Q: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A: No. I first wanted to be a writer at a young age, maybe seven or eight, but I also wanted to be a paleontologist, wildlife vet, detective, and horse. I got serious about writing fiction as a teenager and finished a full-length novel about the Titanic with my younger cousin, but after that I lost interest and spent over a decade trying to be anything but a novelist.
Credit for rekindling the fiction-writing flame goes to two books I read while recovering from wisdom teeth surgery in January 2010 —The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski and The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To by D.C. Pierson. The former because it was the literary version of the beloved boy-and-his-dog stories of my youth, and the latter because it reminded me of how much I loved writing and world-building as a teenager.
Q: How did you become a writer?
A: Here’s the thing: I find this question is almost always a roundabout way of asking how you can become a writer. As though I carved a path through the publishing jungle that you can follow if only you find it before the carnivorous plants grow back over. But publication is not what makes any of us writers.
We become writers, first, by writing, and then by taking that writing seriously enough to call ourselves writers. Seriously. That’s it. I became a writer when I was in fifth grade and wrote the first few chapters of a Black Stallion rip-off in my spiral-bound notebook and called myself a writer. I became a writer again at thirteen when I filled up yellow legal pads with my own original stories and called myself a writer. And I finally became a writer again at twenty-six when I opened up a Word document and wrote the first awful draft of the first chapter of something that will eventually be published as The Natural State.
I became a writer when I gave myself permission to be one, and so can you.
Q: That was very inspiring, but seriously, how did you get published?
A: I started a blog about minimalism during the minimalism craze of the winter of ’10/’11. One day, Joshua Fields Millburn from the way-more-popular-than-mine website The Minimalists asked me to show him around Austin (where I lived at the time) during SXSW. We ate tacos, I watched him get a haircut, and then we went to a meet-up downtown where both of our introverted souls became agitated almost immediately, so we left and walked around talking about fiction and how both our books were basically about loneliness, and okay, I know where it sounds like this is going, but we’re not married now, he’s just one of the guys that co-founded Asymmetrical Press.
Q: Yeah, but how many times were you rejected by a real publisher before you realized you’d have to settle for some indie no one had ever heard of?
A: Zero. Because I never tried. Through college and well into my twenties, I was obsessed with the idea of being an independent filmmaker, and so when I returned to my first love, fiction, it only seemed natural to pursue a similar path. I am indie because I want to be.
Q: So are you a full-time writer now?
A: No. My primary income is non-literary in origin, same as it is for many published writers, indie or not. While it’s always the dream in the back of any writer’s mind, expecting it is unfair to ourselves and our potential readers. No one owes it to us to buy our books, no matter how much time and effort and emotion we pour into them. Whether or not we get to live off our art is not entirely up to us, and so it’s wise to make, not a back-up plan in case you fail, but a day-job plan to support yourself while you succeed.
Q: I’ve heard that if I want to be a writer, I have to write every single day, and if I don’t, then I might as well give up because I’m a hack who clearly doesn’t want to succeed if I value anything above putting words on a page every single day. Is that true?
A: Um, no. That’s bullshit. Sort of. Listen, there’s nothing wrong with typing up a bunch of words every day if that’s what works, but this advice (usually given as a commandment) is misleading because it makes it sound like writing is nothing more than sitting in a chair and typing until a story appears. Everyone is different, but for me that part isn’t writing, that’s recording. Writing is what I do in my head while I’m driving around or taking a shower or going for a walk. Nothing would ever get written if I just sat in my chair with my fingers on the keys and waited for words to come out. Writing is daydreaming, it’s staring at a cloud and asking how your characters would respond to this thing versus that thing, it’s drawing a crude map of a town to figure out scene blocking, it’s Googling what year a song or movie was released, it’s throwing a thousand ingredients into a cauldron and hoping for an explosion. (That last one was a metaphor. Please don’t really do that.)
So I do write a little every single day, but sometimes I don’t open my word processor for a week. It took me three years to finish Chicken, and while that was frustrating for everyone involved, if I had finished one day sooner in my desperation to just type something out and end it, it wouldn’t be the book that it is, the book that I set out to write, and I’d cringe instead of beam whenever I see my name on it.
Q: So what’s your writing process like then?
A: It’s all over the place. I’m a planner in the sense that I need to know where the story is going when I start so I’ll have some idea how to get there, and also because I need to know the same thing for every individual scene before I even try to type it out.
But I’m a “pantser” in the sense that I don’t make a lot of notes because once I’ve written something down, even in a notebook, I feel oddly committed to it, so I try to avoid it. Also my handwriting is so awful that it makes all my ideas look stupid. So I spend an incredible amount of time just thinking about my story. I’d almost call it meditating on my story. Daydreaming.
I also try to find a piece of music for every scene or sequence, which I listen to over and over while I play out the scene in my head until I have it just right. Then when I sit down to type, I’ll listen to that song a few times to recall the “memory” I’ve created.
