William R. Soldan, author of the superb short story collection - Houses Burning and Other Ruins - which featured on the blog yesterday was kind enough to submit to some gentle questioning about his reading and writing habits....
I’m guessing the writing’s maybe not full time? If not, what’s the day job and can you give us a quick biography of yourself?
-I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but moved to Ohio when I was six and lived here most of my life. I moved around a lot as a kid and as a teenager and adult I continued to do so, having moved out of Youngstown a few times, but I’m back here now, tied down with a mortgage and all those other fun grown-up things, so this is where I’ll be for the foreseeable future.
I’ve worked a lot of day jobs over the years, everything from restaurant work to selling vacuum cleaners to pouring concrete and a bunch of other things, but for the last decade I’ve mostly worked in gyms as a personal trainer and a few years of that time as a writing instructor at the university. But when the Covid pandemic hit and all the gyms closed, I was unemployed briefly, but then I got hired on to help with a mobile meals program that provides food for elderly folks who can safely leave their houses, either due to risks associated with the virus or other disabilities that prevent them from having access to meals. So now I’m back in the kitchen. We cook all the food, package it, and deliver it. I told myself I’d never work in a kitchen again, but this is a lot different than working in a restaurant, because I personally don’t have to deal with the public or too many other people, which I like. Plus, it’s a good cause and I’m happy I’m able to contribute during this difficult time. When it’s all over and the program loses its funding? Who knows. I’m trying not to think about that. But I suspect I’ll always have a day job. Writing full time and making enough money to survive and support my family off of it alone will never happen. Perhaps that’s defeatist. I’m not against the idea. I’m just being realistic.
I’m about to *start reading* your latest collection – Houses Burning and Other Ruins which drops soon (yesterday) – published by Shotgun Honey. Can you pitch it to a potential reader in 50 words or less?
* Done, dusted, enjoyed!
-It’s a gritty collection set predominantly in the Midwest, Ohio specifically, full of characters down on their luck or at rock bottom. Criminals, addicts, regular folks in dire circumstances faced with tough choices who often make the wrong one and have to face the consequences. It’s real light, uplifting stuff. Was that 50? Haha.
I believe it will be your third collection of stories published, after In Just the Right Light and Lost in the Furrows. You also have a collection of poems published recently – So Fast, So Close. Which one would you press into the hands of a new reader?
Can you remember what your first published piece was and when?
Do you have a favourite format – I’m guessing either short story or poem - and a favourite genre to work in?-Not particularly, though short form prose (including flash and micro) and poetry are what I’ve published the most of. I have finished one novel and plan to write more, but so far my catalogue is mostly short stuff. Some writers only write novels. Most who consider themselves novelists first and foremost still work in shorter forms, if only as exercise, but some won't even do that. They’ve found their thing and are happy with that. But even with a novel forthcoming, I’m not sure I’ll ever be a novelist exclusively. I love the other forms too much. I write in many, and I’ll try new ones that interest me. So no, I don’t really have a favorite genre in terms of form, but I gravitate toward the gritty and the dark, both in my reading and writing, which is why I find myself more immersed in Grit Lit and noir and crime fiction and working-class literature than any other genre in terms of tone and content.
Do you have a typical writing schedule?
-Absolutely not. I envy a little those that do. Mine is and always has been the write what you can whenever you can type schedule. I have tried the early morning routine, but I’m not a morning person, so that didn’t last. I’m more of a night owl, but nights are just as difficult to be consistent with. I have two young kids and by the time they’re in bed, I’m mentally down for the count and can rarely accomplish much. Maybe someday when they’re a little older. In the meantime I write anywhere and everywhere. I write longhand first, so I’m always scribbling on scraps of paper or in a notebook, and I type the stuff up when I’m done. These days, I get the majority of my keyboard writing done on the weekends, but even that has been harder this past year with the world being the apocalyptic trash fire that it is. I know this isn’t a great answer for offering insight, some sort of practical tip for making the most of your time, but really, I’ve gotta steal my time, because if I don’t, life will use it all up and I’ll never get anything done.
Do you insert family, friends, and colleagues into your characters?
-I have, but it’s more the exception than the rule. I don’t make a habit out of it or anything. But most, if not all the characters I’ve written have shared qualities—physically or behaviorally—with people I’ve known or met or seen in real life at some point. Since our imaginations, no matter how wild, are still largely governed by our associations and past experiences, it’s safe to say every character is a patchwork of multiple real individuals. Even if we aren’t aware that we’re drawing details from our lives at the time, we are.
