Randall Silvis: I am always aiming for the perfect sentence
I envy people who are yet to encounter the work of Randall Silvis. I envy them for the thrill that they will experience from his picturesque language, his poetic descriptions, and his skillful comparisons. They will rediscover the crime genre and the delight it can bring to the connoisseur. But then I stop envying them. Randall raises the bar so high that after him it’s difficult to read anything else. Days, and maybe weeks, pass before the feeling begins to fade slightly, but his characters never leave you. I can guarantee that. They remain alive in the conscious mind, as if they belong to real people whom destiny has brought into your path.
I have to admit that my interest in his novel “Two Days Gone” escalated in stages. I saw a review of the book and ticked it off as one I should read because I have a weakness for stories involving characters of creative artists, especially writers, and the criminal genre is my favorite. That is until I met the editor of the BG edition, Boryana Stoyanova, at an event and chatted with her about the book. How could I not get so excited about reading a book with such an original story? Detective DeMarco is investigating the brutal murder of the family of a famous writer and is searching for the suspected husband by digging into the incomplete manuscript of his new novel. I don’t know why Boryana was so modest in her praise of the novel as a literary masterpiece, or she said nothing of the skillfully crafted tension in the thriller, or the pure, natural dialogue, or why she failed to mention that the author (not the main character 🙂 ) is a writer and playwright, teacher of creative writing and award-winning writer, whose books have been translated into more than 10 languages, or that in America 17 of his novels, numerous essays, articles, poems and short stories have been published, or that he is a winner of the prestigious Drue Heinz literary prize, or that the acknowledgements pages in the “Two Days Gone” are so extraordinary. Or what an extraordinary person Randall Silvis is.
Even before I had read the last pages of “Two Days Gone”, I searched for Randall on the internet. I sent him an invitation for an interview at bgstoryteller, and the very next day he replied that he accepted and would take part with pleasure. The email correspondence and his desire to share his advice with aspiring Bulgarian writers only proved to me what a professional he was. We talked about “Two days Gone”, about writing, about his team, about good and bad advice. He was always so elegant in his choice of words, detailed and good-natured. He answered the questions (which were by no means few in number) and gladly gave more of himself; he even shone light on certain areas in the subject of writing which my original interest had left in the dark. But what less can we expect from a real writer and teacher?
Special thanks to David Mossop for the English translation!
Randall Silvis: “I do write something every day, seven days a week”
An interview by Valentina Miziiska
Photo: Maddison Hodge
Here in Bulgaria you are known for your novel “Two Days Gone”, so I would like to discuss it first. How did the idea of the book come to you? Was it first the case that came to your mind or the idea of a detective investigating a crime by delving into the suspect’s notes on his novel-in-progress?
“Two Days Gone” began with the setting: a vast, dark lake in late autumn, surrounded by thick woods. From what I’ve seen in the many fine films shot in Bulgaria, your country has similar places – foreboding and hauntingly beautiful.
Several years ago I was teaching at a local university, making a long early morning drive into northwestern Pennsylvania. Three days a week I would cross over an extension of Lake Wilhelm in a couple of places, and the scene always struck me as either idyllic or full of menace, depending on whether the sun was rising orange and clear over the water, or was enshrouded in a portentous fog. One morning when I looked across the lake to the dark woods, I thought, This would be a great place to hide a body. With that thought, “Two Days Gone” was born.
I didn’t end up hiding a body there, nor does anyone in the novel, but the site did generate ideas for a mystery novel, with the lake and dark woods playing important roles.
Your characters have a complicated past. Did you know everything about them before you started writing or did you develop their backstories and arcs during the writing process?
It all happened during the writing. Initially, I planned that the murderer would be an academic – my revenge on having to spend so many years in academia – but as the novel grew, things changed. New characters appeared and claimed a role, and characters I thought I understood, especially Ryan DeMarco, proved me wrong by defining themselves in ways I hadn’t imagined. This is the mystery and magic of writing; I sit down at my desk, listen and watch and write what I see and hear inside my head. I like the sense of discovery every morning brings, and I try to give my readers that same journey.
Although it is a mystery, your novel is very sad and dark. Everybody is fighting his/her own demons. And you kill so many characters. Why? What is the message you would like to send to your readers?
