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INTERVIEW ON WRITING

U. R. Bowie interviews himself again with some advice for writers.

Do you have an MFA in creative writing?

Oh, God, no. But I do have a Ph.D. in Russian literature.

Yeah, but that didn’t teach you how to write.

Reading Russian writers taught me how to write. That and forty years of practice.

What was the subject of your Ph.D. dissertation?

I wrote my dissertation on the Russian writer Ivan Bunin. He is canonical in Russia, still not well known in the West, although he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933. I have published two books of my translations of Bunin’s stories and novellas.

Was it hard, writing a Ph.D. dissertation?

It was so long ago that I can’t even remember! No, seriously, I didn’t find it hard writing the dissertation. I was keenly interested in the subject, and I’ve always enjoyed writing.

Who do you see as your potential audience as a writer?

That’s a hard question. I would welcome anyone who wants to read my stuff, but, realistically speaking, I suppose most of my readers would consist of people who love highly creative literary fiction. I don’t really write in any other genre (crime novels, romance novels, detective novels, domestic literary realism).

What’s “domestic literary realism”?

That’s the life’s blood of the MFA writer. The kind of stuff you see published, for example, in the New Yorker.

You don’t like New Yorker fiction?

It’s okay. They publish three or four stories every year that are really good.

You seem to be prejudiced against MFA writers.

No, not entirely. Keep in mind that one of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor, studied creative writing at Iowa. She later remarked in an interview that the program didn’t much influence how she wrote. She already knew how she wanted to write before she went to Iowa. She benefitted mightily, however, by being advised as to what great writers to read. She, for example, had never heard of Nikolai Gogol, but after she read him at Iowa, she was strongly influenced by him. Then again, at Iowa she made the kind of connections that would soon smooth the way for her publishing debut as a creative writer.

So you do see potential benefits for writers to complete an MFA program.

Yes. They can benefit just by being in an atmosphere where they are encouraged to write every day. You have to develop a habit of writing daily to get good at writing. But, then again, you don’t have to be in an MFA program to make yourself write every day. On the other hand, being in a community of writers has great potential benefits. Later on, when you begin to play the perennial game of sucking up to journals, book publishers, and agents to get your stuff in print, it will help to have the connections. In fact, having connections is the best way of “going forward,” not just in the writing game, but also in any profession at all.

What kind of connections did you take advantage of in order to become a published writer?

I’ve never had any connections whatsoever and still don’t. After living a long life I still don’t have a clue about “networking,” or “going forward.” I’ve carried that monkey of non-networking on my back forever. Let us pause for a moment while I weep and bewail my fate.

(Pause)

Are you ready to go on?

Yes (blubber). As for the MFA programs in creative writing, I do agree with Flannery about one other thing. She once said that the MFA industry was cranking out far too many mediocre writers. She’s been dead fifty years and the situation is much worse now. The system perpetuates itself. Universities all over the U.S. have academic programs in creative writing. Mediocre writers have to find a job teaching creative writing in universities; then they help create more mediocre writers, who, in their turn, have to get a job teaching creative writing in order to create more mediocre writers. Of course, within that huge glomp of un-creativity there will be, occasionally, writers who are good. Meanwhile, writers are founding so-called literary journals all over the place, because the MFA folks, in order to get tenure as teachers of creative writing, have to publish their, in large part, mediocre stuff. And so it goes, “moving forward.”

You don’t seem to like that expression, “moving forward.”

I hate clichés. And I tend to doubt that there is really that much “moving forward” in American society, which is obsessed with linear movement and “progress.” Deep down I believe that human beings do a lot more of going round and round in circles than they do of “moving forward” along straight lines to getting somewhere. The MFA game is a good example of that: it, for the large part, is a whole lot of going round and round.

What advice would you have for a young person who wants to be a writer?

Hmm. It depends on what kind of writer that person wants to be.

Let’s say a young person who wants to be a really really really really good writer of highly creative literary fiction.

Number One: read read read read really really really really great writers (Shakespeare, Nabokov, Gogol, O’Connor, Robert Penn Warren). Don’t read second-rate writers. How can you tell the difference between first-rate writers and the second- and third-rate types? It might be hard at first, but if you train your mind in reading (by extensive reading) you will learn the difference. Then you can stop wasting time reading the mediocrities. And the real writers, if you read them carefully, will spark your creative mind and help you learn how to write.

Explain how that works.

Great writing lights up your brain. You take the spots lit up in your brain by great writing and you work with those spots. Practically all creativity comes out of developing previous creativity. It’s a sort of plagiarism, but not really, because you are not copying verbatim the creative passages of great writers. You are starting with those passages and then working off in a different direction, creating great passages of your own.

