Q&A-Balancing Internal and External Sources of Creativity

Interview with writer and storyteller, Kyle Kesses. The original post appears on Writer’s BLOG.

KK: Would you be open to sharing a few more details about how Members was born out of personal experience? Where did it come from?

VHP: Fundamentally, the title comes from a human desire to belong somewhere–to feel like a member of something. To be truly understood and accepted. I’m Afro/Caribbean-American. I went to fancy and predominantly white schools since third grade. One day, my father asked me if there were any “members” in my third-grade class. I replied, “Papi–we’re all members!” He laughed, lovingly.

KK: Explain what you mean by the works being “Pure fabrications.” In these cases, does the world around you have any influence on the writing or is it entirely internal?

VHP: I think perhaps the only time the world around has little or no influence might be in writing fantasy or sci-fi. I think ambient detail is a strong force in writing “pure fabrications.” For example, in Painted Deserts, I relied heavily on sensations and memories associated with a road trip to that part of Arizona in order to better inform depictions of the natural environment. The main characters–Lenore, Mangrove, and Jamey–bear no resemblances to anyone I know.The same is true of the character, Darius.

KK: How long after learning about Henry Ossawa Tanner in Paris did it become clear that you’d write Tanner Blue?

VHP: It was immediate. That evening, I jotted down thoughts in blue ink on a cocktail napkin.

KK: Explain the relationship between this African American painter and the motif of remembering one’s birth. Was this relationship the result of a coincidence with the Paris trip being a birthday celebration or does the motif relate in some other way to the painter?

VHP: Tanner Blue is the name of the main character; the novel opens with her remembering the moment of her birth on the morning of her thirtieth birthday. I wanted this milestone birthday to hit hard as such milestones do for many. As you and others in our writing circle know, I feel strongly about the power of titles as anchors in the process of storytelling. You make a particularly insightful observation as always: this confluence of details was aligned with the birthday celebration.

KK: How much time passed between when you established the concept for the novel and when you completed the novel?

VHP: It’s always hard for me to pinpoint this answer because I disregard the notion of time as much as possible and tend to lose track completely when I’m writing. My best guess is about two years. Maybe three. 🙂 I sometimes work on more than one book at a time, which might have been the case with Tanner Blue. I think I might have also been working on Music for the Dream–Seven Short Stories intermittently.

KK: Explain what you mean by “The next step was to listen to their story.” This sounds like an activity in which you (the author) are not the primary agent. Are you able to explain how this process develops in your mind?

VHP: This is in reference to developing Painted Deserts. Because this story began at a local farmers market, I just sat quietly and imagined what might connect two people meeting by chance. I think I started writing this story simply by describing the wrought-iron furniture on the sidewalk outside a corner restaurant. Thinking back, it was a bit like being on a movie set. Once the stage was established, it was time to call for “action.” Really, I don’t feel like the primary agent. I’m working on a novel now and when I’m in the zone, I just look around and write down what I see in that state.

KK: Also, how much of your interaction with the characters is auditory and how much is visual? How much appeals to the other senses?

VHP: It’s mostly visual. Windchimes are emerging as a sort of character in the novel I’m working on, so I think sound will be another key factor–also various animal sounds. Touch is important in writing about various types of relationships. Smell and taste tend to be maybe tertiary.

KK: Again you refer to the act of writing the book as though it were a character in its own right: “Because the book developed into a journey to the southwest, I adjusted the title to reflect the change of scene that parallels the growth of the characters.” Are you able to tell us more about where you (Valerie) end and where the book (as its own character) begins and how you two share the creative process?

VHP: My job is to make sure a story is developing rather than merely racking up details. I determine the twists and turns; my intentions about what I wish to express and communicate to a reader are clear. That’s probably the biggest lesson I learned in writing Cross Country, which was originally 600 pages! I got it down to 300 or so and eventually turned it into short story. All I had to do was ask myself, “What is the main point I wish to make, here?” I’m an economical writer, so once I answered that question, I was able to take care of business in fairly short order. This is after working on the story over a period of years.

KK: Tell us more about how Cross Country and El Nino shrunk from novel-length to short story length and how you were able to recognize this editing decision was the right one.

VHP: This shrinkage has been a key part of my development as an economical writer. I like to get to the point when I’m telling a story, but I also like to write as beautifully as I can. It’s an occupational benefit as well; I’ve worked as a developmental editor for quite some time. I try to follow the Three C’s–clarity, consistency, and conciseness.

KK: Explain what you mean by “loosely based on experiences.”

VHP: Now we’re talking about Music for the Dream–Seven Short Stories. The two stories that are very “loosely based on experiences” are “Flip Turn” and “Sleep Away.” The others are pure fabrications.

KK: You mention “Stepping back from the story long enough to determine the most effective way of telling it.” What’s the most amount of time that has elapsed between when you step away from a work and when you return to finish it?

VHP: Probably a week at the most!