When you have an idea and you sit down to construct your stories – do you know what the end result is roughly going to look like? Are you a plotter, or do you make it up as you go?
-Quite often, a story comes to me in the form of an image, and in many cases that image has been the final image in the story. Sometimes I know it right away, that it’s the ending. Other times I don’t. And sometimes I think it’s the ending and I’m wrong, but it takes writing the story to realize it.
But when it comes to being a plotter IRC’s pantser, I’m neither exclusively. I don’t—or haven’t yet—done any elaborate outlining, but I rarely if ever “pants” it completely. Even when I don’t plan it out on paper, which is often, I think things through, usually at length, before writing anything down. But I do also plan on paper, just not long detailed outlines. At most I’ll make a short bullet list of scenes I know I want/need to write, especially if I start with an ending in mind and am working toward it. This is my most common practice I think. For my novel, I did the same thing through most of it, only instead of planning a few scenes I would occasionally lay out a few chapters’ worth of scenes, if I was fortunate enough to see that far ahead, that is. I didn’t start with the ending on that one, so I didn’t always know where I was headed that far in advance.
Recently I planned out the start of a novel I want to write using index cards to sort of storyboard it, but it’s really just a variation on the bullet list method, at least so far. I haven’t yet seen any additional benefit to using the cards other than it makes it a lot easier to move scenes around, which can be necessary. But whether I stick with using the cards throughout, or whether the novel even gets written at all, remains to be seen.
How long from conception to completion did Houses Burning take? Is there an underlying theme to the collection? Did you have a lot of stories that were considered but eventually discarded?
-I’d say the oldest of the stories in the book is about ten years old, the newest about two years old, so I guess you could say it took awhile, although I wasn’t writing them specifically for this book. After I compiled my first collection, I realized I had quite a few stories that hadn’t been a good fit for it but that had a similar enough vibe to make up another collection. So I compiled those and moved them around, added a couple, removed a couple, until I was happy with the order of stories. I put this collection together before my first book was released, and it contained a couple of the same stories, so I removed those and added newer, more fitting ones to Houses Burning after it was accepted for publication. As for underlying theme, none that was deliberate. Theme is the farthest thing from my mind while writing. I try to let that sort of thing unfold organically, which is to say I don’t shoehorn a particular theme or themes into my work, but rather I write the story, and the themes present themselves (sometimes) after the fact. But there are certainly threads that run throughout my work, this book and the others. I try not to dig to deep into my own themes, preferring to leave that to readers who care about that sort of thing. But desperation, addiction, guilt, incarceration, loneliness, fractured relationships, financial struggle—these are all things that are prevalent in my fiction because they’ve been prevalent in my life. These aren’t all themes necessarily, but they’re in there at a pretty high frequency.
I’m curious as to who had the final say on what was included, were they all your choice, or did the publisher have some input on what was included?
-I had all the say in that. My publisher never once dictated anything. That’s one of the advantages of indie publishing: you often have a lot more say in the process than you would otherwise. Not always, but often. That’s probably a large part of why I’ve put no significant effort into getting an agent or a big publishing contract. I’m not entirely convinced I want that many hands on my work. It could be a good thing, or it could be a disaster. Maybe someday I’ll finally find out. But for now, I’m happy with the amount of control I’ve had over the final product.
Are there any unpublished gems in your bottom drawer?
-Gems, I’m not so sure, but yeah, I’ve got some unpublished stuff, most of which is in need of revision if I ever decide to publish it. I’ve also got several unfinished drafts in various stages of completion. There’s always something.
What’s the current project in progress?
-I’m editing and arranging my next poetry collection, tinkering without a few short stories, and trying to get my tired ass started on a new novel (two actually), but my time has been extremely limited, as have my physical and mental energy levels. This past year has been...straining to say the least.
What’s the best thing about writing?
-Producing something that you’re truly satisfied with. There’s no better feeling. It’s a rare feeling, but that’s what makes it damn near intoxicating when it happens. For me, it can be as small as a single sentence. I love a good sentence better than most things, and if I write one that I feel fires on all cylinders, man, that gets me high in a way. Now, if I can write a bunch of them and they cohere into something that resonates with another human being, well, it really does make all the frustration and doubt seem worth it.
Just about all of it at one point or another. Haha. Seriously, though, like with most things, it changes all the time. Words like “best” and “worst” aren’t really adequate to encapsulate the wide range of emotions you go through being an artist of any kind, especially a writer, because often it just feels like you’re digging holes in the dark, looking for something but unsure exactly what that something is. It’s frustrating, but it’s also thrilling and rewarding in its own way.Moving on….
