Our fiction co-editor Katie Stromme recently had this exchange with Arthur Plotnik, our Issue #16 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what he had to say about his essay “Sap Rising,” his career as a writer, and his evolving writing community.
As many of us are, I am drawn to writing that is rooted in place—like “Sap Rising”—and that takes its time with geography and setting. But your piece is also very involved with time. Because of the many changes you’ve seen in your neighborhood, was it challenging to try to recapture the mood and vitality of that time period, especially since it’s a setting you encounter on a daily basis?
One good thing about working on an essay for a long time—in this case many years off and on—is that certain details and moods get locked in and aren’t distorted by memory. For example, the very phrases barked at me long ago by a foul-mouthed neighbor were preserved in a draft written close to the event. Years of drafts later, I could retrieve them as if from amber.
Long-gestation aside, however, one does still face the disappearance of original stimuli, like the ancient house next door—trigger for memories of a woman screaming “I want to die!” The house was replaced by an upscale dwelling whose insulated walls and windows stifle any sound. Yet, the ghosts of whatever stirred one’s literary antennae at a certain location have a way of haunting the aura of that place—call it “writer’s reiki,” a force or energy you feel as you pass nearby. In fact, the site of the rowdy liquor store described in the essay is now a reiki-massage salon, but when I pass it I can still hear—feel— the volatile proprietor firing fuck-you’s at everyone on his phone.
What do you like best about your current setting as a creative environment? Do you meet other writers in your neighborhood?
With gentrification, the neighborhood is now a stable enough place so that I can, as they say, recollect in tranquility, which older writers need to do. Yet it still surprises, evolves, stimulates, because the tides of life still move through it. We just had a murder in an apartment two blocks away, a fight over some drugs. A neighbor is suing to get his disabled mother back from a suburban sibling. A tree crew mistakenly emasculated the very horse-chestnut that inspired my neighborhood-book proposal (see question below). The children of a newly arrived middle-eastern family laugh and squeal in the alley behind us, where the father parks his taxi.
I sense that the greater neighborhood, packed with cafes and earnest souls pounding at their laptops, is a creative hive, but within the few closest streets I’m the only writer I know of—maybe “the laureate of my zip code,” as Billy Collins has joked. But my environment couldn’t be more conducive to creativity—obnoxiously so perhaps—with a book-filled study adjoining my wife’s painting studio, and, one block away, a regional library, bookstore, and a park for walking out a writing block. But, hey, I’ve done some inspired writing in a rural tool shed and on lunch breaks in my former institutional office environment. In most cases an exciting idea trumps environment; if it comes, you will write it.
What compelled you to write this piece?
“Sap Rising” grew out of a well developed 1996 book proposal called “The Horse-Chestnut Chronicles: Notes of a Neighborhood Watcher,” in turn inspired by an ever-morphing horse-chestnut on the street outside my study window. I began to see this fecund tree as symbolic of a larger organism, the streets and dwellers around me and how they weave themselves into one’s life—and vice versa. The project got put aside in favor of other work, but germs of it pollinated later poems, a book, another essay, and of course “Sap Rising” itself.
Do you have any plans to write a “part two” that examines lives of the new populace that’s moved into the neighborhood? Are they worth examining?
Not that every life isn’t worth examining, but I think I’ve made the point about neighborhood as an organism, in symbiosis with us. Don’t want to—har-har—beat a dead horse-chestnut.
You’ve also recently been recognized for your fiction, winning second place in the Albert Camus prize for a piece published in Red Savina Review. However, you’re most prominently identified as a nonfiction writer. Have you been writing fiction all along, or did you come to it recently? How does your nonfiction background inform your fiction?
Oh, fiction, fiction, fiction was this young man’s fancy as I studied under Philip Roth and others in the Iowa Writers Workshop. One penciled “good!” from Roth in the margins of a fiction assignment would power me through all the frustrations of the genre, including as the miserable author of some twenty pseudonymous potboiler paperbacks after Iowa.
