Here’s my 2007 interview with Texas novelist Robert Flynn. All this information is at archive.org, but here’s a complete description:
1:12 Current projects
2:55 Writing Habits
4:33 Writing For Practice?
6:10 Writing nonfiction vs. Fiction
7:18 Hardest Book To Write? Easiest?
8:30 Tie Fast Country: TV & Getting Inspiration From Rural Life
12:10 Rereading Old stuff
13:00 Thoughts on Audio Books
16:00 Is it harder to write as you get older?
16:40 Thoughts about genre & collaboration working with editors
21:44 Writer and Family Life
23:15 Reactions to “Wanderer Springs”
23:40 Is it important that fiction be accessible to an audience?
26:50 Books that Influenced Me while growing up. Small town libraries
28:00 Developing as a young writer. Father’s influence.
31:20 Characteristics of Texas writing and writers
33:45 Traveling and seeing the world
34:20 Thoughts about teaching students and how it changed my writing
35:20 Principles/Secrets of Writing
36:10 Tips for New Writers
37:30 Identifying with my characters; small town stories
40:00 Writers that Influence Me
Robert Flynn is a Texas author born in Chillicothe, Texas in 1932. In his novels he writes about Texas traditions and myths, the clash between rural and city life, God and Christianity in a forlorn (and often violent) world. With his first book “North to Yesterday” he tackled the legends of the Texas cowboy and in his later works (Jade & Jade the Law, both set in early Texas) he continues writing in the Western genre, but with an eye towards understanding the nature of violence, justice, redemption and reconciliation. Robert Flynn is the author of 17 books, including Jade: Outlaw, The Last Klick, and North to Yesterday, and a two-part documentary for ABC-TV as well as a fellow at the Texas Institute of Letters. He is the recipient of a Lon Tinkle Lifetime Achievement Award, two Spur Awards from Western Writers of America, and two Wrangler Awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. He lives in San Antonio, Texas.
QUOTE: “You can read any book on writing fiction for example, and they will tell you the same thing. Someone may say it in a different way that gives you better insight, but there are no secrets in writing; it’s just a matter of doing it.”
At college I took creative writing classes with Flynn. In the classroom he seemed laid back and didn’t analyze stories too deeply; on the other hand, he had an intuitive sense of what a story wanted to do. After graduating from Trinity, I participated in fiction workshops with 3 seasoned authors (John Barth, J.M. Coetzee and Stephen Dixon) at graduate school. Don’t get me wrong, it was a thrill to work with accomplished authors (and read their fiction). On the other hand, I have ended up reading several works by Flynn for various reasons (possibly out of personal loyalty more than anything else). I have come to appreciate the understated artistry of his stories and his embrace of the Western genre which almost grates at my postmodern sensibility. (I reviewed one of his works for a college literary magazine and reviewed two other titles: Tie-Fast Country and Jade: The Outlaw).
Reading these works made me realize that Flynn was a lot more contemporary and politically engaged than I’d imagined. To my surprise I learned that Flynn wrote a lot of political stuff (mainly nonfiction) on Facebook and his blog.
Flynn belongs to the same generation as my other literary idol Jack Matthews. There are parallels. Both had slight successes in the national publishing world, but continued to churn out quality fiction for decades while teaching at universities and remaining “best kept literary secrets” in their respective regions. I must confess feeling envy that the two of them found career paths in academia; (these opportunities seemed to have disappeared after I graduated). On the other hand, my generation did pretty well during the Internet boom and New Media; plus we had access to blogs and self-publishing, so I guess it all evens out (sort of).
Both fiction writers transcend place in their fiction; on the other hand, both seemed to embrace provincialism and find inspiration in the past. Also, there is something to be said for longevity in the writing world. I’ve seen many remarkable writers write one or two great things and then disappear from the book world. It’s as though they were disappointed by the lack of attention and praise, and just decided not to do it anymore. Just writing one great thing (regardless of commercial success) is a major accomplishment. But if you can sustain a lifelong commitment to storytelling, that also is a remarkable thing. Often it means experimenting with different genres and characters and themes. Even if everything isn’t original or transcendentally beautiful, at least you can say that you have covered a lot of ground.
