Season Two of Story Geometry kicks off with Episode 009, an exploration of Initiative vs Destiny. Host Ben Hess is in conversation with award-winning writer Fenton Johnson where Fenton also reads from his latest novel, The Man Who Loved Birds, and literary nonprofit Writing by Writers Co-Founder Karen Nelson. There's also an update from writer and teacher Pam Houston on her upcoming memoir, not to mention 'appearances' by George Eliot, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Steinbeck.
- Fenton Johnson - http://fentonjohnson.com
- Karen Nelson & Pam Houston - http://writingxwriters.org
- Episode Sponsor: Talking Book - http://talkingbook.pub
- Produced & Hosted By: Ben Hess - http://ben-hess.com
- Season Partner: Writing by Writers - http://writingxwriters.org
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Story Geometry Ep9 - Initiative vs Destiny
Footsteps on gravel, music plays in background slowly fades in under car door open and slam. Engine starts. Sounds of driving then …
Hi it’s Ben with Story Geometry, the desert of Tucson in the winter. It’s the Monday after Super Bowl Sunday, and I’m on my way to interview Fenton Johnson. Revered writer, both fiction and nonfiction, of contemplative thought, of a search for faith, of stories of rural Kentucky.
Arrival at Fenton’s house. Car door slam. Brief walking sounds, doorbell, then …
Fenton – Hello.
Ben – Fenton, how are you?
Fenton – Good to see you.
Ben – Great to see you as well. Chillier than I thought in Tucson in the winter.
Fenton – Well you know we’re 2800 feet or something ….
Fenton – What I’m about to do, I waited to offer you … but I’m going to make myself an Americano which is half espresso and half hot water.
Ben – That sounds fantastic.
Fenton – I’ll make one for you.
Ben – Please.
Kitchen sounds: some banging, running water.
Ben - While Fenton brews up some magic, here’s what’s happening in 2016 and with Season Two of Story Geometry, THE podcast about the craft & community of writing and storytelling. I’m beyond thrilled to continue the partnership with literary non-profit and workshop series Writing by Writers.
I’m releasing episodes monthly, the last Monday of every month from February through November, so mark those calendars. And during this span, citizens in these United States are going through the arduous, exhausting, and divisive process of electing a new President. So they’ll be some discussion about literature, politics, and intersection of the two.
Closer to home, twenty-sixteen is the year Writing by Writers co-founder Pam Houston is wrapping up her latest book, a memoir, with working title The Ranch: A Love Story, about life on her 100 acre ranch at 9000 feet in Colorado, which has a tentative publication date in 2018.
And at the other end of the literary cycle, influenced by Pam, by last season’s interviewees, and by you, yes you Story Geometricians, this is the year I’m completing my long dormant, quite dusty work-in-progress novel. Having just revised the first 6000 words, I’ve got an incredible amount of work ahead. But I’ve missed these characters, and I’m glad they spoke up again and demanded to have their story told.
Fade up sounds of the kitchen, coffee brewing:
Fenton – Here you go … You know Americano’s started because Americans would come to Europe and in Europe coffee only meant espresso and American’s weren’t used to that at all …
Ben – Too strong, too thick
Fenton – And the café’s started, they said, “We’ll make it for the Americans, we’ll dilute it half and half.”
Ben - As Fenton and I get settled in his living room here’s what coming up on this Episode 9: Initiative vs. Destiny. You’ll hear how he almost became a lawyer instead of a teacher and Guggenheim Fellowship and Lamda Literary Award winning writer. In case you’re not familiar, Fenton’s books include the award-winning novel Scissors, Paper, Rock, the incredible memoir Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey Among Christian and Buddhist Monks, and his latest, a novel The Man Who Loved Birds.
You’ll also hear how the unlikely encounter with a fashion magazine changed Writing by Writers co-founder Karen Nelson’s life, and an exciting update from the road! Award-winning teacher and writer Pam Houston calls in with an update on her memoir.
So adjust those earbuds or headphones and stay with us.
Ben - I wanted to dive in and talk more about the teaching aspect of your world. Fenton’s taught in creative writing programs at San Francisco State University, Columbia University, New York University, Sarah Lawrence College, and UC-Davis. Currently he is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arizona here in Tucson and serves on the faculty of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA Program. 24:47 Are you teaching creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, or analysis or what’s the scope of the courses that you’re teaching right now?
