- Guest Author -
Welcome. Today I feature an interesting author who has been a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy, a technical writer and English instructor - Peter McKenna from San Francisco. Welcome, Peter ...
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING JOURNEY.
I began writing at age 7 and I've pretty much kept at it since.
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME A WRITER?
Second grade, St Matthews. Mrs Sousa told us to write five complete sentences, choosing from various topics. Among them was "Kites", maybe inspired by Charlie Brown's misfortune with these. I'd had neither good nor bad fortune with kites, having never even tried to fly one. But for some reason I wrote about a boy named Jonathan who with his father's help built a successful version. In the last sentence, having come to man's estate, he now passes on this talent to his own offspring. Myself, I never got around to building kites. I finally flew a store bought one when I was seventeen. I must try this again some day. But back then I had the help of a girlfriend who knew how to tie a slip knot.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
Making a point. Having a point. I hope the readers can figure out what it is.
WHAT WERE YOU IN A PAST LIFE, BEFORE YOU BECAME A WRITER?
In a previous incarnation, I was a rebel warrior exiled to a remote isle where the natives worshipped me like a god!
Yeah, sure. Actually, if I started out at seven, I was pretty much always a writer. Even before that I used to think about thoughts, that is, what other people thought. This was actually the phrase in my head, What goes on in his mind? Yes, it was his mind: I couldn't even begin to imagine what girls thought. (Girls, mind you, not women: mothers and teachers, you knew what they thought because they were always bossing you.)
Going to my friend's house I used to pass a man who was always working in his garden, and as I disappeared around the corner, I imagined him thinking, I wonder where that road goes.
If you're asking what I've done for a day job, and often as not night job, well: paperboy, messcook, ditchdigger, lumber & hardware guy, cabdriver, potato picker, technical writer, naval officer, English teacher.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST WRITING ACHIEVEMENT?
500 dollars for two hours work putting a sexual fantasy down on paper, which we still typed on then.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
This. Besides my journal and some stand up schtick.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
The musicians playing their seisun in the Irish pub. The comic aspirants at the open mike club.
WHAT GENRE DO YOU WRITE?
My magnum opus, Rebel Gray, Mountain Green is historical fiction. I started out, after that kite story, with science fiction: monsters and Martians, plus a comic strip called Dogg World News, two g's because these doggs were special, hand-drawn by me and another kid named Donald Winslow. Later on as I kept started keeping journals, I wrote what you might call creative nonfiction based mostly on relationships and travel experiences. I had more luck with the latter, especially back in my hitchhiking days. Actually those aren't so far in the past. A couple years ago I thumbed from Quebec to Halifax, the 56 year old hitchhiker. Got there sans probleme, too. Nice people, those Canucks. I also got lots of material driving a cab: every writer ought to try that. And I got sea stories while in the Navy: I don't recommend necessarily recommend that because writers tend to have attitudes. And I've based some stories and essays on my teaching experiences. I still keep a journal. Plus, I write groan-worthy theatricals for occasions like special birthdays.
DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR NEW WRITERS?
Write something every day, in a journal at least. Accept praise from everybody; accept criticism from those who know how to write themselves. Try to have a purpose in your writing, but if it's only because you feel you must get something down on a certain subject, go for it. Sometimes the purpose reveals itself. I wrote Rebel Gray, Mountain Green mostly because I thought it was a cool story about a quirky event. Confederate raiders in Vermont, who'd a thunk it.
DO YOU SUFFER FROM WRITER’S BLOCK?
Oh God yes, especially if I start asking myself where am I going with this. And to get started in the first place, I must overcome laziness and reluctance, kind of like you'd put off writing a paper until the night before it was due, mostly because of the fear of the effort involved. I just learned there's a word for that: ergophobia, fear of work.
DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED WRITING SCHEDULE?
Sort of. It involves getting away from the writing desk, actually. Getting out of the house, getting myself to a place where I have nothing better to do than write (and people watch).
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE WRITING PLACE?
I don't know if I'd call it "favorite", but I usually end up one or another local pub here in San Francisco: the Plough and Stars, the Bitter End. There's also the Cliff House, the Blue Danube, and the Cafe Trieste. And I write while in transit: bus, train, or plane, if the ride isn't too bumpy.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST JOY IN WRITING?
WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR AND WHY?
Shakespeare for elegant and quotable rhetoric as well as human insight. Hemingway's short stories for their subtle examination of attitude and motive. Twain, Vonnegut, and Charles Portis (True Grit) for humor and storytelling. Steinbeck's a good storyteller too, but he ain't that funny except in Tortilla Flat. Barbara Tuchman and George Orwell for making history and politics lively and entertaining. Flanney O'Connor for doing Southern Gothic like nobody's business. Dorothy M. Johnson for giving us The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (She also wrote A Man Called Horse and The Hanging Tree, but the movies aren't as good, except for the Marty Robbins song.)
