And now for part II of our epic interview with EJ Patten, author of Return to Exile...
Joe: You say survival is the great universal theme and your personal tale of survival - of which I’ve had only glimpses from what you’ve written on your blog, in interviews and earlier here – has been strewn with hardship and your share of darkness. Tell me about your survival as a writer. What event or events helped you transition to maturity so that you could call yourself writer with a capital W?
Eric: I like your answer about joy and authenticity: Power comes from the strength of the underlying emotion. Now creating that emotion within readers…that’s the kicker. People seem far more likely to believe in bad luck than good. You can dump on a character all you want, but the minute you give a character a lucky break or enduring happiness, people lose interest or start crying “deus ex machina!” They just don’t believe it. Now, I’m talking about actual joy and happiness, not the adrenaline rush and excitement that comes from an action/adventure story; that’s a different monster entirely.
Stories thrive on conflict, and joy and conflict don’t get along very well outside of a comedy. You can start a story with a joyful event that turns tragic and you can end a story with a tragic event that turns joyful, but in the middle, joyful events stretch credibility except in small nostalgic doses that are quickly crushed.
I think a non-comedic story that’s full of joy isn’t believable because it’s so far removed from our normal experience. And yet…you can write a straight tragedy without a single joyful moment and people will love it, even though that’s not true to our normal experience either, so maybe that answer doesn’t work. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that joy is meaningless without misery and that the appreciation only comes in the contrast. Or maybe we just don’t like reading about people who are happier than we are. That’s a depressing thought.
On that happy note, let’s move on to your question. You asked about how I became a writer with a capital “W.”
It’s funny, when people who don’t know me ask what I do, I tell them I’m a writer. I love to watch the gears churn in their head and hear the fearful catch in their voice as they reply, “oh…what do you write?”
- I’m a technical writer who creates documentation for something very boring, and I’m about to bore them to death with woeful tales of typesetting problems, editing worries, grammatical mishaps, and printer malfunctions.
- I’m unemployed and likely to hit them up for money.
Not wanting to disappoint, I usually follow up by saying I’m a technical writer who’s between jobs, and would they mind loaning me a few bucks for cab fare so I can get home to fix my printer, which has been suffering terribly ever since I failed to capitalized “subcutaneous” after a colon, even thought it was clearly part of an independent clause; “you do know what an independent clause is, don’t you?” I say. They then either pony up the cash or make up a hasty excuse and flee, allowing me to continue sampling the Vienna sausages and staring at the wall, undisturbed.
My wife has asked me to stop messing up her dinner parties and simply tell people I’m an author, but where’s the fun in that? Besides, if I tell them I’m an author, the conversation goes like this:
“So what do you do?” they ask.
“What do you mean?” I say. “Are you talking day to day, or is this an existential question?”
“Day to day.”
“Oh,” I say, disappointed that the conversation has suddenly become less interesting. “I’m an author.”
“Really?” they say in surprise. Then, hesitating—clearly wondering if I’m legitimate—they add, “Have you written anything I would’ve read?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Tell me what you’ve read and I’ll stop you if you get to one of my books.”
They laugh nervously. “To be honest, I don’t read that much.”
“You don’t say.”
“I listen to audio books sometimes. Are any of your books on CD?”
“Afraid not. After Telly Savalas died, I determined that no one could do my books justice. It’s all about the voice, you know.”
“I don’t know who that is.”
“Telly probably didn’t know who you were either, but someday, maybe. I’m working on a reanimation program to bring him back from the dead so he can create my audio books, but so far, no luck. You don’t happen to know of any satanic rituals I could perform that might help, do you?”
Another nervous laugh. “Well, I should really get back to the party. It was nice talking to you.”
“You, too,” I say. “Hey, before you go, could you spare a couple dollars for cab fare…”
Anyway, you get the idea. “Writer” and “author” are both loaded terms, but usually not in a monetary sense.
Fortunately, I’ve gotten lucky as an author. I’m one of the few who makes enough to write full time. There aren’t many of us. Advances seem to grow smaller and smaller everyday and the costs of cardboard-box houses and Vienna sausages keeps going up.
Surviving as an author is hard, and not just because Ramen has risen over three cents this past year (seriously people, I’m not a king here!).
To be an author, first, you have to write something. Preferably more than a sentence. A book is ideal.
Second, you have to get an agent. Third, you have to get an editor to buy your book. Fourth, you have to get everyone else to buy your book. Fifth, you have to write another book because the advance for the last one has run out and the cost of Ramen noodles has risen over three cents in the last year (three cents! We’re authors, not oil tycoons!).