But there comes a time when I find it necessary to make an outline in the form of a numbered list of scenes to help me keep track of everything. This also helps with pacing as it allows me to see if I’ve put too many short or long, quiet or active scenes back to back.
Q: Do you listen to music while you write?
A: No. Just before I write. Well, sometimes I listen to instrumental pieces, usually parts of a film score that have a similar feel to what I’m going for in a particular scene or sequence. But even that is usually too much of a distraction when I’m trying to squeeze the words from my brain down through my arms and out my fingers. I crave silence.
Q: Writer’s block–real or not real?
A: Real. Writer’s block is a form of career-specific anxiety, and when we dismiss it as stubbornness or laziness or whatever, we’re doing writers and their mental health the same disservice we do when we tell anyone with anxiety that they just need to try harder or chill out. Brains don’t work that way, and hearts get broken when you try to make them. If you’re feeling blocked, it might not be time to work harder, it might be time for a little self-care. (That wasn’t supposed to be a euphemism, but I mean…whatever works, okay?)
Q: If you could only give an aspiring writer one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Read. Read some of the books they say you have to, but mostly read whatever it is that most transports you from your own skin into another’s. Never pretend to like a book just to fit in, but never put anyone else down for liking a book you didn’t. Never put up with anyone who makes you feel bad about your reading choices. Books are intensely personal, which is why if you’re going to write them, it’s crucial to understand that you’re creating something that’s meant to feel personal to people you will never know. You can learn about craft and technique through reference books and writing classes, but the best way to learn how to move another human with a story is to read books that move you.
Q: What are some of your favorite books?
A: The Black Stallion by Walter Farley and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. Also pretty much any of Jim Kjelgaard’s boy-and-his-dog books, but especially Haunt Fox, Snow Dog, and Lion Hound. There are more contemporary books that rank among my favorites too, of course, but these are the books that made me love stories, the books I return to over and over again because no matter how old I get they never seem to age, and they always make me want to write again.
Q: Will you read my book and tell me how to make it better?
A: Yes, but I only do this in exchange for money through my Story Taming service. Reading for pleasure is time-consuming enough, but reading with a critical eye toward craft, style, and story is a whole different, well, story. So this is not something I do as a favor, even for my closest writer friends.
Q: How can I get my copy of your book signed?
A: Signed copies are currently only available through occasional giveaways around the web or in person at book signings.
Q: Can you attend an event in my area?
A: Appearance requests should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
At this time, I am only able to attend events outside Arkansas if travel and lodging costs are covered, and depending on the nature and budget of the event I may also have to require an appearance fee.
Q: May I interview you for my blog/school assignment/etc.?
A: Interview requests should be directed to email@example.com
To save us both time, please include a link to the site where the interview will appear, a due date no less than fourteen days in the future, and up to eight interesting questions.
Q: Why do you think books are hats?
A: Why do you think they aren’t?
Q: Where did you get the idea for Chicken?
A: On August 1, 2012 I drove by the Chick-Fil-A in Conway, Arkansas to assure myself that no one in my college town was taking Mike Huckabee’s Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day seriously. Unfortunately, they were. They really, really were. The drive-thru line was so long that police officers had to be called in to direct traffic. Because of record sales, the store was mentioned in several national new stories. You can read an article from the local paper, complete with slideslow, here.
Sitting at the stoplight, watching all those families with children, I knew it was pretty much impossible that at least one closeted queer kid hadn’t been dragged in there to stand up for the freedom of a religion that wants the government to treat him like a second-class citizen. I drove away that day with Casper Quinn in my passenger seat, and when I got home I wrote down the first thing he told me: “Brant Mitchell is beautiful. I’m not supposed to know that but I do.”
Although I changed the name of the restaurant to Wings of Glory, the timeline in the novel follows real events as closely as possible with only minor tweaking for pacing. So if you enjoy Chicken, you might want to send Mike Huckabee a thank-you note for bringing this queer love story into existence.
Q: Why did you want to tell this story?
A: Director Guillermo del Toro once tweeted that “Telling a story is the desire to create worlds that exist solely in us, for the solace of others that may need them.” I’m not sure anything anyone has ever said about writing or storytelling has resonated with me quite so much, especially in regards to this particular book. I grew up in a really specific way in a really specific place around a really specific type of people, none of which I’d ever seen accurately reflected back to me in fiction when I started writing Chicken. When I came across a church in a novel, it rarely felt familiar because it rarely factored into every waking moment of the characters’ lives. When Casper invited himself into my brain, I realized that I really wanted to tell a story that would bring some solace to kids like him and Brant, but also to anyone, queer or straight, who grew up in a culture that taught them not to trust their own hearts.
Q: So exactly how much of this story is based on personal experience?
