A Conversation with Bob Sloan
Wild Child Press: What inspired you to be a writer?
Bob Sloan: I grew up in a time and place with a very strong story-telling tradition, where people who could tell a good story were much admired. I wanted to be like them. Learning to read revealed a direct connection between what happened on front porches, and what was between the covers of books. Nights on the porch made me want to be a story-teller; books made me want to put the stories in a format that would last beyond evening's end.
WCP: We have been literary friends for six years, Bob, and I have learned a lot from you. What do you feel is your most important achievement throughout your writing career?
Bob: Discovering there was genuine interest in the "real" stories I could write, after failing at the genre stuff - s/f, horror, Twilight Zoney things - I had been trying to write. I never was good at plots, and finding out I could write character-driven fiction and get it into print was a real revelation.
WCP: Your collection of short stories, Bearskin to Holly Fork, debuted in 2003. I notice that it is dedicated to your mother, "A far better story-teller than I". Would you care to elaborate on this?
Bob: No one was ever more supportive of my desire to "be a writer" than my mother. She died five years before Bearskin came out, and I would give anything if she could have seen it, and the response to it. When we were kids, my brother, sister and I were forever asking our mother to tell us stories, most of which we'd heard many times. Mom could take old material and make it shine again.
WCP: My favorite story in your collection is Finding the Gate. Many writers believe that a story's main character should be the same sex as its writer so that he or she can be true to the protagonist's personality. Supposedly, this belief makes the writing more realistic. However, in this particular short story, the protagonist is a very old woman. She tells the tale of her life and her quest for a path to the outside world and its knowledge. Your character talks of childbirth, marriage from a woman's pov and the fact that she finds redemption in her son.
What was the inspiration for Finding the Gate, and how did you feel about writing it from a woman's pov, which encompasses so many things so intimately feminine?
Bob: Finding the Gate, my first attempt at writing from a woman's point of view, was inspired by my maternal grandmother. An old-time Pentecostal, she was a great mother to seven children. Her favorite son was a whiskey-soaked rake whose lifestyle went totally against the Holiness grain. I was her favorite grandson, and for part of my life I was a whole lot like my uncle.
In the sixties, I did a lots of hitchhiking around the country, just to see what was out there. My family, busy pretending I was a serious college student, didn't want to hear about any of that. But whenever I went to see my grandma, she wanted to know everything, where I'd been, what I'd seen and done, what it all looked like, what the people I met were like.
As a young woman, Stella Martt intended to have a life entirely different than the one she led. She'd been dead a long time before I realized how important vicarious travel and "living on the edge" through my uncle and me had been to her.
WCP: Your prose revolves around the Appalachians. Although most of it is contemporary country, I'm not sure if I would label it mainstream because the literary flavor is so rich. How do you view your literature? When you pitch it to critics and booksellers, how do you describe Bearskin to Holly Fork?
Bob: My wife gave me the phrase "blue collar fiction." It suits me better than any other label. I write stories about Appalachian working class people, the "working poor," because they're the people who raised me, the people I live with, the people who matter to me.
I suppose I am an "Appalachian writer," but the themes I write about are universal, not regional. A story in the collection, The Window, was short-listed for the Raymond W. Carver Short Story Award in 2003. It's very "Appalachian," but the theme doesn't have anything to do with mountains. It's about those of us who know we're married to women who make us better men than we'd be without them, how we too frequently fail to find words to tell them.
WCP: Your publisher, Wind Publications is a small press. Do you feel that small publishers have merit for authors of first novels? Do you consider your short story collection a success?
Bob: Most big publishing houses are closed to most writers. A successful young novelist out west told me the primary reason a big press accepted his work was they were looking for "the first Gen-X writer" from his part of the country. I'm a fifty-six year-old hillbilly without an MFA, a demographic not all that popular with the New York crowd.
