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Interview With Author W.B. Cushman – Part Three

Editor’s note: Clarrisa Everglad is a former journalist, and Professor Emeritus at Cape Cod Community College in Barnstable, Massachusetts. She is the author of seven books on fiction and fiction writing, including “Show Up and Follow“, winner of four internationaltierra-del-mar-2-061 awards. She regularly interviews authors on their fiction work.

Following is Part Three of an interview with new author W.B. Cushman of Portland, Oregon. His book is “Ring Around the Rosy“. The interview was conducted by phone from Everglad’s home office in Orleans, Massachusetts.

Everglad: We’ve gone off topic, a little, away from the book which is the focus of this interview. Though the points you’ve made about the writing process, and its joy for you, are most interesting and, I believe, invaluable. I’ll want to ask you more later. But now, back to your “Rosy“. There is a small paragraph coming near the very end of the story that stands out for me, in its language and, I’d say, subject matter. I’d like to read it to you and ask for your feedback.

Cushman: Okay.

Everglad: Here it is – “The sun slid out from behind a passing cloud, and a soft breeze moved across the land and out over the ocean. If there were seagulls they would have been making their seagull calls. Minnows would swim around eddies in sand pools created by the eternal waves, and small brown and gray pipers would chase the tiny fish back and forth, playing tag with the rhythm of the watery world.”  It’s quite lovely, for me as a reader, and different in the power of its imagery from much of the rest of the book.

Cushman: Thank you, Clarrisa, for bringing that paragraph into our conversation. It may be my favorite paragraph in the book. If I can take a minute I’ll explain why.

Everglad: Please do.

Cushman: My favorite genre in fiction writing has always been mystery. I love speculative and horror, if its good – like Stephen King’s – and lots of science fiction. Clearly Rosy falls into a speculative category, and most of my writing – “Astoria Strange” and another collection of stories I’m gathering for publication down the road, “Collected Strays” – is horror and science fiction in nature. But, there is something about mysteries, Detective mysteries, that satisfy me most. Perhaps my favorite mystery writer is author James Lee Burke. He has a series of maybe 20 books with a character named Dave Robicheau that is outstanding – the plots, the characterizations, the ongoing story line. But, what sets him apart from other famous and successful mystery writers is, for me, the power of setting he creates with language – language that allows the reader, transports the reader, to be there completely, to see it, hear it, touch it, smell it, experience it. There is a majestic poetry to Burke’s writing. And, to the point you raised, Professor, that is an ongoing goal of mine, as a writer, to use words to pull the reader thoroughly and willingly into my story. It’s a goal, like I said, and at this point in my time as an author I’m nowhere close to where I want to be. Having said that, the paragraph you quoted is me moving toward that place. The story of Rosy and all her traveling companions is coming to an end, at least in this book, and, for me, the end feels so much like a pause.  So into this pause comes a memory, told as an ‘if only’ – if only life as Rosy and her friends knew it continued to exist. Then seagulls would be seagulls and the tides would come and go, with shoreline inhabitants doing there forever shoreline things. I stopped at that paragraph, when I got there, and tried to infuse it with a Burke-like sense of thusness. Look and hear, and you will know this and remember, what’s gone now. In a way coming in a complete circle back to a sticky summer day in August when kids went to aquariums and the waves in Buzzards Bay licked the hurricane wall in New Bedford Harbor.

Everglad: That’s well said Mr. Cushman. Your explanation with a poetry of its own. And I do know Burke, and like you, I am a fan. I also appreciate your honesty, that to write with the sense of majesty you describe is, for you, a goal, that you are not there yet.

Cushman: I’m nowhere near there. But it’s good to have goals.

Everglad: I would hope that every writer would hope to improve with each passing day, and story. Do you have a plan to help you on that path?

Cushman: I read a lot. Maybe four or five books a month. I’d like to read mbooksore. In his book “On WritingStephen King says the two most important things a writer can do are read a lot and write a lot. So those activities are certainly the foundation for becoming a better writer. Which includes reading books about writing. I just mentioned King’s, which is my favorite. Another that’s important to me is Ray Bradbury’s “Zen and the Art of Writing”. Those are both autobiographical as well as instructional. There’s a third book as important for me and that is “The Art of Fiction” by John Gardner, which is more of a textbook.

