Saturday, March 19, 2016

1/2 Dozen for Bryan Furuness

No one kicks ass at the 1/2 Dozen like Furuness kicks ass at the 1/2 Dozen. 

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 

A while back I heard about a study that found a strong correlation between the things you're into at twelve-years-old and what you're into as an adult. (I just tried to google up the study, but no luck. Clearly I wasn't into research at twelve). In my case, the connection is embarrassingly literal. Reading and writing, for example: Liked then, like now. Though I would never have admitted this to my sixth-grade classmates, I like(d) school. Comics. Stories with magic and monsters. 

Back then I read a lot of fantasy and soft sci-fi (and my grandmother's Harlequins. Add that to the list of things I wouldn't have admitted to my classmates). Heinlein. Piers Anthony. Books with titles like Beast Island and Spellsinger. I couldn't get enough of them.
But Stephen King? I wanted nothing to do with that guy.  

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.

I hated Stephen King.
No, that's not right. I hated the idea of Stephen King.
When you're a kid in the eighties and you let it slip to a grown-up that you like to write, you could count on the following response: "Oh, you could be the next Stephen King!" (I imagine there are more than a few writers growing up now who hate the idea of J.K. Rowling).

It's hard to say why that response rankled me so much. At that point, I hadn't read a word of King's writing, but I didn't hesitate to reject it on the hipster principle of "If it's so damn popular, it must be stupid." My own books, I told these adults who were taken aback by my sudden anger, would not be garbage. I would write Real Books, dammit. Serious Books!
And then, in the literary equivalent of a booty call, I would disappear into my bedroom with a Xanth novel.

But leading a double life is not a viable long-term strategy. Hypocrisy is exhausting. Eventually, my affected disdain for popular, "unserious" fiction like King's grew like cancer until it killed my love for fantasy. That happened during high school, and shortly afterward I stopped reading altogether.

I didn't come back to reading until one night, late in college, when I found myself in the library, dangerously close to doing homework. In a last-ditch effort to avoid my assignments, I picked up The Sun Also Rises and American Psycho. These seem like weird choices to me now—Macho Lit? Really, Furuness?—but I'll forever be grateful to Messrs. Hemingway and Ellis for resurrecting my love for reading.

But as any fan of Stephen King could have told me, when something comes back from the dead, it's never the same as it was before. I was back into reading, sure, but only literary fiction. I steered clear of other genres, especially fantasy.

Until a few years ago. 
Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

I didn't come back to fantasy as much as fantasy came to me, dressed up as literary fiction. It came in the guise of Kelly Link and Karen Russell, Lauren Groff and Lev Grossman and Angela Carter.
Here's the thing that seems crazy to me now: I didn't think of their work as fantasy. Despite the fact that I was reading about magic and demon lovers and supernatural pirates, I didn't make the thinnest connection to the books I had devoured as a kid.

But then came a day when my creative writing students asked for help in coming up with story ideas. I pointed them to this article by Kelly Link and asked them to do the following:

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Tip #1742: Set a timer for 25 minutes. As Link describes in her article, make a list of "Things I Like in Other People's Stories." Don't think too much. Treat your mind like a magic eight-ball. If something floats into your mind, put it on paper.

I bet you'll be surprised at least a couple of times. I certainly was. Especially when I saw magic and werewolves and mermaids show up on my page.

Huh, I thought. That sounds an awful lot like fantasy.

That's when I realized how so many of the books I'd loved over the last few years could be categorized as fantasy, and all at once I felt stupid. How could I have missed it? So obvious!

Maybe that was the only way it could have happened. Maybe my boyish interest had to sneak past my conscious mind that was still poisoned with traces of the old disdain. It had picked the lock, crawled under the security cams, performed sexy tumbles through the laser grid, and now, at last, it was back in the command center where it belonged.

I was happy for a whole minute before another question troubled me: If I loved reading this kind of stuff, why wasn't I trying to write it? Why the disconnect, bro?  

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

Because I was afraid. Afraid of looking dumb, or worse, unsophisticated.

After college, I took a writing workshop as a graduate non-degree student. My first story featured a talking lizard. When I met with the professor in his office, he gave me a funny look and said, "The lizard isn't actually talking, right? The narrator is crazy and he just thinks the lizard is talking to him . . . right?"
This, my friends, is what we call a leading question. At the time I didn't think he was leading me further away from the stuff I loved as a kid; I thought he was leading me toward being a Serious Writer who writes Real Books. "Right," I said after a pause. "Talking lizard. Come on." We laughed, and that was the last time I played with fantasy elements for several years.

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

What are the lessons here? Snobbery closes doors in the pleasure palace. As an artist, your job is to blow doors open. If you like what you find on the other side, let yourself like it. Don't lie to yourself, don't waste time being ashamed. Write what you want, not what you think you should want.

And if your lizard wants to talk, let him. This reader, for one, would be interested in what he has to say.

Bryan Furuness is the author of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, a novel. Along with Michael Martone, he is the co-editor of Winesburg, Indiana, an anthology. His stories have appeared in New Stories from the Midwest and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He lives in Indy, where he teaches at Butler University. 
For more information, his website is