Typing with Edward Falco
Edward Falco is a great typist. I know this for a fact as we conducted this interview primarily by email and, as someone who receives a lot of mail knows, some people can type it, some people can't. Edward types in melodious droves, and answered this pseudo-journalist's overly-persistent questions throughly while maintaining a rigourous routine of daily writing and teaching.
Thankfully for his readers (of which I'm happy to count myself as one), his work is as wonderfully diverse and as terribly insighful as his email is prolific. His poems and stories have appeared in too many journals to count, but which include in their ranks the Atlantic, TriQuarterly, the Virginia Quarterly Review and, I'm happy to say, an issue of BPQ from our first year. A new story is soon to appear in Glimmer Train, and he has a new collection of stories just out, a hypertext novel about to be released, and another, traditional novel in the hands of his agent. Previous books include "Plato at Scratch Daniels and Other Stories" and "Winter In Florida" (a novel) and a previous collection of hypertext called Sea Island, from Eastgate.
Why writing? What got you started?
Probably the earliest nudge toward writing came from an older brother who is an artist and a musician. When I was a kid, he played drums in a jazz band in Greenwich Village. He drove a sleek, white MG. I admired him. I wanted to be like that. Writing, being a poet gave me the opportunity. Later, of course, the reasons changed--but that's where it started.
When (and where) was your first story published, and what was that experience like?
My first national publication was a concrete poem, published in Alka-hest, a journal of poetry limited to college students, put out by Wesleyan University Press. That was 1970 and I was twenty-one. Ten years after that, I started publishing stories. I believe my first published story was "The Passion Flower," in Southern Humanities Review. That was 1980. What was that like...? Well, all of my early career as a writer is tied up with a writer named Steve Gibson. Steve and I were then--and remain--close friends. In my late teens and my twenties, right into my early thirties, most of my sense of accomplishment as a writer came from Steve. He read everything I wrote, as soon as I wrote it, and I read everything of his. I bring Steve into this question, because Steve and I had formed a community of mutual approval (which I think is not uncommon among writers and artists) that mattered more than the approval of journal editors. Steve and I believed in each other's talent, still do. But then we were pretty much alone, except for Steve's wife, Clorinda. Though I published sporadically, most of what I wrote and sent out in the mail came back rejected. I don't think there is much chance I would have kept writing through all those years of rejection without the sense of myself as writer with talent and vision that Steve helped me maintain. So the publications were great, of course, but those early publications lagged behind the sense of myself as a writer which was being maintained by my friendship with Steve. Which is to say that though the publications pleased me, the feeling was that they were just the beginning, that much bigger publications and much more recognition was due to me. This was of course delusional--but I suspect it was a necessary delusion. I suspect all writers need some sort of similar community to keep them going through the inevitable rejections.
I'm amazed by the wide variety of traditions you've worked in, and too by the success you've had with such diverse styles. Why the different forms?
As a reader and a writer, I've always looked for the language-rush of poetry, those places in writing where words ignite and the reader feels the heat and force of combustion right down to the bones. It seems to me that this can happen in any kind of writing, and that it is always difficult, regardless of the form or tradition a writer is working with, to invest language with such power. So I fool around a lot. In part, I like trying out different ways of writing, because they present different challenges, and the challenge draws me more deeply into the writing process. And in part, I like the idea of hurling different kinds of writing into each other, just to see what happens--and doing this successfully requires that the writer understand the demands and constraints of the various conventions. For many years, I wrote prose poems because I liked the way the narrative power of fiction and the lyric intensity of poetry came together in the form. Lately, I'm working with lines again (in large part because of hypertext, which forced me to rediscover the virtues of lineation, but that's an answer to another question). Of the many different kinds of writing I've worked with, I've had the most success with the short story and the poem. It's probably not a coincidence that these are the two forms of writing I most like to read. I'm still excited by the possibility, however, of bringing the two traditions together in a longer form. My latest attempt at this is A Dream with Demons, a hypertext novel that contains a traditional novel (well, maybe not so traditional, but recognizably a novel) and a series of poems, as well as hypertext poetry. Eastgate Systems will publish it next year.
How often do you write?
