“Word Doll” is told primarily through dialogue, as a story-within-a-story. What drew you to this structure?
Honestly, not sure, but I knew I needed to create a sense of authenticity in the Word Doll legend, so that the reader might believe in it, or merely think it possible. I tried to give the story a realistic sensibility to it—a writer, me, living out in the country—so that the strangeness might also convince along with the opening pages. There is a very convoluted structure to that piece when you really look at it. It was less planning and more just letting the vision of the story dictate the way it needed to be told. The vision was very strong, and I felt like I could trust it. It was informed by the landscape and farming community in which I live. Here, oral tradition still has power.
How much of the “Word Doll” is based on preexisting mythology, if any?
Absolutely none of it. One of my conscious intentions, and there were few, was to concoct a legend. Quite a few people have asked me where I heard about the Word Dolls. Sometimes I tell them I made it all up, and sometimes I make something up, and tell them I got it from a local farmer or a town historian or something.
In addition to writing, you have also taught at many venues including Clarion and various universities. What do you enjoy about teaching? Has it changed your writing in any way?
A lot of my writing colleagues tell me they could never teach writing, it would be just too much time looking at bad writing. That’s only a problem if you think of the writing of students as “bad.” I think of it as emerging. Students teach professors if professors are willing to learn. I taught a class for fifteen years at a college in New Jersey for students with learning disabilities. I learned a great deal from those students. A lot of them had real problems in expressing themselves in written language and they knew there were issues, so they invented ways in which they tried to circumvent the perceived “problems” in their writing. In doing this, they came up with so many ingenious methods of description and storytelling. I was directly inspired and influenced by this in my own writing. Beside the cool writing discoveries, you get to hang out with young people on a weekly basis, which is experience, now that I’m older, I cherish.
Based on your teaching experience, what mistakes or problems do you often see in your students’ work?
Well, the issues are legion, but as I tell them, “That’s job security for me.” One of the more interesting developments I’ve noticed in the past fifteen or so years (I’ve been teaching writing for about thirty-five years now), is the difficulty very astute students have with tense (distinguishing when to use past or present tense). I remember back when I was in grade school. I was dumb as a sack of shit, and even I got the tense thing right. Most kids did. I really think the problem these days is the culture is changing, speeding up, becoming more immediate, and things that we used to be able to categorize in time are melding together. These students are way sharper than I was, but for them, the demarcation of time is becoming free-floating. I think eventually the delineation of tense will change in the culture. What we’re seeing now is the beginning of this metamorphosis. Language is always changing. Still, for them to pass, they need to know the difference between past and present tense, and so I help them get that.
On your website you mention two upcoming projects for which you’ve signed contracts: a novel and a novella. Can you tell us anything more about those?
I can’t say too much about them. One I’m just finishing this week—a novella for Tor.com, “The Twilight Pariah,” which is a mystery/horror story. The other is a novel I’m writing for Morrow/Harper Collins. This is the first novel I’ve done in several years, and I’m working with the great Jennifer Brehl, so I’m psyched, but I don’t want to give anything away and ruin my fun. Hopefully, you’ll see soon enough.
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