Many events pushed me along the path to writerdom, but there are four major events I can point to that led me to where I am now:
- Getting booted out of my creative writing class in high school shortly after I figured out that I love to write. It was heartbreaking. Fellow students enjoyed my stories. My teacher, however, did not. Also, I stayed home and read all day. Apparently schools don’t care whether or not you turn in every assignment; they also want you to attend. Who knew?
- A college creative writing professor asked for samples of my work to share with future classes. For the first time, someone in a position of influence appreciated my writing. It was weird. I don’t know if he ever shared those stories—he died of cancer a few years later—but he encouraged me.
- Getting fired twice within three months. It turns out I’m not very good at managing up. I don’t like reporting to people and I never quite figured out how to do it. The demands of supporting a family and trying to survive had forced me to put writing on the backburner for a time, but getting fired twice within three months (did I mention that part? Real self-esteem builder, let me tell you) changed everything and I started writing again. Before, I’d focused (unsuccessfully) on screenwriting. This time around, I decided that I was tired of working with other people, which screenwriters have to do, so I wrote a book—the book that became Return to Exile.
- I got an agent. Nothing instills confidence like having an agent say, “your story doesn’t suck.” And Steve, my agent, said more than that. He was so positive that I blushed. Working with him has been amazing. So much of writing is a mental game. Eventually, you build up some calluses—and you need them—but early on, every little review can have such a huge impact. The first few months after Return to Exile came out, I would fly high in the morning from a gushing review and crash in the afternoon because some random person I’d never met pointed out some flaw. Those sorts of highs and lows are death to writing. You can’t focus. You need the calluses.
I think I’ve rambled on enough for the moment. Now, Joe, it’s my turn for the question: What’s the most unique response you’ve seen from someone who’s found out you’re an author? If you don’t have anything interesting, feel free to lie.
So, before I get to your question I have to ask you why got fired from each of the two jobs you got fired from. I mean it’s just sitting there, waiting for me to ask and, yes, I’m curious. I think everyone should get fired from at least one job in their life (as our earlier discussion pointed out – life experience, especially hurtful, painful, miserable, rotten, despicable, mind-numbingly horrific, okay, okay you get the picture – is important to a writing life). Me, I’m still trying to get fired. They keep promoting me instead. Maybe I should take a different tack. I should have been fired from jobs a number of times. Here's an example.
When I was a Friendlies customer service supervisor (say that five times real fast) and on my shift one sunny summer afternoon myself and my staff were all participants in an epic water balloon fight that spanned from the dishwasher (a Hobart 1000) to the front restaurant, to the kitchen, to the rooftop. The store manager came in and caught me with balloons in hand. I told him the water balloons were all mine and that his son, who was still up on the roof planning a bombing raid, had nothing to do with it. I didn’t get fired. It’s a good thing he never saw the whip cream whippet gunfights we had that evening or the last man standing by the Hobart 1000 water hose death match and banana launching.
Now back to your question. What’s the most unique response I had to someone finding out that I was an author? Truthfully it’s still kind of new. For years, while I slogged away trying to sell my first novel (some 10 years and four different first novels) I stopped telling people that I was a writer. I did this because I found that once people knew that I wrote, they kept asking me, “How’s the book going? Sell it yet?”
Now what I wanted to say was, “Don’t you think I’d have told you if I had sold it?” Yes, yes, I might have thrown in a four letter word or two there like butt-head. But what I said instead was, “No.” This made family get-togethers pretty awful experiences. I found this so debilitating after a while that I just stopped telling people I was a writer. It was either that or hide in a corner under the upholstery. What people didn't know about they couldn't ask about. And by then most people had stopped asking if I’d sold my book yet, because they couldn't find me.
Just before I sold my book, I’d almost started to believe that I wasn’t an author - that it just wasn't in the cards for me. I started believing again when my agent called with a book deal in hand. Since then people think I know something about writing - because I'm an Author. The day before I found out I had a book deal I knew nothing. The day after, I knew everything and could write essays about it and do long interviews.
I call it the writer’s light switch. Nobody. Somebody. Nobody. Somebody.
Now back in your court. Return to Exile is Middle Grade Fiction – a tough marketing job, as you have stated on your blog. So tell me, why middle grade fiction? How did you end up with a middle grade story instead of a YA or adult tale or a Buddhist monologue, and what do you think of the genre you write in?
Come back for the next two Thursdays as EJ and I go back and forth picking up the threads of the interview throughout the month of June. In the mean time the give-away at the end of the interview (closing date for entry is July 2 and winner will be announced Friday, July 6) will be a critique of up to 10 pages of manuscript by EJ himself. (I want in on that.) You’ll get one entry for each of the following: mention the interview on Facebook; tweet about the interview on twitter; and/or become a follower of Gotteenfiction.