Tim Parrish, SCSU professor, writes not one but TWO fabulous books!

Tim Parrish works at Southern Connecticut State University in the MFA program, helping turn regular folks into writers. He’s published books before–but never two in the space of just a few months. But both his novel and his memoir came out at the end of last year–and both are amazing.

As the reviewer Eric Miles Williamson, judge of the 2012 George Garrett fiction contest, put it: “Mr. Parrish’s The Jumper is a novel so shockingly good that readers will abandon their favorite authors and rush to read all his work.” Clearly, he’s come a long way from his first effort in second grade, “Trouble for Timothy Turkey.”

Want to hear him speak? Here are some upcoming events:

* Thursday, March 6th, 7:30, Pete’s Candy Store, Brooklyn, NY, with Sari Botton.

* Wednesday,  April 23rd, 7:30, University of New Haven.

You can visit him at http://www.tparrishauthor.com.

We are so lucky to have him in New Haven, and to welcome him to Books New Haven, talking about BOTH of his books.

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Tell us about your new book.

Amazingly, I have two new books out, which is what can happen after a 13-year drought between books; shopping a novel through a not-so-competent agent; taking that novel out of circulation; working seven years on a memoir; finishing the memoir; getting it accepted; submitting the novel to a contest and winning that contest so that the books come out at virtually the same time. Which, of course, isn’t about the books so much as the labyrinth of the publishing world.

image          The book that’s getting the lion’s share of attention is the memoir, although I like my novel too, and I don’t always say that about my writing. The memoir, Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, is about my upbringing in a racist, Southern Baptist environment during the sixties, then getting terrorized by some sociopaths in the seventies, spiraling into racist violence myself, and getting turned around after some really good people, both black and white, intervened. It’s also a slice of new South, alternative history, depicting, rather than reviling, scared working-class white people during desegregation at a time when their narrow world felt threatened. I think only by really looking at the roots of racism and looking at racists as the complex people they are, and I was, can we fully understand it. At its heart, the book is really a rough coming-of-age story in the midst lots of confusion, turmoil and ugly behavior.

The novel, The Jumper, attempts to combine a lot of genres by being a story of The Jumperstrange family drama, eccentric love, racial identity, crime, and legal intrigue. It starts with an illiterate man, who thinks he’s an orphan, getting a telegram that his roommate has to read to him. The telegram is from his father, who asks him to come to Baton Rouge from Houston because he’s sick. It turns out that the father has ulterior motives connected to a class-action suit and the father’s problems with gambling. Then, once in Baton Rouge, the main character, Jimmy Strawhorn, meets a woman on the existential run herself, and they become involved in an odd romance that includes the impulse to jump from high places. And believe it or not, all that doesn’t give away too much.

 

How did you first know that you wanted to write these stories? What were the factors that engaged you from the beginning?

The novel came out of my experience teaching a thirty-something-year-old man how to read back in the eighties, and the story he told me about why he was illiterate and how the state of Louisiana had done him wrong. I won’t tell his entire story, some of which informs my novel and would give away the plot, but his story stayed with me. I think my first impulse was to investigate a rather remarkable tale of mysterious lineage, but then I became fascinated with imagining myself into the psyche and world of a person who can’t read at all and seeing how that person navigates the material world and his own shame and sense of outsiderness. The story kind of took off and quickly complicated and I found myself writing a book with a lot of plot, three different point-of-view characters on the margins of society, and story lines from three different decades. I never expected to write sort of a rip-roarer.

The memoir is the only book I’ve ever felt absolutely compelled to write. It started after 9-11 when I saw Americans get scared and allow the bullies and “crusaders” in the Bush administration to lead us to war in Iraq, which in my childhood church was Babylon,  a hotbed of “Moslem paganism” and the potential starting point for the much-sought-after apocalypse. What seemed to be driving the nation was the same beliefs I had as a kid and teenager, in particular the belief that the way to be safe was to attack someone else, usually someone with darker skin. As soon as I realized the similarities between my youth and the present, old emotions–shame, guilt, disgust, anger–began percolating in me, and I knew I had to tell my story for myself if for nobody else.

How did you find writing memoir to be different from writing fiction? How was it similar?

Different because of having to dredge so many personal emotions and shape seventeen years of my life into a narrative while feeling constricted by not being able to go into other people’s points-of-view or create any scene I wanted. Similar because I still mainly dramatized as I do when writing fiction and because even in memoir I was creating characters, including myself.

