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Friday, June 06, 2008

Professor, Author, Playwright Christopher Meeks ~ Interviewed

In addition to teaching English and teach creative writing I write fiction and plays. I have published short fiction in a number of journals, produced plays, and have published four non-fiction children's books, two of which are still in print. I've also published articles in nearly 20 newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Cinefantastique, Writer's Digest, Smart Computing, and Chic. I was a theatre critic for Daily Variety for eight years.

In short, I am a working writer who teaches, and I teach because what I didn't learn in college English classes was criminal; I want to give the kind of enthusiasm and insight that I wish had been given to me. Reading and writing plug people into the electric flow of life. The subject of English can cover all subjects under the sun. I love it when students discover the joys of their lives through reading and writing. If they can become better readers and writers, they'll also become better thinkers.

What is your current project? Tell us about it.

I’m working on two projects concurrently. One is reworking my first novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century, the first draft of which I finished about five years ago. The bonus track in Months and Seasons is the first chapter of that book. Because I hadn’t looked at the manuscript in a few years, I’m able to edit it more objectively now.

I’m also writing another novel. It’s not your typical mystery in that my unique (some call quirky) sensibilities fall into play. I’m only three chapters into the newest novel, so I don’t have enough to talk about it yet, but it’s fun.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head?

My journey into book publication is different than most respondents. I did not wait for a contract. I’ll back into this question. A book of short stories is a quixotic thing. Major publishers tend to publish short story collections as a favor to their successful writers. That’s because short story collections rarely make money, and publishing houses are no longer “grooming” writers. My first agent refused to even look at my collection because he said it’d take a lot of his time for very little money. “Write a novel,” he said. Big publishers want a bestseller or nothing. That leaves the smaller publishing houses, such as Graywolf Press in Minnesota, to sort through the hundreds of story collections seeking publication. These houses pick and choose according to their taste and give very little advances.

I wrote a novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century. He loved it, but we parted ways after a while, which is another story.

A few years ago, a friend said that because I’ve worked in publishing, why don’t a try using print-on-demand technology (POD) for my short story collection. I had not heard of POD until then, and I looked into it. I saw that most people used it the wrong way—a rush to print, hoping it’ll be a rush to being recognized and getting rich. It doesn’t work that way. That’s why major publishers take 18 months or more to publish something. There are a lot of details to oversee.

Luckily I was blissfully naïve and good with details. I did what good publishers do. I hired a book editor and a book designer, did market research, and when the book was about to be published, hired a publicist to get the word out.

My small imprint, White Whisker Books, is for my short story collections and a play, Who Lives?, that had been staged and received great reviews. The novels I’m writing I want to be published by a bigger publisher, and I have an agent working on that.

You wear many different writing hats, which is your favorite and why? Or which is your most uncomfortable one and why?

In terms of living, not only am I a writer, but I’m also a professor, a parent, a husband, and a dog and cat owner (or, rather, the animals own me).

As a writer, I started as a screenwriter—mainly because I didn’t feel brave enough to write prose, and I love film. I figured because screenwriters had their material changed all the time, if I wrote something poorly, someone would surely fix it. I later learned that things usually work the other way around. The best screenwriters write brilliantly, and then someone “fixes” it until it is mediocre. Even so, wonderful films are made, such as last year’s “Juno” and “Once.”

I had three screenplays optioned, and then I realized I didn’t mesh well with the process. I had a hard time working to the vision of a couple of producers. The main thing I saw in screenwriting is that one can have a lucrative career and have little to show for it. Many scripts are optioned, but few are ever filmed. I have a friend who’s written over twenty scripts and has been paid well for them. He bought a house on top of a mountain. Yet he’s had only one script ever filmed—his first one. I didn’t want to get too far into my career with such a track record. Thus, screenwriting was my most uncomfortable period.

