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the quotable Andy Duncan

And Andy Duncan is highly quotable. The other day, looking for something else, I found this great Infinity Plus interview that Nick Gevers did with the man. You can read the whole thing here. (And you should.) Some choice bits from this interview and another one follow. For anyone who doesn't know, Andy's one of the best, best, best short story writers working today. Period. And he is full of the wit and wisdom and humor.

On identifying as a Southern writer:

I'm determined not to fit anyone's predetermined notion of "Southern writing". As I like to tell people, there's a lot more to write about in the South than moonlight and magnolias and the Confederate dead -- or, conversely, trailer parks and Snopeses and Baptists. When two of my most overtly Southern stories -- "Beluthahatchie" and "Liza and the Crazy Water Man" -- became my first two sales, I feared I'd be typecast, doomed to writing only in a Southern voice; I worry less about that now. But certainly I have inherited a lot of Southern traits that are useful for a writer: a love of colourful talk, a sense of place, a sense of humour, an immersion from birth in an ocean of Story. Not to mention a fascination with the eccentric and the quirky and, yes, the grotesque; and, as Faulkner deathlessly put it, the conviction that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." As for style and voice -- which I find difficult to distinguish, in writing and in teaching -- I don't know whether to credit the tradition of Southern oral storytelling, but I do know that in writing every story I read every sentence, paragraph, page, aloud a dozen times, convinced that what sounds good is good.

On being a newspaper reporter and a frustrated fiction writer at the same time:

As my confidence grew, I became more experimental -- trying to write stories that were all dialogue, that were all description, that were all narrative, that had no "news" aspect whatsoever, that contained in-jokes or obscure references or hidden structures or odd words that I'd select, arbitrarily, ahead of time and resolve to get into the newspaper that week somehow. Endlessly playing, in other words, with the form of the newspaper story. I'm afraid that in my arrogance, I fancied myself a sort of one-man Oulipo movement within the newsroom. But in hindsight, as I look back over my clips, I see relatively little work that I actually remember, still less that I'm proud of; and I am forced to admit that much of my largely forgotten game-playing must have sprung from simple boredom. Because as the years passed, I got restive. I became increasingly uninterested in the story assignments that were handed to me. "Let's talk to people who love their SUVs!" Or: "What happens to the parts of the turkey that aren't eaten?" I wanted to do only the assignments that I came up with, that I thought were interesting or important -- and, of course, at any newspaper only a handful of very senior writers have that luxury, else the daily paper would be largely blank. So the assignment editors and I engaged in a long, mutually frustrating pushmi-pullyu, while my writing varied from brilliance to adequacy, depending on how I felt that day.

(I so want to read that newspaper.)

On finding your peeps:

That being said, I don't think my own route is the only route; far from it. I do think all budding writers -- whatever their ages -- need, at some point, to hook up with a group of other budding writers, and establish a writing community. Because if no one cares about your writing but you, staying motivated is very hard; and if no one sees your writing but you, then you're not a fiction writer or poet or playwright or screenwriter, you're a diarist. Besides, writing is a lonely business, and one generally disdained or at least misunderstood by writers' families and friends and co-workers. So writers need other writers, early and often. And most writers, in addition, need mentors, established writers who can show the new kid the ropes. I learned more one lunch hour at the Rathskellar in Raleigh, listening to John Kessel and Samuel R. Delany talk shop, than I might have learned in any three M.F.A. programs. So joining a community of aspirants, and befriending members of the larger, more established community above, are both very important.

On that not working for everyone:

When a great conclave of Southern writers was assembled in Charlottesville, back in the early 1930s, folks you never heard of hogged the limelight and did all the talking, while in the back of the room, half-drunk and miserable, speaking to nobody, longing only to go home to Mississippi, was a new novelist named William Faulkner. Not all writers are joiners.

And from the Strange Horizons interview conducted by Mack Knopf. On writing what you know:

People have told me that, and what they meant, I suppose, was that I should write only about thirtysomething nearsighted white guys who grew up in Batesburg, South Carolina, got their B.A.'s in journalism from the University of South Carolina in the mid-'80s, and so on and so on. That prospect does not interest me. Most writers lead fairly dull lives; if they were reduced to writing only about their own lives, the world of literature would be a duller place. That being said, there's nothing wrong with the dictum "Write what you know" as long as you give "what you know" the broadest possible interpretation. You know some things because you've lived them, and other things because you've witnessed them, and other things because you've been told about them, and other things because you've read about them, and other things because you've imagined them, and all those avenues toward knowledge are valid, and all can (and should) enrich your writing.

On respect and not getting it, as a writer:

Did professional artists get instant respect in the Renaissance? Theater people were regarded as little better than whores, and visual artists were at the mercy of their wealthy patrons, many of whom treated their "kept" artists with, at best, great condescension. The first professional writers, as we know the term, in the 19th century were furiously scribbling hacks, slaves to the marketplace, as dependent on the whims of the editors of, say, Godey's Lady's Book as Shakespeare was on the whims of the royal court, or as the TV networks are on the Nielsens. This is not to say you can't get a lot of respect as a professional writer today. You can, if you're writing legal briefs, or advertising copy, or how-to articles for home-repair magazines, or sitcoms.

But respect for writing fiction or poetry or drama, well, that just isn't going to happen, because most people neither write nor read that stuff, and so they view it as irrelevant. There are many reasons to be a professional fiction writer, but if you want the respect of your family and your neighborhood, you'd best go into some other line of work, at least as a day job. I advise my students that they can be professional writers without ever earning a living at writing. Professionalism is in one's attitude toward the writing, the craft, one's fellow writers -- not in how much money you make off it. So go be a professional insurance-company attorney (like Wallace Stevens) or trade-magazine editor (like Gene Wolfe) or farmer (like Wendell Berry) or psychotherapist (like Amy Bloom) or engineer (like Kurt Vonnegut), and be a professional writer on your own time, after you get home. So there's no need, really, to want to be a professional writer; just declare yourself one, and proceed accordingly, whatever it is you happen to be doing for a living.

Related links:

Read John Kessel's afterward to Andy's brilliant story collection Beluthahatchie and Other Stories
Locus interview excerpts
Read Andy's stories online -- all highly recommended


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