Wind Publications has published excellent books by fine writers who otherwise wouldn't have seen print. The editor and chief factotum is the poet Charlie Hughes, who only cares if a work connects with him. Charlie's supportive of Wind writers in all the ways he can be. Though he doesn't have money for promotion, he does everything he can to make "his" authors as successful as possible. One of the best things about being one of them has been Charlie Hughes became my friend, not just a publisher.
Bearskin has been a success in a number of ways. It was released in June 2003, and though I don't have the final numbers yet, by year's end right at a thousand copies had been sold. That's pretty good for a collection of stories by an essentially unknown writer from a small press.
The problem, if there is one, with publishing through a small press is the burden of promotion lies entirely on the author. Anyone who thinks they're going to sell books by doing signings and readings is flat out wrong. They're a part of the marketing equation, but media attention - talk radio programs, television, newspaper interviews - reaches far more people.
I haven't altogether given up on a contract with a big-time publisher, but I'm very happy, working with Wind.
WCP: You also write and deliver commentaries that air on Kentucky Public Radio member stations. How did you get involved in this?
Bob: In Cat's Cradle Kurt Vonnegut says strange travel suggestions from other people could be "dancing lessons from God." Strange writing suggestions may be "God's own creative writing workshop."
People from a Usenet newsgroup said I ought to "do something" with postings I'd done there. My response was "Like what?", because I had no idea what sort of market might exist for brief slice-of-life essays that seldom took more than twenty or thirty minutes to write. "Like radio," the newsgroup said.
They became "commentaries" on the local public radio station, which nominated them for an award from the Public Radio News Directors' Association. That engendered interest from National Public Radio, and a number of those pieces were heard by an audience of maybe fifteen million.
Doing commentary wasn't my idea, but it opened a number of doors. For instance, my current agent had heard of me before I ever contacted him.
WCP: In 2000, you were the Gold Medalist for the essay division of the William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition. What were your first thoughts when you learned of this? Do you think this award has aided your writing career?
Bob: On hearing I'd won the Faulkner from an e-mail, initially I thought someone was making a bad joke. The essay that won, called Enex Ground, wasn't something I intended to enter there. It was five or six of the radio commentaries cobbled together at the insistence of someone else.
Winning took me to New Orleans for the better part of a week. In addition to staying in a $550-a-night hotel suite - I could get used to that - I met and socialized with more than a few "name-brand" authors, some of whom became good friends. Lee Smith, the queen of Appalachian fiction, was one of them, and wrote the introduction to Bearskin. Robert Olen Butler, who won a Pulitzer about ten years ago for his collection of short stories A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain was another, and he did a blurb for the book as well.
Some contests are worth entering, and the Faulkner Awards - in all sorts of categories, from short story to novel and novella, poetry and essay - can open lots of doors. (Details are at http://www.wordsandmusic.org/creative.html)
Another contest worth paying attention to is the Raymond W. Carver Short Story Award, sponsored by Carve Magazine (http://www.carvezine.com/). Both have high-dollar prizes and affordable entry fees, and both are "blind" contests, where screeners and judges see no identifying information about the writer. The competition is high, but nobody's going to be influenced by publication credits or academic status.
WCP: Many times, you and I have discussed the pros and cons of having a literary agent. What tip would you give to an aspiring writer regarding literary representation?
Bob: If you can get a good agent, do so. But get one with a track record of getting first novelists or little-known authors into print. Publisher’s Weekly On-line is a good place to research agent performance.
Getting an agent isn't an end in itself. I've had several, but to date none have made me any money.
WCP: After receiving a copy of your book, I mentioned to you that it has an incredible cover. You told me that your wife, Julie, snapped that cover picture early one morning, and thus, the cover was born for your collection. What other roles has Julie played in the creation of your book?
Bob: Julie deserves as much credit for the success of Bearskin as anyone, including me. She's the finest copy-editor I've ever met. I approached Charlie Hughes about doing a story collection in December, and it was for sale by the first of June. That happened because I submitted the cleanest manuscript he'd ever seen, and that was Julie's doing.