Fenton - I see myself as always teaching writing. … You know I gave a speech last week to my students about how they need to read poetry and that they needed to attend poetry readings. That is a lesson that I got, I got it from a lot of sources but the person who sparked it in my writing life as an adult is Pam. Shortly after we first met she (Fenton laughs) made some sort of dismissive remark about a writer who didn’t read poetry and I thought about that for a second …
Ben (laughs) I don’t read poetry …
Fenton - I thought and I hadn’t been reading much poetry, and I thought about it for a second, and thought Oh well sure, of course, she’s right because you know poetry is a distillation of of writing and you know and wants to have it in one’s life in the way one wants espresso in the morning or cognac in the evening.
Ben - I asked Pam about this and which poets she may have recommended back then. Without missing a beat, she mentioned Louise Glück, Carl Phillips, and Adrienne Rich so more for your Goodreads to-read list if you haven’t read them. Here’s more from Fenton:
Fenton - I get different rewards from each undertaking, writing and teaching, I say .. I don’t think my students believe me but it’s absolutely true … that I always learn, I feel I always learn more from students than I teach them because … every aspect of the class teaches something. The advantages of both teaching and writing as professions is that you’ll never master either one of them, they always have something to teach you, that is as true now as it was when I was 30.
Ben - Did you come out of the MFA program at Iowa and then publish your first book soon after or were the connections there kind’ve a direct correlation or not so much?
Fenton - It’s a good story because it’s a necessary story. I had gone to Washington. I had worked as a press secretary on Capitol Hill for a couple of years right after college, and I save up a little bit of money, and I said to myself, “OK I’m going to write for two years. I’m going to make my living as writer, I’m gonna try … whatever that means … and at the end of that two years if I have not published something in what I consider to be national venue I will say that I fought the good fight and that I was destined to go to law school, and I’d go to law school. Eleven years later I had my first genuinely national publication.
Ben - Eleven years.
Fenton - There’s a story of a Writing by Writers personage that’s of interest here … Jay Schaefer, who comes to Writing by Writers from time to time as a consulting editor, he was on the board of the now defunct San Francisco Review of Books …
Ben - And you may remember that Jay was featured back in Episode IV - our first look at the Business of Writing
Fenton (cont’d) - … and I’d just moved back to San Francisco, and it wasn’t in my shy country boy’s nature to go up to people who are on panels and thrust myself in front of them. But I was sitting in the audience, and I thought “you know, if if you’re going to do this thing, you’ve got to do this, you you’ve gotta break out of your shell, you’ve got to you know you can’t just send things in over the transom, you actually have to go engage.” so I went up to Jay, stook out my hand and said, “I just came back from Iowa, I wrote book reviews for the local newspaper in Iowa City, and could I write something for the SF Review of Books? And Jay was the first person to publish my fiction, he’s become a lifelong friend, a lifelong editor, and a consultant on my work. All of which is by way of saying, testifying to the rewards of judicious moments extending yourself beyond what you think is possible, what you’ve been told is possible, what you’ve told yourself is possible, with your life.
Karen Nelson - I was recently graduated from college, I was riding on the T in Boston to my job, and I didn’t have anything to read,
Ben - Speaking of judicious moments that alter life’s trajectory, here’s Writing by Writers co-founder, Karen Nelson.
Karen (cont’d) - … so I picked up a Glamour magazine that was sitting on the seat beside me, and for people who know me, that’s not a magazine I’d normally read. So I flipped to the book reviews section, and there was a review on Cowboys Are My Weakness by a woman named Pam Houston that sounded fantastic. So I got off the train, stopped in the bookstore and bought that, and so I’d have something to read on the ride home. at which point I fell in love with Pam’s writing … Well I got a mailer saying she was teaching at the Aspen Writing Workshop and thought “Ooh that’d be fun” Then kind’ve set it aside. And then I thought, “No, wait a minute, I really could go to Aspen and study with her so I’d signed up for the workshop and gotten in, and was thrilled about that …”
Ben- Let’s play the ‘what if’ game just for a minute - what if Fenton hadn’t gone to that panel featuring Jay Schaefer? What if Fenton hadn’t approached him afterward and asked to write reviews? Fenton’s now published 5 books: memoir, creative nonfiction, and fiction which have impacted thousands of readers.