Did these books come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle them to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up?

There’s always wrestling. Nothing I write comes easily. I did give up on the novel for a while as I mentioned before, but it kept nagging at me and a couple of  good friends also kept encouraging me to take another look at it. My greatest assets as a writer are my work ethic and my doggedness, a.k.a. obsessiveness, and that’s why I ultimately did not give up. I worked on the novel for three years, put it away, then hugely revised it three times in a year as I was working through the final  revisions of the memoir. By the way, I don’t recommend working full out on two books while having a full-time job, but I’m glad I did it because that intensity very much informs the novel.

The memoir was, frankly, hell to write. It started with a focus on masculinity and was kind of all over the place. I went through three different rounds of submitting it to friends, agents, and editors with massive re-conceptions of the book between each round. I think the nature of the subject matter scared off some people, and I was very frustrated and depressed when I was going into the sixth year of working on it without an agent or a publisher. But I knew I had to stick with it, and I’m glad I did because the responses to the book have been amazingly personal and positive.

Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between?

A pantser? Nice. That sounds like I just gave somebody a wedgie.

I guess I’m  somewhere in between pantser and, what, formal dresser? My characters always tell me who they are, at least to a point, while I’m writing, and the story has to bend to fit them. But often I’ve largely imagined them and the story enough beforehand, as well as taken enough notes, to have some sort of template or schematic. So, it’s a combination of knowing and discovering and then applying craft to give the narrative a shape that suits both story and character.

You’ve obviously written characters who are close to or are someone you know, so have you worried that that person will be furious with you?

All the time. And someone has not only been furious but threatened me with a lawsuit for my story “Exterminator” in my collection Red Stick Men. That was the most extreme, but writing a memoir made me struggle constantly with what to put in and what to leave out and how I could be fair and honest in depicting real people or composites of real people and still honestly tell the whole story. I think I do the best I can to be fair to people, even completely fictional people, following what my thesis director, Allen Wier, told me: “You have to love all your characters, especially the ones you hate.”

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

I don’t procrastinate so much as worry and amp up my anxiety until I’m out of sorts and just have to sit down and hack away. I don’t know about favorite mode, but my prevalent mode of both procrastination and life is obsessing. I’m obsessing about these answers right now.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

So many things. I’m lucky to be a writer, in spite of the difficulties writers face. Mainly, what’s made me happy is being able to live in my imagination and take on the challenge of bringing the world in my head to life on the page. And, of course, having readers. People have said remarkable things to me, including how my work has altered how they see themselves and their lives. I mean, I’ve been told that the memoir has made someone understand their father’s and brother’s anger, have heard family and racial stories people have never told anyone before, and been literally embraced by people who feel my story has allowed them some sort of freedom and honesty to speak about race and masculinity.

I never imagined I would do anything that could have that effect.

 What do you tell people who want to be writers?

I tell them they either are or they aren’t, and if they are, they have to commit to the hard work and isolation of it. I also tell them that being a writer is sort of like having a virus. If you have it, you can’t not write. And if you try not to write, you feel worse and worse, like you didn’t take your medicine. Sometimes people ask me how they can tell if they’re writers or not, and I tell them to list everything they could be doing besides writing–making love, reading a book, going for a run–and then see if the choice they would make is to sit alone and write something down, then sit down with that same work again and again. That cuts the mustard right there.

How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can  bring that mood, or voice, back to you?

Inspiration is a tricky word because it implies some dynamic creative impulse, when I find that to rarely be the case. For me, I just get to a point where I have to write or I’m miserable in the world. The way I get back into something if I’ve been away for a while is to immerse myself in it as much as I can within the demands of life. When I do that, all the elements of a piece start to come back. I’m sure part of the reason for that is because I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s almost like muscle memory, but that’s the pay-off for the work. Basically, it’s always the work that addresses the problems.