I try to write five days a week, three or four hours a day. I used to try to write every day, by my wife has convinced me to take weekends off. Well, actually, she insisted..... But I think she's right. I'm lucky enough to have a teaching position that allows me to write on weekday mornings. When I was an instructor at Virginia Tech, teaching four courses a semester, I arranged a five-day a week teaching schedule with afternoon classes, allowing me at least a couple of hours to write each morning. When I got a tenure-track position with a reduced course load, I was able to double the amount of my writing time.
Is your usual first draft on paper or on the screen? Does this vary for the different types of pieces?
Screen, for everything. My first novel and my first collection of stories were written in longhand, in a notebook, and then transferred to the computer. Since then I've become comfortable working on the computer and now I can't imagine working longhand anymore. When writing is going well, words come faster than my hand can move a pen across the page. It's as if my head is speeding along like a Porche doing a hundred miles an hour while my poor Volkswagon of a hand can only do fifty. Writing on a computer keyboard, the words fly onto the screen much faster. Not as fast I'm thinking, but much better, much closer.
Are some stories more suited for particular formats, and if so, why?
Sure. There are no rules, but a short story is best suited to one character and one event. A novel, usually, has a longer narrative sweep and more characters. Poetry, generally, is more interested in language, sound, and patterns of meaning, whereas fiction, generally, is about characters in action. Playwriting is, generally, a collaborative form, a dynamic interaction of writer, actors, and director, where structure is a crucial concern. Screenwriting is a business. Hypertext is something new under the sun, a form of writing in its infancy, irresistible to writers who love experimentation. As I've already said several times, these are all generalizations, but they certainly influence the choice of form for a particular piece of writing.
Do you decide on a form first, and then find a story to fill it, or vice versa?
I'd say I have an event--real or imagined--in mind, and then a dynamic interaction between language, memory and passion creates a story. A sense of form influences the direction of the story. If I feel I'm writing about one thing that happened to one character, I'm going to make choices in the writing process that will probably lead to a short story. If I'm not really interested in an event or a character; if I'm not really interested in moving through a series of occurrences toward a powerful event, but rather I find I have a more intense desire to attempt to render a feeling or a memory, or some web of feeling, memory and passion that I can't even begin to name--then I'm probably going to attempt an act of poetry. Clearly, in my mind, poetry is the more intense and difficult activity--and the more rarely achieved. It's clear to me when I want to write poetry and when I want to write fiction. What I want the most, however, is to find kinds of writing that contain both the narrative power of fiction and linguistic intensity of poetry.
Is the hypertext work in your mind closer to poetry or to fiction?
I find hypertext to be closer to poetry. Since hypertext allows the reader to determine the sequence of words, traditional notions of narrative are impossible; as is any conventional sense of closure. Hypertext is interactive. In a very real sense, readers become writers, because they determine the structure of the reading experience: they decide where to start, what sequence of words to follow, and where to stop. Really, this is unlike any kind of traditional poetry or fiction, but it is closer to poetry in that the reader has greater responsibility for constructing the completed work and construing its meaning. A story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, is, on the surface at least, a simpler thing--and something hypertext can never be.
In the near future, however, it seems entirely possible that hypertext is destined to become hypermedia. Writing on computers may be best suited to a multimedia play of words, sounds, and images, a kind of art appropriate to sensibilities that evolve writing, reading, and creating with computers. Writing on computers may well be a collaborative form: best suited to teams of artists working in various mediums. Whatever art on computers is about, it's an evolving thing.
Do you find one form more satisfactory than the other?
I have a special affection for the short story and the poem--and I'm especially excited about working with hypertext. I'm challenged by the novel. These forms of writing all hold great satisfaction for me. The act of writing itself is a satisfying activity, and I feel fulfilled whenever I think I've written well.
What does the hypertext work required from you as a writer that fiction and poetry does not?
Do you spend a lot of time online these days? Aside from what you mentioned, are there other resources you find helpful/encouraging/enlightening? Favorite places you've bookmarked?