My goal is to give the reader an emotional experience. If I succeed, the reader will impose her own message, her own determination of what the story means to her. If the story is sad and dark, it’s because I see life, and literature, as a place where its inhabitants must learn difficult lessons, usually about themselves, through situations rife with conflict.
Young writers especially, and older, narcissistic ones of any age, write so as to profess their viewpoints and impose them on others. They hope to “teach” the world. To provide answers and solutions.
I’m a storyteller, so I see this attitude as anathema. I’m not a preacher or proselytizer or propagandist or reformer, nor do I believe a storyteller should engage in that kind of intellectual tyranny. There are already too many tyrants at work in politics and religion and education and other professions, yet how effective are they? Only the uninformed or oppressed will succumb to somebody else’s opinion. What readers of adult fiction want are not moral or philosophical precepts but the experience of connection engendered by a good story.
Good writing, unlike religious, political, and philosophical arguments, can transform, but through the heart, not the head. Of those two organs, those two ways of confronting the world, the first is eminently preferable to the second. The head – by which I mean logic and practicality, the strategies of self-advancement – should at best be employed as a tempering agent for the sometimes heedless notions of the heart.
But when it comes to fictional creative writing (stories, novels, stage plays and film scripts, as well as memoir and the personal essay), the heart brain must take the lead. The only message conveyed should be one of feeling. Story, a shared experience of high emotion, is the vehicle that conveys that feeling to the reader – the feeling of empathy, of connection to one or more of the story’s characters, and therefore to a larger portion of the world than a typical reader usually has access to.
In so doing, yes, a truth is conveyed. But it is not the writer’s truth, nor should it be. A writer’s truth is only one small truth in a vast multiverse of truths, none more important nor true than any other. A story’s truth belongs to the reader. It arises out of the reader’s experience – in collaboration with the writer’s experience, but, make no doubt about it, predominantly from the reader’s. It is, then, unlike any message the writer hopes to impose, neither naïve nor arrogant, but wholly and beautifully relevant.
Did you know how the novel would end in the beginning? Do you plot your novels?
I always think I know how a novel will end, but I am almost always wrong. The characters decide what happens. Knowing this, I don’t do a detailed plot before writing, just an opening scene and a couple of plot points further along. It’s useful to know, at the end of a morning’s work, where the story will go the next day. If you know that much, and only that much, you can write every day, and without trying to force the story where it might not want to go.
How do you get your people/characters to act so naturally? Do you have a friend psychologist or someone else for a beta reader?
It is my belief that to be a good writer, an individual must be a sensitive and perceptive student of human nature. This requires an ability to see things from others’ points of view, to understand human motivation and psychology. Studying psychology might be of some benefit, but only in a general way; the sciences predict patterns of behavior, but every individual, real or fictional, will react differently because of their own unique life experiences and biological/neurological make-up. In my opinion, the best course of study for an aspiring writer is a life-long curiosity and ability to observe others uncritically, free of the impositions of ego.
One of your lead characters is a popular teacher and a bestselling author, just like you. How much of you is there with him? And how much of you is there in the other main character – the detective?
For the most part, both characters behave as I would were I in the exact same situation. Sometimes I have to stop and ask myself, If I were faced with that decision, and I saw the world as she/he does, what would I do? I suppose it’s like being a character actor; you have to know your character so completely that you, the writer, can inhabit him/her whenever necessary.
I very much like your decision to reveal the killer’s motivation at the end of the novel – there was no 10-pages-long monologue explaining his past; something, which is very typical for this genre. Everything is smoothly presented, very naturally. I just want to say “You are great, Randall!”, but I also want to ask you how was it that you were not influenced by other writers?
Thank you for the kind words. My greatest gift as a writer is my ignorance. I don’t have an MFA, and in fact have never taken a creative writing course. I have taught creative writing for most of thirty years, but the first thing I tell my students is that a writing program is likely to do more harm than good to their writing. Writing classes too frequently teach conventions, tropes, examples of what other writers have done, and the workshop model encourages homogeneity of writing. Without meaning to, such programs promote conventional writing. And who wants to be conventional?
I taught myself to write by studying the writers I love, from Hemingway to Faulkner to Camus and Hamsun and Garcia-Marquez and many others – every one of them an original, innovative writer who eschewed convention. Back when I was writing plays, the man who directed several of them once said, “What I love about your writing is that you break all the rules.” And I said, “What are the rules?” He said, “Never mind; don’t learn them. It will only ruin you.”
