Friday, August 16, 2013

1/2 Dozen with James Ladd Thomas

James Ladd Thomas is the second self-published novelist I've interviewed here.  He is candid about his process, the long haul of his writing over the years, and his choice to self-publish his debut novel, Ardor

Here goes:

You're not new to writing. Tell us about your training as a writer -- including how you first came to it.

I’ve always been a reader, as a kid through high school reading about sports because I was a jock, Sports Illustrated, books about athletes, Jerry Kramer, Bart Starr, Joe Namath; but I never considered writing fiction until my early twenties. I earned a Marketing degree from the University of Alabama in 1981 then began a short career working for defense contractors, landed a job in ‘84 with General Dynamics in San Diego, was extremely bored, which was when I began to read lots of literature. A few works flipped the switch for me: Huck FinnBreakfast of Champions, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The World According to Garp. In ’85 my wife and I moved back across the country to attend Auburn University. Auburn doesn’t have much of a creative writing program, but I did take a few fiction workshops with Madison Jones and Ely Welt. For a grad class I interviewed Mary Ward Brown; I just learned that she passed away a few weeks ago. What a wonderful writer and a lovely soul, nothing but gracious. Many think of her as our Chekov. I wanted to meet her and just talk about writing, her writing life, typical writing day, her path to becoming a writer, which was fascinating. She explained how she wrote early in her life then began running her family's farm with her husband and raising her son. She found she couldn't do both, so she just stopped writing for a few years. Then her husband died and she began writing again, more so as her son matured. That was the first time I spent time with a writer; she was in Auburn for a literary conference so I interviewed her on three or four different occasions. Looking back I’m sure those few hours I spent with her helped fuel my desire to write. I wrote fiction all the time while at Auburn but never submitted any fiction for publication; in writing years I was a baby learning to crawl. I began a novel in ’89, earned an MA in English in ‘90, tried to find an agent and publication for the novel in the early 90s, a few showed interest but no offers. A fun book to write, very Southern gonzo, or Grit Lit, as that anthology that was recently published explained the genre. A much needed Southern anthology edited by Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin, which included such Southern writers as Barry Hannah, Lewis Nordan, Harry Crews, Dorothy Allison, Larry Brown. Switched over to writing short stories during the mid-90’s, wrote dozens of pretty bad stories and collected an astonishing amount of rejections, so many, hundreds, taking those punches is good medicine, which is when I learned that rejection is just part of being a writer. Submitting was all by mail, copying the stories, writing the cover letters, logging in the submissions, waiting weeks to several months before you would hear anything, some a year or more, some never responding. A grueling process, just sucks the life right out of you. A few years of writing stories and receiving nothing but rejections will test your desire to publish. Rejection was a way of life then, which is in direct contrast to today where finding publication is much easier with all the online opportunities. Thankfully the online mags have finally shaken their ugly stepchild persona, really good work out there, work we probably wouldn’t have seen without this wave of new opportunities. A benefit of the old system was that you grew some thick skin. I published my first story around ’98, meaning thirteen years after I began seriously writing fiction I published my first story. During the next three years I published over a dozen stories, one nominated for a Pushcart, and almost all were published after having been rejected dozens of times, just kept revising them, working them. In 2000 I attended Bread Loaf  and worked with Barry Lopez who was very supportive of my work and still is, we keep in contact. Lopez advised me to write another novel, which I began that fall. I attended Bread Loaf again in 2003, worked with Thomas Mallon who pushed my work at that conference, very supportive and encouraging. Finished the novel and attended Sewanee in 2004 where I worked with Richard Bausch and Jill McCorkle, both very supportive. Attended Southampton Writers' Conference in '05 where I worked with Melissa Bank, another wonderful workshop experience. And there’s no denying encouragement helps in one’s development as a writer, in anything really. I doggedly pursued publication for that novel, really hard for a couple of years, again interest but no takers. I spent the next few years writing another novel, Ardor, finishing in 2012, a small press almost took it, but after that fell through I decided to publish it myself. All this sounds rather depressing, all these rejections, but when you talk to other writers my journey is not that different from most.  

