Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Interview with Novelist Stephen Parrish

With us today is my blogging buddy Stephen Parrish, whom I've known for a couple of years through writing circles. I first met him back when The Guardian was seemingly nearing picking up an agent, but then obviously all that fell through for me, and I've lost contact with the bulk of the writing friends that I made during that time.

But Steve and I have kept in touch, and I've been enjoying seeing him break into print -- I picked up his book, The Tavernier Stones, just yesterday from my local Borders, and will post about that sometime in the coming weeks once I have a chance to finish it. Steve is going 'round the blogosphere giving interviews, and so I took my chance to ask him a bunch of rude questions.

Q: Okay, so the obligatory "for those who don't know Steve" question -- can you tell us what your book is about? I bet you have an awesome elevator pitch by this point.

Stephen Parrish: It's based on the true story of seventeenth century journeyman and trader Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. He made six voyages to the Orient, chiefly India, and brought back to Europe many of the world's most famous diamonds, including one that would eventually be recut into the Hope. He mysteriously disappeared during his seventh and final voyage to India. My novel capitalizes on that mystery: it postulates that he arrived at his destination, amassed the largest cache of gemstones in history (including several actual stones that haven't been seen since his time), and was robbed during his return trip to Europe. The legend of the "Lost Tavernier Stones" swelled during the centuries following Tavernier's disappearance, until the day a body floated to the surface of a bog in northern Germany, with one of the stones clutched in its fist. That's where my story begins.

Okay, so it's a little long for an elevator pitch, but just imagine we're going up several floors.

Q: We've all heard the stories about famous books and authors whose work was rejected a bajillion times before they went on to be rich and famous. So how many rejections did The Tavernier Stones rack up? How many times did you rewrite it?

Steve: I kept a log, but I refuse to look at it. I also didn't keep any rejection letters, even from luminaries; I don't believe in saving mementos of failure. I wrote twelve structurally different versions of the novel and rewrote them probably thirty times. The book was turned down by over a hundred agents and editors combined, but I don't know the exact number. I'm baffled when I read about writers giving up after a dozen or two rejections. Agent Query lists over a thousand literary agents. Why stop at double digits?

Q: And this is your third book that you've written, but first to be published, right? Statistically, that would mean you're a bit ahead of the curve of most authors who actually get published. Do you feel ahead of the curve?

Steve: You know, I keep hearing such statistics, that most people have to write five or six or ten books before they break through, but that doesn't match my own anecdotal experience. Most of my friends published their first or second book. Maybe I just hang out with smart friends.

Q: What about unfinished books? How many of those would you estimate you have racked up over the years? And, for that matter, at what point in your life did you start writing?

Steve: I can't pinpoint a time I started writing, it kind of ramped up over the course of my life. Unfinished books? If you count a synopsis and a scene or two, a bunch. If you mean I got halfway through and petered out, a couple.

Q: All right, all right, I'll stop trying to make you look like a loser now. In all seriousness, though, I've read your blog for years and have always felt like you have a really effortless command of language, humor, and all the little techniques that make prose sparkle. Too often, I think that non-writers see a new author coming out and think of them as some sort of overnight success, where that is really almost never the case. A lot of mega-famous authors struggled enormously before they were published, and I think that's part of why their work is so solid. All that "diamonds out of coal and pressure" stuff, right? Do you feel like that's been the case for you?

Steve: My work is still coal. At any given point in my writing journey I've felt I'm better than ever before. No doubt a few years from now I'll look back at this stage and . . . well, I won't want to look back at this stage.

Q: So, realistically, now that you've made it into print, do you think you'd have wanted to short-circuit the process in the past? Speaking personally as someone who has not yet made it into print, but has had a very near miss, I definitely can say that I'm glad my earlier work never made it past the agents barrier, because I want my first published work to really represent me as well as possible. If you could play God and go back and get a magic "yes" from some agents that turned you down in the past, do you think you'd do it?

Steve: Hemingway's first published story was called "Up in Michigan." I'm hard pressed to say anything good about it. Of course, he went on to write great things. I think we should be putting our stuff out there, posting in on our blogs, sharing it with friends, submitting it, hoping it gets into print. Even if people are hard pressed to say anything good about it. Because doing so gives us practice in a way that working in isolation and storing things in trunks don't. If you can publish your "bad" stuff, more power to you; it'll be behind you then, and you can move on. If you wait until your bad stuff is good, you might have to wait a long time.

Q: We all know that you think that being a writer is the best job in the world, and that everyone should be doing it. But you've had a lot of different jobs -- unusually varied for any one person, actually. Can you tell us a bit about that? Was it restless youth, or what? Aside from writing, what was your favorite job?

Steve: Caddy, janitor, bartender, cook, newspaper deliver, factory worker, soldier, typist (clocked at over 120 wpm), teacher, jewelry salesman, cartographer, and a couple of others. Once I was even a paid lab rat: now anytime somebody says "Rosebud" I get hungry for a piece of cheese.