I see. You got to Number One above but not to Number Two.

Number Two: write write write every day for at least two-three hours. If you keep doing this diligently, doing your daily due diligence, you will eventually get good at what you’re doing. If you have the brains. And if you don’t have the brains to start with, there’s not really any reason ever to start. Get a job doing something else and give up trying to be a writer.

Are you inspired to write? Where do you get your inspiration?

Inspiration comes (as I was just saying) from reading great writers. It also comes out of the deepest wellsprings of the brain. We don’t even understand it very well. Romantic writers used to say that God was doing the writing for them, guiding their quill pens as they wrote. Recent studies in neuroscience have discovered that maybe it’s not God. There are zillions of neurons operating deep in our brains, and those neurons, unbeknownst altogether to us on the conscious level, are making decisions constantly about how we live our lives. That’s kind of scary, but, on the other hand, it’s good for a writer to have those inspired neuron-friends guiding his pen as he writes. You sit there sometimes and you think, Now where in the world did THAT idea come from? Why did my hero decide to do THAT? But it’s a good feeling nonetheless, when God or the neurons take over and the inspired writing flows out.

How does a writer nowadays get published?

Well, I already talked about this a little bit. The vast Writing Establishment has its literary journals, its writers’ retreats, its writers’ contests, agents, its MFA degrees. Joining up, tooting your own horn and beating your own drum on the Writing Establishment Bandwagon is the traditional way to get started. Say nice things about other writers, write nice reviews of their stuff (even if it’s awful), by way of getting them to write nice things about your own (awful or not awful) stuff. Go through an MFA program, suck up, network, send your writings off to contests, preferably tipping off one of your MFA professors in advance, which professor knows the professor who is judging the contest and will put in a good word on your behalf.

Is that how you got your fiction published?

No. I never went through an MFA program, so I made none of the valuable contacts. I never learned how to network, or win writing contests, or get an agent. Actually, I once had an agent, years ago. She got my first novel read in the big New York publishing houses. They praised the novel (I still have the letters), but none of them wanted to take a chance on it. My stuff is highly uncommercial, and, after all, in the publishing world, as everywhere else in America, it’s all about making money. I can’t argue with that. Why would they want to publish a book and NOT make money?

So how did you get around your lack of success playing the literary game?

Well, I was getting on in years, already retired from my job as Russian professor. I had reams of fiction written and unpublished, forty years worth of stuff. I knew it was good. I never doubted that, but I had almost resigned myself to never getting any fiction in print in my lifetime. Then a wonderful new development came along. Amazon, with its imprint called Create Space, suddenly made it possible to self-publish your works in a new way. Self-publishing always had come with a kind of stigma. The idea is that if you had to publish it yourself it must be devoid of literary merit. But suddenly people all over the place are publishing through Create Space, and some of them are making big money.

Once again money is the main thing.

Unfortunately yes. Me, I’m not that interested in making big money. I’ve got enough to hold me for the duration, but making money is a way of getting recognized. People who make money self-publishing are suddenly getting calls from agents, who want to get them contracts with the big publishing houses, the few that are still left out there.

Wouldn’t it be better to publish your books with those big publishing houses?

Maybe so. But I didn’t have that option, I was getting nowhere playing the same old game, and suddenly I had a way to publish my books. Since last November I have published four works of fiction through Create Space.  You can find them all listed under my Author Page (“U.R. Bowie”) on Amazon. Then again, publishing a book with a big-time publisher isn’t always all that advantageous. In the first place, publishers don’t have the money to put into promoting your book. If they came up with $10,000 for publicity, publishing with them would be a big advantage. But now, the way it usually works is they might publish your book, but then they expect you to put up all the money and all the effort to promote sales. So here’s my question and the question asked by many who have decided to self-publish: if you’re doing nothing to promote my book, why should I pay you any royalties? Same goes for having an agent: if I can publish and promote my book by myself, why should I pay an agent? In the second place, publishers might publish your first book, but then, if it doesn’t make any money you are, in effect, banned from further publishing. Punished for your inability to generate filthy lucre.

But doesn’t it cost you huge money for printing your books?

No. Create Space covers the printing costs by printing on demand. That’s a stroke of genius. If you wanted to self-publish a book, say, twenty years ago, you had to cover the cost of a first printing (1000 copies, 2000 copies). Not any more. Publishing with Create Space makes the whole process easy and inexpensive. You can do your own interior layout by cutting and pasting your text into a template provided by Create Space. They are very amenable to helping you get through the process. Their paperback books look highly professional, and they also ease you into the process of putting your work up as an e-book. My latest novella, Own, is also available as an audiobook. That too, was an easy and inexpensive thing to do. I recorded the novel with myself as reader. Cheap.