Ben - What if Karen hadn’t rushed to buy Pam’s Cowboys Are My Weakness? What if she didn’t invest in her passion for writing and skipped that Aspen workshop? Certainly Writing by Writers wouldn’t exist in today’s form. So a question I’ve been wrestling with - do seemingly random acts of initiative dictate our path or does each and every one of us have a pre-determined destiny that will unfold, regardless of our actions?
Ben - I clearly lean toward the former but open to discussion - as a personal example, I took the initiative to leverage years of video and film storytelling to attend a radio production workshop in Brooklyn. Which in turn led me to pitch a podcast idea to Karen and Pam … and ta-da Story Geometry was born. In fact, I asked Fenton about this new age of media we’re living in …
Ben - Have you listened to many podcasts, were you familiar with the the structure?
Fenton - I I’ve recorded podcasts for other people, and I’ve listened to podcasts, but I’m not a podcast kinda guy. You know, I like silence a lot. And particularly when I’m walking around or driving, I’ll drive across country [Ben interjection] and not listen to anything.
Ben - Interesting, that’s my main mode ...
Fenton - Pam is the same way, she listens to books … I can’t listen to audiobooks. I get involved in the book, then I’m not driving.
Ben - You’re in a ditch [laughing].
Fenton - I’m wandering in someone’s lane …
segue to MUSIC
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MUSIC fades away
Ben - Welcome back, this is Story Geometry Episode 9, Initiative vs. Destiny, talking with inaugural Writing by Writers faculty Fenton Johnson and co-founder Karen Nelson. So Karen goes on to study with Pam Houston for several years in a private workshop called PAMFA, for the PAM MFA. They get to know each other well, and then the economy tanks. The University of California is facing severe budget cuts, which impacts Pam directly as then-head of the UC-Davis Creative Writing Program. One of the casualties is their annual writing workshop in Tomales Bay, California about 90 minutes north of San Francisco and right next to the coastal town of Point Reyes.
Karen - We were out there for the weekend on the beach with the dogs
Ben - Pam’s readers will know she’s a Wolfhound lover and owner. Karen’s been a chocolate labrador momma for years. And you’ll hear her lab Rusty and my retriever Berkeley playing and scratching on the floor as we talk.
Karen (cont’d) - and we ran into the people who run the Point Reyes bookstore, and they said, “Why don’t you come over for dinner, we should talk about what the Tomales Bay workshop would look like without the University of California of Davis. So we did [and] after talking it through and listening to what the bookstore had to say about how much the community appreciated how much they’d done out there, we got into our separate cars, drove our separate ways, and by the time we both got to our homes we had each individually thought, well, why don’t we try this.
Ben - And ta-da, Writing by Writers was born ... initiative!
Karen - Well we’ve certainly grown quickly. We’ve tried not to grow too quickly.We’ve added a workshop a year and what we’ve tried to do is identify where the holes are out there in the other workshops that are being offered, so Tomales Bay is a very classic workshop … it’s always been focused on craft side not on the publication side of the writing so that’s been the cornerstone. We only take a certain level of manuscript, and we also sometimes have the classes that are advanced or intermediate so we’re screening everything to make sure you’re not being put into a level that’s not appropriate for you. But we also love working with,, all levels of writer and wanted to have a workshop that included everyone, even if you had never really written a word up to people who are published authors and just wanted that inspiration, that’s why we developed the Boulder Generative workshop, so it’s a long weekend, really focused on craft and writing exercises, just generating new work, and building community.
Ben - To give you a taste, Episodes I, II, and III are all pulled from the 2015 Boulder Generative conference and feature fiction writer Alan Heathcock, creative nonfiction writer Gary Ferguson, and Pam.
