion of what he would do, but it changed and my feeling fluctuated as I wrote. While I had a pretty good scene in mind one way, I forced myself to remain open to possibilities. Otherwise, for me at least, manhandling a character toward some pre-determined end is akin to telling my 4 year old he’s going to get married at 18 and be an astronaut. That’s not how it works.

4) What has been your biggest frustration within the publishing industry and how have you dealt with it?
Biggest frustration is rejection, which is dealt with by writing. I had a dear friend tell me that some writers, even if they knew no one would read their work ever, would still be compelled to write. I’m one of those, and I think I’m lucky. (This isn’t to suggest I onely write for myself, or that I don’t think the reader is important. Quite the opposite.)

5) How has your writing grown since the early days of your career?
I trust myself more, I suppose. Fred Astaire, late in his career, couldn’t get a dance step down. He finally told the director that the problem was the choreography. Basically, if his feet couldn’t do it, it couldn’t be done. I’m very open to criticism, but my gut has developed some strong instincts, and I’ll live and die by them.

6) What do you dread the most when you sit down to write?
Maybe this is part of the last question, because I remember dreading, I remember worrying that I’d write stale crap or be boring. And sure, I may do that now. But I know I’ll recognize it and just not save the file again. I know that my career as a writer is decades long, and that today is crucial for today, but insignificant in the long run. That attitude helps with the dread thing.

7) If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were a beginning writer, what advice would you offer?
Listen to more advice. Really, everybody asks for advice, but very few people are really open to it, ready to change how they feel about their work. Maybe it’s part of the learning curve, figuring out all that you don’t know.

8) Do you have a critique group? How would you advise beginning writers about critiquing each other? If you don't have one, who were your early readers and how did they help you? My training was in an MFA workshop, and I oversee one now. I could write a book on this, but when you read someone else’s work, read it first as a reader and secondly as a writer. React, respond, record your emotional experience. Sure, you can add later all kinds of suggestions and techniques for improvement, but first--primarily--be a reader. Begin with this--just write “Interested” or “Bored” next to every paragraph. Really, try it.

9) Many writers describe themselves as "character" or "plot" driven writers. Which are you? Did you strive to be that kind of writer or did it come naturally for you? I’m a character writer, which is not to say I’m divorced from plot or devalue it. But I’d rather a reader think, years later, “That book was about Frank” than “That book was about a bank robbery.”

10) What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
I’ll quote my teacher, Robert Olen Butler, on some advice on cutting or throwing away stories: “You must trust that your imagination is inexhaustible.”

11) What is the best writing advice you've been given, and what is the worst?
It’s the same statement, interpreted differently. “Write what you know” is the worst advice when you take it to mean “Write the truths you’ve already discovered.” If you write from a theme-based perspective, I worry that you end up with a sermon. “Write what you know” is good advice (the best? I don’t know) when it means “Write about the things you have unique knowledge of--jobs, places, etc.”

12) What’s your greatest publicity/marketing tip and does promotion come naturally to you? I’m terrible at promoting. Terrible.

13) What do you like to do when you’re not writing? I love playing with my boys, who like stories and are very imaginative. That’s good for the batteries.

14) What kind of research, if any, went into the writing of your book? I draw almost entirely on my own imagination for the bulk of my content. Now and then I may call a doctor or a mechanic to make sure I’m not screwing something up. I’m not opposed to research; just never found myself really writing a book that demanded it.

15) Where and when can we buy it, and tell us what's next for you? (and anything else you want us to know). Oh, Amazon’s got St. Michael’s Scales and Buddy Cooper Finds a Way. Probably for a penny each, though they stick you a couple bucks for shipping.

Thanks for the interview, Neil. Okay, everyone! The Healer Boy's Sister will be available in 2010. I'll keep you posted!


Debra Harris-Johnson said...

Loved that interview. I just purchased the 2009 Christina Writer's book this time I'll have to 2010 to get this one. You can go broke reading your blog lol. what does "MFA" stand for. I don't get out much.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reading our interview, Debra. Neil is the Director of the Masters of Fine Arts at McNeese. You can look it over at this link:

Erica Vetsch said...

I really enjoyed this interview. Write what you know...such a two-edged sword.

Anonymous said...

Another great interview, Jess. Neil is not only a lover of words, but he has something to say and knows how to say it to communicate with the reader. MSU--all of us in Lake Charles--are fortunate to have him at the head of the MFA program known for its outstanding contribution to our budding and flourishing writers. Your interviews are a "treat" to all your readers! Bouquets to you!