 Talk to us about the decision to self-publish.

I queried lots and lots (and lots) of agents and small publishers through the first 15 years or so of my writing life, knocked on many doors trying to find print through the standard publishing vents, especially in my thirties, early forties, but after I published several of my stories I no longer felt this great urge to chase publication. Not that I didn't want to publish through the standard system, I never stopped sending work out, but at some point I stepped back from exerting so much energy in chasing those traditional outlets. I began to realize I was at the mercy of very few people, the agents and editors. I don't mean to disparage these people, most love the written word, do their jobs with a passion to promote good work, but they are swamped with manuscripts, hundreds a month. The bottom line is that a tiny percentage of the thousands being submitted are chosen to be published. Once you digest and understand this then you realize that it's the work that matters, certainly more than pursuing publication. And honestly, I was tired of chasing publication. I was worn out, done, toast. I've made my living the past 23 years by teaching at Valencia College in Orlando where the standard teaching load is 12 classes for the year, 14 with an overload, mostly Comp classes. Finding time to write within this workload requires a bit of dedication. When I'm writing, and I've done this my entire teaching career, I rise at 4 a.m. to work on my fiction for a couple of hours; and if I'm lucky I try to squeeze in another hour or two before the end of the day. Fighting for writing time day after week after year in addition to the arduous task of pursuing publication, plus the teaching load, plus family time, all of this just wrings you out. So I decided to peel back on the amount of time spent pursuing publication. About a year ago a colleague, John Calvin Hughes, and I started kicking around the idea of using print on demand for our books. The more we read about it the more we liked the idea. He took the plunge first with his novel Twilight of the Lesser Gods. The entire experience has been wonderful; I controlled everything. I think this is the future of publishing. The percentages are much higher than the standard publishing contract. I believe eventually most books will take this route. I know right now that many people still believe that POD is vanity publishing, that you are not REALLY publishing. That’s so funny to me because it doesn’t make any sense. A book is terrible because it was published through POD? That’s like saying an independent filmmaker shouldn’t be taken seriously.

 What was the process like? In what ways has it most surprised you?

 A very interesting experience, since you control every aspect of the process and you have to do all the work. From what I understand that’s not too different from what most writers receive in traditional publishing these days. I even like the idea that everything is on your shoulders: the cover, editing, the text, a website, publicity. I suppose the other side of that is everything is on your shoulders. You have control but you must do it all. I liked designing my book, the cover, the set-up, my website. The one area where I think I need help is publicity, someone who can help you reach the reader. You can hire editors, designers, publicists, but that’s a hurdle if money is tight for you.