On a daily basis my favorite authors are those who those who rant and rave in on-line commentaries and in letters to the editor. Inane gibberish sometimes, frightening sometimes, but sometimes witty and pithy (a word better writ than spoke).
WHAT’S THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER RECEIVED FROM A READER?
When I was 17, I shared my first grownup writing with a girl I liked though I couldn't hope she liked me. She sat next to me on my friend's couch, and as she read, she slipped her arm through mine and held my hand. It didn't seem like she was aware of it. Anyway, it sure felt good.
WHAT WAS THE WORST COMMENT FROM A READER?
"I've been meaning to get around to your stuff."
WRITERS ARE SOMETIMES INFLUENCED BY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THEIR OWN LIVES. ARE YOU?
OTHER THAN WRITING, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?
How about whom, as in a certain Laura. I also love my family, San Francisco, the view from my apartment, most dogs, some cats, good food, good sex, intelligent exchange of ideas, singalongs, rock-out boogie dancing (that's been a while), a good night's sleep and pleasant dreams.
DID YOU HAVE YOUR BOOK / BOOKS PROFESSIONALLY EDITED BEFORE PUBLICATION?
Pete Dexter, a neighbor of my younger brother, was good enough to look at it. Avoid adjectives and cliches, he advised, and I hope I have.
DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY.
For some reason, what stands out is a day hitchhiking up the California coast in July 1970. Piled into the back of a pickup truck with a bunch of other hippie types. We drank wine and smoked weed and sang all the way to Oregon where we ended up skinny dipping at some commune or other. I personally ended up with a girl named Carol. It wasn't my first time with a girl nor the best time, but it was a good part of a very memorable day.
IF YOU WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND WITH ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD IT BE? WHY?
Laura, because she is affectionate, intelligent, practical, dependable, a great cook, and all round fun company.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO SPEAK TO WORLD LEADERS?
"Giff me your cloze, your bootz, and ze keez to your motorcycle."
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
Finish this and have lunch.
WHAT FIVE BOOKS WOULD YOU TAKE TO HEAVEN?
Believe it or not, I could leave off Shakespeare if carry-on was limited because I've done all his plays: 25 years of teaching, a different one each semester, finishing up with All's Well that Ends Well. So I'd take the books I've been meaning to get around to: The Iliad, the Odyssey, Finnegan's Wake, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Complete Mark Twain. I'd have listed the King James Bible, but they probably already have one.
DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS?
Yes. The naive hero who comes of age and gets the girl in the end. Actually, I've only used him once. More often it's the guy who gets caught up in stuff and never quite knows what's going on.
DOES THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY FRUSTRATE YOU?
It would if I had great expectations. Or had written any.
DID YOU EVER THINK OF QUITTING?
Quitting what? Jobs, relationships, residences, sure. Life, sometimes. Writing, I couldn't if I wanted to.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE MANUSCRIPT TO WRITE? WHY?
Some naughty stuff I shared with an old girlfriend once upon a time. It livened things up.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE ‘SUCCESS’ AS A WRITER.
Getting paid to write stuff that comes easily to you. Getting paid for it. Hmm, that is shallow, isn't it? More conscientiously I'd say, addressing one of Life's Major Issues in a coherent and lively form - and finishing the damn thing.
WHAT SHOULD READERS WALK AWAY FROM YOUR BOOKS KNOWING? HOW SHOULD THEY FEEL?
That's two questions. Well, as they walk away, know where they're going! Jeez, these idiots with their earbuds ... As to how they feel, I'd be satisfied if it was just something like, ‘Well, that was a good read. What else has he written?’
HOW MUCH THOUGHT GOES INTO DESIGNING A BOOK COVER?
I gave it quite a bit as I did it myself, which probably shows. I wanted something that would symbolize both the Confederacy and Vermont. So what did I end up with? A Reb flag and autumn foliage. Well, they were public domain anyway. A gifted friend would have done it for a certain sum which I wasn't sure I would earn back; he sent me a very nice sample. Well, next time...
WHAT’S YOUR ULTIMATE DREAM?
To see a good movie made of my book and to have a walk on part in it. Y'know, the way James Dickey does in Deliverance and Peter Benchley in Jaws and Peewee Herman in Peewee's Big Adventure.
WRITING IS ONE THING. WHAT ABOUT MARKETING YOU, YOUR BOOKS AND YOUR BRAND? ANY THOUGHTS?
Have influential friends. Industrious anyway.
No, actually I'd like to remove something, but not from this epistle. Some avoirdupois from my mortal coil.
Clancy's comment: Thanks for sparing the time to be interviewed, Peter. Hey, love that idea of writing in a pub.