Interview with Alan Heathcock
Interviewed by Marc Dickinson
Alan Heathcock’s VOLT was a “Best Book” selection from numerous newspapers and magazines, including GQ, Publishers Weekly, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, was named as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, selected as a Barnes and Noble Best Book of the Month, as well as a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Prize. Heathcock has won a Whiting Award, the GLCA New Writers Award, a National Magazine Award, has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Lannan Foundation, and the Idaho Commission on the Arts. A native of Chicago, he lives and works in Boise, Idaho where he teaches at Boise State University.
Recently you’ve been writing a lot of long-form non-fiction for various magazines and websites investigating current social issue in America. Though you’re still focusing on people, their plights and conflicts, and the emotional life, how do you approach non-fiction differently than fiction? What is similar and what is different when writing in one genre vs. the other?
I think quite a bit is similar in that in both I’m telling a story. It’s all about the story. The tenets of powerful storytelling apply to both in the exact same way. To tell a story you have to understand precisely what you’re trying to communicate, and execute so that every action and image and word choice is going to enable that communication. In fiction, I create the characters and events that enable that communication. I make up a bunch of stuff and then gather it all up to see what I have, eventually coming to an understanding of what it all means. In non-fiction, I’m not a creator, but a collector. I collect up the stories of all the people I speak with, the facts of the issue, and then see what it all means. In my early drafts, I write and write, banging my head against the question, “What’s the story?” What’s the story? That’s everything. Only once I understand the “story”—what exactly I’m trying to communicate—can I execute with precision and potency. In fiction I’m a creator while in non-fiction I’m a collector, but otherwise the telling of a story is the same.
Currently, you’re working on a novel. Though Volt was a linked collection, and therefore had similar traits in terms of design, how does writing a novel compare? What is the process and what does it have in common with but also how does it differ from writing a linked collection of short stories?
The simple and obvious answer is that the novel is a much longer story. It’s not pieces loosely linked (like my story collection) but is one big story with every piece of that story integral to its function. I’ve heard it suggested that since a novel is longer, one can be loose with the storytelling, let things wander a bit, especially compared to a short story. I reject this sentiment.
I require the same precision at both the sentence and story level with my novel as I did with my stories. This makes writing a novel incredibly difficult, just from the logistical standpoint of keeping this huge story in my head in a manageable way. I actually find myself thinking about plot more intensely with a novel, simply because I want to keep the story on the tracks. Whereas a short story is generally one dramatic movement, a novel is a series of dramatic movements that add up to one greater story.
Writing a novel is the hardest thing I’ve ever done as an artist. It’s intellectually demanding to keep the characters and story potent in my imagination. It’s emotionally demanding living in the muck of these characters lives for an extended period of time (years). It’s psychologically demanding in that it takes a long time to complete a novel, and you go for years without the relief you experience when you finish a project. That said, writing a novel is completely thrilling. I feel like I’m creating something big and important, like building a cathedral or a bridge over a wide river, something that will last for a very long time and make a difference in the world.
Another genre that you’ve entered into is film since a few stories from Volt have been adapted for the screen. Your work is very cinematic: your voice has a strong sense of tone, it’s extremely visual, and your work is also very centered on plot and action. This would make it ideal for movies. Did you have any input into the scripts, or supervise/consult in any way? Again, how does writing for the screen, in your mind, differ from that of the page? What can you get away with in one genre but not the other? And what films have influenced your own work, and how?
Film is a visual and external art. Actors have to work very hard to suggest their interior. In literature we can allow the reader to become the character, in full. When well written, a reader gets the full interior as well as the exterior of the character—a full empathetic connection, to BECOME the character. This is the great advantage books have over film, and why the book is often the more powerful art form. Film has an obvious advantage in being able to deliver an enormous amount of visual and audio information. The biggest difference between writing a book versus a film is figuring out how to get the internal stuff that’s in the book to translate into something that’s seen or heard in the film. I’ve always been a big student of film even when writing books, so it hasn’t been too difficult to find external cues—a gesture from a character, a bit of dialog, maybe even a touch of setting—to suggest a character’s interior. Some of my greatest examples as a writer come from the screen. Ingmar Bergman has influenced my writing as much as Cormac McCarthy, Akira Kurosawa as much as Flannery O’Connor. It’s all storytelling and empathy. When I write my books I’m constantly writing in imagery that’s a direct reflection of the character’s interior, which I learned from Bergman and Fellini and Coppola, Haneke and Antonioni and Varda. I’m passionate about film. The only thing I don’t like about film is that the screenwriter gets very little credit. When you write a book your name is on the cover, and you travel with that book. You represent the book and the book represents you. In film, you can create an entire universe of characters and events, something that couldn’t exist if not for the privilege of your own intellect and imagination and emotional experiences, and yet it’s the director who gets the credit. So…ultimately one of my goals is to not just write scripts, but to direct films. Thus far, I’ve tried to involve myself in the productions however possible (I’m a producer on the film version of my story “Smoke”), in order to get my education on a film set. Some day soon I’m just going to have to do it—pick a story, hire a crew, and make a film. I’m just crazy enough to make it happen.
