Showcased Writer: R.H. Sheldon

Interview by Gina Warren

R.H. Sheldon

R.H. SHELDON is a Northwest writer whose works include the novel Dancing the River Lightly as well as numerous news and feature articles for online and print publications such as Seattle Magazine and E – The Environmental Magazine. He’s also written restaurant reviews, marketing copy, legal summaries, training material, and anything else necessary to keep the creditors at bay. Sometimes it works. Sometimes not. These days he often writes while traveling in his VW camper, which he blogs about at rhsheldon.com. His piece, “Birds of Paradise,” appeared in Volume 6, Number 2 of Silk Road.

Read “Birds of Paradise“.

The Interview

Gina Warren: How did you begin writing Birds of Paradise? Was there an initial catalyst that sparked the idea?

R.H. Sheldon: I’d been traveling around the country for the better part of the year and landed in the South, which is when I started the story. In one town after the next, I saw closed-up business, abandoned buildings, and boarded up windows. The economy had hit these places hard, yet the aftermath had given the towns a timeless, almost fantastical quality, as though they could have belonged to any number of depressed eras. For many who lived in these places, there was no choice but to leave and head to wherever they could find work or a better life. For others, leaving wasn’t that easy. And even in towns that had not been as decimated, at least not apparently, there still seemed a sense of desperation and resignation among many of the people who lived there, feelings no doubt complicated by such issues as obesity, poverty, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy, issues all too common to much of rural America. So my story was born out of the desperation I sensed in these places. And I sensed too, that beneath the desperation, there simmered desires and passions that could never be fully realized, all of which pointed to the complex undercurrents that define much of rural life in this country, including the South, and overturns any simplistic stereotypes of the people in these regions. That said, there was never one inciting incident that prompted the narrative itself. Only the feelings I was left with after having visited there.

GW: There is some ambiguity in this story, questions it raises without fully answering: such as why Tulip left so rapidly for New Orleans, why Fletcher’s daddy told Tulip not to visit the garage anymore, and what started the fire that killed Fletcher’s father. How do you balance the tension between keeping the reader in suspense and telling a good story, especially in a piece this short?

RHS: I’m a big fan of ambiguity in fiction, perhaps because it seems to better approximate real life. The trick, I think, is to provide enough ambiguity to leave readers with something to consider after finishing the story, but not leave them so befuddled they revolt in frustration and anger and want to rip your story to shreds. When used effectively, ambiguity makes readers take a second look at what they’ve just read and challenges them to rethink their conclusions, perhaps to the point they want to reread the story to discover what they might have missed or to figure out a new way to assemble the pieces. At times, however, I think I tend to go too far overboard with the ambiguous. For example, originally, I had not provided any dates in the story because I was going for a certain timeless quality and felt that placing the characters in a particular era might pigeonhole them too much, but persistent editors insisted otherwise, so I succumbed. Balance is the key, I suppose. Without it, you end up with Hollywood-type writing on one end of the scale and a Naked Lunch sort of thing on the other end, in which the pieces never quite fit together. For such a story, you better be damn sure of your audience and what you’re trying to achieve.

GW: The diction of Birds of Paradise conveys a strong sense of the narrator; how did you chose this voice?

RHS: I think this ties to my response to the first question and my travels around the county. I had passed through a lot of new places and was exposed to a lot of different people. During that time, I was experimenting a great deal with different aspects of my writing, particular those aspects related to narrator and voice. In fact, playing around with narrator and voice is one of the best parts of writing fiction, at least for me. However, it can be difficult to do that if I limit myself to a small subset of people and places. I think that one of the most challenging aspects of writing that we, as a writing community, have to face is how to make time to write but not shut ourselves away from the world. So when I have the opportunity to get out there and experience what’s going on, I like to use the things I see and feel and hear and taste and smell in ways that let me occupy other voices and narrators and let me experiment with different perspectives of the world.

GW: Do you begin writing stories with an ending in mind, or do you tend to see where the narrative takes you? What about pieces that are as compact as Birds of Paradise?

RHS: Rarely do I know where a story is going when I start it. Writing works best for me when I share with the reader the process of discovery. If I’m not interested in where a story is heading, chances are, no one else will care. I write, in fact, to find out what’s going to happen. The unfolding of a story is an evolutionary process, one in which the process of writing itself holds the key.

