Tuesday, May 8, 2012



Hello Stephen! It is so wonderful to have this opportunity to interview you. You grew up in North Carolina and Virginia, studied and graduated from NC State. What was your draw to life sciences and how has your degree helped you in your writing?

It’s my pleasure to be here, and thank you very much for hosting me!

It’s hard to say how much our backgrounds influence us, as opposed to something more internal. But for me part of the draw was the fact that my father had been a chemist, and on a daily basis while I was growing up he demonstrated a very analytical mind. Having that guy as a role model would have predisposed almost anyone to go into the sciences.

Life sciences were a natural choice in college, because my ambition at that point was to have a career in medicine. I talk about how that plan went off the rails in my book. Although things didn’t work out as expected, my background did make it easy for me then to get interesting jobs as a tech writer in high-tech industries. I worked for a long time supporting the space program and more recently have been involved in the development of some cool new mobile phones. That’s a long way from life sciences, but at one level the kind of thinking involved is perhaps not all that different.

People who saw early drafts of my book said they saw a very calculating, analytical mind at work. Some complained that I had a tendency to be too much of an “engineer”—as opposed to showing emotion—and they warned that I needed to rebalance that. I think I did. Readers say the final product is very emotional. But even now there are some who say my story is about trying to grapple with a problem like a scientist, or at least a detective.

You also gained a Master's in English. Did you find that you learned a considerable amount from these courses?

I’d always had a love for literature and writing. That interest didn’t seem like a way to prepare myself for being able to support a family, so it stayed on the back burner until I finished my undergraduate training. Then I suddenly felt that maybe I’d been too narrowly focused. I’d ignored some possibly fascinating intellectual inquiries in favor of subjects like cell biology and biochemistry that I now perceived were not going to be all that useful to me.

So I went back to school partly to fill in gaps and get a more rounded education, and partly because at that time I just didn’t have a better idea of what to do. I’d read authors like Kafka, who seemed to be talking to me, and wanted to be sure I understood what they had to say. What I ended up focusing on in grad school was linguistics, or the study of how language works. The idea was to discover how to get the best mileage out of the words I use.

As for what I learned, it was mostly a kind of maturation, and an introduction to a new world. I met a fair number of prominent writers and found them to be thoroughly nice people. I began to think it might be possible to join their ranks, assuming I first honed my skills and found something worthwhile to write about.

You now live in California, how much of a difference is there compared to North Carolina and Virginia and was it hard for you to adjust?

Moving to Southern California wasn’t a shock, because my family had had a connection here since before my birth. My sister had come West before me, and we had this colorful aunt who’d been here since the 1940s. So I’d gone back and forth many times and knew what to expect.

Southern California is different from the East in many ways—especially from the small-town East that I knew. For example, out here if you want to try your hand at some unusual new sport or activity, there’s no shortage of other people, at all skill levels, who’re also doing it and happy to share what they know. So if you like joining up with a crowd of folks who share at least that one interest, you can instantly expand your social sphere as well as getting some useful guidance. Usually, I’m not big on joining groups, but this came in handy when I found myself writing a memoir.

Of course, you can’t avoid giving up something when you move away from your roots. I’ve now spent half my life here, and the East Coast still calls to me. I’ve stayed in touch with old friends there and may very well pull up stakes and return one day.

When did you first realize your love for writing?

I wrote stories as a little kid. Probably the first ones were in comic-book format, or maybe were “graphic novels,” to use current terminology. I wrote stuff just for fun probably up until I went off to college. At that point, I must have figured it was time to knuckle down and get serious about “real” work.

The first short story I wrote as a young adult came to me a few years later as I was on a long drive through the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. The passing scenery seemed to contribute to the flow. This isn’t something I’d necessarily recommend to anyone, but I jotted that story on a legal pad in my lap while driving. I never saw the need to revise it much afterwards. And a college journal published it!

Now college is long past and most of my working years are behind me, and it turns out writing probably defines me more than anything else.

Who are some of your favorite authors that inspire you the most?

I remember feeling so much in sync with Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist that at one point when I was reading it many years ago I suddenly put down the book and started scribbling the first words to What About the Boy? Both stories are about coping with loss, and that one has always especially resonated with me (the film version too). So Anne Tyler is one favorite. I like her transparent prose and her focus on slightly nutty families.

