Friday, July 25, 2008

Jon Armstrong Exclusive Interview With... Me

Yep, it's my turn on If You're Just Joining Us. Jon has been interviewing all the Campbell Award Nominees. We had a talk a couple weeks back. I quite enjoyed it. We talked for over an hour, I think, but don't worry - the interview is cut down to about 20 minutes. (Ah, one might wonder what tidbits were cut out...)

Thing to remember with Jon is that he doesn't like to ask the standard writerly-type questions. He wants us thinking out of the box a bit, responding to some random promptings like, "I understand you spent four days fasting naked in the Arizona desert... was that by choice?"

Click here to have a listen.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Interview. Please tell me you've read some Jon Krakauer? I'd be interested to hear your take on Into the Wild and some of his other books, as there seems to be such an interesting resonance between many of his topics and some of your earlier experiences with Outward Bound.

Again, great interview. Actually I've been enjoying that whole series with the Campbell Nomninees. I think Armstrong still has to do Scott Lynch, doesn't he? Looking forward to that one, too.

My best, as always (and keep out of those pigeonholes),

12:36 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

I have read Into the Wild. It was a while ago, but I do remember liking it. Funny that you mention it, because I also remember feeling that Christopher McCandless was just a slight exaggeration of the person I was at about that age.

Something I didn't mention in that interview was that after I left Prescott College my plan was to head to Mexico and climb volcanoes. I had the trip all lined up with a climbing friend. Thing is, I was counting on my mother to fund the thing - or at least get me started. She pulled the plug on me, though, and the plan died. I fumed. Simmered. Etc.

And then I opted for a complete turnaround and became a club-hopping city kid. Weird. But scary because my wanderlust and naivety and arrogance were all equally huge. I could have gotten into some trouble in Mexico, and Alaska might have drawn me too...

Yes, Scott Lynch should be up next. Look for it within a couple weeks, I guess, cause it should probably run before the Campbells are announced on August 9th.

2:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've only recently read Into the Wild (as well as Krakauer's other books), so it's still fresh in my mind. There was something about the internal dynamics of what you were discussing in the interview that brought McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) to mind. Krakauer himself identified with him, and some of his writing in Eiger Dreams and Into Thin Air clearly show him working out some of that same dynamic (and if you havn't read Into Thin Air, give it a go, as it's a stunning book - I don't have your climbing background and it was still an utterly riveting story, one both beautifully written and handled).

It's interesting, isn't it, the decisions we make (or the decisions made for us), and how they reverberate? The mexico trip sounds both fascinating... and a little reckless. Maybe there's something about that age, about that formative period, that pushes that inclination for self-definition outward onto the world, outward into external action? I was wondering if you felt that writing was a sort of substitute or alternate expression of some of the same feelings or inclinations? Looking at Krakauer that seems to be so to some degree (at least from what he's shared with his readers), or it at least tamed down some of those feelings, allowing him to circle and poke and prod at them. And maybe McCandless himself, too, if he'd lived, considering his own literary inclinations.

Anyways, very interesting. I'm always fascinated by examples of the writing dynamic, by what pushes people to write. It's such an odd passion in a way, and so uniquely adapted to the individual consciousness. It's neat to see how different writers work, both in the day to day minutiae and in the larger drives, the deep interior parts of the process.

Thanks for sharing all that, as it was one of the more interesting writer interviews I've seen. (And if my questions are too prying, feel happily free to ignore them)

My best, as always,

3:21 PM  
Blogger A. Hartman Adams said...

Very interesting interview, David. The bit about your high school English teacher inspired both hope and a certain amount of regret! As a former high school English teacher, I've been in exactly that situation--only the other way around, and with considerably less scowling.

You've given me hope for those handful of kids in my classes who were clearly bright, energetic, and clever, but who were simply uninterested in high school English. One of my students (who also barely, barely passed my class) built a half-scale trebuchet in his spare time. For fun! He and his buddies launched watermelons out of his back yard. One ended up on the baseball field five blocks away. It was awesome.

Clearly, and I sympathize with my student to a certain extent, the building and managing of trebuchets is much more interesting than Shakespeare. But, as you astutely point out, high school is not always the best venue for free thought, especially not with standardized testing the way it is. What an uphill battle that was!

It was great seeing you at Readercon, and I'm glad we got a chance to chat. Congratulations again on your nomination, and good luck!


8:53 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Inklings asked:

"I was wondering if you felt that writing was a sort of substitute or alternate expression of some of the same feelings or inclinations?"

It's a pretty insufficient substitute if it is, but I do think you're on to something there. I can't help but feel that the adventurous spirit I felt as a youth and young adult is tied to my writing life. I did keep at it, in a way, traveling in my mid-twenties in Central America and the Caribbean and eventually in Europe. It's different than running rapids in a kayak, but there's something pretty adventurous about living in another country - having to go through all the daily interactions of life, for example, with people that speak another language.

Consider that Gabriel's Story is nothing if not a coming of age adventure tale across a vast and challenging natural Western landscape - which I loved. And Walk Through Darkness is a quest story through the another natural landscape I spent my youth exploring - that of the East, Chesapeake Bay, etc.