Given the self-publication of your fiction, would establishment writers tend to sneer at you, denigrate your efforts?

Possibly so. Sneering is, after all, endemic in the human race. But if they put aside their prejudices and just read my stuff, with an open mind, the sneers would soon fade from their physiognomies. I’m talking about people who love literary fiction and know how to read it. As I’ve mentioned somewhere else, I can’t expect inveterate readers of, say, Stephen King, to have any interest in what I write. I’d be a fool to have such expectations.

Are you hoping that your books will some day make you famous?

No. Not really. I’m not sure I’d want to be famous. Fame can bring a lot of problems with it. Can you imagine how awful it would be to be, say, Brad Pitt, who can’t go anywhere without being recognized, who can’t really determine who is his real friend and who is trying to use him? No, I don’t want to be famous. But I would like a few good readers to read my books.

 

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Posted by on September 11, 2015 in INTERVIEWS & OP-ED WRITINGS

 

THE INTERVIEW

U. R. Bowie interviews himself to help readers get to know him. Additional interviewers will be cited by name.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Even as a child I liked words. I later came to love words, and I chose as my lifelong profession philology. That’s a fancy way of saying I became a teacher/professor of language and literature (Russian). A philologist is a “lover of words” (from Greek PHILO- [love prefix] +logos [word]). In my opinion the most important thing for any writer—especially of fiction—to be is a word lover.

Some writers think the social message is the most important thing.

 Do you want me to respond to that?

Yes.

 No comment.

How did you learn Russian?

It’s a long story, since nobody learns Russian overnight. I started out studying Russian at the University of Florida. Took the basic two years of Russian, and came out saying little more than “hello” and “good-bye.” Didn’t even say “hello” very well, because it’s a hard word in Russian: здравствуйте. Then I went into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War era. Didn’t want to go, but they made me, and that turned out to be a tremendous stroke of good fortune for me.

Why would you be able to say only “hello” and “goodbye” after two years of studying Russian in a university?

Because the way foreign languages are taught in universities makes no sense. To learn a foreign language you need extensive practice, but in universities the students are exposed to the language only three-four hours per week. Meanwhile, they are taking four or five other courses, so they can’t find the time for language study. Late in my teaching career (at Miami University) I tried to get the Russian curriculum changed radically. I suggested having Russian-language students return early for the fall semester, two weeks before the term began. The band and the football team and the cheerleaders are already doing this; it’s nothing that unusual. During those two weeks, so my plan went, first-year Russian students would be exposed to Russian eight hours per day, in courses taught by native speakers. In only two weeks they would complete the whole first year of Russian. Besides that, they would learn and retain a lot more than the students who piddle around with meeting only three hours per week, over the course of a semester, in classes taught by professors who prefer to teach Russian in English.

They teach Russian in English?

Yes, plenty of professors still do. It’s a terrible mistake. They think they need to explain the grammar in English. They don’t. The textbook already explains the grammar in English. All Russian language classes should be conducted solely in Russian.

You sound vehement about this issue.

I’m vehement about almost everything; it’s just my personality. I’m a maximalist.

You never finished telling about how you learned Russian.

Yes. So I tried to revise the curriculum radically, so as to teach beginning Russian in a more sensible way, but none of my fellow instructors would go along with that.

Why not?

Because college professors are arch-conservatives. They get into their little niche, and they don’t want anything changed. Of course, they profess to be flaming liberals, they go for despicable Nazi/ “liberal” practices such as “political correctness”—in an attempt to stifle free speech and free thought and force everyone into “proper” modes of thinking—but they don’t really want anything changed.

So you don’t believe in PC?

I despise PC, I loathe PC, I spent my whole university teaching career fighting against the excesses of PC. Now I’m retired from teaching, and that’s probably a good thing, because the excesses of PC, which were already ludicrous 15-20 years ago, have now been pushed, in universities all over the U.S., to a position far beyond the ludicrous.

Tell me more.

No. I can’t stand talking about PC. The situation is just too sad. Ask me a different question.

You never finished telling about how you learned Russian.

The last bastion of free speech on university campuses resides in the fraternities, where drunken and callow frat boys spout out racist ditties. Now how’s that for irony?

How did you learn Russian?