Karen - (cont’d) .. because as all of us know, writing is a very solitary activity and it’s easy to get lost in your own world it’s easy to feel like you’re just floundering, it's easy to feel like you’re staring at a blinking cursor, and nobody understands what you’re going through, and your friends keep asking when your book’s going to be published, and you haven’t even gotten a word on the page, and they don’t even understand the whole process. Community is a really critical part of what we do with Writing by Writers because we do want it to be supportive, we want it to be people coming together where they can share their concerns, their excitement, they can share their ideas, they can share their struggles perhaps in a way they can’t do when they’re home alone or that other writers can’t recognize or that other non-writers don’t understand what the real pressures are so having this community has been absolutely key to us
Ben - In the spirit of community, Fenton shared an example of this solitary challenge:
Fenton - We’re all I don’t know , you know, kind’ve in our different ways, solitary lions roaming the velte and um and and and we like being alone, either we like, or we teach ourselves to like it. We had better because we’re going to spend a lot of time with you in the room and the blank page. I had another great trauma in my life, and I was coming back to the desk after that great trauma and I thought “I can’t face a blank page, I don’t have the strength right now to face a blank page so I’ll go back to something I wrote earlier.”
Ben - So Fenton went back to a scene that had really stuck with me from his first novel, Scissors, Paper, Rock.
Ben - I was so captivated by the early courtship, the trapping scene … the sense of language, of dialogue, especially in an era gone by and then to place that in … rural Kentucky, did you spend a fair amount of time doing any research to find that or did it just come from your work on those characters?
Fenton - It took two years to work it’s way out because I couldn’t find the right voices. The day after we buried my father, my brother asked me if I wanted to help him go run traps … you know his traps at 4:00 in the morning ... and the descriptive parts of that are basically what we encountered. I’d done it with my brother, I’m a gay man, and I kept trying to write the story as if it was two gay men. My brother is not gay … and it just didn’t work … and I went back to that story and realized it was a man and a woman, not two men, and then it wrote itself in you know two days and I changed hardly a word how it wrote itself in those two days.
Ben - Given my background and interests in film, in episodic television, I asked Fenton about other forms of storytelling, given the age we’re now living.
If I were younger and I wanted to tackle that world I would be seriously interested in writing for television because interesting stuff is happening on television.I wonder sometimes if when you know Middlemarch or Great Expectations were published in the mid 1800s people literally lined up on the street to wait, to be the first to snatch the next chapter, the next installment of the story from the sellers when they came out and that is clearly, obviously analogous to how today’s television storytelling is happening. And it may be that I don’t know a series like The Wire or The Good Wife or Six Feet Under or whatever, that those will be seen as the 21st Century version of the serialized novel of the Victorian Age.
Ben - I LOVE this comparison. And Fenton’s picked three iconic series here. But he went on to say …
Fenton - The print medium has certain advantages that no other medium can supply and one of them is the fantastic flexibility in terms of manipulation of time - that’s one of the things I teach in film you can have your main character, let’s say, short hair in one sequence and long hair in the next or no beard in one sequence and a beard in the next, you know that time has passed. But nothing can compete with narrative prose on a page for saying ‘Three days earlier comma’ and if you have the reader, if you’ve done the work and you have the reader in the fictive dream, then you’re three days earlier. Or you’re two years down the pike. And the flexibility of that is so marvelous and so inviting, that’s my medium, that’s my natural medium.
Ben - I’d love to have you, I know you’re about to dive in to your book tour and launching the book would you be willing to read a small piece?
Fenton - you know one of the things on the list to do is I gotta figure out what I’m going to read from it, I wonder if there’s just a paragraph in here ...
Fenton - You know I don’t think it needs much setting up, interestingly enough. It’s in the point of view of the character named Johnny Faye who is a kind of Don Giovanni, a renegade VietNam vet who lives outside the law, uh who lives for love. Everybody he comes near - men, women, inanimate objects - uh hungers for his body and he gives it to them and this is the last paragraph of the book. Smith is the name of the police officer.
Ben - Without further ado, here’s a brief reading from The Man Who Loved Birds.
“Johnny Faye … FENTON ASKED US NOT TO INCLUDE HIS READING TEXT HERE … In death he loves them all.”
Ben - Fantastic.
Fenton -I really wanted to play with narrative suspense the way Alfred Hitchcock sets forth in a wonderful book which I highly highly recommend, easy to read, quick to read which is Francois Truffaut’s interviews with Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock talks a lot about narrative suspense and who’s a better master than Alfred Hitchcock – one thing he says is anyone can conceal information from the viewer or the reader and have it as a surprise at the end. Any hack can do that. The best way to create suspense is to provide that information to the reader or the viewer up front and have them participate in the process as the characters discover information that you already know to be the case. And so with this book, The Man Who Loved Birds, I like to think at the very beginning that the reader knows that Johnny Faye is going to be shot, what else can happen to him? He’s the figure of anarchy at a point in history when anarchy is definitely not in the public favor.
