|Christopher J. Helvey|
In addition to his current writing career, Christopher J. Helvey is Editor/Publisher of the journal, Trajectory: Writing That Illuminates. He is Fiction Editor on the staff of the Annual Anthology of Best New Writing. Part 2 of our interview will look at his work as an Editor/Publisher.
It is three a.m.
and I am reading
Spain and bulls and Hemingway
outside on the boulevard
it is raining
pouring piss out of a boot
I pour myself another
cup of coffee
and the shards of
slice me like
rusty razor blades
outside on the boulevard
it is raining
pouring piss out of a boot.
Chris: My novel owes a great deal to a man named Kenneth Millar. Mr. Millar wrote under the name Ross Macdonald and his Lew Archer detective series is one of the finest by an American. Lew Archer was always driven by a sense of justice, tempered by mercy, and I suppose my protagonist, Ward Evans, shares those qualities.
Chris: Purple Adobe began with the opening sentence which came to me from another dimension very early one morning: “The day died a purple death against the cracked adobe wall.” Jan, you are a perceptive reader. Place, indeed, is very much a character in this novel. I have long loved the American west, especially the lonely, and starkly beautiful deserts. I suppose what drove this novel was a sense of encroaching darkness in all our lives, and the light (of love? justice? humanity?) which saves so many of us in the end.
Chris: I suspect that one learns more by our failures than our successes. While Purple Adobe has a number of good qualities (strong sense of place, a story that moves along nicely, a theme that justice prevails), it is far from a perfect work. It suffers at times from the dreaded “purple prose” syndrome, and in the days when I was working on that novel I was afflicted with “simileitis”(too many similes). Brad Watson, author of The Heaven of Mercury, first recognized that I had this illness when I was a student in one of his workshops at Spalding. Today, I would utilize a much more sparse language, utilize less description, and cut down on the sex scene. Less, indeed, is often more.
Chris: I don’t know that I have lost anything as a result of my time at the Spalding MFA program. I met so many wonderful people and learned so many lessons. Two of those lessons that stand out were how to take criticism and how critical rewriting is. I gained a sense of belonging to a greater community of writers, a better understanding of what makes a story work, and many wonderful friends.
Chris: Jan, that is a really tough question to answer. Of course, there is no ‘perfect’ short story, but for me it would be written with an almost brutal economy of language, yet at the same time contain a new vision, a new way of looking at the world, and I am a huge fan of what I call “hammer-time” endings, endings that leave you changed, endings that leave you a different person from who you were before you read them. As for an almost perfect short story, I’d have to select “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, or maybe,”The Killers,”or “Hills Like White Elephants,” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” all by Ernest Hemingway.
Chris: I’m polishing up a collection of some of my best unpublished short stories (my working title is Clawhammer) and I will start sending it around soon. I’ve also just finished first drafts of a novel and a novella. It is way too early to know if they will be keepers, or merely good workouts.
Chris: Hemingway, without question, would have to be foremost–for the freshness of his language if nothing else. Ross Macdonald, as noted above, is another. I would also have to give credit, or blame as the case may be, to Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, for his early stories, Bukowski, Larry Brown, and, for his glorious, moving descriptions of place, James Lee Burke. One of my core beliefs is that every writer we read influences us to some degree, in one direction or another. Some influence to write in a certain manner, or on certain subjects. Others send us scurrying in another direction, vowing never to write like that.
Chris: Without a doubt, I’d have to say The Sun Also Rises. In that novel Hemingway made me aware for the first time that there was another, often better, way to say things, that language was pliable and could be molded. Also, in that work he also taught me a good deal of what I know about writing dialogue.
Chris: I’m one of these people who keep dipping into several books at once. At the moment, I am reading The Same Terrible Storm (stories) by Sheldon Lee Compton, a promising young writer and friend from Kentucky (by the way the stories are brief, dark, brutal, and beautiful), Men in the Making (stories) by Bruce Machart, Rope Burns (stories) by F.X. Toole, The Sojourn (novel) by Andrew Krivak, Welding with Children (stories) by Tim Gautreaux, what matters most is how well you walk through the fire (newly relased poems) by Bukowski, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Works and Days (collected essays) by Scott Donaldson, and a number of Slave Narratives (interviews with former slaves collected by state) from the Federal Writers’ Project of the WPA (1936-1938).
Chris: There are several good, useful books on “how to write.” Three that I’ve found beneficial are Writing the Novel by Lawrence Block, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Oh, and I want to mention as helpful, Burning Down The House, Essays on Fiction by Charles Baxter. Richard Goodman has a book on writing out that is both edifying and challenging. The title is The Soul of Creative Writing. One that is replete with literary gems is Ernest Hemingway on Writing (a collection of his comments in letters, interviews, commissioned articles, edited by Larry W. Phillips).
Chris: The two best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received are “Quit talking about writing and sit down and start writing” (paraphrased from a number of excellent teachers and writing gurus) and “Baby, you don’t want to take five pages to get your hero from one end of a barn to the other.” That one is from my wife and it stuck a dagger through one of my greatest weakness as a writer, which is never use one good adjective or simile when you might be able to squeeze in two, or three, or four…
As for the piece of advice I’ve chosen to ignore: “Write only what you know.” What bad advice! If we listened to those words most of the novels and stories we write would surely be rather boring. If everyone followed that advice there would be no science fiction written and darn fewer murder mysteries. The person who first gave that advice must have blanked on the use of imagination. Perhaps it is okay to start a novel or story writing about what you know, but my advice is to start letting the imagination flow, and sooner rather than later.