I took his advice. And I give the same advice to my own students. Forget about classes, forget about rules, forget about pleasing a workshop full of other unpublished writers. First learn the basics of story structure – you can do this in ten minutes or less – then write the best damn novel you can. Then write another, and another, and another. If you keep learning and improving and developing your voice, eventually you will succeed.
Unfortunately, the students always choose to stay in class anyway. It then becomes my responsibility to be the promoter of original writing and to encourage every aspiring writer to be fearless, to take risks, break the rules, and forge their own paths – in life as well as in writing.
Great Acknowledgements’ pages! I’ve never read anything like it. It’s an essay of thanksgiving that any writer should dedicate to his/her team. Is your current team so different from the previous ones? Tell us more about Sandy and Anna.
Sandy Lu, my literary agent, was a godsend. I found her after spending twenty or so years with two other agents. The first agent came as part of the prize package when my first book, a collection of stories titled “The Luckiest Man in the World”, was awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize by Joyce Carol Oates. He also represented my first novel. Then, around 1990 or so, I wrote “An Occasional Hell”, my first crime novel, and he told me, “I can’t sell this. The writing is too literary for a mystery, and the plot is too strong for a literary novel. If I can’t categorize it, I can’t sell it.” I told him, “It’s a literary mystery.” He said, “There’s no such thing.” And I said, “That’s why I wrote it.” In the end, he declined to represent it. So I marketed and sold it myself, and the book was more successful than any of my previous books.
I then acquired another agent, but I made the mistake of disregarding my intuition. He represented me, but his tastes never matched my own, and after fifteen years or so I finally terminated our relationship and went searching for another agent. But this time I was careful; I interviewed several agents, some of them very big names in the industry. But none of them felt like a good fit. Then I found Sandy. The rapport was immediate, and my intuition spoke loud and clear: This is the one.
Sandy loved “Two Days Gone” but warned that it might take a while for her to find “the right editor” for it. The search took over six months. But when I met Sourcebooks’ Anna Michels, through her long, insightful letters and phone calls, I knew that Sandy had found the perfect editor for me. Not only does Anna love a good mystery, but she also adores rich, descriptive writing and character exploration. And the entire Sourcebooks team is a treasure. In all my years of bouncing around through the Big Five to independents and back again, I never received a tenth of the support that Anna and her team provide. Every one of them is a jewel.
How long did it take to write this novel? How much research, plotting, actual writing and editing is behind this title?
The first draft was written in 2006. Every summer, and during holidays from teaching, I would do another draft. Ten years later, Sandy Lu read the full manuscript.
I was happy to know your Ryan DeMarco novel #2 – “Walking the Bones” – is already a fact. How many cases/stories do you plan?
I am currently working on #3. Its working title is “All the Pretty Girls But One”. It will be published in 2019. A fourth book in the series is scheduled for 2020. As for whether or not the series will continue beyond four novels, that depends on the readers.
How do you select your next story? How do you know if an idea will have the potential to become a good story?
I keep my eyes and ears open. Sometimes the kernel of a story will grab my interest and begin to blossom. Sometimes a character or setting will fascinate me and begin to spin out a tale. Once, with the magic realism novel “In A Town Called Mundomuerto”, I had the title running through my head for five or more years before I envisioned the main character, Lucia Luna. I then wrote her story as a novella, but it wasn’t quite right. Then I wrote it as a film script; I still wasn’t satisfied. Then as a novel, which went through numerous drafts, none of them acceptable to me. A full fifteen years after I first conceived of the title, I did another draft, and this time the voice was there. The voice the story had been searching for. The novel was published in 2007 and was named a Top Ten Fantasy Book of the Year by the editors of SFSite.com.
More recently, my psychological suspense novel “Only the Rain”, which was published last month (January 2018), began with a house I passed several times a week. It was a small, shabby house in a secluded area, surrounded by trees, and, each time I rode past it on my motorcycle, I wondered if it was a meth house. One day I rode past it in the rain, and saw a pit bull chained to the porch. And just like that a story started to build itself about a young ex-soldier who, while riding past that house on his motorcycle, on the day he has lost his job, sees a young woman dancing naked in the rain. She slips in the mud and crashes down onto her back; he stops to make sure she is all right; and the trouble begins.