I then stepped into theatre and loved it. It was similar to screenwriting, yet it was easier to find productions—not really easy, just easier. I had three plays produced and enjoyed every minute. I was constantly impressed and enthralled by actors. The fact they can memorize my plays and I can’t still has me in awe. As much fun as theatre is, I couldn’t make a living at it. Theatre in general doesn’t pay well for many people. For me, it pushed me to be brave enough to write fiction.

During this journey, by the way, I was writing much nonfiction. I’ve written and have had published hundreds of articles, first as a freelancer and then for a college’s quarterly. This gave me discipline. To be successful at article writing, you have to write quickly, well, and meet deadlines that are constantly coming up.

Short stories were my first focus in fiction, although I had written a novel for my MFA degree at USC. I didn’t really know what I was doing then. My thesis was about a fifty-year-old astronomer who ends up on a space station while worried about his daughter. He swings the station’s monstrous telescope around and sees his daughter being attacked in front of his home in Alabama. What my thesis showed me was that I had bit off more than I could chew. I didn’t have the science background. I didn’t know what it meant to be fifty and a father. In short, I didn’t have the experience or knowledge to write a really great book. I learned a lot, though. That’s what first novels are for.

My short stories later started appearing in literary magazines. It was enough to impress my first agent. He’s the one who didn’t want to try publishing my short stories as a collection. Rather, he talked me into writing my first real novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century. I loved him for loving my first novel. Nonetheless, we parted ways before he showed it to anyone—a story I won’t get into because we remain friends. I have a new agent, Jim McCarthy at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management in New York.

I love writing novels and short fiction. The forms are very different from each other. While I don’t write fantasy, the whole Harry Potter series nonetheless taught me about the form of the novel. Keep your reader wanting more, and have fun writing it.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you've discovered.

Self-doubt everyone has. Today I showed a new short story to a friend, a really knowledgeable and sharp reader, and she didn’t like it at all. While she loves my two collections of short fiction, she didn’t get my new story, and instantly I doubted my effort. Stories are, in part, run on instinct. An emotion or an idea presses on you, and you pour out a first draft. It seems perfect—until you give it to someone to read. Then you see the gap between your intentions and what is on the page. Where I thought my ending was powerful, she saw it as light and trivial.

I have a handful of short stories that in the end don’t work, and maybe this is one of them. One thing I’ve learned, though, is to let time elapse between when you think a story is done and when you rewrite it. I only wrote my new story two days ago, so I have to let it sit.

As for writer’s block and head-banging, I don’t have time for them. The best advice I was given was in graduate school by one of my professors: sit at the same desk and write at the same time every day. It works. You don’t get caught up waiting for the muse to grab you. You remember where you were yesterday and simply continue on. Working as a journalist helped me, too. You can’t wait for a muse then, either.

The best advice for novelists I have is to write an outline. In short stories and articles, you can go off track and toss away ten pages and think nothing of it. In a novel, you don’t want to toss away three hundred pages when you realize you didn’t have a good spine to your story. Writing an outline is a wonderfully creative act. John Irving often spends up to 18 months on his outlines.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what's something you wish you'd known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

My first job out of grad school saved me time and frustration in the publishing business. I was working as a senior editor for a new publisher, Prelude Press, which was one of the first computer book publishers. Even though we only published computer books, people sent their novels in. They clearly had found a list but did little research into the list. Some of those cover letters were hilariously bad. “You should publish my book because my nefews [sic] love it and it will make you a lot of money.” Really? We don’t know how to make money, so you’re telling us—even if we don’t publish novels and you can’t spell “nephews?”

Others in the company would put some of the most egregious letters on the company’s kitchen refrigerator for everyone to laugh at. My goal has been for my cover letters not to end up on any company’s refrigerator door.

Thus, working there taught me a few things: 1) Don’t just blanket the market with your work. Send your work to the right places, places you’ve researched. 2) Spend time on your cover letters and have them proofread. It’s your calling card. 3)

Marketing is a big component in writing. Decisions are made on what might sell.