Restlessness probably sums it up. But I have a lot to draw from now, lots of places, experiences, and perspectives. When I run out of things to say I'll go back to cartography. I loved sharing a tradition with people like Eratosthenes, Ptolemy, and Mercatur.

Q: You've made references in the past to the fact that you draw on your past, and very varied, experiences for your writing. That seems like a killer idea. What would you therefore recommend to someone, say, who is just heading off to college to study creative writing or somesuch? Would you advise them to put their writing plans on hold for 10 or 20 years, go out and experience the world more, and then come back and write? Seems like a lot of writers are in their 30s or 40s at the earliest when they really make it into the business, so from my perspective that seems like valid advice, and is basically what I decided to do, myself. But I'm curious what your take is, having traveled that road -- do you feel like you missed out by not writing more instead of working all those other jobs?

Steve: I have mixed feelings. The writers who were already cranking out books in their teens just never seem to have enough depth for my tastes. I think it's most important to read, as much as possible, and to start reading very early in life. It will tune your writing style, for whenever you get around to actually playing some notes. You'll know when it's time; you won't be able to put it off any longer.

Q: Personally, one of my favorite things from reading your blog has always been the wry, often self-deprecating humor that tends to pervade it. Does that show up in your longer prose to the same degree? From the posted snippet of The Tavernier Stones, which I greatly enjoyed, I couldn't tell -- but that was pretty early in for the book.

Steve: Wait for the next one. That's when I stretch my voice.

Q: Most writers become known for writing a certain sort of book, or in a certain style. Stephen King is horror or magic with lots of character analysis, Stephanie Meyer always writes romance with reasonably young characters, Michael Crichton always had themes of the dangers of science left unchecked, etc. Statistically speaking, it's impossible for us to make valid conclusions from looking at your one book. So tell us: what aspects of The Tavernier Stones do you feel like are universal "Steven Parrish" attributes that you'll be known for? Are you planning to be a historical thriller writer in general, or is there some other focus?

Steve: It's always been my ambition to write what is generally considered "mainstream." Nobody seems to use the term anymore, though. I know the arguments in favor of genre labeling, nevertheless I'm opposed to it: labeling is disabling. A wonderful science fiction novel, for example, will be passed over by people who don't normally read science fiction. I don't care of your story has spaceships or cowboys or lovers or vampires; if it's good, I want to read it.

And I don't think that's just me being eclectic or something. I think everyone wants to read a good story; they're just afraid of stereotypical spaceships, stereotypical cowboys, etc.

Q: I have my own feelings on this, as I think every author does, but I'm curious on your take: in the age of movies, television, and video games, what do you think novels offer that the other mediums do not? For people who don't read much fiction (shame on them), what are the reasons they should give it a try?

Steve: My argument isn't going to change anyone's behavior, except maybe parents looking for ways to develop their children. Much as I love movies and games, and I do have a passion for both, they're passive. Stories, on the other hand, require work: the brain has to illustrate the scenes being described. Spielberg isn't there to do it for us. That effort, subtle though it may sound, is not only why reading is better training for the mind, it's also why literature can move us in ways no other medium can. Even without special effects and background music.

Art is the highest achievement of civilization, and literature is the highest form of art. That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it.

Q: Anything else you'd like to add?

Steve: When I was twelve or so (caddying) I asked a rich man for his secret. He said, "Work your ass off. And hand me the nine iron."

Not A Q: Thanks for joining us, Steve! And of course, best wishes for your success with this title and those to follow!


Mark Terry said...

That rich man gave you good advice. And although there's very little about my golf game to brag about (okay, there's NOTHING about my golf game to brag about), I could probably play my entire game with a 9 iron (not that it would make my score any worse or better).

Mark Terry said...

BTW, how do you like the title of this, NOVELIST Stephen Parrish? Feels good, huh?

Christopher M. Park said...

I thought that was a nice touch he might enjoy -- best of all because it's TRUE! :)

Stephen Parrish said...

You know, I didn't even notice the word "Novelist." I think it's the first time anyone's ever called me that. And it's a title I've wanted since . . . forever.

Thanks, Chris.

Christopher M. Park said...

My pleasure. And hey... it's what you are! Crazy times, eh!?

Unknown said...

sounds like a good book chris m.

Richard Levangie said...

Nicely done, Chris.

Barbara Martin said...

An inspiring interview to keep writing.

Anonymous said...

Terrific interview with the Novelist Stephen Parrish, thank you. Found myself nodding in agreement so many times. If given a choice between films TV or books I would take books every time. I fall into books and see; live in that space and walk with the characters. I love the feel and smell and look of books and if I lived alone I would become even more eccentric and hoard them, building walls of them in place of furniture. (do I hear 'get a life')

Stephen Parrish said...

Moannie: I've always thought books make the best wall decorations.