Ben - More from my chat with Fenton will appear throughout Season Two, but as we wrap up Episode 9, Pam Houston and I were chatting via cell phone about this interview and how things were coming with her memoir. And as things go, the call dropped, then we simultaneously called the other back and left voicemails. Here’s what Pam had to say .. .
Pam - Hey Ben, I think the call dropped as I was going on and on and on um the very shortest answer is I’m I’m so loving having this amount of concentrated time to work on it. It’s just a slow damn book, so it’s going well, and I hope to get a lot more done in these upcoming weeks. I need to because it’s sort’ve ‘hit the ground running’ from March 28th ...
Ben - March 28th is the annual Association of Writing Programs or AWP conference. This year it’s in glorious Los Angeles.
Pam - cont’d - I’m making real progress but it’s a slow book. Up til now I thought, well it’s a slow book because you’re too damn busy and you’re doing 17 million things which was true, but now I’ve had nothing but it to stare at for these many weeks and it’s still ... it’s slow. But it’s going, I’m writing everyday, and I’m adding pages, and I’m working shit out but it just gets … more and more complicated which I think will be a good thing. I have about 60 pages locked up which represent the introduction and the essay at the heart of the book. I have another 160 pages that I wish were locked up, hoping that those will come together in the next few weeks, they need organization and polishing, and then I have about another 100 pages that are floating in my computer and some of those go in the book and some of them don’t. So that’s where I am right now.
Ben - For those of you who follow Pam on Facebook and Twitter - and if you’re not yet, why not, may I ask? - then you’ll know Pam isn’t shy on expressing political opinions along with environmental and societal concerns. With Election 2016 looming and in a not so subtle reminder to get out and vote, I’ll close each episode with a brief reference to a literary work about or influenced by politics, politicians, and policies of the era.
First up … well, you tell me. Here are the opening few sentences:
To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.
Ben - That, of course, is then opening to John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Grapes of Wrath, about an Oklahoma family the Joad’s and their migration west to California after losing their family farm. The novel was released in 1939 and was born at the height of the Great Depression. Former ranch hand Steinbeck was writing articles on assignment for The San Francisco Daily News about conditions in the migrant worker's camps in California's Central Valley which along with time spent traveling cross-country with a migrant Oklahoma family, served as the foundation for the novel.
Meanwhile the 1936 Presidential Campaign featured incumbent Franklin Roosevelt against Kansas Governor Alfred Landon of Kansas in an election that focused on economic class to a surprising extent. Even though 80% of the nation’s newspapers endorsed Landon, Roosevelt won an astounding 523 electoral votes to Landon’s 8.
The Grapes of Wrath remained on the bestseller list throughout the election year of 1940, where FDR won an unprecedented 3rd term over Wendall Wilkie.
So what literature’s already out there pulled the energy, excitement, or disgust depending on your point of view, from the Obama presidency? What will come out of this election cycle? What recommendations do you have?
That’s all for today - we’ve gone from Hitchcock to Steinbeck, from Glamour Magazine to the San Francisco Review of Books, quite a ride in considering Initiative vs. Destiny!
I’m your host and editor, @BenHess on Twitter and Instagram and we’re Story Geometry on Facebook and Twitter. Warm thanks to Fenton Johnson and Karen Nelson for inviting me to their respective homes and to Pam Houston for an update on her memoir.
Don’t forget to visit today’s sponsor Talking Book dot pub to hear Bud Smith’s new novel, F 250. Our theme music is from Mark Hodgkin and additional tracks are from Greg Glazner’s band, The Responders. Be sure to rate and review Story Geometry in iTunes, send feedback via StoryGeometry.org, and sign up for future Writing By Writers events and conferences at Writing X Writers .org.
Next time on Story Geometry, you’ll hear from a later-in-life debut novelist, several surprising challenges from aspiring writers pursuing the craft, and another literary political election year classic.Thanks for listening!