The Writing Process and Christopher Barzak

One of my favorite writers, Christopher Barzak, was kind enough to let me interview him about his process. If you haven’t read Christopher’s work, please do. His work is like lace, or snow.

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Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book. Can you describe it to us generally, or at least for one project?

Chris: I don’t think I have a regular drafting process. It’s been different for each book, though I do have a somewhat regular drafting process for short stories, I think. I generally start a story after I’ve been hooked by a voice or an image or a scene that I can hear or see (or both) in my imagination. I can’t say what sparks these voices or visions, to be honest. Sometimes it’s mysterious to me. Other times, though, I get hooked on an idea that I think of in response to something else. Like, for instance, a recent novelette that I wrote was a retelling of H.G. Wells’ short novel, The Invisible Man. I read the novel as a young person, and last summer I decided to reread it.

I was struck by how much Wells pokes fun at the rural villagers who make up a large part of the cast, in the village of Iping, where the Invisible Man seeks refuge in the Coach and Horses Inn for four months as he attempts to create a serum that will reverse his invisibility. Wells really caricatures rather than characterizes the villagers, and he especially pokes fun at a maid who works in the Coach and Horses, Millie. The side characters struck me as an adult reader. I didn’t find myself laughing as much as I did as a teen when I read the book. Making fun of them or treating them as objects of comedy because of their rural/village background felt needless and cheap. So I got the idea that I wanted to give Millie, the put-upon maid, a chance to tell the story from her point of view.

To do that, I reread the original novel three more times, took notes about specific scenes I wanted to revisit in my story, and also add notes for several scenes that I would be inserting into the story, scenes that didn’t occur in the original book. Then I started researching the time period and the setting, which was turn of the century West Sussex, England. I went so far as to seek out a book of slang from that region of England at the turn of the century, and to study the phrasing that locals would have used in a variety of exchanges and conversations, to get a sense of how they spoke. As I studied that book, I started to hear a voice of a young woman. It was after I felt like I’d absorbed enough local color and lingo that I felt confident in my ability to mediate the voice of the narrator. Then I was off. I had a general arc for the story because it’s a retelling, and I knew what I wanted to add to the original that would change how the original is read. Once I had the voice, I was able to go forward with the telling. I wrote a draft, then revised for language and nuance, and showed it to some trusted readers for feedback. Did some more slight revisions, then submitted it to the editor Jonathan Strahan for his online magazine, Eclipse. He took it. This year it was published and also selected for Gardner Dozois’ Year Best Science Fiction.

Tamago: Is your writing process the same for short stories as it is for novels?

Chris: I think my process for novels is similar to short stories, except I have to stop after I get through the first third of a novel, which is generally the big opening act, and think about how to direct the story through the second and third parts. I have to concentrate to hold the story of a novel inside my head more intensely than I have to for a short story, which has an economical space, and the art of writing a good short story is figuring out what is most essential to create the greatest effects within that small space. The art of a novel does have that component, but it’s like a mansion instead of a studio apartment. You have lots of rooms to investigate, but you can get lost if you don’t pay attention to where you’re going in a structure that large and labyrinthine.

Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?

Chris: I like revising best because you already have your general story done. Though I do enjoy initial drafting, when the whole thing feels magical and mysterious. I get a certain energy from that. I get excited to discover a story as it’s unfolding itself to me. I don’t feel like one of those writers who consciously plans everything. I know a certain amount, and I do have a certain amount of goals and plans for a story or a novel as I’m writing it, but I need a lot to remain discoverable, as opposed to following a blueprint I’ve drawn up (see: outline) beforehand. If I don’t feel like I have room to uncover the story myself, as a reader does, then I lose interest in writing it. Sort of like when you read a predictable book, you start to get tired of it and eventually put it down.

Tamago: Do you belong to a writer’s group, or do you work solo? Why do you follow the approach that you do?

Chris: I’ve belonged to a variety of writing groups over the years. I go between working with groups and working solo. There are times when I want the camaraderie and desire the feedback on whatever I’m working on. There are times when I feel like I need to work alone and without any other voices but my own informing what it is I’m doing. Both kinds of dynamics are important. It’s knowing when you need one or the other that’s the trick.

Tamago: How do you know when something you’re writing isn’t working?

Chris: Honestly, it’s a bit hard to describe this. You just know, the same way you know if you try on a shirt and even though the label says it’s your size, it just doesn’t fit right. Something’s off. In order for me to locate what’s off in something I’m writing, I tend to read the story or book aloud to myself, in whatever stage of drafting I’m at, until I get to a place in the reading where I hear the off-ness. I can sense something structurally wrong with a story, or wrong with the plot, or a mischaracterization, easier when I’m reading aloud than when I’m reading silently. I hear it clearly when I say something aloud that is either clearly bullshit I was writing to get myself to the next place in a story or a novel, or that I misunderstood about a character or the plot as I was writing it.

Tamago: What is your favorite story/novel to date?

Chris: Of my own or someone else’s? If someone else, I’d say one of my favorite stories to date is Jonathan Carroll’s “The Sadness of Detail” which is included in his collection entitled The Panic Hand. It’s a weird story about a person whose scribblings end up helping angels remind God of who he is, after he’s begun to forget himself. It’s kind of a John Collier type of story, but there’s a threat of menace in the story that is never really there in Collier’s stories, which are mainly charming.