If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I’d be a school teacher, like I am at Southern Connecticut State, and like I have been for thirty years. That or a bobsled driver.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I think I knew in high school when an English teacher named Fred Shirley turned me on to the possibilities of writing and to the transport of reading literature. That said, my first written story was in second grade. “Trouble for Timothy Turkey.” It was a pretty high-falutin deconstruction of the feel-good myth of the first Thanksgiving. All my friends and I were animals that the pilgrims and native Americans wanted to put in their stomachs. My best friends made it out; the not-so-best, well, CHOMP!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jedah Mayberry looks back at his childhood in Connecticut

SONY DSCJEDAH MAYBERRY is an emerging fiction writer, born in New York, raised in southeastern CT, which was the backdrop for his fiction debut released in March 2013 by River Grove Books. He was a top ten finalist for the 2013 Best New Author Award sponsored by the National Black Book Festival. He also garnered honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s April 2012 Family Matters Short Story Contest. He currently resides with his wife and teenage daughters in Austin, TX.7_JMberry cover

“The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle” is his debut novel. It tells the story of the Hopkins family, from irascible patriarch Alonzo “Grandpa Tuke” Tooker on down to altruistic Dottie, dissatisfied Chester, and their sons Langston and Trajan—who are no typical residents of the Thames River Valley town of Preston, Connecticut. This is perhaps most true of Langston, a boy whose peers declare him to be the “King of Preston Plains Middle School”: a vibrant young man dedicated to his dream of competing in Olympic-level Tae Kwon Do, as well as to his growing passion for his beautiful classmate Angelica Chu. Yet when a terrible accident brings Langston’s Olympic dreams to an abrupt close, Trajan Hopkins, the family’s youngest son, must learn to cope alone with the coming trials of adult life: his slowly changing relationship with self-destructing childhood friends, his initiation into the world of women at the hands of a former teacher, and his growing awareness of the risky world outside his family’s circle within the shadow of a Haitian drug lord’s operation and the often-threatening local police who watch over it. Jedah Mayberry’s The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle marks the debut of a striking new voice in American fiction: intelligent, richly cadenced, slyly funny, and deeply thoughtful about what it means to be a son, a father, and a man.

We’re so pleased to have him here on Books New Haven, talking about his book.

Hi, Jedah. Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?

A story about brothers has been brewing inside me for some time now. I’ve always liked the idea of a younger brother drafting behind his older brother, working to fit his shadow.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

I attempted to put something together awhile back, but the story ultimately fell flat. There are countless lessons for an older brother to pass down to a younger brother, insights that the older of the two is still grappling to fully comprehend. I find honesty in that kind of exchange. One is not so far removed from the place the other is in life to relate to his concerns; meanwhile he’s still contending with related concerns – school, friends, family, women/girls. I’ve lifted a few short stories from the original manuscript, but have since put it to bed recognizing that it was beginning to come off as overly preachy. The Unheralded King provided a fresh start plus I learned a ton from that early failed attempt enabling me to approach the storyline from a less heavy-handed perspective.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?

I like to say that I write inside-out. I take some tiny kernel of the story to examine in relative isolation, mold it in place. I work a couple three pieces at a time until the ends of the narrative just begin to touch. From there, I write the story out, end-to-end, fast and rough. Get the story on the page. Then I cycle back and fill in additional detail, tying together any loose ends. I continue this loop, stacking details in relative isolation then knitting together the resulting molehills, until a mountain begins to take shape. (As for mechanics, I generally write on whatever device is close at hand, my cellphone most often. I eventually transfer the content to a more structured document but resort to my phone whenever the creative juices start to flow. I can accomplish in a focused fifteen minutes what could take hours if I were forced to sit down at a particular place/time and write. I would venture a guess that a quarter if not more of the book was captured originally on my cellphone.)

Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between?

I start out with a general idea of where I want to take the story, a few potential paths forward at each turn though the conclusion usually remains elusive through to the very end. Midway through KoPPM, I resorted to use of a spreadsheet with automated color coding to map character interactions. Not so much to manage the plot progression, but to ensure that every section of the story serves a purpose, that the pieces fit to create an appropriate level of tension, advance the story in some way. The result resembles a map of some as yet uncharted continent with characters coming and going top-to-bottom along the left margin as the storyline progresses in time from left-to-right. It’s a neat little byproduct that came out along the way to completing a full manuscript. See the plot trace embedded below. Boxes outlined in bold highlight which characters are in conflict in a given subsection.

How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can bring that mood, or voice, back to you?

I still have a day job. As a result, I don’t have structured writing time. I write as the mood strikes. Perhaps I’m lucky in that way. Still, there are times when it just isn’t flowing. I set the work aside at that point and wait for it to come back to me. Proofreading/editing is another matter. Once the manuscript has reached that stage, I’m usually on someone else’s timetable. I’ll put in whatever time is needed to turn the manuscript back to the editor as quickly as possible. The story is largely laid out by then. However, I find the interchange with another thinking being invaluable in making the story better, knitting those ties a little tighter, clarifying, shifting perspective ever so slightly to add new color, new light to a scene. When all else fails, I slip on my headphones. A little music always helps.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I read something to a live audience as part of a Black History month celebration (some ten-plus years before I managed to get anything published). It was a piece from my first attempt at the brother story. I was amazed to see how the story moved people, the bits they found funny or touching or heartbreaking. Being able to connect with an audience in that way is the first sense I got of where this writing thing might lead.

