The Write Stuff:
An Interview with Doug Lawson
Your latest collection of short stories, "Bigfoots in Paradise" will be released soon. Tell us a little about how the collection came about. Does the collection have a central theme?
This collection is set in and around the Santa Cruz area of California. There’s this area of the Santa Cruz Mountains where weird people who don’t have a lot of Silicon Valley money live, a super-rural place full of wildfires and earthquakes. It’s filled with a brilliant mix of hippies, artists, surfers, tech workers, lumberjacks and mountain lions and even wild boar, who all need to come together in some way to make a life.
We lived there for ten years, at the end of a dirt road. We had skunk invasions and mountain lions in the trees, roads swept away by mud and radioactive rains and ocean fog and ashes caking the car from nearby wildfires. It’s so full of stories and danger, and so crazily beautiful, that I found I had to try and tell about it.
The stories are filled with awkward and ungainly characters, who are great at hiding from themselves and others, each of them shambling through a beautiful wilderness of their lives. We’re all sort of Bigfooty in a way, right? I set out to tackle themes of parenthood, memory, class divide, self-indulgence, stress, and the lines (if there are any) between childhood and adulthood. Plus, I wanted to at least attempt to be funny and to create some depth of characters and world that people could really relate to, could get pulled into for a little while.
What have you learned about short story writing between this collection and your first, "A Patrimony of Fishes?”
It’s been a very long time between the two collections. While I like the stories in “Patrimony,” I find myself writing longer pieces now, looking to spend more time and breathing more life into the stories. There was a glassblower in the mountains where the "Bigfoot" stories are set. He’d take the hot clump of glass out of the fire at the end of a long tube, and then blow, slowly, to stretch it out, to expand it until you could see all sorts of shapes and patterns in it. Stories for me are like that.
I also find more value now in having stories resonate on an emotional level rather than just trying to be clever and showy at the surface level of language. Showy is ok, but meaning lasts and today I think we all struggle for more of it. Maybe that comes from being a dad, too, and knowing my kids might read these someday; I want them to have more than just an image, a great turn of phrase, a funny irony; that stuff fades quick.
Also, I think I trust myself more, and can push the form more and take more risks, go places that feel unexpected while knowing I can make it work out in the end.
Your novel, "Beasts of the Walking City," is in a different genre and written under a pen name. What led to those choices?
A spacey, dreamy, anxious and shy kid, I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons and reading science fiction and fantasy novels, and always wanted to write one; that’s “Beasts of the Walking City.” It was a world I’d been daydreaming since I was a kid, and I felt like I had to get the characters and concepts out before I could do anything else. I had a blast writing it, learned a lot doing it, and really enjoyed seeing that world getting readers.
Now, as a frequently spacey, dreamy, anxious and shy adult, I think I want to go live in it. I use a pen name to keep any genre work I do separate from the more realistic stuff, so readers know what to expect. This would make more sense if I’d gotten more books done by now.
Do you prefer writing short stories or novels, and why?
I’m working on a new novel now, so I’ll say novel. But, I love being able to rewrite, and working a story you get to an ending quicker and can iterate over and over again sooner. That’s fun. Novels require a long emotional commitment, so I need to make sure I’m ready to spend a whole lot of time with the characters and concepts and world before I dive in too deep.
What advice would you give to aspiring fiction writers?
Be kinder to yourself. Once you’re out of school and in the larger world, creative folks today live many lives by necessity; trying to make a living, trying to have a family, trying to be in the world and yet carve out space from it to form your own worldviews, trying to get actual work done too.
And we’re all hampered by this beguiling Internet beast that’s only getting smarter about sucking your attention out of you. Writers have this particularly bad: the thing you use to do your work on is the same thing the AIs are calling you through.
It’s ok. You can still do it. Persist. Don’t be intimidated. Learn a little more craft every day. Read some stuff. Do a little more work. It’s just a book, and thousands of people write one every year; surely you’re at least as good as some of them.
Remember, just one page a day gives you your novel in a year.
Just for fun, here's a link to a video promo for "Bigfoots In Paradise."
(from the WriterHouse Newsletter.)