What's the best or worst advice (or both) you've heard on writing/publication?

The best writing advice: write every day at the same place and time.

The worst: “You should publish my book because my nefews [sic] love it and it will make you a lot of money.”

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

I rarely hunt for ideas. Rather, ideas find me—and I’m usually in one of three places: driving, in the shower, or in bed trying to fall asleep. The ideas often seem amazing—so amazing that I won’t forget them. Then later, when I have a pen and paper, I only remember that I had had a great idea, but what was it?

I’ve learned to keep pens and paper in my car and by my bed. I write down my ideas

when they strike me, and I file them. Sometimes when I’m ready to start a new project, I’ll go to that file. Some ideas are so strong, though, I’ll start a story when it hits me—like the story I wrote two days ago.

Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you'd like to share with us, the ones wherein you get "the look" from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.

I need to go shopping for knives with you sometime and write a story about it.

Is there a particularly difficult setback that you've gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?

I came to writing after a major setback in filmmaking. I was fresh out of college, the University of Denver, and I came to Los Angeles figuring it’d take me a while—perhaps up to two months—before I was discovered. I’d made a number of Super 8 films in college, and to show my professionalism, I wrote a ten-minute film and was ready to shoot it in 35mm black-and-white film. The story only needed two actors and my apartment.

I found former filmmaking students like me who were willing to work for free on my project. A grad student at the American Film Institute signed on as a producer—not to bring me money but to cover all the details of production. My cameraman had worked out a deal with Panavision where we rented camera equipment for a weekend for a thousand dollars. Another thousand gave me all sorts of other professional equipment, such as lights.

This was my life savings I was using. I had a crew of twelve and two professional actors. We were making my dream come true, and about two hours in, the police showed up. A neighbor had called us in. The police found nothing wrong, so we continued. Then the fire department showed up asking for my filming permit. I had no stinking permit. The producer said it was a student production, but the fire department said we still needed a permit to shoot in an apartment house. I was shut down. I lost my life savings. I decided then and there to be a writer. I didn’t need a permit to be a writer.

I’ve never thought of quitting writing. I’m still learning all the time. This isn’t an art that one is an ultimate master over.

What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)

Some of my favorite books that are touchstones for me include the following:
Birds of America, short stories by Lorrie Moore
Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
All the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling
Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
A Darkness More Than Night by Michael Connelly
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

What piece of writing have you done that you're particularly proud of and why?

I’m proud that my first book of fiction, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, has had such a good reception because each of the stories in it hold deep meaning for me. They came at different times of my life from grad school, onward. There are stories in there that awe me on how well they came out, though I didn’t expect it at the time. The story “The Rotary,” for instance, started out small. Part A was supposed to be a complete story based on an idea I had of my grandfather when he was a young man meeting my grandmother.

When I finished that, I asked myself, “Why did I write this story? It’s not complete.” I realized I should have a Part B, based on when my parents met. By the time I finished, there were four parts—all unplanned. It came full circle—thus a rotary.
The first collection led to my second collection Months and Seasons, which has not hit the market, but I’m deeply proud of that book, too, because the stories are personal. “The Old Topanga Incident” is written in the second person, a voice that I thought I’d never use. It’s based on my late friend, playwright Jerome Lawrence (Inherit the Wind). The story emerged in the second person. I’m not sure why. Mystery remains part of the writer’s world.

Dean Koontz recently shared his take on the concept on "the writer's sacred duty." What comes to your mind at the mention of "the writer's sacred duty?"

It’s a sacred duty to write if you have the talent. It’s an opportunity to help people: to entertain and enlighten them when they need it. Writers are as important as brain surgeons at times.