She handles the "business" of having a book in print. She knows how many we've sold at any given event, deals with tax issues, keeps track of writing-related expenses and write-offs, all sorts of things I don't have to think about. She tirelessly promotes the book and reminds me to do the same.
Julie maintains my web page at http://www.bobsloansampler.com/ All I'm responsible for is the content; she does everything else. It's the best "showcase" website I've seen.
Most importantly, she's just there for me. She goes to events when she'd rather stay at home and makes traveling around for the book fun rather than a chore.
WCP: Who is your favorite author and why?
Bob: That's an easy one: Jim Harrison, author of Legends of the Fall, Dalva, The Road Home and twenty or so other books. Harrison was a successful poet before he turned to writing fiction, and has a world class poet's command of the language. With several collections of novellas he resurrected that form singlehandedly. He's a skilled essayist, and has written "food columns" for some major magazines.
Unlike some writers who have two or three stories they tell over and over using half a dozen stock characters, Harrison writes about all sorts of people. His collection of three novellas, The Woman Lit by Fireflies has one story from a woman's point of view, another told by a pulp cutter in Michigan, and a third is about a group of sixties radicals reuniting to get a friend out of a Mexican jail. That's quite a list.
Another reason I admire Harrison is he's not an academic, a "writing teacher." He's quite "real," and so is his work. I believe he's this country's finest living writer. Anyone who hasn't read Jim Harrison has missed some extraordinary fiction.
WCP: What do you consider the most enjoyable part of the actual writing process?
Bob: That rare occasion when characters become real enough to take control of the story makes days and months of "writing as hard work" worth it. There is nothing like becoming more typist than writer as characters head off in directions for which I certainly can't take credit. Ishmael Reed called this process "taking dictation from the Gods," and that's exactly what it feels like.
While promotion may not be part of the "actual writing process," I enjoy that too. Last week, Julie and I spent the better part of three days at Mountain State University, in Beckley WV. I talked to classes, visited with some fine writers, and haven't quite come down off the high of that trip.
Incidentally, if any of your readers are interested in having me at a reading, conference, writer's club or other group, they can contact me through the web page. I'd love to talk to them about doing such things.
WCP: What words of wisdom can you give to the mass of hopeful writers who never give up?
Bob: Those who "never give up" have already learned the most important lesson any writer must "get."
Write every day. No matter what, work at writing every single day. Find good critics who'll point out your faults and tell you how to improve.
Read, read, and then read some more. Read all sorts of things, not just whatever form or genre you work in. Learn to read analytically as well as for pleasure, watching to see how really good writers do what they do.
Become part of a community of writers by going to workshops and readings and signings. Join a writer's group. Though writing is an entirely solitary pursuit, we can - and do - help one another through it.
Support good independent bookstores whenever and wherever you find them. They'll help you later on when the big-box-stores and chains don't have time for you.
WCP: Any plans for another book? If so, can you give us a brief synopsis of what to expect?
Bob: I'll have a novel out from Wind Publications in early June.
Its title is Home Call. It's about Jesse Surratt, a man socially and emotionally isolated from the Kentucky Appalachian community where he lives - alone except for a dog, a cat and a mule - on a thirty-acre farm where he was raised. When a young black woman is nearly murdered on his property, in order to save her - and himself - from a crooked sheriff and the drug ring he protects, Jesse has to confront a trauma from his youth that for decades has cut him off from the world. He has to end his isolation.
WCP: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us at WCP, Bob. If the coming months allow it, I hope to take you up on that invitation to visit you and Julie in Kentucky. Nevertheless, you must promise to favor me with more of your wonderful tales. Is it a deal?
Bob: You got it.
WCP: To all our readers - stop by Amazon.com and order a copy of Bearskin to Holly Fork. You won't be disappointed, and after reading the tales within its pages, your life will be a little richer.
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This page was created November 22nd 2004