Our fiction co-editor, Natasha Mieszkowski, recently spoke with Robert Earle, our Issue #11 featured fiction author. Here’s what he had to say about his development as a writer, his writing process, and how his writing is informed by his experience.
What inspired you to write this piece?
As I grow older, I sometimes think through episodes in the past that provide me a jumping off place to weave some challenging characters into a story. In one way I suppose this is making peace with the past. In another way it probably demonstrates that I’m already at peace with it to a certain extent. The picnic referenced here took place 60 years ago. So memories got me going, lots of them.
What do you hope readers take away from it?
I always read and write fiction with one thing in mind: experiencing something, feeling it, understanding its undercurrents and peculiar inevitabilities, living life through the private mental apprehension of a given set of characters and events. Here, the basic subject is family life, family feuds, alienation, and reconciliation. People feel more strongly about members of their nuclear families longer and with more intensity than they do about almost anyone else. That can cause a lot of trouble over a long, long time. In the end, something has to give.
What are you working on now?
At the moment I’m writing more stories and a few essays. Today I was revising an essay about perfectionism, and I was making some edits in a story about a Muslim family in America trying to keep its only daughter from falling in love with being herself.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
Keep writing. All writers say that, don’t they? I don’t recall any mentor who didn’t make that fundamental point.
Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revising?
I write most days from about 8:30 in the morning to 11 or 12, and then I return to my desk for another hour or two in the afternoon. That tends to include weekends. My approach to revising is to ask myself how to make something shorter and express it more simply and directly. Elmore Leonard once said something amusing: he found success by leaving out the parts people don’t want to read. (I think he was serious.) William Faulkner said if he could have written The Sound and the Fury in ten pages, he would have. (I don’t think he was serious and am glad he didn’t do it.)
What is the first story you remember writing?
I’m not sure about the first story I ever wrote, but the one where I began to hit stride was a story about summer league basketball in my dismal home town in Pennsylvania. I was 16. A lot of conflict, heat, sweat, and unpleasant comments from the crowd. The physical details were what made that story succeed.
What writers have been important to your development as a writer?
I’ve been reading constantly for fifty years and I’m still learning from other writers. Early on, Hemingway was an easy model, Salinger was intoxicating, and Updike (from Pennsylvania, like me) was fascinating. Ultimately I think Shakespeare and Mark Twain had the most impact on the way I use the English language. But it’s an endless list, and life led me to read in Latin, Greek, Spanish, and German, so my conception of literature and its modes and purposes goes beyond English.
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
Here’s the best: Before a workshop, John Barth would annotate one of your stories and hold his general comments for last. After the workshop, he would meet with you in his office. That’s where your work and his astonishing literary mind coexisted for an hour. He took teaching seriously, sentence by sentence. He was learned, honest, funny, kind, direct, perceptive, and candid. Somewhere I’ve still got the stories he marked up.
Your story “Say Uncle” is a poignant study of a family feud. Can you tell us more about that, and what drew you to the theme of generational estrangement? What were some of the difficult choices you had to make in writing this piece?
Much of the story is accurate autobiography with little distortion. One side of my family always was in conflict with itself. In the story’s first iteration, I included a parallel account of relations with an uncle I was close to (despite my father’s objections). On rereading the story a few months after I drafted it, I realized I had to cut out the parallel account completely. I was ruining the core tale with complexity. The story was too long. It needed heavy pruning. That hurt. Then came the ending, as it presently stands. There is some fictionalization here that represents a transaction within myself. I felt a degree of disloyalty to my father. That hurt, too. But I think I got closer to the truth of things by having the narrator recognize the depths of his uncle’s needs.
How does your life as a writer relate to your career, or past careers? Does your work influence your writing, or vice versa? Is or was it difficult to integrate a writing lifestyle with your ‘regular’ life?
I was a diplomat for twenty-five years. For much of that time, I was too heavily engaged to write my own stuff, but toward the end, I became sufficiently proficient in what I was doing to carve out the hours I needed to explore my own thoughts and visions. One problem I had was that I administered large, complex overseas programs, but I also was known as an excellent writer. So even though I was fully committed to a specific job, I constantly was being asked to produce special things for presidents and secretaries of state and ambassadors. But I must say that’s easy compared to writing literary fiction. There are strict rules in diplomacy. The rule in writing literary fiction is generally to find a rule to break and break it. For the last seven years, I’ve devoted myself full-time to writing my own work. Now and then I set stories abroad or in Washington and draw on my insider’s perspectives. I wrote a nonfiction book about Iraq called Nights in the Pink Motel that is unique. I also have just published a novel called Suffer the Children full of high-ranking government officials, lobbyists, and politicians. I could not have written either book without firsthand exposure to my material.
Could you give us a summary of your author’s statement, what you hope to achieve with your writing, why you feel compelled to write?
I felt compelled to write in my teens; I always have been a writer at heart; and I write to tell tales that otherwise would go untold. I want to take myself and readers into some of the less explored paradoxes and passions of being human.
What author gives you inspiration?
This varies from decade to decade. I’ll always love Faulkner and Joyce and lesser writers like Alice Munro and Graham Greene. At the moment, I’m wrapped up in thinking about Seneca the Roman philosopher and essayist and Samuel Johnson, perhaps England’s greatest “man of letters.”
What’s your favorite children’s book?
The Secret of Turkeyfoot Mountain.
What is your ideal creative weather?
A tea-drenched morning.