Showcased Writer: John Ashford

Interview by Gina Warren

John Ashford

John Ashford

JOHN ASHFORD volunteered in Botswana with the Peace Corps from 1990-1993. Upon his return, he earned a Certificate in Writing and Literary Fiction from the University of Washington. He has participated in critique groups and edited several nonfiction books. In addition to newspaper pieces, his story “The Boycott” appeared in the anthology, One by One, Thirty-one years of the Peace Corps in Botswana (1997). He has returned to Botswana twice and for several years has been at work on a book about travels in the Kalahari Desert. His nonfiction piece, “Topo,” appeared in Volume 6, Number 2 of Silk Road.

Read “Topo“.
The Interview

Gina Warren: When did you begin writing? Have you always written creative nonfiction?

John Ashford: I really began writing when I was in the Peace Corps. In the village where I lived in Africa, there weren’t many distractions and I had the time and personal space to write.I often used the time to sort out my thoughts. Some of my journal writing began to develop into a structure that felt comfortable. When I came back to the U.S., I enrolled in writing classes and, a few years ago, took a workshop on creative nonfiction led by Lee Gutkind, long time editor of the Creative Nonfiction journal. That was where I learned there was a name for some of the writing I’d done in the Peace Corps.

Before that, in college I’d written short stories, but none of them ever found a publisher. For several years, working as a teacher and librarian, my writing was technical, or for a professional purpose.

GW: Writing creative nonfiction sometimes requires a catalyst for a story, whether it’s an insight, reflection on an experience, prompt, or moment in time. What gave you the idea to write “Topo”?

JA: An excellent question. Much of my identification with Topo was a subjective experience beyond my ability to analyze. I felt a sense of empathy for him, in the recognition that here is a young man living a life with elements of tragedy, but he’s learning how to cope.

I think the catalyst you refer to can be a rather complex experience. As far as writing the story, my interest in Topo began with a mystery. Topo’s name on my class roster was Ketopoyaone, though everyone at the school used the shorter form, Topo. I asked an African teacher to translate the meaning of his name and was told it meant, ‘This is the child I requested from God’. I realized, here is a young boy, at birth he’s given this prayerful name. I asked myself, what happened during those years to create the kind of turmoil he was facing at age fifteen? I was never able to fully answer the question, but it provided a focus, and when Topo’s problems were discussed among the teachers, I paid attention and took notes that later became part of the narrative.

I should make a confession here. I’ve formed a habit over the course of a career working in schools and colleges. When I’m in a meeting, I jot notes on everything that’s being said. The habit comes from the need to keep myself awake during often boring meetings. But in this case, the subject of the meeting in the story shed light on Topo’s background and was helpful to me in understanding his story.

GW: Readers get a clear picture, not only of Topo, but of the narrator in this piece. What do you believe are some important aspects of characterizing yourself as a narrator?

JA: I am, obviously, a Western observer seeing the landscape and some of the events at the school from the point of view of a foreigner. As the observer, I filter information and describe the elements important in the story.

Readers will be aware that, although the story is mainly about Topo, there is this other character who narrates the sequence. Naturally, readers will want to know how this person finds himself wandering down a road in the Kalahari Desert reacting to the arid landscape and the misguided donkey cart. My interactions with the headmaster at the school make it clear that in some ways, I don’t quite fit in here. The ways that I am an outsider provide a certain kind of context for the narrative.

GW: What drew you to Botswana? Did any of your initial motivations, besides teaching, for going to Africa come through in this piece?

JA: Actually, the place was selected by the Peace Corps. They try to match skills and experience of volunteers with the needs of a country. So, that part was accidental from my point of view. But it was a happy accident because I love being in the desert. I live on the wet side of Washington State and I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the arid sections of the Pacific Northwest.

But another motivation was my need for change at the time. I’d worked at an administrative job for twenty years and when I started working with immigrant students, I found the experience very satisfying. Eventually, I made the decision to teach overseas and got the necessary experience and certification for teaching English as a Second Language. As it turned out, I found it very fulfilling to live in another culture with a different language, different reactions, mannerisms, way of life. It really stimulated my ability to observe. I began seeing everything around me in a new way and I’d like to think that quality comes through in the story.

GW: It seems that Topo would not have had the same respect for the teacher had he beaten him, and perhaps that Topo wouldn’t have been supported by his community if he was violent. What is the importance of not being a “whip wielder”?

JA: You’re correct to think that if Topo had been violent he would have been considered an outcast. Despite the problems in his life, I never saw Topo express anger or aggression. Actually, in the context of an African village, very seldom do people resort to violence. Villages are typically very safe in that respect. However, in schools, corporal punishment is used widely. I myself did not feel comfortable with the practice and made a decision not to use physical punishment to deal with student behavior.

In a situation where a school uses caning, one kind of misbehavior is treated the same as any other kind. I’d rather come to an understanding with students verbally. I think students gain maturity with adults in the process of talking about a problem.