Also, I certainly understand people’s concerns that the technology of self-publishing is diluting the quality of the published word. Over 200,000 books were self-published in 2011. That's wonderful. And you hear again and again that lots of those works are rather poor in quality. The argument is that traditional publishing with it agents and editors separates the wheat from the chaff. I don’t really buy that line. I’d guess that most of what is published through traditional publishers is pretty good work, but there is also some POD works which are good. Some people are lucky, are given an opportunity, are championed by the right people. I read a book the other day that was hit and miss, some really strong pieces and some mediocre pieces. The book had wonderful blurbs, reviews in The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker, big ads in magazines, everything in the traditional publishing world going for it. Good for that writer, but what about all those other good writers who haven’t been lucky, haven’t been given the opportunity. They are publishing now. No more luck, no more waiting for the opportunity. What self-publishing needs is a better way to recognize the quality, a hub that gathers reviews, maybe a publishing Rotten Tomatoes. Also, and I think this is an important point, most people are not striving to be the next great novelist; they’re just trying to tell a story the best way they can. There are all kinds of reasons why people publish: for family and friends, for one’s self, to reach readers, to express ideas, learn the craft. All those self-published books are wonderful for literature and writing. Writers complaining about people writing and publishing is like bands complaining about the growth of bands. It reeks of jealousy, which reveals the insecurity of all these whiners. So what if lots of self-published work is rather mediocre; lots of people writing their stories and expressing their views means literature is thriving. And publishing your work as you develop your craft is better than working on a novel for years only to be rejected again and again by agents and editors, the work never seeing the light of day. Do you benefit more from rejection letters that tell you nothing about your work or from actual readers who tell you what they think about your writing? I think I would have benefited more from readers’ appraisal of my first two novels than from vanilla rejections from agents and publishers. Another benefit of having so much available is that we have so much more to choose from, all types of different styles. Look at what has happened to music, hybrids of hybrids of hybrids. I find it reprehensible that the indie book author is held in contempt while the indie band or the indie filmmaker is revered. The explosion in publishing is opening the door to experimentation not only in writing styles, types of fiction, but in how it is delivered. Paper version of books is, of course, not disappearing, there will always be people wanting their physical books, wanting to touch and smell that paper, but now with e-books we have a new format to deliver the words, more cheaply, or should be; and people are using all sorts of new technology with the electronic format, music, interactive technology, even combining paper and electronic platforms. I don't see it as the death of the published word; it's a rebirth, a new design, a metamorphosis. The words will be judged no matter the format. I think that's exciting, refreshing. And that's another backlash against self-publishing, against the open door to experimentation, literature is changing. How can you compare Huck Finn with an e-book that will play music, change pictures as you hover over pages? One of the main reasons for this uproar over self-publishing is that we are just now changing the technology for the written word, which has used the printing press for hundreds of years. I hated CDs when they first entered the scene. I was working at a record store while in school at Auburn University during the mid-80s when CDs hit, and I was like, "no, no, no." I loved the album art, the size of the album, the liner notes. Buying an album, putting it on the turntable while you studied the album itself was a beautiful ritual I didn't want to let go of. And I held out for a long time but eventually gave in. Now I don't even buy CDs. Sometimes I'll buy an entire album's worth of music, sometimes I just buy songs. But I do buy them. Why can’t we buy stories separately from the entire collection? 

Tell us a little about your novel.

Ardor is about a young woman in her late teens and early twenties living in north Alabama, which is where I grew up. She is very smart, experimenting a little with college classes, idealistic but naïve, giving but self-centered. She is a feminist without studying feminism. She’s a liberal, a progressive living in the Deep South. The entire novel is told in first person, from Ardor’s point of view, which was a little tricky for me. I enlisted a few young women to read Ardor and give me feedback; their feedback helped tremendously in trying to create an authentic voice. The story is about Ardor’s life, her world, the way she perceives the world, so I think the first person point of view fits the story. The novel is not driven by a traditional plot, but rather a collection of vignettes concerning Ardor’s experiences during this time in her life. She has many lovers, has an affair with a married man, with a lesbian in a committed relationship, a few people she dearly loves die, and there’s the Southern culture which constantly causes conflict and tension. Ardor is raw, loving, devoted, self-righteous, a strong and damaged young woman who is doing her best.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

Wasn’t it Faulkner who said the only inspiration he knew about was putting the seat of his pants in the seat of a chair? Honestly, I don’t understand the idea of inspiration when talking about writing. I suppose you can read something that inspires you to want to try it, much like watching someone play a sport so well that you want to try it yourself. I’m sure lots of people have tried golf because of Tiger Woods. I played lots of basketball as a kid, and what inspired me to play was watching Bill Walton play ball at UCLA, Havlicek and Cowens play with the Celtics. For me there’s always a seed of something to inspire me to sit down and write, a character or a bit of dialog, but once I begin then the work takes over. I take my hands off the wheel and let her go where she’ll go. At the creation stage you have to let the work surprise you, don’t try to overpower the narrative, have a willingness to let the story take charge. Perhaps my idea of inspiration for writing fiction is when the work begins to jell, when the ideas and issues in the work begin to connect, to bubble up then I feel like “Yeah, okay, now we’re cooking, the fog is burning off.” However, that can happen rather deep in the writing of the work. I think if I waited to be inspired to sit down and begin a work then I would hardly write anything. In a sense, the love of the work is the inspiration. I think about those incredible paintings they found in southern France in ’94. You look at them, these beautiful pieces of art that were created about 35,000 years ago and wonder what inspired these artists? They are expressing something within themselves, something that made them want to paint these animals, which had nothing to do with becoming famous, making money, being a great artist. What inspired those artists are the same things which inspire us today. One creates because there is something you want to tell and show other people. Richard Bausch always says we have more in common with the cave than the drawing room.  

 Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

The dirty truth of writing is that it’s hard as hell work. It’s frustrating, aggravating, glacially slow, so to really invest yourself in this process you have to love it. But I don’t think writing is a choice, like when someone chooses to be an accountant or a lawyer. On one level, everything is a choice, and I’m sure some people consider career options and finally decide, “Yes, I’ll be a writer, go to school, earn an MFA, teach creative writing for money, and publish my work.” My god, that sounds awful. I’m sure some people think I’m romanticizing writing when I say this, but like any art, the art finds you. Writing will find you, something you read, a click in your brain, you try it then BOOM, you want to write and you can’t get enough of it. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing, Irving’s Garp, and even reading Charles Baxter’s short story “Gryphon” set me on fire. I still read work that sets me on fire, even in my students’ work, a story, a character, a scene, a sentence, a word. I’ve heard some people say that you are not truly a writer unless you publish. That’s absurd, elitist, and so ostracizing. No, if you publish then you’re a published writer. And I think some people write even though they’ve grown tired of it; they’ve created a career so they feel like they can’t stop, a monetary obligation, a career obligation. Writers have varying levels of publishing success, but a writer is someone who loves to write. Pure and simple. If writing is a chore without any joy then you probably need to find something else to do. Two of the best pieces of advice I received about writing were from Thomas Mallon and Bob Shacochis. Mallon told me at Bread Loaf in 2003 that if you think at some point you become so good at writing that everything you write will be wonderful and everything you submit will be published then you’re believing in a fairytale. Every time you sit down to write it’s a struggle. And you will never, ever stop being rejected. A writer lives with rejection and failure, and the successes are these small slivers in the continuous line of failure and rejection. Shacochis told me once after a reading that the difference between him and the people whom he attended Iowa with is that many of his classmates stopped writing (chose different paths, got married and had kids, found jobs doing other things, found different passions) while he kept at it because he didn’t want to stop. The only reason I write is because I love it; writing makes me feel good about my life, about the world. If I ever lose the joy then I’ll stop. Alice Munro just made the statement that she is done, finished, because at this point in her life she doesn’t want to do what must be done in order to write. Exactly. Sometimes students ask me if they should keep writing, even if they think they are not any good. I always tell them they should keep writing if they love to write. If you keep working at it, you’ll get better, and better, and better. I’ve had some incredibly good fiction writers in my classes who just didn’t have a passion for it, so they quit writing. What else could they do? And I’ve had some rather mediocre writers at the time of the class never stop writing, are still writing today because they love it, can’t live without writing, and they continue to improve. That’s a writer. If you find peace with working on a story, a novel, a poem then you are a writer. Don't worry about publication, what people will say, your subject matter, the genre, worry about the work, the language, the word, the sentence, the essence of the work. Everything else will take care of itself.

James Ladd Thomas was born and raised in Alabama, taking residence in Dothan, Prattville, Huntsville, Tuscaloosa, and Auburn, earning degrees at the University of Alabama and Auburn University. He has published short stories in several journals, including Berkeley Fiction ReviewHawaii ReviewRE:AL, and Southern Exposure. A Pushcart and Best New Voices in America nominee, he has attended Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and Southampton writers’ conferences. He currently teaches composition and fiction writing at Valencia College in Orlando. He lives in Sanford with his wife and two children. Ardor is his first novel.