Everglad: It is a very important book for any aspiring writer.

Cushman: I took a class – Fiction Writing – at Portland State University, either in the Fall of 2014 or 2015, I can’t remember. One of the reading assignments was the first chapter of Gardner’s book. Upon my first reading I had the reaction that there was an arrogance in the writing, what he was saying. I remember saying that in class, and I’m pretty sure I remember the Professor chuckling, or something like that. Anyway, for some reason, a couple of months later, I ended up going on Ebay and buying the book. A brand new paperback copy. Now I’ve read through it at least twice, it’s marked up and highlighted and underlined, meaning I’ve made it my book, and like I said, it’s become very important for me – as a student of writing.

Everglad: What about it speaks to you, and if you can, please relate that to your writing of your newly published book.

Cushman: In the second chapter of the book – which for me is the bonanza – Gardner says, “Fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.” Further in the chapter he says, “What counts in conventional fiction must be the vividness and continuity of the fictional dream the words set off in the reader’s mind.” That, for me, is the highlight statement in the book, and the thought I carry all the time I am at the keyboard, or brainstorming with myself on a yellow legal pad. What I ask myself – Am I continuously engaging the reader with the vividness of my writing? That is The Question, and I emphasize those two words, for me and my writing. So, with Rosy, the feedback I’ve received so far would indicate that I have had at least some degree of success in the continuity of the story maintaining reader interest, in a couple of cases people asking about a potential sequel, wanting to know what happens next. I’d like to think that I was able to move forward from the story’s apocalyptic beginning and create first three and then more characters who mattered, who were worth caring about, characters that hopefully people could identify with. And want to travel across the state of Massachusetts with, and see how it turned out for them. And that was true as well, I hope, for Peter Frates, an entirely different character with a completely distinct milieu of emotions from the kids, but someone you could still root for. And hopefully I maintained a continuity describing the day-to-day physical survival needs and activities as well. The other part, the vividness of the writing, I guess every reader will decide that for themselves. I think it goes back to the earlier conversation of writing with a majesty like James Lee Burke. It’s good, and in places very good, and hopefully I can do better.

Everglad: Every question, and every answer, incites further questions. There is so much more to talk about. Marvin’s mother, why you wrote her the way you did? What was your level of research for the book? How is it that a second character with Down Syndrome appears? And of course a number of questions about the narrator and your choice of perspective. I ‘d call it an omniscient third person, with an attitude.

Cushman: I’m yours for as long as you need me, Professor.

 

 


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Interview With Author W.B. Cushman – Part Two

Following is the second part of an interview conducted by Professor Emeritus Clarrisa Everglad, ftierra-del-mar-2-061rom her home in Orleans, Massachusetts, with Cushman in Portland, Oregon. The interview was conducted by phone. Please see Part One of the interview for details about Everglad’s career in journalism and as an author and interviewer of authors.

 

Everglad: Discombobulated by the cover you had designed? And who is Victoria?

Cushman: I have the technical skills of a snail – probably less. When I realized I was done with Rosy, I’d edited and re-edited, had my wife Susan do a thorough editing, which is a significant skill of hers, and received feedback from my official readers Jamie and Pat, now it was time to publish. Initially I went the traditional route, sending applications and copies of parts of the book to five traditional publishers. All that netted was two formal rejections and three no replies. After a couple of months I decided I needed to self publish, and when I discovered that self-publishing through printing houses was going to cost more than I was able and/or willing to spend, then I had to self publish, go the route of Amazon CreateSpace and Kindle Direct, also making use of the ability to reach more on-line and brick and mortar outlets via IngramSpark (a $49 fee) and Draft2Digital. This is probably unnecessary information, the point is I needed a cover and spine and back cover, and I needed the 52K plus words of Rosy formatted correctly for these companies upload requirements. And I could do none of that. So I turned to Fiverr

Everglad: Fiverr?

