Showcased Writer: Ron McFarland
Interviewed by: Zach Meskell
“Undercover” Published in Silk Road No. 7.2
Ron McFarland teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Idaho. His recent books include a critical study of regional memoir, The Rockies in First Person and a study of Longfellow’s Evangeline; his study of fiction in which Hemingway appears as a character, Appropriating Hemingway, will appear later this year. Ron’s fourth full-length of poems, Subtle Thieves, was released by Pecan Grove Press in early 2012. Chapin House Books published his memoir of growing up in Florida, Confessions of a Night Librarian and Other Embarrassments, in 2005. Current projects include a biography of Lt. Col. Edward J. Steptoe (1815-1865), a probably never-to-be-published novel entitled The Woman Who Would be a Poet and a new book of poems tentatively entitled A Variable Sense of Things.
Having published works in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, what are the major differences in your creative process between these genres?
Ordinarily, when I start a poem I’ve no idea where it’s headed—or only a vague notion, though there are some exceptions. I like to think the reader will be as surprised by how the thing ends as I was. With fiction and nonfiction (of the “creative” variety or otherwise, including critical writing), I’m pretty confident where I’m headed from the outset. Sometimes, more often with fiction than with creative nonfiction, the writing will lead me elsewhere than the direction I’d predicted, and especially with fiction I find myself struggling with the ending. Recently I finished a very short creative nonfiction entitled (tentatively, as my titles tend to be) “War is a Man’s Game.” It’s a rather playful memory piece of playing war with my brother and a next-door neighbor girl when I was about ten years old, and after some weeks I am still undecided as to whether to employ the fairly serious closing paragraph or not. Am I imposing too much “gravitas” on an otherwise rather light & playful piece? Or do I really want to sort of sober up there at the end?
My poems are typically 2-sitting ventures: the original drafting followed by revisions and honing the next day, then off they go. Yes, I do sometimes rethink this or that poem, particularly after it has been rejected a couple of times, but I tend to compose fairly rapidly, as I’ve heard Robert Frost did, rather than painstakingly, as Yeats so notoriously did. Perhaps as a result my poems come off as overly whimsical or playful, but they do tend to be “in voice.” I recognize how I sound in them, and I’m satisfied with that. I don’t want to underplay myself too much here. I do think of my poems as “whimsically serious,” if that quasi oxymoron makes any sense. The prose pieces generally take me several days to complete to my satisfaction, and while I always draft my poems in pencil or pen on paper first, I hardly ever do that with my prose, which I compose at the word processor. Just how many days this or that prose text might take will often depend on the length and complexity, or intricacy, of the text. Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of 5- to 8-page stories or essays that I call “quickies.” They may be a bit too lengthy to qualify as “sudden” or “flash” fiction, but for some reason the darned things really appeal to me.
Generally, even what I regard as a lengthy scholarly essay, short story, or creative nonfiction (essay) will run no more than 4,000 words, and I feel quite comfortable turning out prose texts of ten or a dozen pages.
What different obstacles did you encounter while publishing in multiple genres, and what advice would you give to beginning writers trying to do the same?
Thinking that you can “know” or somehow “master” the almost innumerable markets out there constitutes an exercise in self-delusion. In my graduate creative writing courses (most often poetry writing) I have over the years had students “adopt” a literary magazine and conduct a study of it: How many poems per issue relative to how many pages of prose—or how much fiction relative to nonfiction—that sort of thing? What are the editors’ apparent tastes in themes, styles, etc.—do they like quirky stuff? Do they like humor? Or do they apparently dislike humor? I tend to be one of those world-is-a-comedy-to-a-person-who-thinks guys (á la Horace Walpole), so that’s certainly worth knowing for me. Are they into so-called Language Poetry? If so, that mag is not for me. In prose, if they go for magic realism in whatever form, or fantasy, while I especially enjoy reading the former (not so much the latter), I know they aren’t likely to care for my writing.
Okay, I think it’s important not to get your feelings hurt, either early on or much later. If you’re writing well (but who knows, who knows?), if you are writing well, or well enough, someone out there will like it well enough to publish it. Do you have time to sift the contents of dozens, or even hundreds, of literary magazines? If you do, you have more time on your hands than I do. To the extent that I conduct more-or-less elaborate market studies, I often find myself thinking I should be doing less of that and more writing. I’m confident The New Yorker is not for me, and neither is Poetry magazine, and that’s okay. I genuinely dislike much that I read in Poetry. After decades of teaching poetry and poetry writing, I still find myself amazed, stunned, shocked & awed at some to the stuff they publish! So thank the gods for alternatives to such magazines. Ultimately, of course we all hope we’ll be read and admired, or at least appreciated, or at least tolerated, or . . . well, you can see where I’m headed. But being rejected is part of the game. We shouldn’t let it bother us. Every so often I’ll have something picked up by a quite reputable magazine that has been rejected by other quite respectable magazines maybe 20 or 30 times. It makes me smile. That’s the way it goes. And maybe that’s the way it should go. Maybe rejection should be easier, more common, than acceptance. We’ll appreciate it more when it comes.