While I use the computer for most of the work I do these days, the amount of time I spend online, hooked up to the Internet, is not all that significant--maybe an hour a day. I check e-mail frequently, but that only takes a few minutes. There are a number of magazines I read on the Web, but usually I download the articles that interest me, and read them offline. I'm especially enamored of sound clips of poets reading from their work, which I find in The Atlantic Monthly, The Journal of Postmodern Culture, and at poetry archives. My favorite site these days is Bookwire with its many links to journals, publishers, review sources, and various book-related sites.
Are there any aspects to this whole computerization the country's going through that disturb you?
No. In the end, computers are fantastic tools for the storage and dissemination of information, for communication, and for entertainment. Certainly, there are dangers: most prominently, the danger of isolating human beings from contact with other human beings as computers enable us to do everything virtually, from bedroom to conference-room. Really, though, I don't think it's much of a danger. Not many people will willingly give up real life for virtual life, although I can think of several who'll jump at the chance.
You teach in a creative writing program--what are your feelings about the rise of these? Do you see them having an effect on the kind of work being published today?
Creative writing programs are terrific, as long as young writers sign up for them so that they can meet, learn from, and work with older, more accomplished writers. A one- or two-year relationship with an accomplished writer who reads your early work and provides criticism, can be a great help to a writer. I have problems with creative writing programs only if they are presented as a career opportunity, leading young writers to think of their work as a product produced for the procurement of tenure and promotion in an academic position. Not only do I think that's bad for writing, but it's also deceptive. Teaching positions in good creative writing programs are tough to come by. An MFA alone won't do it.
Favorite stories: Frank O'Connor's "Guest of the Nation"; Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Favorite poet: Theodore Roethke. (I feel like I'm doing one of those whiskey advertisements.) There are many contemporary short story writers and poets I read and admire. Among short story writers, Lorrie Moore comes to mind, as does Stuart Dybek. Among poets, Alice Fulton comes immediately to mind, and my friend Steve Gibson. Among hypertext writers, Michael Joyce is a favorite. There's so much good writing available... Ray Carver, whom I knew briefly in Syracuse, is terrific; and so is Tim O'Brien, especially The Things They Carried, which is perhaps the best contemporary book available about writing and life. Locally, Richard Dillard is an impressive presence: a poet, short story writer, novelist, scholar, teacher, mentor, and probably a half-dozen other things I don't even know about. Even more locally, there's my wife, Lisa Norris, a writer whose stories and essays are, obviously, of special importance to me. And then of course there's Cyberbiscuitville, an e-mail list of fellow writers sharing writer-talk; and all the people associated with Eastgate Systems, Mark Bernstein especially. There's so much literary activity at Eastgate, it's like the place gives off waves of energy. Lots of writers; much to read.
Finally, how much autobiography do you find entering into your work? Do you feel there are common themes you're drawn to work on repeatedly?
My writing almost always comes out of some element of autobiography--though I would argue, and I believe, that I never write about myself. My own experiences, passions, beliefs, trouble, joy, etc. inform the writing, but in the end the story is a thing in and of itself, about the characters created in the act of writing, about the concerns underlying the narrative. Finally, if a story works, it's as much about the reader as it is about me. Otherwise--if it were about me, and if it went deep, revealed secrets, exposed the deeply personal, the deeply private--I'd be embarrassed by it, I'd wouldn't want to publish it, and I certainly could never read it in public.
As for themes, yes, certain things seem to happen again and again in my writing--though I'm not as bad as Poe, for whom almost every story involved some form of live burial. In my last collection I noticed that most of the stories involved a conflict between freedom and domesticity, and then, when I thought about it, I realized a lot of my writing could be seen in terms of that conflict. "Smugglers" is one of my favorite stories, and it might be the one where that problem most energetically pushes the action. Also, I often find my writing, on some level, usually not the surface level, questioning the relationship between art and life. A story like "The Artist," for instance, which is in the current Best American collection, is about an artist who has to deal with his past as a small time drug dealer. In part, it's about how his art functions to allow him to live with something horrible. And in part it's also about the conflict between domesticity and wildness, between order and disorder. So both themes come together there. The same issues are there again in a new story, "Monsters," which will be out next year in Glimmer Train. In that story two talented young artists seemed blinded to the ugliness in their real lives because of their focus of the possible perfection of art. So, I guess the answer to your question is a resounding yes: there are definitely themes I'm drawn to work on again and again.