I’ve never stopped pursuing the invented story, with modest successes along the way; but I’ve always had a parallel life in nonfiction: school journalist, city newspaper reporter, magazine writer, and eventually author of nonfiction books from biography to language to nature. Way back, when the “New Journalism” animated nonfiction with its gonzo, subjective approaches, the genre became as aesthetically satisfying for me as fiction. And with the elevating concept of “creative nonfiction,” you get to be an artiste as well.
My aptitudes in nonfiction research and exposition have certainly transferred over to fiction. A library science degree boosted the one skill—research—and my day career as an expositor of professional library matters sharpened the other: I learned that however dull and arcane a subject might be, however dead on arrival, there are ways to enliven it, to make it connect.
What are you working on now?
A travel memoir that has evolved into a short story in order to have some kind of point to it. Also the start of a YA novel which may evolve into a memoir to have any blood. And some nonfiction family narratives. I’m collecting striking words and metaphors. I’m writing poems. My agent wants—gasp!—another language book. I need to focus, but that’s no fun; and fun is the whole point in this stage of my writing career.
You’ve a big advocate for richer language in all writing. Are you practiced enough that lively language always makes its way into your first drafts, or do you add the spice later on?
Much of it comes later on, or I’d be even slower than I am in moving a piece forward. Rich language has never rolled off my tongue. The habitual words and phrases have to be pried out and discarded, the fresher, more exciting language mined and then refined so as not to be overwrought. But I’ll say this: You will never find “awesome,” “amazing,” or “incredible” in my first drafts.
I’m always curious about writers’ social media habits—Twitter, in particular. Like the hum of neighborhood conversation, do you find Twitter—and the distinct subgroup of Twitter’s community of writers—to be constructive? Were you an early adopter?
I’m a lame user of Twitter, though over recent years, as a dutiful author, I have tweeted news of my work or of items related to expressiveness. Occasionally I get endorphining feedback from a follower or pick up a thought or a lead from the meager 65 or so whom I follow. I’m also out there on Facebook, flogging my works, trawling for a “like,” and now and then exchanging thoughts with other writers.
But I don’t do the communities on either site; for me it just seems too much noise to signal. Having been writing forever and having gathered so much writing advice for three books on the subject—as well as for forty-plus columns in The Writer and for all the authors I’ve edited, I have the (perhaps mistaken) confidence to go with what I know.
Do you participate in any writing groups in your area or have friends or colleagues who are dedicated readers for you?
No, no workshop groups that criticize members’ work. I’m a now-and-then member of the venerable Society of Midland Authors, which holds social hours, author talks, and offers book-fair space. Again, I’m an old horse in the game. I do think writing workshops are de rigueur for beginning and developing authors, if only for giving them an identity of writer, the courage to write, the sense of being in a writing community—all the things I took away from the Iowa workshop. But there’s always more to the workshop: skills, connections, perspective, stimulation. I’m grateful for having had the experience. I’m also obliged to the publishing pros who have edited my work over the years, some of them leaving me pulverized but wiser. As Mud Season staff know, I still respect and heed the gimlet eye of a good editor and her judgment of what works for her publication’s particular style, mission, and readership.
I do have a small half-circle of people I run certain works by, starting with my wife, a mindful reader in general with an artist’s sensibilities. Other readers include a friend who grew up in England, with whom I exchange certain drafts. He tells me what he finds funny in my stuff, and I change his English spellings to American—”grey” to “gray.” “catalogue” to “catalog.” He changes them back.
Who are some of your favorite authors, and what is a recent favorite book or piece of writing you’ve come across?
A quick skim off my reading log: Will Self, Elizabeth Stroud, Sandra Cisneros, Nicholson Baker, Edward P. Jones, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mary Roach.
Best recent find but not for everybody: Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish, a heartrending novel depicting two of the most touching souls in modern literature, a PTSD-suffering veteran and an illegal immigrant in underbelly Queens, NY. These are decidedly “voices that tramp and track in the mud of human experience.”