Cushman: An internet site where you can hire people, starting at $5, for all kinds of different technical and not so technical services. And reading through various people’s pages I settled on a woman in England named Victoria to create the cover art. It cost me $26, likely the best $26 I’ve spent. She offered unlimited revisions, amazinoriginal-rosy-coverg for that amount of money, beginning her process with what I had messaged her about the book and what I felt would be the best images for the cover. Her first image was vastly different from the one that is the cover of Rosy now. On the right is her first image. Too dark, too much of life left, Teddy and Matt much different than how I saw them. Only Rosy felt right. So I gave her feedback and she made another and this went on, back and forth across The Atlantic, for three weeks, maybe a little more, before I felt it was right. Which included having Marvin with brown skin, which wasn’t there through many of the versions she messaged me. But, long story long enough, to get back to the word “discombobulated”, which goes back to your question about how much I knew my characters before they appeared on the pages, to see her creations of Teddy and Matt, after all the changes, it was a little weird. Because now, when I pick up the book and read various sections, the young men on the cover are who I see when I hear them talking. So, it’s really interesting.

Everglad: I can see that. I’ve never actually had this conversation with an author before. It is interesting.

Cushman: Thanks. I’ve already decided to use Victoria again for my next book, “Astoria Strange“.

Everglad: Is this a book you are planning to write?

Cushman: No. It’s nearly done now. It’s a collection of stories, interwoven in their setting and sharing of characters, set in Astoria, Oregon, a small town on the Ocean about 100 miles from where I live. They’re told from the point of view of stories in a newspaper column that focus on subjects outside of what would be considered normal. Anyway, I’m working on the final story. When I’m done there’s going to be a significant re-write and editing process. When it’s all done I’ll hire Victoria again for the cover and back cover art.

Everglad: Is this book something you began after you’d finished Ring Around the Rosy?

Cushman: No. I began Astoria long before I started the story for the submission request that would evolve into Rosy. Close to two and a half years ago now.

Everglad: And you are hoping to have this book completed and published sometime this year?

Cushman: My goal is to have it published before the end of April.

Everglad: Now that would be quite the accomplishment, Mr. Cushman. Not publishing anything until age 67, then having a second book out less than six months later.

Cushman: It will be very cool if I get it done.

Everglad: Will this be a book similar in length to your first?

Cushman: It’s already nearly three times longer than Rosy, just over 150,000 words so far. Three of the stories, including the one I’ve been trying to finish for months now, are nearly the size of small novellas. Fortunately the stories are meant to be read one at a time, and many are, in fact, typical short story length.

Everglad: I’d like to talk more about the new book in a few moments, if we can, it’s a surprising addition to the breath of the interview’s original intention. But, let’s get back to your Rosy.

Cushman: Professor, if you’ll indulge me for just another minute, I want to reference a particular aspect of Astoria to expand on a point I was making a while ago about, what for me is the joy of writing fiction. Not only from creating something from nothing, something that wasn’t there before – a person, a coffee shop, a factitious newspaper – but also getting to play while doing it. Getting to goof on myself, which is really it, to play while writing, to flash on different times in my life and different people I’ve met and known along the way. And to bring those people, I don’t mean them or any of their personality, but to borrow their name as I create someone knew. I keep using the word thrilling because that’s how it feels.  So, to make the point, in the third of my “Astoria” stories I introduced a new character, a female police officer named Ruthie Thompkins. I needed a name for an officer right there in the story and this name popped into my head. But I didn’t make it up. Back in my high school in Wareham, Massachusetts, probably about 50 miles or less from where you live Clarrisa, there was a math teacher, head of the math department, names Ruth Thompkins. Lots of the kids in school called her Ruthie. So, I’m needing the name for a female officer and trying to think up a good one, and the name Ruthie Thompkins flies into my head and I go ahead and type that. So, I borrowed on a piece of my childhood. And that’s what I’m talking about, because there’s something in the doing that weaves my entire life together, make it richer in some kind of way, and, I used this word before, honors a time in my life.

Everglad: I do understand what you’re saying, Mr. Cushman. One of the joys of writing fiction.

Cushman: Here’s the last thing about that. And this comes more under the idea of seeing where the story takes me, which you asked me about earlier. I typed the name Ruthie Thompkins because I needed a name, a one-time name. But, honestly, to my surprise, Officer Ruthie Thompkins showed up two stories later, again primarily in passing. But, two stories after that, in a story titled “Rat Boy“, not only is Ruthie driving her cruiser onto the pages again, but now, by the end of that story, she’s become a much more important player. So, there’s no surprise to me when, over the final three stories, she plays key roles. She’s become one of the primary characters. And she showed up, originally, because I needed a name and I remembered a name from my high school.

End of Part Two