So, yeah, the two aspects of my life overlap in many ways.


Great to see you as well. I'm glad you're still writing, too. Keep at it.

I can be fairly hard on my high school teachers, as so much of my memory of the experience is negative. But I know I own an awful lot of the shortcomings myself.

On the positive side, I do recall and treasure a handful of teachers throughout my education that were so, so important. They kept me going. Perhaps you're one of those to some of your students...

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Teaching is interesting (speaking as a former teacher). Sometimes it's the littlest thing... I thought it was interesting in what you related about going to that first writing class. What makes good teaching? Is it giving a deserved D on a project? (and sometimes those D's are both deserved and needed), or is it giving that D... and leaving your number so the student can ask you about that mark? And then being willing to step up, explain, and help them. And equally important, I suppose, is how you actually called that number. It's always a two way street. How bad do you want something? Sometimes you have to step up and take the lumps and learn what you need to learn, as you did. Not always an easy thing to do, to make that call. Do you remember what you were feeling at the time? I'm guessing you've thought a number of times about what would have happened if you hadn't dialled up that number. Do you think you would have found your way through the writing minefields anyway, or would you have been diverted elsewhere?

I think back on my own experiences and influences and wonder what if...? All those little dominoes falling along a line, but what if you took one out?

And was your mother at least more supportive of writing than volcano climbing? Less risk of lava, at least.

It's also sort of interesting, considering your lack of regard for many of your teachers, that you became one yourself. How'd the whole teaching thing come about? Was it odd considering your earlier experiences, or did it come more naturally out of experiences with good writing teachers later on?

My writing professors, both for my BA and MA in Creative Writing, were quite supportive despite my penchant for dabbling in diverse genres (even fantasy!), which was great, considering how many horror stories I hear about programs forcing Lit demands on students at the expense of genre writing. I'm glad I didn't have to butt my head against that wall too much. I alwasy thought it would be great to return the favour and teach writing myself, especially as I enjoy the process. How was your experience teaching MFA (as I just noted that you said you might be going back to teach some more)? Was it interesting to balance writing fiction and teaching it?

And the Facebook thing looks good, though I admit I probably know even less about that sort of thing than you do. Nice that your publisher is handling it, though. Takes some of the bother away.

My best, as always,

12:34 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

I don't entirely remember what I was feeling when I got that E (or F) on that paper. (Yes, it was worst than a D.) The phone call must have been very hard, and awkward. I could easily have seen it going the wrong way. Or I could have dropped the class. Never made the call. There are lots of ways that exchange might have failed. I think, though, that she was the right teacher at the right time in my life. I was ready to be challenged. I didn't exactly know it, but I was bursting to start really learning and writing and growing. I would have found my way to where I am no matter what, I think, but I can't help but be thankful for the individuals that are part of my history.

I'm not sure if you know it, but I'm not just teaching at Stonecoast part time. I teach full time as an associate professor in the MFA program at Cal State in Fresno. I've been up to my ears in full time teaching the last two years, with part time work for a few before that. Teaching has been a fairly big part of my last decade of life, actually. It's the only work I've really had outside of writing fiction.

How did it come about? Well, after getting my MFA I was fairly comfortable in the workshop environment. My first few years as a published writer I focused on writing full-time. We lived pretty leanly, but I got a lot of work done. Still, though, there was always the draw toward teaching as another source of income. It's just the obvious thing that I'm "qualified" for other than writing my own books. That slowly evolved over the years toward more teaching in more substantial jobs.

The one I have at Cal State is a very good position. I'm still able to write, although it's not easy to balance the two. "Interesting" is not the word I'd use... ;)

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So you're going to be writing, teaching full time at Cal State, and then adding in some Stone Coast as well? Admirable. That'll keep your plate full. And kids! They can keep that plate topped up all by themselves. Having a three year old and a one year old I sometimes feel like one of those waiters with the massive tottering trays piled high for that disorderly table of fifteen...

Most of my professors were poets, the erratic nature of which is much easier to fit into a full teaching schedule I think. I had one fiction writer, Alistair MaCleod. He was a fine writer (winner of the Dublin Impac award), but also a glacially slow writer. It took him fifteen years to write one short novel (one of those guys who would spend a whole day to write one paragraph). I wonder about how it would be to balance writing novels with a teaching schedule... a little trickier, I'm guessing. It's hard to write a novel without that dogged day-by-day accumulation of words and pages. Luckily, I own a little bookshop and have time to write a bit on the job, as it were. I still miss aspects of teaching, though, and teaching writing would be lovely - and might pay better than the book business these days ;)

My best, as always,

1:07 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Wonderful that you've managed to keep a little bookshop going in this climate. That can't be easy, but if you can do it that sounds great.

Also, well done on the kids. That's not easy either.

I've read and enjoyed Alistair MaCleod. He actually came over for the Edinburgh Book Festival one year when I still lived in Scotland. He's well regarded over there, too.

And, yes, my plate is too full.

12:20 PM  

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