I had fun interviewing Mr. Flynn (he’s an old friend). I also had fun recording some audio interviews with Jack Matthews (and links to the published videos will appear soon). I’ve heard a lot of literary interviews in my life, so I have high standards. Although the final product is great, I realize that I was a lousy interviewer. I wanted to think of challenging and profound questions of art and craft. But even the most brilliant of people can’t think of brilliant answers on the spot, and even if they do, it’s punctuated by umms and ahhs. (I removed them all for this interview, you’re welcome). Also, I realized that I forgot to ask a lot of obvious questions. Like:
- Tell me about your first book (and second). etc.
- If you remember, tell me about how you wrote book 1, book 2, etc. What was the hardest part? What are you most proud of?
- Why did you write Book 1, Book 2? Was anything going on in your life?
If you get a degree in literature, you learn that these biographical questions are not supposed to be that interesting or important. On the other hand, if you have the writer in front of a microphone, why not ask these questions? The worst that can happen is that they refuse to answer!
Through careful editing I can shorten my questions and editorial asides. Frankly I really tried to steer the interview to things which mattered to me. But frankly, who cares about my opinion about how the question should be answered?
One of my most challenging interviews was also one of my best. (It was written, not audio). I interviewed my best friend — the brilliant San Antonio literary critic Michael Barrett. He was only half-motivated to participate — and only after a lot of prodding. In fact, he refused to answer a certain percent of my questions and intentionally gave boring answers sometimes. We played a game where I would ask one or two questions a day and then give a follow up question on the next day.
I asked long-winded questions on the assumption that it would give him different ways to answer. Often he responded in the opposite manner I anticipated. Keep in mind that on his movie criticism and facebook posts, he gives all sorts of witty and comprehensive answers. Eventually I figured out that while Barrett is adept at addressing aesthetic questions, it’s futile to ask them in the abstract. It’s much better to ask questions that tap into his encyclopedic knowledge of movies. Just a few weeks ago, I asked them to recommend some Irish movies, and he gave me an exhaustive annotated list. (His lists are famous — and in fact I have put them in a text file which I am not providing a hyperlink for:
Literary interviews are hard to do — although an entertaining writer can make anything interesting. The written Paris Review interviews are the gold standard of course, and I think you can say that the Bill Moyers interviews are outstanding as well — even though he usually comes to them with a political or cultural agenda (and that’s not really a bad thing). Don Swaim used to do a 5-7 minute Bookbeat interview segment for CBS Radio, but a decade ago, he released many of the full unexpurgated interviews online (they were taken offline, but direct links are still available on the right sidebar of this page). These uncensored interviews are extraordinarily fun and revealing.
I don’t keep up with literary podcasting as much as I should, but when I was following these things, the best interviewer was Michael Silverblatt of KCRW Bookworm. What an extremely high-brow interviewer! That said, I had two complaints with Bookworm: 1)Silverblatt asked unnecessarily cerebral questions and 2)he was interviewing only authors from the big publishing houses.
At one time I would find Silverblatt’s challenging questions to be interesting. But authors aren’t especially known for their critical pronouncements. You wouldn’t expect Don Swaim’s interviews with Ray Bradbury or P.D. James or James Michener to uncover profound insights about literature; on the other hand, you’d expect to have a lot of fun. Even though Silberblatt is a fascinating person and critic, I find that the conversations drift away from the author and towards Silverblatt’s verbalizing of his readerly responses.
Let me be clear. Silverblatt is a great reader and critic (and interviewer). Also, he is responding to the fact that many writers are reticent or reluctant to talk about their own works. But his critical perspective often overshadows the author’s voice even if it is what gives his podcast a personal touch. Let’s say you were an author invited on a show hosted by a feminist or Marxist critic. You would not exactly be shocked to find that the discussion is being directed in a certain way even though you might not have given a second thought about social classes or Hegelian dialectic.
On the other hand, an author is trying to speak to a variety of readers — not merely one perceptive critic. As great as it can be to face a perceptive/enthusiastic reader, an author also is trying to reach many different kinds of readers (and nonreaders!)
Audio interviews are a convenient necessity — a painless way to learn how authors sound and talk. (Perhaps it’s important; perhaps it’s not). While listening to the Flynn interview, I was struck by how soft-spoken Flynn is — even in a profession known for soft-spoken people. That is interesting information to me — and perhaps to a listener as well.