And following up on this idea of plot, your work focuses a lot on story. Literary work gets criticized for often being too interior. Although, of course, you explore the inner lives of characters, how do you approach the narrative itself—drama, tension and suspense? How do you think about structure? Do you have the story first, and then expand on character or vice versa? How do you balance the two?
Through eight years of graduate school, I can honestly say that I didn’t hear a single lecture on plot that went beyond some general and banal description of Freytag’s Pyramid. That’s a crime, because a compelling plot is one of the pillars of great literature, and because creating a compelling plot is a profound challenge. I’m guessing that plotting is often not taught because it’s actually very difficult to do well.
In literature, plot and character must act as one living organic unit. I’m constantly negotiating how a character’s behavior will steer them into a certain action (plot point), while also considering how the external forces in a story create change within a character. Character influences plot. Plot influences character.
The two unsophisticated models I’ve heard in classrooms are: 1. A serious author writes from character. They create a compelling character and merely follow them around. 2. A popular writer designs a thrilling plot, and that it’s the actions within a story that compel a reader to keep flipping the pages. My experience with these two, as both writer and reader, is that I’m not interested in following a character into a whole bunch of nothing and need a fundamental urgency to move me as a reader, while also feeling completely dissatisfied by an exciting story devoid of human depth. Shakespeare has both. Cormac McCarthy has both. Flannery O’Connor has both. Ingmar Bergman has both. With few exceptions, my favorite books and films have both.
I’ve studied story structure in short stories, novels, and films by writing out outlines and/or storyboards for my favorite books and films. There’s no formula. Disregard any advice that suggests a formula. However, there’s one fundamental that I’ll pass along here. The most basic definition of “drama” is putting obstacles between what a character wants and what they have. I think deeply and constantly on what my characters “want”. The character’s “want” can be straightforward or complex and oblique. Creating a plot is largely finding organic obstacles in keeping the character from getting what the want (even if the characters themselves don’t know what they want, or if what they want is actually bad for them). I create an empathetic connection between reader and character, and the suspense is created by the hope and/or despair the character (and reader) feels as they negotiate the world within the story. The trick is to make the reader want and hope and fear and love as the character. Throughout a novel the author manipulates a reader’s desire by closing and expanding the distance between have and want. Get a character close to getting what they want and then seeing what they want go fleetingly away. Things seem hopeless only to find a sudden change that makes the impossible now possible. If, in the end, the distance between have and want has been completely closed then we have a happy ending. If, in the end, have and want have been permanently severed, then that’s called a tragedy. So there’s a ten-cent lesson, which took me years to articulate and is more than I learned about plot in eight years of graduate school.
In Volt, the town of Krafton is a character in the book. It seems to exist in a real place, but also seems to be purposely ambiguous. This makes it feel mythic in some ways, almost surreal. Instead of writing about an “everyman” you seem to write about a kind of “everyplace”. Plus, you often consider yourself a Midwestern writer (grew up in Chicago, went to college in Iowa), but you’ve also lived in the west (Idaho) for some time now. So how do you think these two places have influenced your voice and the construction of Krafton? And how does a sense of “place” play into your writing in general?
I’ve always struggled with feeling a profound interest in setting while also not wanting to write about place. In other words, I’m very aware that certain landscapes have an influence on my imagination, make me feel peaceful or spooked or inspired or... We are always in a setting, and that setting has a direct impact on how we interpret the world. I collect up these landscapes by writing in my journal and taking photographs. For example, I love cornfields. I love the way they smell and look, the shadows they drop, the sound of the corn tassels in the wind. This speaks to my Midwestern upbringing. Cornfields, in all their beauty and menace, often figure into my work. But now, having lived in Idaho for fifteen years, I’m writing about mountains and high-desert sage flats. These landscapes, to me, are lonesome and contemplative. I love building worlds, putting my characters in these settings and letting the flora and fauna effect a reader’s emotions and imagination.
All this said, I’m completely disinterested in making any commentary about place. I have zero desire to make a statement about the west or Midwest, about Idaho or Iowa. The commentary I make is about human suffering, and that has no place. So…I try to have my cake and eat it, too, by designing very specific landscapes that defy a specific location. I never say where we are and don’t care and want the reader to just feel the landscape through an empathetic connection with the character(s). By adding bits of landscape from multiple places and not saying exactly where the story is set (Idaho or Indiana or…), this lends itself to the stories feeling mythic and being of an “everyplace”, focusing the story not on place but on the plight of the character(s), which is exactly what I want.
You often deal with a variety of issues and themes in your work—yet still have a distinct voice. First, how do you define your voice? And if someone were to ask you, “What kind of stuff do you write” what would you tell them? Looking back on your work, your preoccupations, what is a typical Heathcockian trait, in your opinion?