If my own, that’s more difficult. I try not to look back too much at things I’ve written and published, because I tend to always see the things I’d still like to change about them but couldn’t see even after I wrote and rewrote them many times over to bring them as close to what I wanted as possible. If you’re the kind of writer who is always trying to do something different and to get better at doing what you do, I think looking backward can be a disappointing experience because you keep growing, and so the stories and novels you wrote three or four years ago might not be what you’re capable of doing now.

That said, I have a soft spot in my heart for my first novel, One for Sorrow. I learned so much, writing that book, and it’s been a kind of lucky talisman for me since writing it. I got my first agent with it. It was obviously the first book I published. It received so much good attention in national newspapers and won some awards and was nominated for some others. It has a readership that emails me from time to time to tell me really intimate and interesting things about themselves and their experience of reading the book at (usually) difficult or transitional periods of their lives, and what it meant to them. And now it’s about to be made into a film called Jamie Marks is Dead. I never thought, when I started out writing, that I’d even get a chance to publish a novel of my own. I was happy with the writing itself, and with publishing stories, even in obscure places. I feel like this book alone sort of crossed off at least 90% of my Life Bucket List. I’ve had to make a new one.

Tamago: One of your short story collections, The Love We Share Without Knowing, is a beautiful and realistic look at a culture that is not your own. What kind of research did you undertake to make the culture in the novel so realistic? What advice would you give to writers trying to write other cultures?

This was a really different book for me. I was living in Japan when I wrote it. I went there to teach English in primary and middle schools, mainly in a rural school district. I didn’t have a particular love of Japan that drew me there. I went because I needed work and couldn’t find any in the United States (at least not in my field: you know, grad student of English and Creative Writing). So when I finally got work in Japan, I flew over, and on my first night there, I opened up Google Alerts and put one in for search terms like Japan, culture, life, etc etc. And every day I would receive a bunch of really general links about Japan, which I’d sort through and see where they led me. It was really random, but I learned a lot about the place where I was living by this little trick. Once I started to get a general sense of the place, from hanging out with coworkers and making friends around town, I began researching subjects of real interest to me about Japan: it’s folklore, mythology, legends, history. I began seeking out Japanese films by particular filmmakers like Kurosawa. I began reading contemporary Japanese fiction. I learned the language well enough to read some without translated versions. Essentially, I immersed myself in the culture however I could. With music, too, and traveling the country to other parts over the course of the two years I lived there.

My advice for trying to write about other cultures would be to do your best to establish a relationship with that culture beyond secondary resources. If possible, go there, live there, love there, hurt there, try to understand the place and try to be accepted. Fail. Failing in another culture is highly recommended. I failed in Japan a few times, and the times I failed in Japan were probably the mistakes or misunderstandings that have taught me the most. Not just about Japan, but also about myself.

Tamago: As a busy teaching professional, where do you find time to fit writing into your schedule?

Chris: It’s hard. Sometimes it doesn’t happen as much as I’d like it to. I try to create a writing schedule that fits with my teaching and service schedules at the university. I try to make use of my weekends as best as I can, and I forgo some social activities others might indulge in regularly when I need to get something done. I’m good at “holing up” in my house and ignoring the please of friends and family to come do something with them. I do end up feeling a bit guilty about isolating myself in this way after I’ve gotten done what I needed to get done, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t be able to finish writing anything if I didn’t do this. It’s why I think a lot of writers go on retreats away from the rest of the world and leave communication devices behind. I’m probably going to try that at some point too, when I feel like I can afford it, or after I work myself through a process of applying for some of these types of grants that exist to help writers go on retreat.

Tamago: How many drafts of a project will you write? What do you do in each draft?

Chris: It’s different for each story or novel. But I would say a safe average would be at least five or six drafts, minimum. There have been a few quirks where a story came out pretty much as it ended up published, but generally I’ll write about five or six drafts of anything (highest, maybe twelve or thirteen drafts). I don’t have a set order for what I do in each draft. That also depends on what I feel the draft needs after I finish writing it, and I usually will break up the future drafts into a plan where I can do a couple of things with each pass through: fix a series of scenes, develop some part of the book further, cut back on some other section, refine language, etc.

Tamago: After the initial break-in moment (your first book, agent, or assignment), what are the moments/accomplishments that you feel define you as a writer?

Chris: This is a difficult question. It depends on how a person defines success. I know a lot of people define success by popularity or by quantity of books or stories published, or by how many awards they’ve won, or how much money they’ve made off of their writing. I will say that it’s been really, really fulfilling to experience what I’ve recently experienced when One for Sorrow’s film rights sold. I’m so excited to watch something I’ve written adapted for the big screen. But for me, most of my defining moments or accomplishments have been when I’ve figured out how to fix a story I didn’t feel I could make work, or finally realized a way to write a story that initially I didn’t know how to proceed with writing. I won’t lie that some of the rave reviews I got for my first novel, or the awards and award nominations, didn’t make me feel good–they did, immensely–but when all of that attention goes out with the tide and people are looking for their next book, what you have left is the story or the book you made, and that’s what you have to live with. The thing you made.

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