I know people who can write with incredible vision—but they don’t. They were in a writing program, received a degree, then stopped. That’s too bad. Writing is much more than the talent. It requires drive, curiosity, commitment and even a knowledge of marketing.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

I love the business. I wish it were easier. I obsess over it often, such as trying to make my stories read smoothly, as if they spilled forth perfectly. It’s difficult to be your own editor. I want to find every typo in my books, and I hire people to go over my manuscripts, searching for errors that I know are there.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

My novels still have to hit print. I don’t particularly want to be the publisher of my novels as I don’t have the marketing might of bigger publishers. I’d rather be writing than being a publisher.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

I enjoy being a writer, and between doing it and teaching it, I’m fascinated by the process of this art. There’s “divine happenstance” in it, as the main character in “The Old Topanga Incident” says.

My least favorite parts are the times of self-doubt—but being humbled, too, is part of living, no?

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

This is a good question that I asked myself the other day. Learning to tell a story was difficult. When I was in a UCLA Extension class years ago, after I’d given up filmmaking for writing, I became amazed by one of my fellow students who wrote gripping stories with colorful people and much humor. I finally asked him how he did it. He said he was from the South, and he and his family used to sit on the front porch and tell stories. His stories, he said, were all true. He just told them, that’s all.

I’m from Minnesota, so our front porch was covered in snow half the year. My family didn’t tell a lot of stories. Our neighbors may have well been bachelor farmers from Norway—not a talkative bunch. I felt cheated when I’d learned Southerns had it over Northerners in storytelling. Taking classes and getting feedback is the way it’s done for those not blessed with Southern front porches.

I’ve had people say casually, “I should write. I just need to find the time.” To me, that’s like saying, “I should become a nuclear physicist. I just need to find the time.” To write takes work, devotion, and energy. It’s an art like piano playing, sculpting in bronze, and performing trapeze work in Cirque du Soleil. You don’t just do these things casually.

I recommend the book Story by Robert McKee. It’s full of passion and truth. It can help anyone writing in any narrative form including novels and plays.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new project?

I always work with a title. It helps draw my focus.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you'd like to share?

If I’m working on a novel, I hope to write 700 words a day. Some days, more come, but I’d rather go over than under a goal. Make yourself doable goals. I sit at the same chair, same desk, same computer each day.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

I am now fond of using a journal to plan what I write. I like to write my hopes for a piece, what inspired me, where to start the story, possible characters, and possible plot points. The more you know going in, the better. There will always be plenty of room for “seat of the pants.” That’s where the magic comes in.

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

This question could become a book itself. Beginnings are easy for almost everyone. One or two big events are no problem. However, what will it all mean in the end? Finding enough revealing action can be a challenge and so is coming up with an ending that has meaning and mystery. A good ending should get the reader thinking and feeling—and recalling after the book is put down. Think of the end of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Aren’t we boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past?

I’m finding my own students tend to write stories about observation. The main character observes things and does not do much more than comment. The comments may be witty, but still, the character goes through no change. It’s about people who watch others. This does not make for a compelling story. Characters are revealed by what they do and by what comes to them in realization. Wryly commenting on others may bring certain truths but not dramatically.

Stories are about giving experience to others, so the trick is finding enough turns and surprises to reveal character and truth.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response? Please share.

This is a part I like about publishing. I recently had a reader write from Canada to say she didn’t particularly like short stories, but her son gave her my book. She read one story, then another. She said she was compelled for some reason to read, and she said, “I know they’re individual stories, but it felt like a novel to me. I loved it.” I liked that.

Have you had a particularly memorable peer honor? Please share.

My peers have given me some great quotes for my book covers. Sandra Tsing Loh, who I’ve seen perform flawlessly in her one-woman shows and whose book A Year in Van Nuys is hilarious, gave me a quote about my latest collection: “Christopher Meeks’s quirky stories are lyrical and wonderfully human. Enjoy.”

Gina B. Nahia, a writer I’ve come to know at USC in the last year and a half and whose newest book Caspian Rain mesmerizes, wrote, "If the object of art is to capture the reality of the human condition one glimpse at a time, then Christopher Meeks succeeds gloriously. His stories are delightful and heart-rending, surprising and eerily familiar—chronicles, all, of the epic battles fought by ordinary characters one day at a time.”