Any moment, any word, any person, any place that resonates with the writer can become a story. It is up to the writer to be an open and eager receiver for these moments.
Tell us more about your writing process. Do you have a routine?
I try to write every morning after forty minutes or so of meditation. If I’m working on a novel, I do my best not to let any other writing projects interfere, but I’m not always successful. Sometimes I get an idea for a short essay, and the energy of the idea will compel me to write it immediately. But I do write something every day, seven days a week. On days when I have to travel to promote my work, and the routine is disrupted, I feel off-balance and guilty for not writing. Writing, I suppose, now that my sons are grown and on their own, is how I justify my existence. It’s my small way of giving something to the world.
When do you realize that you need to stop revising and your manuscript is final?
It’s finished when I can read through the manuscript from first page to last, and never experience that little flinch that tells me something isn’t right. Only then do I send it to my editor.
I must admit, however, that I am never wholly satisfied that a novel is as good as it can be. Often I give readings of my work– work that was published a year or more earlier – and, prior to the reading, I edit the passage I will read. I am always aiming for the perfect sentence, the perfect paragraph, the perfect scene. Revision never stops.
How many manuscript revisions does an experienced writer and a teacher like you make? Do they get less with each book?
I did 26 drafts of my first novel, “Excelsior”. And this was in the days before computers and word processors, so I retyped the entire manuscript, which for a while was 800 pages long, 26 times. I now usually do three drafts before a novel goes to my editor, but it feels like only two; I start every morning by reading what I wrote the day before and making small revisions. So when I finish the first full draft, I’ve actually done two drafts. Then I do a careful polish, and that’s it until I get my editor’s notes.
Of course, this definition changes depending on one’s interpretation of “a draft”. My second and third drafts are little more than read-throughs to catch inconsistencies, awkward sentences, wordy passages, or missing information. When not teaching I can write a full draft, with one extra read-through, in six months or less. Then I read the manuscript carefully a third time for the final polish. The first draft is the only one in which I make substantial changes, trying out different voices or structures. For nearly all of my recent novels, the published book differs from that first draft only in minor ways.
I know you have a police officer for a beta reader – officer Jason Urbany. How did you know he would be the one?
A friend of mine, named Mike, often mentioned his brother-in-law, Jason. So I simply asked Mike if Jason would be willing to answer a few questions from me about police procedure. Lucky for me, he agreed.
Hemingway said that a writer needs a friend in every profession. Today, that need is augmented by the internet. I do a lot of online research every single day. But nothing beats having a handful of knowledgeable friends willing to lend their expertise and authority to a novel. From them you get not just facts but examples and anecdotes and characters. I’ve been blessed with several such friends, and they always make my work richer.
How many rejections did you have before you started selling your books? How did you feel and how do you feel about that now?
I don’t know the exact number, but I collected rejections for nine full years before selling my first short story. So there were a lot. Hundreds. Every rejection made me more determined to succeed, especially after I started receiving encouraging notes from editors. Being a writer was my only ambition, and I wasn’t going to let anybody tell me I couldn’t achieve it, no matter how long it took. Besides, I knew from Hemingway that every writer must undergo an apprenticeship, and I was happy to undergo my own. I worked numerous manual labor jobs during those years, despite having a couple of advanced degrees. But while I was painting a house, for example, or sweeping a factory floor, I was thinking about what I was going to write when I got home. And every job provided stories, scenes, and characters for future pieces of fiction. The jobs also allowed me time to mature as a writer and a human being. The jobs paid the bills and fed my body. The writing fed my soul.
Too many young writers are unwilling to undergo the necessary apprenticeship that will not only allow their voices to develop, but will give them the maturity and depth of insight essential to good writing. They want a shortcut; they want formulas and guidelines. But no degree, and no number of classes, can provide this. Only life – unfiltered, joyous, brutal, tragic and triumphant – can provide it.
Hemingway also said – and I believe this with all my heart – that as writers, we are all apprentices. There are no masters.
Another relevant quote here is one from Henry David Thoreau that should be tattooed onto every young writers’ wrist: How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received?
Non-writers, and particularly academics who are not successful writers, are full of bad advice, because all they know is theory, and theory can only get in the way of talent. To counter all that bad advice, I wrote an essay called “10 Easy Steps to Becoming a Writer”. For those interested in listening to it, the essay can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/randall-silvis/10-easy-steps-to-becoming-a-writer
And the best advice?
