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.
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.