Sunday, May 16, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Timothy Quinn

Timothy Quinn's work has appeared in Z Magazine, The New Orleans Review, The Antigonish Review and Whiskey Island Magazine, among others. He currently lives in Toronto.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different? 
I'd be lying if I said that on the day I finished Octopus Intelligence, the air didn't smell a bit sweeter, the sky seem a bit bluer. And then, of course, about 90 minutes later, my brain stopped producing excess dopamine and I realized I'd need to find something to do for the next 40 years of my life.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I suppose I found it harder to write bad prose than bad poetry. Writing bad poetry is surprisingly easy to do. You're likely not even be aware you're doing it. 

As for non-fiction, I've written a handful of essays and have plans for a longer work. I think there's been a great renaissance in book-length non-fiction over the past few years, and I attribute much of it to print journalists pursuing book deals as a hedge against the collapsing news industry. I also think that, for all the misery and corruption that's come of U.S. foreign policy over the past eight years, it's resulted in some excellent journalism.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It's an excruciatingly slow process for me, and not even remotely like Henry & June. 

I do most of my actual writing in Google Docs and Microsoft Word, and then I edit longhand on hard copies, which is environmentally indefensible but frankly the only way I know how to do it. For organizing a book, I switched several years ago from using a sheet of cork board hung on my office wall to using a wiki, which is a lot more portable. Recently, I've also developed a piece of software called Pterotype which is less a collaborative workspace than a place to drop bits of plot and character which I can drag around and think about in different ways.

4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Ideas have weight, and the heavier ones seem to gravitationally clump together in my head until they feel more like a book than a story or an essay. I don't think I've ever had a story unexpectedly blossom into a book, and thankfully I've never started a book that petered out around 15 pages.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I find readings a challenge. It's tough finding the right fifteen minutes to perform. I try to choose something that isn't too plot-heavy and isn't all dialogue, because I don't do the voices and I can't do accents. When you're a few feet away from your audience, it's like a John Woo movie where everybody's got a gun to everyone else's head.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
In Octopus Intelligence, I tried to explore what it means to be an individual versus being part of a larger collective. I think there are aspects in which either perspective is both reassuring and horrible. As an atheist, free will and accountability are pretty critical issues for me. I don't have the luxury of just throwing up my hands and saying: sorry, folks, blame the big guy.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think that writers have a responsibility to present the common truth, so I don't have a lot of patience for the notion of an ivory tower intelligentsia. I believe that writers should make every effort to combat the manipulation of public discourse through disinformation. 

That said, I don't think it's a writer's obligation to sacrifice every waking moment fighting the culture wars. A writer should invest in those areas of the public conscience where there's the potential for the greatest injustice, and every writer is obviously going to apply a slightly different calculus to that problem.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
For Octopus Intelligence, I had an excellent editor named Julie Roorda. She went through the entire manuscript page by page, over and over again, tightening up the language, eliminating redundancies, pointing out discrepancies in tense and timeline; she pulled it apart and then put it back together again without once compromising the story or the voice. Whatever weaknesses remain in the book are entirely mine.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I often pass along Elmore Leonard's ten rules of writing, particularly the last one: "try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
When I'm on a writing project, I work at it every day. Perhaps for just an hour, but I'm pathological about squeezing in that hour.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When I'm stuck, I get the hell away from whatever I'm working on. I go for a walk; I pick up a different project. The idea is to try to change everything about a situation so that I can see the problem in a slightly different light. 

Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn't. There are problems I've encountered as a writer that I needed to solve by becoming a better writer, and that takes time.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I remember, growing up, a kind of cookie that I don't think you can get anymore, a type of vanilla wafer. Every once in awhile I'll be walking somewhere at night and I'll smell it. I don't know if someone's cooking with the same kind of shortening or if it's just an olfactory mirage, but it's a strange feeling, like catching a draft in an enclosed room.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I sometimes use music to get into a character's head. I generally have a pretty good idea of what kinds of music each of my characters like, and I'll listen to that music when I'm trying to figure out how they might react to situations outside their control. In the novel I've just started writing, my main character listens to a dispiriting amount of Pet Shop Boys. I guess this is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There are a number of writers I like, and I read their books slowly so that their influence on my work doesn't expire. I dread the day I read my last Cormac McCarthy. 

I try not to talk about writers I don't like, but I've found that I learn almost as much from those writers as I do the writers I most admire.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I'd love to show my kids the Serengeti.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
This is a bit of a trick question, because it presumes that I'm one of the roughly three Canadians who make a living writing books. In fact, I make my living in software development, which is a refreshingly left brain activity that frees up my opposite hemisphere to write novels.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I seem to have an affinity for solitary endeavors, and writing is about as solitary as you can get without winding up in a monastery or on the far fringes of the penal system.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I've tagged both of these, I think, on my Twitter playlist.

19 - What are you currently working on?
A novel. Some essays and stories. A blog about extensible patterns in process management.

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