A: Nice try, but I write fiction for reasons. If you’re interested in reading a YA memoir that covers similar subject matter, I highly recommend Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler. For an adult take, try Boy Erased by Garrod Conley.
Q: Did you ever consider any other titles?
A: Yes. It was originally called Chicken, but after a year or so I got bored and wanted to change it to The Original Sin because I felt that went along better with its companion novel The Natural State. But my then-publishers didn’t like it, and they were absolutely right because in the end I couldn’t find a way to shoehorn in the subversive theological dissertation needed to explain it. It was one of many dumb ideas that deservedly wound up on the cutting room floor.
Q: Where did you get the names Casper Quinn and Brant Mitchell?
A: To be honest, I don’t really remember. They were fairly instantaneous because the first words I wrote were “Brant Mitchell is beautiful.” But just because I sort of picked them out of a (cowboy) hat doesn’t mean they aren’t incredibly important choices. They are both very southern names, but in my opinion, Casper sounds more like a cowboy and Brant sounds more like a country singer , and so you can see how their names helped shape their characters. Also, it’s interesting to note that, Casper means “treasurer” and Brant means “sword” which makes them fairly quintessential names for the stereotypical personalities of a Virgo and a Leo.
Q: This would make a cool movie; who’s in your dream cast?
A: I have a strict policy against dream-casting any of the teenagers, except to say that I would insist on them being played by actual teenagers because this is a story about the pain conservative politics and religion cause children. As for the adults, I really didn’t have any famous faces in mind while I was writing except…Sister Bonnie MUST BE played by fellow Arkansan Mary Steenburgen. This is NON-NEGOTIABLE. MARY, IF YOU’RE OUT THERE, CALL ME, LET’S DO LUNCH.
Q: I’ve heard that it’s better to avoid pop culture references if you want to create a book that’s timeless; why did you ignore this?
A: Well, first of all, I ignored it because I think it’s stupid advice. There’s NOTHING I can do to guarantee that readers a hundred years from now will still be reading one of my books. So it would be silly to write with them as my intended audience. My intended audience exists right here right now. They watch Disney movies and listen to Rihanna and read popular YA novels. So my characters do too.
Secondly, I don’t want this book to be timeless. I want it to become an historical artifact. If someone does pick this book up in the year 2115, I want them to be shocked and horrified that anyone ever had to feel afraid because of who they loved.
Q: How would you describe the theme of Chicken?
A: I like to say that Chicken is a story about the things we give ourselves permission to believe in.
Q: I just finished the book. WTF?!?!?!?!?!
A: I know, I know, it’s weird. Look, I don’t want to give away The Spoiler, so let me just say that if you finished the book and felt like something came out of left field, please go back and read it again. I think the second time around it will probably seem like I’m hitting you over the head with it.
On The Natural State
Q: What’s next?
A: The Natural State is the story of Rafe Bradley, a 24-year-old temp living in NYC who returns home to Hickory Ditch, Arkansas after he finds out his longtime girlfriend has been cheating on him with an investment banker named Bryce. Broken-hearted and totally broke, he’s only going home so his parents don’t have to retrieve his body from across the country. When his suicide attempt is foiled by the appearance of a black wolf, Rafe finds another way to escape this life he doesn’t want to be leading. But he just might be biting off more than he can chew…
Q: How exactly is this book related to Chicken?
A: It takes place in the same town four years earlier (2008). It features several of the same secondary characters, most notably Sister Bonnie and Brother Mackey. And he’s not the star of the story, but you will find out what really happened to Caleb Courts. You’ll also get to see Brant Mitchell as a pre-teen. I don’t consider it a prequel because it doesn’t have the same protagonist. I think of it as a companion novel.
Q: So this is not a YA novel?
A: Technically, no. A YA novel has to feature characters between the ages of 13 and 19, and the stars of this book are between 20 and 25. However, the style has a lot in common with YA novels, and the material will be appropriate for mature teens. (Their parents may not agree, but I trust teens to know what they’re ready to read.)
Q: When can I read it?
A: Hopefully next year?
On Demoniac and The Natural Kingdom
Q: Okay, how are THESE related to Chicken and The Natural State?
A: Demoniac is the direct sequel to Chicken, and The Natural Kingdom is where the characters from those books and the characters from The Natural State finally come together.
A: Yes, but also no. It’s complicated, okay?
Q: Do you know how weird and unmarketable this saga sounds right now?
A: BELIEVE ME I DO.
Q: When can I read them?
A: Some day.
On My Other Projects
Q: Are you working on anything that doesn’t take place in Hickory Ditch?
A: Yes! I’m working on a middle-grade novel called Chaos & Chrome about animals in the aftermath of a tornado, inspired by my work with rescue groups after a devastating tornado in Vilonia, AR in 2014. I’ve also got several other middle-grade ideas, but I have no time-table on any of this at all. It might have to wait until I’m totally finished with the Hickory Ditch books.