I also admire everything by Amy Tan, Philip Roth, and Mark Salzman, and I’ve been pleased to discover some delightful books by several less well-known writers including Carol Cassella, Leif Enger, Garth Stein, and Matthew J Dick, among many others. I try to post reviews of everything I read on goodreads.com, which is a wonderful resource.

Tell us about your memoir, What About the Boy? and the reason behind writing it.

At first, writing What About the Boy? was simply my way of trying to understand a very confusing situation. My wife and I had this little baby who was obviously suffering with some kind of serious problem. But nobody knew what was going on, and the doctors we took him to didn’t seem to be particularly interested in finding out. That confused me, because I’d sort of had the impression that doctors could do anything—or at least that they tried their best.

This experience intersected with my previous desire to become a doctor myself. So as I proceeded to explore unconventional ways of helping my son, some of which turned out to be fairly effective, I couldn’t avoid asking whether I was playing doctor or compensating for that thwarted ambition. That’s just one of the questions I pondered over a long period of time as I continued writing about what we were doing.

Late in the game, I realized that what I had produced was a memoir. Like other memoirs, it compared my thinking back when I was in the thick of the battle with the conclusions I’d arrived at by the time I finished. And it’s not just about our family, or even about people coping with disability. What I wrote is a story about chasing an important objective in the absence of dependable guideposts, and probably most of us can recognize that situation.

What can we expect from you next? Do you have another book in the works?

Most of what I write these days is limited to blog posts, but there are a few unpublished short stories that I rather like. I think the next project might be assembling one or more ebooks, perhaps a collection of the best posts I’ve written for various sites as well as my own and a separate collection of stories, and then offer ‘em for free on Amazon.

I hope another book-length project will take shape at some point. I’d want it to be fiction. I have vague ideas, but all I can say for sure is that it won’t be Son of What About the Boy.

Do you allow your family to critique your work?

The closest thing to a literary critic in my family is my 12-year-old daughter. She’s a precocious reader and for a few years now has been telling me when she reads a book that she thinks I might enjoy, and generally she’s right. She’s in the middle of her second pass through WATB, which is a bit of a stretch for her at her stage in life. I’ve written one or two short stories that she ought not to read, but yes I do find it helpful to show her some of my drafts. I believe that you can never have too much feedback. I’m always grateful for reader reactions, whether we’re talking about a draft or a finished product.

What was one of the greatest things that ever happened to you besides of course your family and writing this memoir?

The first answer that comes to mind is a trip to Asia that occurred in 1991. But as it turns out, that was all part of my family story and the memoir I wrote. It would never have happened without an unpredictable chain of events that started with having a disabled son.

Be that as it may, my wife Judy, my son Joseph, and I traveled to Taiwan to visit some new friends we’d met in San Diego. I had never previously been in that part of the world, hadn’t even given it much thought, and I was astonished by the impact it had on me. Part of the magic came from the fact that the people there were very affectionate to ward my son. There were no Caucasians in the areas we visited, so he really stood out with his blond hair and blue eyes. They treated him like a movie star. Whatever the reason, you can bet that if they liked him, I loved them! But aside from that, I felt reawakened by everything, from the exotic scenery to the pervasive odors of Chinese food, and the tastes of that food, to the sounds of the languages spoken there. When I returned home, I belatedly began trying to learn Mandarin. And as told in my memoir, that initial exposure eventually led to other very important developments in my life.

Do you have any advice you'd like to share with other authors, or in general that you think would be beneficial to our readers? Also we'd love you to share your links and let us know where we can find out more about you.

When you write for publication, you have to keep your reader in mind and do your absolute best to connect. Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. My book is a long way from being perfect, and I’m not holding it up as a model and saying to be like me. But so many books being published now have glaring problems. I could name mainstream-published books that appear not to have had a decent editor, or at least no one willing to stand up to the author and save him from himself. Then there are the indie books, some of which have not had a serious copy editor. It’s frustrating because many of these have wonderful, original story ideas. Not only is their chance of success limited by a huge number of typos and similar glitches, but they give indie publishing in general a bad reputation. My suggestion is to get as much critical feedback as you can before publishing. This is a time of great change. The old publishing model is going away. I think we owe it to ourselves and to each other to offer an alternative that all readers will accept.

I talk about that and other topics at my book’s blog, which is www.fatherspledge.com. I encourage you to stop by and share your own thoughts!

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