Tuesday, November 23, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Derek Winkler

Derek Winkler [photo credit: Richard Folgar] is the editor of an obscure trade publication that you have almost certainly never heard of. He also performs any number of dark and arcane tasks for Broken Pencil magazine. He has done just enough freelance journalism to be able to make the claim with a straight face.

His high school English teacher told him in 1987 that he could be a writer of fiction someday, but he has not put this theory to the test until now.

A life-long geek, he is currently sharing his apartment with ten computers (seven functional and three otherwise) and a robotic simulacrum of cultural critic and novelist Hal Niedzviecki. The relationship is strictly platonic.

In April 2010 he got the words "Nihil Sine Labore" tattooed on his left forearm as a reminder to himself to try harder to get things done. So far the effect has been minimal.

His two most-prized possessions are a broken motorcycle and his grandfather's 1926 edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

He owes $20 to jazz singer Holly Cole for reasons he would like to explain to her, should she be reading this. He swears he's good for the money.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Well, my first book was an unpublished road trip novel I wrote when I was 19. Aside from convincing me that I could write something long enough to legitimately call a book, it changed my life in no way at all. In comparison, my most recent book has been published, and is, coincidentally, not complete shit. It has changed my life by giving me the chance to hold forth on other people’s websites for two weeks. Other changes may come later, but it’s too soon to tell.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

Fiction is the first thing I read, so it’s the first thing I wrote. I think that’s really all there was to it. I wrote short stories as a kid, unbearable poetry as a teenager and journalism as an adult. Now I’ve finally got back to fiction. It’s still the most fun.

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 took me years and years to get started on Pitouie. I can chew on an idea like a cow chews on cud. I did way more research than was really necessary, just to put off the writing. I made very detailed notes and then notes on the notes. But once I did get started on the writing, it went along at a fair clip. I’m a firm believer in quantity over quality when it comes to a first draft, so I didn’t sit and agonize over the prose. My first draft was a rough sketch at best, churned out in about three months. By the fourth draft the book was pretty much in its final shape, but it still took two more drafts to get it past a publisher.

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?

With Pitouie I combined two ideas that I had originally intended to write separately, except neither seemed strong enough to stand on their own. I had an idea for a story about a guy going crazy with boredom at a DEW Line station, and I had an idea for strange happenings on a remote island. Once I came up with a way to interlock the two, I knew I had enough for a novel. I think that’s probably the way I’ll continue to work. I’ve got a bunch of not-quite-enough ideas rolling around in my head, just waiting to collide and entangle themselves to the point of critical mass.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I’ve never done a public reading, so I can’t really say. I may or may not be doing my first one in December. Details still hazy. I think it would be fun, but I think readings are part of the marketing process, not the creative process. I try to write to my own standard of quality, and if other people like what I write that’s just a bonus.

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?

Nah. Theory is for academics, and I took a pass on that option a long time ago. The only question I really worry about when I’m writing is, “What happens next?” If a theoretical theoretician gave me a list of the current questions, I doubt I’d be able to answer them.

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?

Damn right a writer has a role in culture. To be a writer is to be a storyteller, and “storyteller” is a gig that has never lost its importance since the days we sat around campfires in the woods. Storytellers tell us what it’s like to be human, in case we can’t figure it out for ourselves. They provide models of every kind of human from the lowest bastard to the most noble hero. They pass along the past, open a window on the present and speculate about the future. Stories are awesome. It’s an honour to add one to the pile.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

The editing process for Pitouie was amazingly painless. My editor would send me a list of suggested changes, I’d fix maybe a third of them, then I’d send back a note explaining why I didn’t change the others. Honestly, I expected much more of a fight. They let me get away with murder. Even so, the book is much better for having been through the process.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Never draw to an inside straight. If you mean advice about writing, it’s this: If you want to write, you have to think of it as a job, even if no one is paying you at the moment. You have to think of it as work, not art. Only way to get it done.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

Well, if you let me categorize journalism as non-fiction, I’ll freely admit that the main appeal of non-fiction is that it pays the bills. The appeal of fiction is that it’s a lot more fun. Moving between them is easy. I do it every day. Now I’m reporting… now I’m making shit up. If it ever got to the point where I couldn’t keep that straight, I’d have to get myself some heavy medication.

11 - 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 actually writing, (that is, when I’ve finished chewing the cud and putting things off for as long as possible,) I try to make writing first thing I do when I get up (while I’m still in bed, usually) and the last thing I do before I pack it in. I don’t use a strict schedule like, “I begin work at 8am every morning without fail.” I don’t hold myself to a set number of hours or words per day. I just plug away, and try to move the ball forward a little bit every day until it’s done.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Screw inspiration. When inspiration crashes, I just write crap until inspiration reboots. Crap removal is a vital part of the redrafting process.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I cannot give any honest answer to this question. I guess I’m not a scent-oriented person.

14 - 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?

Well, yeah. I mean, what can I say? I can’t think of anything in my life that isn’t an influence on my writing. My prose style certainly came from other books more than anywhere else. You don’t get much guidance on sentence structure from contemplating the stars.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

When I was young, I read nothing but Hardy Boys books. Later I went through a heavy Tolkien phase, including the works of many cheap and shoddy imitators. At university I finally got around to reading a bunch of the Great Books, but none of them changed my life. Cyberpunk books from Gibson, Sterling and Stephenson changed my life. I’m a huge Shakespeare freak and a huge William Burroughs freak. If I could generate a customized writing style from a multiple-choice machine, I’d aim for somewhere on the continuum between Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, with maybe a little Elmore Leonard thrown in for flavour.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d like to try my hand at a video game. A lot of people are doing very interesting narrative things with the medium, and I think it’s the next frontier. I’ve got a few ideas. What I need is a few years to get my coding skills up to scratch. I’m pretty geeky, but I’m not a pro programmer.

17 - 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?

I sometimes wish I’d gone into one of the hard sciences so I could spend my life digging into the workings of the universe, but I just don’t think I have that kind of brain. I seriously considered becoming an astronomer for a while, but in the end I settled for a backyard telescope. I still do most of my work at night, though.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

It’s just something I started doing at a very young age and never stopped. There’s great satisfaction to be had from a work of creation, and I seem to be better at creating with words than with any other material I’ve tried. Why would I want to do anything else?

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

Not sure if you mean Great Book or, “Hey that was a great book,” but the most recent novel that really sucked me in was the new William Gibson book, Zero History. The guy doesn’t do cyberpunk anymore, but he still knows how to tell a story. This one is about the world of fashion design, for fucks sake, and I still ran right through it. At the moment I’m reading Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson, which is a landmark achievement in its own way. Last great film I saw was Wall-E. Yeah, yeah, I know; animated Pixar flick for kids and a couple of years old to boot. But I just saw it recently for the first time and it blew me away. It vaulted straight into my all-time top-five list, right up there with Blade Runner and Brazil.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’ve got a decent chunk of a new novel sitting on the shelf that I want to get back to as soon as I can. It shares with Pitouie the theme of people injecting interest into their boring lives in unusual ways, but it’s got a larger cast of characters and is more ambitious in general. Lots of work still to do on that one. I’ve also got a smaller online project on the go, just for fun.

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