If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I’d probably teach. Something math or science related to draw on skills associated with my day job and definitely younger students, still full of wonder. I would try to relate what I know on terms they can digest. Similar to what I do with my writing. We tread on some dicey turf in KoPPM with divorce and betrayal and infidelity. I sought to make the subject matter more accessible, to   adults as well as younger readers, presented largely through the eyes of an adolescent.

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process?

I keep a running log of things that I call “bits”. I consult my bits file regularly to see if something will fit a new piece I’m working. But, I feel like I’ve developed a good filter (again with the help of the editors) to strike out things that don’t belong. The toughest thing I’ve found is accepting that not everyone is going to relate to everything you write. Any attempt to reach the whole world as your audience will likely result in reaching no one. I read anything I can get my hands on. Some of it fails to move me, either in genre or subject matter. But I’m quick to praise good writing even if I can’t relate to the storyline. I’ll quickly put down anything that panders to the least common denominator in us as readers, fails to surprise me in any way, to provoke some thought on my part.

What’s your process of revision? Do you have readers who give you advice? At what point do you enlist their aid?

My sister-in-law has proven my most reliable proofreader. She’s close enough to be persuaded to commit the time to give it a careful read, but not sympathetic like a blood relative to pull any punches. She probably saw two or three versions of the manuscript before it reached the final round of edits. She remarked on how much it had advanced during that time, partially based on deficiencies she pointed out in early drafts.

Readers tend to think that everything authors write is autobiographical. How do you handle those sorts of questions—people assuming that everything in your book really happened to you?

I think of a writer as a blender with a heavy sponge placed at its base. We consume loads of scenery, circumstances, experience. Some our own, some lifted from people we’ve encountered. The trick is to blend it in a way that it’s not recognizable as your own life story yet remains plausible, pulling bits and pieces from true-to-life events. The sponge is meant to hold back anything not suited for outside consumption. Those events might shape the writer’s outlook on family, parents, marriage, life whether or not they make it undisguised into the manuscript.

Have you ever written a character who’s close to someone you know, and have you worried that that person will be furious with you?

My protagonist’s parents break up in KoPPM. I don’t believe I could have written that piece as openly had my father still been living. I don’t know that he would have been furious. He may even have appreciated the honesty. Still, I would have shaded the story differently to spare his feelings, diminishing its worth.

Have you ever gotten up in the middle of the night to write a scene that simply will not let you rest?

I force myself to get up, otherwise sleep will not come. Plus, I’ve lost a scene or two in the past to the next sequence of dreaming. I make sure to write things down so that I won’t forget them come morning time.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

I usually find myself procrastinating during those shifts where molehills need to become mountains. I fixate on something I believe is especially well written. I’ve learned to use one piece to make another piece jealous. I work to bring it to the level of the first so the story can proceed. It’s also been my experience that some of the greatest advances come once I have something in hand to share with someone else. I push to get to this points, put on my thick skin to absorb any feedback then ratchet up the creativity to address any concerns that arise. I take satisfaction in being able to incorporate their suggestions while staying true to my voice/writing style. There were a couple of really nice descriptive passages that arose from a simple request from the editor to “show me more”, to help her see Connecticut and later Princeton.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

My wife refused to read the book before the publishing process was completed. She read it along with the masses and claims to have loved it. She had some questions regarding things she feared might be autobiographical. But she truly enjoyed the read. Seeing those individual reactions is probably the most gratifying, no matter how many copies ultimately sell. Knowing that someone related to the story, got a kick out of it is what puts a smile on my face.

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

Just write. Forget where it might lead, but work on craft. Take a workshop or two. Use the feedback you receive to gauge where you are in your ability to relate a completed thought to potential readers. Then go back to working on craft. Use that early feedback, offered in the relative comfort of a workshop setting, to bolster your confidence through the countless rejections we all receive. Every once in a great while, one of those rejections will include the tiniest bit of constructive feedback. Use that too in making your way forward. Above all else, keep writing. It just might lead someplace.