Colin Winnette is the author of several books. He lives in San Francisco.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
When I wrote my first novel, Revelation, a big part of me thought I might never finish (let alone publish) a novel. I’d worked on a much longer, much worse novel for years and it had spun completely out of control. Several years into writing it, I was a different man than the one who started it, but I couldn’t see that. I only saw the book slipping away from me. When I finally set that novel in a drawer and decided to write some short stories just to remind myself that I could finish something, I didn’t see a new novel popping up. But it did. So, partly out of fear that I was just setting myself up for another massive failure, I thought of a few rules (a writing schedule, a strict 7-chapter structure, a fixed number of central characters) and stuck to them. I was also slowly learning that first novels didn’t have to be long or formally virtuosic to be good. They just had to be what they were. I worked routinely and in a goal-oriented way. And at the end of all that, I had a new novel—surprisingly, one I liked.
My new book, Coyote, is really different from Revelation. Coyote takes place entirely in the mind of its narrator. It’s her voice, her story, her language. She determines the boundaries of the story’s reality. By comparison, Revelation is sprawling (though fairly short). It takes place over 60 years. It details the end of the world. Also, the perspective is really different. There’s far less interiority, if any. You’re watching the characters from the outside as they weather the apocalypse. You don’t get a lot of their thoughts or worries. In that way, the reader is kept at a distance. It’s a quieter book too. Muted. Coyote flares up. They’re both pretty sad books, but in really different ways.
So, the first novel attempt was an important lesson in what not to do, at least for me. Or, more accurately, it taught me about myself as a writer: what works, what feels rights, and where I get in my own way. The second novel was a strict retraining program. I’ve never written in the same way, but having done it that way once fundamentally shifted my sense of what could be done and how I could go about doing it.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Honestly, I feel like fiction is the most natural thing for words to do. Every sentence is a product of the imagination anyway. We have to struggle to get them anywhere near something like the truth…or reality. And regardless of how accurately you describe something, it has to be processed by the listener, too. You try to generate a picture/feeling in the mind of another human being. Even something like…asking for a glass of water requires that you express something clearly enough to evoke the image of the completed act in the mind of another person. I mean, repetition has made all of this easier. There’s a shorthand for certain things…like water. But still, the other person has to understand what you’re saying and be able to imagine the thing you’re describing before they can act or respond. So…every communicative act is sort of like telling a story. And…it’s fiction because you’re describing something that hasn’t actually happened. Or not yet. Later, after you’ve mastered the skill of making a simple request, asking for a glass of water, you can start manipulating words to achieve a more complex effect, like a lie or a poem.
And I’m not sure I 100% believe in non-fiction as a thing.
But, to answer your question, I feel like fiction was there before I knew what it was.
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?
No time at all. If I’m writing, I’m starting a writing project. Once I’ve started writing, I’ll start thinking about it and working it out. I spend a lot of time thinking about fiction, about stories, about myself, the people I know, the way we think and act and seem to feel, but the writing project doesn’t start until I’m putting words on the page. And I try to do that every day.
But I’m superstitious about it all. When I was a young writer, I used to take a lot of notes, but nothing ever came of them. The only thing that ever led to finishing a story or a book was actually writing it. It’s sort of like cleaning a house. When I clean, I want to see it through from top to bottom. If I’m just walking around pushing random bits into little piles, I don’t feel like I’m cleaning—I feel like I’m putting off cleaning. Also, if I had an idea for a sentence or something and I wrote it down, it always felt a little cheap or lesser than to try to incorporate it into a story later. I prefer to work in one direction and discover things as a byproduct of writing the story…if that makes sense?
4 - Where does a poem or a story 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?
Usually, I have a sense of how long the thing will be from pretty early on. A lot of that has to do with the time I want or have to put into it. There’s always more to tell, but if there’s only one part I’m interested in I’ll focus on that and get it done. I rarely go back and try to add things or make a project longer than by inserting new ideas/chapters. It’s all too Frankenstein.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. It’s probably my favorite part of the whole thing. It’s also terrifying and horrible and extremely stressful for me.
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?
Not really, but each book, at least so far, has been the product of my grappling with questions of how to live, how to think, how to deal with suffering and mortality, how to connect to people in the best possible way, how to get out of unproductive or even destructive mental, emotional, and psychological loops. More than “theoretical concerns” or “current questions,” I think my characters are dealing with the slippery question of how to live…and why/if one should live in a particular way, especially in the face of circumstances that directly contradict your understanding of reality. I’m interested in how people make sense of the world, and how they react when their understanding begins to unravel or is called into question.