I’m not so sure this is a question I’m supposed to answer. If I have a distinct voice, it’s probably because I haven’t even slightly tried to design one. I can say that I eventually came to a point when I decided to take myself seriously, to look fearlessly inward, and it was at that point that I stopped imitating others and became original. To be specific, I wrote about a family tragedy that had caused me confusion and fear since I was a child, what I’d tried not to write about for years. Instead of pulling apart another story by Flannery O’Connor, hoping to follow some template she cast, I followed my own pain into a story. The tumblers really fell into place on that story, and I’ve never left that place of engagement. I know I often write about people trying to overcome suffering. I write about the tenuous nature of peace, as is often disrupted by violence. All of this comes from my own preoccupations. When someone asks me what kind of stuff I write, I usually tell them what I think they want to hear (ha). “Who’s your favorite author? Well, my stuff’s kind of like that.”
You worked on Volt for some time. I always appreciate authors who don’t pride themselves on being prolific alone. Instead, you seem to be very patient with your work, focused more on quality over quantity. And the masterful creation of Volt is a testament to that idea. What is your process when it comes to revision of a story, as well as when it comes to having a larger vision for a finished product or book?
I really wish I worked faster. It frustrates me that it takes so long to get my work up to the quality I demand. But I’m held by the belief that the work is only done when it’s done. I can’t imagine a more painful feeling than seeing my work in print and thinking that it could’ve been better had I only been more diligent and patient. Of course, it’d be a very long and technical response to explain how I know when a story is done. I have certain tenets I abide, and have over the years come to a clear understanding of quality as I define it for my own work.
My process is pretty straightforward. I write in chronological order, first scene to last scene. I generally only write one or two sections a day. I put enormous effort into getting my imagination all the way into the character and the world, so that the scene is completely alive for me. My pre-writing process has more kinship to being a method actor than, say, a journalist. I inhabit that character and then write the experience of being that character in that moment. I immediately revise what I wrote until the thing I’ve written feels as alive and precise as what’s in my imagination. Once I’ve written my section for the day, I spend the rest of the day figuring out what the next section will be, often thinking my way deeper into the plot, taking notes, configuring or reconfiguring outlines, trying to understand, in a macro sense, what I’m trying to communicate. Once I finish a draft, I refine my understanding of what I’m trying to communicate and revise over and over until every word and character and image facilitate that end.
I’ve found that I’m at my best when I’m consuming an enormous amount of stories, so I read for a couple of hours every day, and generally watch a movie every evening. I average reading about fifty books a year, and watching well over two hundred films. I’m a creature of routine, and try to keep the work joyful (even and especially when what I’m writing is sorrowful). I think you have to keep yourself inspired, and I spend a good amount of time each day stoking my curiosities. I’m never not a writer. Though writing is my job, I feel being a writer is a lifestyle, a way I interact with the world, indulge my curiosities, express my hopes and fears and wants. My life is my process, my process is my life, and there’s no better way to live, which helps alleviate the tediousness and slowness of the work that would otherwise be unbearable.
You’re exceedingly generous in your advocacy for other writers. You don’t hesitate to offer genuine praise for those who impress you. Who are some go-to authors who always inspire your voice and why? Who is a writer that we’d maybe be surprised to hear influenced your work? And what are you currently reading that people should check out?
My advocacy comes from being a fan of literature, and knowing that a healthy ecosystem means there’s a greater possibility for better stories for me to read. I’m selfish, but my advocacy is sincere. I want everybody to write totally amazing books so then I can read them. It’s not a competition, not a race. There’s room for all of us. Really. So I do what I can to encourage and challenge others to become the best possible versions of themselves, and promote organizations that help writers in their journeys.
I’ve already mentioned several of my go-to authors—Cormac and Flanner, in particular—because of the depth and beauty in their words, and because their preoccupations are similar to mine.
People might be surprised that I’m a fan of Stephen King, and I’ve read Salem’s Lot and
The Shining many times. Maybe people would be surprised by the amount of poetry I read. I read poetry almost every day. If I could wave a magic wand and change the world, I’d have poetry be widely read and hold high importance in popular culture. I love James Dickey and Anne Carson and Jack Gilbert, to name a few. Frankly, I read everything and anything, and that surprises people. I’ll read a romance novel then some Tolstoy then a biography about Keith Richards. I read fantasy and sci-fi, YA, pop-psychology, whatever. I don’t finish every book (ha), but I’ll give anything a shot.
A few titles I’ve read recently that are amazing and important books I think everybody in the world should read: Demon Camp by Jennifer Percy, My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
Lastly, what is a bad writing habit you warn others against, but you indulge in yourself—one that you wish you could break?
For years I’ve negotiated my process, thinking certain things were bad habits, that I could be more efficient, write faster, but I’ve come to the conclusion that everything I do is necessary to achieving the quality I desire in my work. It’s really a tremendous relief to get to a point where I’m totally cool with myself as an artist. To put a spin on your question, if there’s one thing I could tell my younger self it’s to be cool with yourself, to stop freaking out and losing sleep (literally), because though you’re unsure right now, fighting off doubt and shame on a daily basis, you’re doing everything right and with diligence and patience you’ll get to where you want to go. So…I guess I’m warning others against impatience and doubt. Just love the work. Have faith. That’s enough. That’s plenty.