As I was saying, during the Vietnam War era I had to go in the army. What luck. They sent me to the best language school in the country, the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, California, for a nine-month intensive course in Russian. I served three years in the army, working in the rather unintelligent field of endeavor called “intelligence.” During my work hours I sat behind a desk and did %$^^&***((())% (passage redacted out for reasons of national security). I got all my work done in three hours of an eight-hour shift; then, for the other five hours I read books in Russian.

So after Monterey you were already fluent in Russian?

Oh no no no no no. Getting “fluent” in Russian is a matter of a lifetime. Nine months of intensive study is only the bare beginnings. I read all the time to pick up a good reading vocabulary. After I got out of the army I went to graduate school to study Russian. But what I really studied was Russian literature and linguistics, because you don’t normally study the language in a graduate program. I got an M.A. at Tulane, then a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, and I began teaching Russian language and literature at Miami University.

So then were you fluent?

Actually, no. I could read Russian well, I knew the rules of grammar, but getting fluent in speaking and listening takes extensive practice in a language, and that practice was not available.

Why not?

We were smack in the middle of the Cold War. It was hard to go to and remain for a lengthy stay in the one place where you could get the extensive practice: the Soviet Union. I first went to the country in 1972, with a group of American professors on a study program at Moscow State University. I was there ten weeks, but still did not get immersion in the language. Why? Because Russians were afraid to associate with Americans. We were the enemy.

Is it different now?

Yes. Unfortunately, we are still the enemy. In that respect things haven’t changed. But Russians in the modern-day Russian Federation are not as scared as they once were. So if a young American wants to learn Russian he/she can visit the country for a lengthy stay. Or go in the Peace Corps—to Ukraine, or to any of the former Soviet republics that still have Russian as a national language. It’s much easier to achieve fluency than it was in my time. There are also a lot more Russians resident in America. I attained to near-native fluency in spoken Russian only in the nineties, after the U.S.S.R. collapsed and finding Russian contacts became much easier.

What’s Russia like?

Hah. You want me to write an encyclopedia?

I’ve heard that basically, deep down, everyday Russians are just like Americans.

Stop. Don’t do this to me. I’m rolling on the floor, HAR, HAR, stop it…Tell me this: what do you know about Russia?

Um. Bears, ice and snow, vodka, gloom, Putin the bad guy.

Yes. That’s exactly what 99% of Americans know about Russia.

Okay, let’s change direction here. Do you get writer’s block?

Never.

How come?

I just don’t. I guess it’s because I’m a graphomaniac.

I see. Tell me this: who are your favorite writers?

I’m an elitist and a snob. I read only really really really really good writers. Don’t insult my intelligence by mentioning most contemporary American writers to me. I love all the great Russian writers—Tolstoy, Chekhov, Bunin, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Gogol, Gogol, Gogol, many more. I love Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Phillip Roth, Rebecca West. Lots of others. I think, to name just one novel, that Don DeLillo’s White Noise is beyond wonderful.

Why do you live in Florida?

I’m not sure. I just kind of ended up here, where I started out. I have lived all over the place, kept on the move for many years, hoping to outrun bad luck and death. I’ve lived in California, Virginia, South Carolina, Germany, England, Russia, Ohio.

Did you outrun bad luck and death?

So far I have. Фу фу фу, дай Бог не сглазит!

What’s that you’re saying?

It’s a Russian expression that you use to ward off the evil eye.

I see. What’s your favorite, of all the places you’ve lived?

Hmm. That’s a hard question. I still have a soft spot in my soul for good ole Ohio. Also love South Carolina. I suppose my favorite state of all is California. I never get enough of going back there, to the ice plant, to the arfing and yelping sea lions of Monterey Bay.

What are your views on religion?

Ew. Ew, ew, urghh.

What do you mean to indicate by making such noises?

Religion is a sore point with me. I grew up in a household where a Hundred Years’ War was being waged over religion. I had a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. They were on opposite sides in that war.

Who won?

It was a draw. Or maybe right this moment, somewhere in the Afterlife, they’re still fighting their war. As for me, late in life I decided to find some middle ground: I joined up with Russian Orthodoxy, which is a branch of the oldest Christianity on earth, Eastern Orthodoxy. I have a prayer book with some great prayers in it. They’re in the Old Church Slavonic language, which is the language God speaks.

Hmm. I always thought God was multilingual.

He is, but He has His preferences. Take football. God is, by and large, not a football fan, but He does watch a bit of Notre Dame on a Saturday afternoon, and He can’t resist waving a fist in the air and cheering for the Irish.

I see.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2015 in INTERVIEWS & OP-ED WRITINGS