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?
It’s changing, as it always has been. As long as we’re using language to communicate, the world needs writers. And by “writers” I mean people who are committed to the process of trying to communicate with words as well as they possibly can. There are a lot of ways to do this. There’s an abundance of text available now. Language continues to grow and adapt and become more complicated. More and more people are writing, in one way or another. As a fiction writer, I honestly think the best I can do is write something that means something to me, something that changes me a little, or changes the air around me, and hope it does the same for other people, for the same reason you bring a friend to a swimming hole or show them a movie you love or take a photo of something with your phone: in one way or another or many, you think it’s special.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
A good editor is an incredible blessing. By “good” I mean someone who gets the project and can help you get it to a point where it is doing all that it possibly can in the most efficient way. The trouble comes when you’ve got two egos approaching the same project from different angles and there’s a lack of active understanding between the two. A bad editor can really muck things up, especially for a young writer. But a good editor is invaluable.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Best is impossible to say, but my boss has a Post-It note in his office that reads, “We’re all faking it. Hackery is a continuum,” which I love. I’m a terribly insecure person, so anything that normalizes my self-doubt is motivating in a weird way. That was another great piece of advice I got. A teacher of mine once told me, “You’re never going to get rid of your self-doubt. But you can figure out ways to keep it in the backseat and away from the steering wheel.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short fiction to novels)? What do you see as the appeal?
It was hard at first because I felt like poetry had to be this whole other thing. I was intimidated, mostly because I hadn’t really found any poetry that I loved, so I wasn’t sure I liked what I thought I was going to have to do, if that makes sense. Anyway, I kept reading and trying until I started to find my people. Then I started to see how I might fit in with them.
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?
Since I’ve been in San Francisco, I’ve noticed a cycle developing. I decide I need to write every day, and block out some regular intervals to do so. I write some junk, some little good things, and suddenly a longer project starts boiling up out of everything. I stick with it and, if I’m lucky, it comes together well and finds a home. Then I ease up. Then self-doubt and anxiety creeps in. Will I ever write again? Will I ever write anything good again? Have I ever written anything good? Oh, god, I’ve written so many terrible things and no one will ever care. Oh, god, I wrote one good thing and everyone is going to hate anything else that isn’t that. Oh, god. Oh, god, I should be writing a little more. Oh, god, I should be writing a lot more. Shit, I better block out some regular intervals and just do it. Oh, god.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Everywhere, really. I read. New things, old things I love or that are difficult. I watch movies. I take walks. I do some readings. I listen to a lot of music. Anything that might knock something loose.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I got a wild hair to write a kids’ book, so I’m trying that now. It’s a picture book. It’s been pretty challenging, actually—but part of that is due to the fact that the illustrations are already done and I’m responding to them, rather than the other way around. Also, the illustrations are by the artist Scott Teplin, who’s great and whose work I absolutely love, but they’re very unique illustrations, filled with funny, great, dark details and oddness. They’re really wonderful, but so rich that it’s a real challenge to write a story that does them justice.
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?
For a very long time, I thought I was going to be a musician. I still play, but not seriously. If I hadn’t left my hometown to study writing, I’m pretty sure I would still be there, playing in bands and making a modest living. I’d probably be smoking by now, too, or trying to quit.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Nothing really. Nothing made me do it. I just wanted to do it. In a very idealized way, at first. Then I started realizing what it would take, at least for me, and it was a little daunting. But at that point, I’d tasted some of the rewards, on a personal level: the frustration and relief, that weird click when things start going the right way, the odd lift when a story is somehow, inexplicably working. The satisfaction of this weird, nebulous job done well. That’s when I started making myself do it. When I realized what it could be like. I’m still making myself do it, in a lot of ways.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I really loved Climates by Andre Maurois. I read it a few weeks ago for the first time. It’s very good, and an absolute pleasure to read. It was a painful book but the experience of reading it was like finishing a glass of water.
The last great film I saw is harder to answer. I really liked Inside Llewyn Davis, though I’m not sure it’s a great film. Part of what I loved about it is the marvelous consistency of the Coen Brothers. They just know what they want and they execute it so flawlessly, it’s remarkable. It’s something I aspire to. Their weird combination of commitment, experimentation, and consistency.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve started a new novel that I don’t have much to say about. It’s in early stages. I’m working on the kids’ book I mentioned, which has been fun but challenging. I’m revving up for the release of Coyote this fall, and then the release of Haints Stay next summer (Two Dollar Radio 2015). It’s going to be an intense year.
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