My cup runneth over with insightful questions about writing, writers and life in the mix – thank you very much. Last month’s Q&A barely dented the inventory. Because most of the questions are incidental to personal email, I won’t reveal your identity unless you specifically ask me to. Here are 9 more culled from my inbox.
Q [Ventura, CA]: What do you think of this article? [The reader included an article claiming that free writing on the Internet is effectively putting professional journalism out of business.]
A: Traditionally writers have sold their product through middlemen who – for better or worse – have acted as gatekeepers to the readership. Wresting some of that arbitrary power from those gatekeepers (publishers) has certainly made a lot of good writing available that never got a chance to find an audience; but it has also lumped it indistinguishably alongside the truly awful stuff. So, the sorting-out process is challenging and brings a new kind of unfairness: how does professional quality writing promote the difference? That said, I have to believe that quality will find ways to keep its seat at the table (look toward e-publishers like Crossroad Press). Bottom line: along with freedom, the Internet brought a commensurately larger dollop of insecurity and competition (and as my questioner also pointed out in her email, plagiarism).
Q [Cincinnatti, OH]: What sports do you like besides the ones you write about?
A: I hope you mean DOING, not watching. I’ll go for anything that makes an intense physical demand on the participant (not much interested in passive sit-down sports where you push an accelerator – though I understand the role of reflex, concentration, stress etc.). Almost anything else is on my radar, even like bull riding. If I had the guts, I’d try that. Only instead of riding bulls like BUSHWHACKER and CYCLONE, I’d ride one named SLEEPING PILLS. Think I could beat the 8-second hang-on requirement if ol’ SP strolled out of the chute on Sominex or Ambien. And if he came out bucking, for sure I’d set the record…for hanging on to the chute!
Q [Kingman, AZ]: What do you think is the single most important thing in writing to focus on?
A: In fiction, that would be characters. As I see it, plots, settings, themes, twists – all the rest of it – are secondary to how and with whom the reader identifies. Think of it this way: the Where, When, Why, What, How all describe things that are relevant to the Who. The Who is central. In one way or another a Who Character IS the reader – the identity the reader assumes in order to go along for the ride. So, if there aren’t convincing emotional vehicles, skins or minds for the reader to enter into, you aren’t going to communicate much beyond description, gimmicks and events. That doesn’t mean the other elements aren’t crucial in distinguishing a writer’s skill and narrative believability. On the contrary, they are what anchors and enhances the journey. But the journey itself is a people story, and how that journey impacts and changes the Who is what resonates emotions and informs the reader at the deepest level. If you want to x-ray your story for the strength of its characterization, ask yourself could you reveal the same evolution of character traits/ideals/values/ideas/emotions with all the other elements of narrative skill being different. The answer should be yes, however much everything you’ve used enhances the telling. Or simply try to write a story without any characters or human traits (no anthropomorphizing), if you want to understand the role of characterization. Last but not least, everything I’ve just said in regards to “the single most important thing in writing” assumes the obvious: that you have an ability with words that is creative and uniquely you. I like to call that STYLE, but many people will see the secondary aspects I cited as part of style as well. It does seem to me, that if you don’t have compelling and imaginative wordsmythery, why should people want to see slices of life through your words?
Q [Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia]: Are you on something? Why are you always so happy and full of energy?
A: S’cuse me, couldn’t hear you on account of my head was in the oven with the gas on. Well, I’m happy to be called happy and ENERGETIC. Dunno why people perceive me that way, but maybe it has something to do with the word FREEDOM, which also makes me happy. And I’m definitely substance and Rx free, though an editor once asked, “…how come Sullivan disappears for years on end – is he on heroin or something?” Not on heroin. Never licked a toad or smoked a houseplant. I did chew a stick of Trident xylitol gum once. To the degree that I live up to any of those desirable labels, have to say I don’t believe you can be happy unless you are being who you really are. Maybe that doesn’t have to be all the time. Let the world trust who it thinks you are – who you have to be to earn a living, advance a career, sustain a relationship. But if any of that is out of sync with your true thoughts or feelings – and especially your dreams, hopes and aspirations – you’d have to be a fool to fool yourself 24/7/365. Because if you did, you would shrink to fit the misrepresentation, i.e become the lie. No happiness under that wrapper. I started finding sanctuaries early in life, taking the road less traveled, and it just grew to be almost the whole of my existence. I think most people – especially women, because they are objectified – wait too long to find their sanctuaries. By the time they know who they are and what they want, they’ve spent their prerogatives on something far short of that. Men may find sanctuaries more easily but, whether out of superficiality or lack of imagination, don’t seem to get as much out of them. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived a relatively solitary life in eclectic sanctuaries, but I feel like I haven’t used my prerogatives. Call it the Peter Pan delusion, but I wake almost every day feeling new and full of energy.
Q [Swansea, UK]: Which of your books did you enjoy writing the most?
A: THE PHASES OF HARRY MOON was a natural because it was a direct flow of the honest, eccentric, satirical me. It’s been 24 years and not a month goes by when someone doesn’t write from somewhere in the world to tell me they kept their spouse up all night laughing, or cried at work at the few sad parts, or skipped work to finish the book. It has become a cult classic among a couple of university faculties and isolated communities like that. The novel is getting harder to find now, and I’m thinking of licensing a re-issue – possibly in e-book. I miss the brothers Moon.
Q: [White Plains, NY and others] Have enjoyed your new expanded editions in e-books, but are you writing anything new?
A: Happy to blow the dust off this question on account of I have a positive answer at last. THE SHADOW SHOW is finished and on the docket as an e-book original in time for Christmas! A psychological thriller, this one will put you in the heads of a very traumatized little girl and an unredeemed father in an odyssey that moves from a centuries-old monastery in Nepal to modern Minnesota and embraces puppets/dolls/marionettes/icons/masks and image culture in a way you have never imagined. Look for it on my website and Facebook page, as well as December’s column and Sullygram. If you don’t receive my monthly Sullygrams w/photos that go all over the globe, I’ll be glad to add you to the mailing list for free at your request. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org . … And be a test audience for me, if you will, please. The cover photo at the top of this article is tentative. Thumbs up, thumbs down? You can let me know at the same email address if you choose to vote.
Q: [Soka, Japan] Do you believe in God and if you do what religion do you believe in?
A: Yes to the first question; and the second question shouldn’t be do I believe in this religion or that; the question should be do I DISbelieve in every religion but one. The answer to that is no.
Q [Tooele, UT]: What’s your favorite child’s story that influenced you growing up?
A: Did I mention, I’m Peter Pan’s younger bro? Actually, in addition to many Spanish nursery rhyme books whose origins I cannot clearly place, I was partial to “Wind in the Willows.” The optimistic – nay, let’s call it obsessive-compulsive – Mr. Toad is a classic character archetype for me. That’s not a safe admission, is it? OK, every night when I was in the cradle, Dad used to read me “Ulysses” while Mom sang opera in Italian and Mandarin Chinese.
Q [Bowling Green, KY]: What are your children’s names?
A: I dare not – um – sully their sacred monikers. Colleen Erin and Sean Thomas (a.k.a. Shane, the Lad, the Boy, and – snicker – Sully the Lesser).
And that’s a wrap. Feel free to keep the questions comin’! Terrific Turkey Day to you, one and all…
Thomas “Sully” Sullivan