The best advice I ever received came as a handwritten note scribbled on one of my earliest rejections: Never quit.
There is plenty of room in the industry for writers with varying degrees of talent. You don’t have to write like a Nobel Prize winner to break into the business, but you absolutely must be prepared to work hard and to face rejection again and again and again. You must love solitude and respect language. You must understand the power of words, and how to utilize that power.
As I have said many times, there are lots of writers with talent, but few with talent and discipline and perseverance.
Who are your favourite crime authors today? Is there anything you still can learn from them?
James Lee Burke is the only traditional crime novelist I read. His prose is musical and evocative, his descriptions rich and palpable. His history as a writer is much like my own; he started out writing literary stories and novels, then switched to crime so as to make a living from his writing. Among literary stylists, he can’t be beat.
Many of my novels are marketed as crime/mystery/thriller/psychological suspense, but I have never seen myself as a genre writer. My goal has always been to bridge the gap between so-called serious fiction and commercial fiction. My characters all struggle with the moral complexities of life, the universal themes of all literature – what Faulkner called the verities and truths of the heart. The inner journey of the character is my concern; the external plot is simply a device for testing and illuminating character. It also serves the essential function of maintaining the reader’s attention.
I also read a lot of creative nonfiction, because some of today’s finest prose can be found in that genre. Overall, however, I watch a lot more crime fiction than I read.
I am a produced screenwriter, and also try to make my novels as cinematic as possible. Some of the best character-driven crime stories being produced today can be found on cable TV and Netflix. Dramas such as “True Detective”, “Fargo”, “Peaky Blinders”, “Mind Hunters”, and a dozen or so others not only provide compelling plots but also delve deeply into the complex personalities of criminals and non-criminals alike.
Is there anything to learn from other writers? I learn something from every writer I encounter. Sometimes it is how to do something more effectively, and sometimes it is how not to do something.
The only issue that matters when analyzing writing is this: Does it work? If the answer is yes, try to figure out why it works, why it holds your attention, why it leaves you breathless, why you can’t stop reading or watching. And if it doesn’t work, why not?
That’s the only formula any writer or student of writing needs.
What is your current project?
In addition to tending to the promotion of “Walking the Bones” and “Only the Rain”, I spend most of my time working on the first draft of “All the Pretty Girls But One”, plus an occasional short essay. However, there is a mainstream/literary novel called “Esperando” that I’ve been aching to write, plus several other novels that currently exist only as concepts. Any one of them might start clamoring for attention and force me to pull up the file to add a few lines of dialogue or summary of a scene.
Any so-called spare time is spent trying to elevate my consciousness so as to use my remaining days in this life as a better father, a better writer, and a better light of the Light. I am at the age when I keep one foot in the corporeal world and one in the spiritual. Everything I do in each affects the other. That’s probably why my protagonist in the Ryan DeMarco series is on the same journey. In “Walking the Bones”, he finally realizes that there is far more to reality than what we experience through the physical senses.
What advice do you have for aspiring Bulgarian writers who read bgstoryteller.co?
Read, write, read, write, repeat.
Don’t sit around talking about your writing or about what you want to write; that will only dilute the creative energy necessary to write. You can be a writer who talks about writing, or a writer who writes. Writing is not a social activity; it is a solitary one. That’s why the profession attracts an abundance of introverts. If you are the kind of person who needs to be around people all the time, you should probably consider another vocation.
Don’t waste your day on social media. Don’t waste time reading how-to-books. Don’t waste time moaning that you have no time to write. Make the time. It can be as little as thirty minutes a day, but you must do it. Life is short, so do it now.
Get outside the bubble you live in. Travel. Challenge yourself. Confront what you fear. You will always learn more from an uncomfortable situation than a comfortable one. Make frequent contact with the unknown.
If you believe, as I do, that life is not an accident, not a finite breath of time that comes and goes leaving no trace on eternity, then every thought and action matters. Every moment must be made relevant and essential. If you believe, as I do, that every life is a gift to be utilized and cherished because it surely does leave its signature on eternity, there is no spare time. There is no time to spare.
Thank you, Randall! It was a pleasure!
Thank you, Valentina. My warmest wishes to you and to every aspiring writer, and every reader, in Bulgaria!
Here is a link where you can find more about Randall: