by Connie Ward
What made you decide to become a fiction writer?
Do you make a decision to write fiction any more than you decide to be gay? As a child I wrote and performed puppet shows and plays, an outlet for my vivid imagination. In school I turned spelling exercises into poems, took creative-writing classes, and wrote short stories. For a sociology course in college I created a lengthy fictional profile of an inner-city family because I was too shy to interview a real one. Years later, my radio documentary work employed storytelling techniques and structures I learned from doing theater.
As for this particular novel, upon retirement I traveled for a year and ended up at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Listening to inspiring writers talk about their work, I realized it was time for me to sit down and put on paper the story that had been in my head for years.
What type of stories do you write? And why?
First and foremost, I write character-driven stories, usually dark, edgy, and filled with black humor. I like multiple points of view, messing with chronology, and stories within stories. If I can toss in some historical context, so much the better. I write what I like to read, and I like to read complex stories because that’s the way my mind works. Overcomplicated, some might say. They’d probably be right.
As for the darkness, that’s a place I know well, a place it’s difficult to pull myself out of—into the light. I’ve managed to do it more than once, each time in completely different ways. I’ve been thinking about those times lately, with all the discussion after the suicide of Robin Williams, all the theories about depression being thrown around, some based on experience, some pulled out of thin air, some gently charitable and some viciously destructive. I’m certainly no expert, but it seems to me that each individual situation is unique. What works for one may not work for another. It’s the same with stories, with storytelling. What triggers an emotion for one reader may do nothing for the next. I’m sorry. I got sidetracked. What was the question?
What do your family/friends think about your writing?
This might be jumping the gun a bit, with the first novel just out, but everyone has been very supportive, happy I’ve found my creative mojo again. I’d lost it for a number of years—living in that darkness I was talking about. And as for Calvin’s Head, not many have read it, yet those who did have been extremely positive, which is a great relief.
Where do you get your ideas?
I get my ideas from something I see, something I hear, something I read. Anywhere. I have no shortage of ideas. What’s more interesting is, why does one idea lead to a story and not another? I haven’t a clue. I simply know that at a particular moment a story catches hold and needs to be told. Now that I think about it, in writing workshops I’m hopeless at being given an idea—they call them “prompts”—and being told to write something based on that. It seems so forced, so false. I’m lucky if I can get one sentence written, while others write paragraphs, or pages. But once an idea catches hold inside my head, I can’t let go until it’s all on the page—even if it takes thirteen years to get there.
How do you write; do you plan everything out or just write?
I’m not an outliner. I pretty much just write. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about the story—a lot. I don’t keep many notes, though. I have this strong sense that the good ideas will reveal themselves when I need them. I do have to have a title. The main characters have to have names. I need to know them pretty well yet be open for them to surprise me. It’s all very intuitive, organic. For me, following a detailed outline would be like painting by numbers. I’d rather see the full picture emerge gradually from a blank canvas. And if it doesn’t…I rip it up and start again.
What makes Calvin’s Head special to you?
Aside from the fact that I managed to sit in a chair and finish it? That it has gone from being a story in my head to an actual printed, published book? That it will always be my one and only first novel? Aside from all those obvious but no less special attributes? Calvin. He guided me from the darkness into the light, and somehow I was able to transform that experience into both a tribute to him and (I hope) an entertaining tale of psychological suspense.
How much of yourself and the people you know are in your characters?
There’s a lot of myself in all my characters, the best and the worst. How can it be otherwise? They all come from my imagination, even if they begin to act on their own. As for cannibalizing people I know? That’s a delicate issue. A dear friend’s dying request was to put him in one of my stories. I told him he was in all my stories. But when I tried to write specifically about him, it was incredibly difficult—especially to fictionalize, then rewrite, edit, and revise. I don’t recommend using people you know in fiction. Now, dogs, on the other hand…
Which gay/lesbian authors inspired you the most? Do you have a favorite of this author(s)?
During my radio days, I was fortunate to interview some brilliant LGBT authors like Edmund White, Dorothy Allison, and Michael Cunningham, all whose work I’d read and admired. Talking with them was like getting private master classes. But books by three others particularly inspired me while the story of Calvin’s Head was developing: the Edgar Award-winning Benjamin Justice mystery series by John Morgan Wilson; Dale Peck’s groundbreaking early novels; and (my all-time favorite) Was by Geoff Ryman, a stunning reimagining of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories. All are edgy, character-driven tales with major doses of darkness.
Do you have any suggestions for new writers?
Read. Read. Read. Then write. Know that there is no one sure-fire path and no rule that can’t be broken. Also, know that even the best writers think their new work is crap and no one will ever want to read it. And as someone else once said: if you don’t tell your story, it will never be told.
When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
There’s a lot less time for “fun” the past couple of years. I read as much as I can, go to the theater or an exhibition once in a while, travel whenever possible. I love wandering the streets of a new city, taking photographs, and curating my vagabond life on social media.