Now what better peer honors than those?

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

This question, too, could be a semester long seminar. In fact, the USC Master of Professional Writing Program, where I teach, has a course taught by Paula Brancato called “The Business of the Business,” which is all about marketing and publicity.
I do a lot of it. My advice to all writers is to investigate this area. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t. If nothing else, get the book, The Frugal Book Promoter by Carolyn Howard-Johnson.

Parting words? Anything you wish we would've asked because you've got the perfect answer?

This has to be the most complete set of interview questions on writing I’ve ever seen. Thanks for the opportunity.


  1. Thanks, Christopher.

    You gave us great information.

  2. Yay, Kelly! I'm glad you did this interview. I love Christopher's writing. Christopher, I enjoyed your answers, your second book is in my "to read" pile (I got an advanced copy and was delighted to see myself quoted on the first page!), and I like the looks of your favorite book list. Rowling is brilliant.

  3. Kelly, thank you for this interview on Christopher. We are both instructors for the Writers Program at UCLA and that is where I first met him. I've been avidly following his work ever since.

    Thank YOU, Chris, for mentioning The Frugal Book Promoter. I know it will help many writers and I hope some Novel Journey fans will watch for my next seminar at UCLA Extsnsion as well.

    Happy writing and promoting to you all (editing, too! (-: )
    Carolyn Howard-Johnson

  4. Kelly, you roll!

    Mr. Meeks remains for me an anchor to a World at once accessible, yet somehow so seemingly distant, across stormy globally-warmed seas. It's something I know, but then again, something I don't. Theme and variations never tasted this musically-delicious.

    Another decadent secret: I bet you didn't have the foggiest that a sector of my internal C: drive astoundingly shuts down -- then, almost Aladdin-like, another synapse fires away in explosive, kerosine-induced alacrity, instantly igniting my fertile imaginations -- placing my thoughts into a hypnotic purr-like stratosphere which teleports me onward to places I thought I might never ever reach, even *with* Scotty's help.

    Sure, sure, the classics be the classics. La-di-da...ho-hum chitty-chitty-bang-bang.

    But what of all the other brilliant -beyond-their-Momma's-home-cookin' scribes, sho' 'nuff; the ones with moxie up the ying-yang, using $20 words that Shiatsu-massage your grey matter, with an unsuspecting, so-humble-it-gives-you-cavities desire to fundamentally change the way you think about yourself, your due position in the Capital-U Universe, and moreover, as a dedicated global citizen? What of them, I ask of you humbly?

    Chris Meeks is precisely *one* of those transformational souls. He's got a patent, methinks, on a spark which can light up the darkest of glum, rainy chasms, with a truth and a verve that shine on through like flaming glorious torchlight.

    Oftentimes and speaking as only a dyed-in-the-wool homo Homo Sapiens can, I find I cannot nearly get enough of that Meeks-y feelgood.

    I remain attentively and fondly yours,
    Adam Daniel Mezei
    resident of Prague, Czech Republic

  5. Thank you, Kelly, Janet, Carolyn, Adam, and anyone else who might read this interview. Today, June 13th, is officially publication day for the book, with a publication party this evening at the Beverly Hills Library, 8 p.m., where four actors will read/perform four of the stories. Part of me feels like the Costner character in "Field of Dreams." What if I build a field, and no one comes? "They will come," resounds in the back of my mind.

    I wrote this book offering glimpses and insights into real people--people with problems, and doubts, and desires. As I heard in rehearsal last night, these characters are real people, often funny, and so I hope readers will find Months and Seasons. This very site reminds me I don't have to be a boat in the Time Warner river. That is, my book through a micropublisher can still be found, and bloggers like you, offering flashlight beams into the dark, show the path.

    It's the start of a new day in Los Angeles, and I feel supported and blessed.



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