What are the last five books you’ve read?
-I’ve had several books going at once for as long as I can remember, so I’ll give you the five I’m currently reading:
Slow Bear by Anthony Neil Smith
The Collected Stories of Amy HempelLady Chevy by John Woods
Ohio by Stephen Markley
How I’m Spending My Afterlife by Spencer Fleury (which is a book I’m writing a blurb for)
I’ve got other ones in progress, too, but those are the ones I’m trying to stay focused on because I love them all and want to finish them.
Favourite activity when not working or writing?
-Reading, of course :-)What’s the last film you watched that rocked you?
-I haven’t watched as many movies lately as I’d have liked, because of time and being too exhausted, but I watched Promising Young Woman over the weekend and it was pretty damn powerful. Carey Mulligan was absolutely brilliant in it. Highly recommended.
TV addict or not? What’s the must watch show in the Soldan household?
-My wife and I absolutely love a good series binge, but again, it’s been awhile since we’ve immersed ourselves in one. I feel like I need to catch up with a lot of great new (and old) stuff. I still need to see the most recent season of Better Call Saul, which is one of my favorites. I love a lot of other shows, too—some outstanding stuff out there—but I could probably spend way too much time that I don’t have curating that list.
What are the last three pieces of music you’ve listened to?
-I’ll go with artists, since I can’t pinpoint specific songs:
-This is Chris Isaak, a sort of greatest hits collection (my son has a thing for Elvis and the rockabilly crooners, and we listen to them at bedtime)
-David Nevue, a solo piano composer whose melancholic minor key pieces I just love and listen to often because they’re instrumental and I like to keep them on in the background.
-My wife, learning to play the Super Mario Brothers theme music on the piano for our son. Over and over and over again 😎
RANDOM TRIVIA FUN QUESTIONS
What’s your favourite vegetable?
When did you last have a fist fight?
-Early 2000s, drunk, with my best friend at the time. I think. I could be wrong. It’s hard to remember certain things from back then.
Have you ever been thrown out of a bar or a club?
-Yes. The above mentioned best friend was notorious for causing trouble and getting us kicked out of places. There was a few month stretch where I spent nearly every night apologizing to people for his behavior. They allowed me back. Him they did not.
Do you have any tattoos?
-I lost count a long time ago. I think I stopped counting at 50.
What was your first pet’s name?
-A black cat named Spike.
What’s the worst meal you have ever eaten?
-The bagged lunches they give you in jail when your sitting in a holding cell waiting to be booked or transferred elsewhere. Usually old balongna on soggy white bread and a watery juice like product to drink. Or something equally unappealing. I’ve no doubt had worse things, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind.
Do you have any irrational fears?
-Losing my mental faculties. Dementia. Alzheimer’s. Anything that causes my mind to deteriorate before it should. That’s not really irrational, though. That’s a legitimate fear. Irrational ones? Probably. Most likely they’d be associated with some kind of social blunder, though at the moment, I don’t have any specific examples. I mean, I’ve made a fool of myself plenty of times, and I’ll certainly do it again, but social obligations tend to be what cause me the most tension in recent years. They almost always turn out well, but the general sense of worry that precedes public commitments can be a real drag and wear me down, and I’d say that worry is mostly irrational.
What’s your favourite holiday destination?
-I don’t go anywhere for holidays or vacations very often these days, but I visited New Mexico a couple years ago and loved it. I went back the following year and hope to return again. I love the desert. Such a different energy than anywhere else I’ve been. I recommend everyone visit it at some point if they can. It really is something magnificent.
Many thanks to Bill Soldan for his time.
Houses Burning and Other Ruins dropped yesterday.
Desperation. Violence. Broken homes and broken hearts. Fathers, junkies, and thieves.
In this gritty new collection, one bad choice begets another, and redemption is a twisted mirage. An ex-addict takes a detour with his young son and comes face-to-face with an old drug dealer and an unsettled debt. A down-on-his-luck gambler visits his estranged sister while figuring out his next play. An Iraq War vet fights a personal battle to reconcile life as a civilian. Three boyhood friends stumble upon a dark secret in a rural dump.
These and the other troubled characters that inhabit the streets and alleys of these stories continually find themselves at the mercy of a cold, indifferent world as they hurtle downward and grapple for hard-won second chances in a life that seldom grants them.