Tell us a bit about yourself — something that we will not find in the official author’s bio.
I spent my career in public relations (PR) with Procter & Gamble — 31 years. I retired as a vice president. So my background is in business. But I was an English major in college, and I’ve always had a passion for writing.
Writing was a big part of my work at P&G. When I retired, I thought I’d flip a switch and begin writing novels. But writing memos and writing stories are two very different things. I realized pretty quickly that if I wanted to write creatively again, I needed some training.
So I went away to a one-week writing workshop in a small town called New Harmony, Indiana. It was a wonderful re-immersion in the fundamentals of creative writing. After that, I spent a few months writing a long, non-fiction story based on an extraordinary experience I shared with my best friend in Alaska some years ago. I submitted it to a host of literary magazines — which also was a brand new experience — and got a lot of rejections. Finally, it was accepted for publication, and the story, called “Flashpoint,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. This boosted my confidence.
I kept writing stories and submitting them to literary magazines. I’ve now had 240 stories and five books published. Along the way, I’ve received hundreds of rejections. It’s part of the process. I keep going. I’m still a relatively new author, but I’m learning to write creatively again.
Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?
The first “serious” thing I ever wrote was a speech for an oratorical contest when I was in the sixth grade. That was hard. It taught me the importance of having a theme and developing it and writing for “the ear.” I didn’t win the contest, but I learned a lot about writing composition.
I did a lot of news writing in college. I can’t remember what my first news story was about, but my experience as a journalist was definitely helpful for my work in PR at P&G, where I was working with reporters all the time.
My first “literary” story was “Flashpoint,” which I’ve mentioned above. I’m sorry to say I had to wait to retire to write it.
What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?
My latest book is called New Twists. It’s my fourth short story collection. For this one, I wanted to write stories based on abiding themes but with new twists, stories that explore old ideas in today’s world. What does tolerance look like, for example, at a time of such great divisiveness?
I also wanted to write longer stories. Some of my readers have told me my stories are too short. One of them said, “They’re a tease.”
So 15 of the stories in this collection are among the longest I’ve ever written. For those who like a tease, I’ve sprinkled in five very short selections too. I hope people enjoy them all. The book is off to a good start.
How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?
I wrote the 20 stories in this collection over more than a year. The original versions of most of them had been published in literary magazines. I write at least 500 words a day. I write one short story a week.
Do you have any unusual writing habits?
I’ve always been drawn to crisp writing. So “writing short” feels natural to me. That said, I love the challenge of long-form writing too. For me, writing both short-form and long-form, and going back and forth between the two, like a train switching tracks, feels right. It gives me a sense of balance, and the skills I’m sharpening with each form of writing help the other.
I write on a laptop and tend to edit as I write. I know that’s a bad habit, but I can’t break it. I’m always rewriting.
As I begin writing a short story, I often write the first and last sentences. That way, I know how the story will end, and I write to it.
Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?
I run every day. I’ve always needed a balance between the intellectual and the physical in my life. Running doesn’t just keep me in shape. It’s therapeutic mentally, even spiritually. Sometimes I write in my head when I’m running. I also find listening to music inspiring, not just the lyrics and the melodies, but the flow. I think good writers care deeply about the flow, the rhythm of their writing. In a way, stories are like songs.
Authors and books that have influenced your writings?
Hemingway, Steinbeck, Bradbury, O. Henry, Whitman, Thomas Merton, Kahlil Gibran. To Kill a Mockingbird is the first novel I ever read and still the best.
It might sound strange, but the writer who’s probably most influenced me is Rod Serling. I grew up watching The Twilight Zone. Even as a boy, I realized those stories were more than science fiction. Serling was writing about the big, important issues of his day. He always had a point of view, which he expressed powerfully though his stories and eloquently through his narrations. His stories were provocative. They made you think.
His writing was lyrical too. Serling had a background in radio, and I’ve read he dictated the first draft of most of his stories on a Dictaphone. You can tell. They’re written for the ear. I try to write for the ear too.
What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?
I’ve just finished my second novel. It’s called Francesca. The story begins in the year 2055. It’s about the first female pope. She’s a wife, a mother and an American. It will be published by Adelaide Books in June 2021. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written, and I hope people enjoy it. Beyond that, my fifth short story collection, called Snapshots, will be published by Adelaide Books in August 2021. It features 75 stories.
Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think -– who reads and who should read your books?
I mainly write short stories, and most of them are very short. I write with busy people in mind. We’re all busy these days, even with the pandemic, and it seems we have less and less time to read. It’s a sad fact that leisure reading in the US is at an all-time low.
It’s not that we’re not reading. We read every day. But these days we’re reading text messages and emails and the headlines that scroll across our TV screens. But that’s hardly reading. We don’t get much nourishment from a tweet.
So most of my stories are short, but they’re also metaphors, stories which serve to illuminate larger points. Someone described my stories as secular parables. Maybe they are. Whatever they are, I hope they deepen people. I hope they invite people to think about the seemingly ordinary things that happen in their lives in new ways.
I suspect my second novel, Francesca, will have wide appeal, from progressives to political junkies. I can see it being popular with book clubs.
Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?
Read everything you can get your hands on because what you absorb will subconsciously become a part of your writing. Read different genres and types of writing. The more you read, the more distinctive your voice will be when you do write because you’ll have your bearings. You’ll know what you like and dislike. O. Henry said the only rule for writing is to write what you like.
Get started. Hemingway said: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Write every day. Turn writing into a practice.
Creative writing may be new to you but realize you have skills and experiences that apply. When I started writing creatively, I thought I’d have to unlearn my business writing skills. I figured my many years of business writing had killed my creativity.
But what I now know is that many of the skills that made me a good business writer are also helping me get good at writing stories and novels — and getting them published. If I hadn’t mastered the one-page memo, for example, I’m not sure I’d be writing flash fiction. If I hadn’t learned how to patiently work the system, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to get 240 stories and five books published.
For anyone who is thinking about writing for the first time, there’s a temptation to think about it as something completely new — as a left turn from whatever you’ve been doing.
But it’s simply a new way of expressing yourself based on who you are and what you know. Writing is an extension of us. It’s as unique as a fingerprint. You can learn new skills as a writer, but you shouldn’t change who you are in order to become a writer because good writing always comes from the heart. Ultimately, in writing, we’re telling our own stories.
How many books do you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?
I read a few books a year — not nearly enough. Right now, I’m reading Resurrecting Rain, a novel by Pat Averbach, a fellow Ohio writer. I like novels and biographies. I loved Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.
What is the best advice (about writing) you have ever heard?
Ray Bradbury said, “Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” That rings true to me. When we try new things, we have to take a leap. It’s scary, but I think that’s how we grow.
I think when we go in a new direction, when we decide to try something new, we take with us all we know. In deciding to write creatively, to become an author, I brought with me all the skills I had developed over a long career in business.
But if I had done only that, I wouldn’t be writing stories and books. I’d just be writing better memos and news releases. Writing creatively really does require taking a leap.
What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is the most important to be remembered by readers?
I doubt I’ll ever be a bestselling author, but that’s not why I write. I write as an invitation to think and feel more deeply. I write to move people. That’s what good writing does for me.
I’ve gotten notes from strangers who have read my stories and were writing just to let me know how much they enjoyed them or how much they meant to them. For me, one note like that is more valuable than selling a million books, although I wouldn’t mind selling a million books too.
What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?
I think there are two trends in publishing which are particularly actionable for authors.
First is the continued strong growth of audiobooks. Research shows half of all Americans over the age of 12 have listened to an audiobook in the past year, and audiobook listeners are trending younger. Not every publisher offers an audiobook option. So the onus is on us, as authors, to learn how audiobooks are created and distributed and to consider creating our own audiobooks. I have a good friend, a former advertising executive, who used his connections to create an audiobook version of his debut novel last year and offer it for free. Imagine how many more readers enjoyed his book as a result.
Second is the decline in organic reach. This means discovery of our new books will not happen organically. Unless your publisher can devote a lot of money to advertising and has strong marketing capability, we have to take charge of promoting our books. In my view, this begins with capitalizing on our own networks. For me, my personal email list is probably my most valuable asset for getting the word out about my new books. It’s a marketing channel that I actually own. I’m building a base of readers who I know and know me.
How do you come up with your story ideas?
Most of my stories come from a combination of two things: something that’s happened in my life or is happening in the world and some larger idea. In the case of New Twists, each story is based on an abiding theme.
I usually start with something real because I’ve found that often the most profound and extraordinary ideas are revealed in the most ordinary things in our everyday lives.