Showcased Writer: Jessica McCaughey

Interview by Gina Warren

Jessica McCaughey

JESSICA MCCAUGHEY earned her MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University in Virginia, where she also teaches undergraduate English. Her work has appeared in The Colorado Review; Hot Metal Bridge; Phoebe, and other journals. Jessica lives in Arlington, Virginia. Her piece, “Scramble,” appeared in Volume 6, Number 2 of Silk Road.

Read “Scramble“.
The Interview

GW: What are some of your literary influences?

Jessica McCaughey: This list is a mix of those nonfiction writers I’ve been reading for years and some newer favorites for me, but they are all folks whose work I turn to when I feel the need to immerse myself in really, really good stuff: Anne Fadiman, Susan Orlean, Sarah Vowell, Ira Sukrungruang, Kyoko Mori, David Sedaris, John McPhee, and Dave Eggers.

GW: What draws you to creative nonfiction?

JM: What’s most appealing to me about creative nonfiction is the idea of creating meaning from events and people and ideas that actually occurred. I’m definitely naturally a (too) reflective person, really, and digging through experiences in my head is, therefore, a pretty natural process for me. So, in considering these constraints of keeping things rooted in the truth sets me up, in I think a way that is different from fiction or poetry, to understand my life and the things around me better. I can’t fudge the details, and so what I can extrapolate feels more believable to me, and perhaps more legitimate. (I know there’s lots of controversy, specifically right now regarding John D’Agata, about whether or not this is, in fact, the case, but I’m pretty sure, for me at least, it is.)

GW: In Scramble you note that, “Years later, I will think back and wonder how we convinced ourselves that a day outside might cancel out years of such a strained connection, that a hike might override the sadness that seemed to sit silently between us for the duration of our relationship.” How did you decide to write Scramble after this lapse in time?

JM: Writing this essay was actually a unique experience for me, in that I wrote the first draft of it, the hike, mainly, very soon after it occurred. I felt capable, at the time, of forming something from it, and so I wrote down a lot of the details about that day and the weeks that followed, but ultimately I felt very stuck as I tried to revise. I ultimately put it away and several years later, once I had quite a bit of distance from the situation, came back to it and I knew much better, I think, what it needed.

GW: How can the passing of time and the reflective voice be valuable for creative nonfiction?

JM: For me, as I said above, the passing of time was crucial to even be able to include any real reflective voice here beyond the trite, expected considerations for this piece. And for creative nonfiction, I think that mix of storytelling and reflection is really crucial for giving a reader a full understanding, no matter how focused the actual story is in providing that specific perspective.

GW: Throughout this piece you juxtapose the narrative of climbing the mountain with the future knowledge of how the relationship between the narrator and William ends. “In that moment, as we pass the trailhead and start up the mountain, I don’t know that this will be the last weekend day we will spend alone together. That one night very soon, while watching a History Channel special about salt, I will finally admit that our relationship feels like pretending.” When writing Scramble how did you decide when to break out of the story of climbing Old Rag to reflect on different parts of the narrator’s relationship with William?

JM: The two storylines (the hike and the later reflection) were really intertwined from the beginning with this piece. I went back and forth a number of times on the breaks, where one scene switches to reflection or another scene, until it felt balanced, and until I felt like the reader had enough information to know what was going on, but didn’t know so much that it would color their reading of the hike itself throughout the piece. That felt really important to me as I was revising—that the reader knows, throughout, just a little more than the narrator in those past moments, but not quite as much as the narrator does years later.

GW: This piece is very honest; how can such intimacy be important to creative nonfiction? Do you think close scrutiny and specific details lend the narrative voice a certain credibility, does it deal with accurately defining meaning, or is it another phenomena entirely?

JM: I do think that an intimate, honest narrator and a lot of very specific details can lend credibility, but I think more important than that is striving to give a full picture, and anticipating the things one’s reader would be wondering about. Little details (the color of a pair of eyeglasses, a key piece of dialogue that gives some insight into a character’s thought process) are essential in creating meaning, and in developing this reader-writer relationship, but I think what I worry about more is enveloping the reader in whatever situation or scene I’m recreating on the page. The last thing I want is for a reader to be distracted, wondering, for instance, “I wonder why she was there” or “is this character 20 years old or 50?” In the revision stages, these questions come up a lot for me, and in workshopping this piece with other writers, they were the questions I was most intent on answering in future drafts. Ultimately, though, yes, I do think that by creating this full picture through details and reflection, I hope to give both a more meaningful account.