Be reasonable. Don’t waste your time—or at least don’t expend a lot of it—going after the big-money, Major Markets. But then if you find yourself gaining easy acceptance on the mid-level markets, don’t hesitate to take a stab at the big ones. You know who they are, generally speaking—Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, Field. One could go on and on. There’s a “next tier,” and a tier below that, and so on. I do think it is worthwhile checking out the markets, taking a look at what a good university library has on its periodicals shelves, but as I said, I think you can spend too much time on that sort of adventure. You do need to play to your strengths. Orion or Gray’s Sporting Journal are excellent venues, if you happen to be writing that sort of piece, but if you’re into baseball stories, poems, or essays, you’re better off with Sport Literate or Spitball.
The major obstacles to publishing this or that poem, essay, or story are the multitudinous markets and the limited time and energy you have to expend on researching them.
As the protagonist in your short fiction story, Undercover, Lynne is an English Major turned police officer. What was the inspiration for this juxtaposition of careers?
Finally, an easy one! My daughter, Jennifer, was a deputy with the Latah County Sherriff’s Office for eight years after she finished work on her M.A. in English (except for her thesis) and before she went back to college to get teaching credentials. She now teaches at a small high school here in Idaho and she loves it. This story, then, was pretty much a gift. All I had to do was torque the details, create or re-create a few characters, and there it was. The guy in the story who calls it a “dillinger” instead of a “derringer” is pretty much him as I imagine him (though he doesn’t owe a whole lot to my daughter’s portrait). The teachers in the remote Idaho town are made up, as are the trailer couple and most of the details surrounding their supposed involvement with pot. The big problem in the county out here is meth. I was fascinated (surprised & concerned, too) when Jennifer went to police academy, learned how to shoot, and transformed herself from a very good graduate student in lit to a very good cop, but that’s what she did for several years. I’m convinced she’s a way better teacher than she would ever have been a cop, and I’m certain she is happier as a teacher, motivated, challenged, & beloved by her students, and so on. But then I’m her father, and I do write fiction.
Part of Lynne’s job in Undercover is her position as a School Resource Officer. In the few moments during which we see her at the school, the descriptions of both students and teachers make it seem like an incredibly sad place to be. As a teacher yourself, why did you choose to write this scene, and what was intended by it?
The town as it is, and as I imagined it, is pretty sad—a town that was once a bustling, active, lively timber town—and Idaho is full of them. The teachers who are left behind, in effect, are often just such as these two sad souls. They have no prospects, really, and Idaho pays its teachers horribly: We’re near the bottom of every category when it comes to public school spending, percent of those going on to college, and so on, and in many ways the state legislature remains surprisingly proud of that. Years ago I recall one of them saying he thought when it came to higher ed, Idaho “got plenty of bang for its buck.” He saw little reason to improve teachers’ or professors’ salaries. Idaho was very reluctant to put any money into kindergartens and many legislators tend to think pre-school is just wrong, as it permits mothers to leaves their homes and get jobs when they should be in their homes raising their kids. I do not think Idaho is unique in this regard, but when I came out here many years ago, one of my students informed me that Idaho was “the Mississippi of the Northwest.” He was spot on then, and he’s spot on today. So what’s intended by that scene? Well, partly it’s an indictment of the state that would perpetuate the scene itself by its neglect of education and by its skewed priorities, which have a lot to do with providing tax breaks to the wealthy and powerful. So far as the teachers & students are concerned, I hope the humor I’ve used is of the sympathetic variety. I do sympathize with their lot.
Undercover has numerous instances of internal dialogue that Lynne has with herself. Although writing thoughts can often be clunky, Lynne’s are brief, entertaining, and shed light on her and her personality; Undercover even ends with one of Lynne’s thoughts. How do you go about making these internal dialogues work?
Clearly, to pull off that sort of thing convincingly—internal dialogue, that is—you have to be “inside” the character’s head, and in this particular instance I was able to draw on what I know, or think I know, might have been going on in her head under those circumstances. But knowing your source subject well does not relieve you from the demands or burdens of imagination. I’m pretty sure my daughter recognizes much of herself in Lynne, but some of it probably also makes her want to wince and say, “Da-a-a-ad!” It helps if you can hear, or think/believe you can hear, that person’s voice. But you are obliged to tweak the voice, which usually means to exaggerate it somewhat. I’m more inclined to exaggerate than to modulate, though I can imagine building a character based on someone I’ve known or met just casually whose real-life antics would need to be modulated to make the story read as I think it should. Often I must go back and rework the internal dialogue so that it does not come out as overly discursive or overly contrived, and I think that’s hard to pull off.