A Pushcart Prize nominee and a semi-finalist for the MVP competition at New Rivers Press, Scott Dominic Carpenter has published fiction in a broad array of journals, some if it included in the anthology, Best Indie Lit New England. This Jealous Earth (2013) is his first collection of short stories. His debut novel, Theory of Remainders, will appear in May 2013. He teaches French literature at Carleton College (MN), and his website is located at www.sdcarpenter.com.
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When did you first realize you needed to put pen to paper?
I’ve always been a writer of one sort of another. Creative writing started in high school and college, but then came many years of more academic prose. I returned to creative writing only five or six years ago, taking to it with the appetite of one long starved: I gorged on it. Writing is the way I make sense of my world, so I spend a lot of time doing it.
One of the most important aspects of any story, in my opinion, is description. Often either overdone or underdone, what is your best advice to writers on how to strike the perfect balance?
It’s tricky, isn’t it? I can’t claim to have mastered all the aspects of description, but I do try to follow a few principles. One is: let the verbs and nouns do the work. Whenever I see adjectives and adverbs gathering like mold, I try to scrub them out. With bleach and stiff bristles.
Another principle is to grant powerful descriptions only to worthy subjects. Not everything is of equal value, and one should reserve great images for important items. Otherwise the reader loses focus.
I find much of my inspiration in coffee shops, and many of the conversations and interactions I have witnessed there have proved to be influential in my tales. Has anyone you’ve ever witnessed become the inspiration for a character, or at least a particular part of a character?
Oh, yes. Most of my characters are composites of people I’ve met. A particular example is in the short piece, “Thrift,” which tells of a well-to-do woman who shoplifts. I was in a shop once when the manager confronted a woman. He’d caught her thefts on video and was going to call the police. The woman—snappily dressed, maybe forty-five—was unflappable and admitted nothing, but she offered (“of course,” she said) to pay for what they accused her of taking. I was fascinated by this encounter, and my imaginings evolved into this story.
Finding your voice in writing is one of the most important aspects of it. Some writers, myself included, wrote in a myriad of genres before discovering where our style was best suited. Is there a particular genre that speaks the most to you? Why? And how did you find it?
I’m a bit torn. I love wry humor, but I can also go for the lyrical, and often these two come together. I guess they create a special flavor that is my prose. That said, it’s excellent practice for writers to attempt different styles and voices; it trains you to write in the voices of characters and narrators. Often the style of an entire story is really the bouquet of different styles contained within.
Speaking of voice, when you write, do you find that you become the characters, or are you more of a guest at their dinner party where they share their story with you?
That’s a tough question. I’ve never been one of those people for whom characters take on a life of their own, for which I serve as their secretary. But I do feel that I adopt a different point of view—that is, that I see the world through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy, or a fifty-eight-year-old woman, or a forty-year-old man. It’s a kind of transmigration of souls. I find myself sympathizing deeply with my characters. It’s embarrassing, really. In the title story, “This Jealous Earth,” the character Cat is one of my favorites. I tear up every time I read those damn pages.
Tell us a little about your editing process.
It’s painful. It’s endless. It’s necessary.
Whenever I finish a story, I’m astonished: for once I have written something so good that it hardly needs a lick of revision! The next day, I’m tearing it apart and rebuilding it. I think revision is the most important part of the process, and I feel that one of my greatest strengths as a writer is that I’m stubborn and have stamina. I can force myself to revise. Thank God.
What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received?
There was one guy who obsessed over opening lines. It was kind of a Wallace Stegner approach, which says that you can’t write anything until you make that first line perfect, and afterwards, the whole story/novel/play/poem will flow effortlessly. In the trade, we have a technical term for that kind of advice: “bullshit.” If you’re waiting for perfection, you’ll never write a single page.
Though I hate to say it, the best advice I get (on a regular basis) is: “Do it again. Make it better.” It’s nice to hear praise, but praise doesn’t move me forward very much.
Another thing that it took me a long time to understand was the crucial nature of beginnings. Now, I don’t mean to contradict what I said above about the Stegner approach (I’m not talking about perfection here), but one does eventually need to lay out the premise and problem of a story set in the opening lines, in a way that asks important questions. That’s what hooks the reader.
I’m especially grateful to the friend who pounded that lesson into my head (after many failed attempts).
For those writers who have not yet completed their first novel, what advice would you give them?
You mean, other than, “Run away!”?
Seriously, though, my advice would be simple. Be diligent. Yes, you need imagination, but the rare thing is craft, and craft takes time to develop. Read other books while you write, and see how other authors solve the problems you are encountering.
What is one book (besides one of your own) that you think everyone should read?
Tough call. But how about Paul Auster’s, The Book of Illusions?
If you could be interviewed by one famous person (besides me… ha!), who would that be and why?
How about an evening talk show host? In some countries (France, I’m thinking of you) there are whole television shows dedicated to conversations about literature. What if someone tried that? All right, maybe not during the fall sweeps, but still, sometime?
Can readers expect more from you in the not too distant future?
You bet. I have a novel called Theory of Remainders that is slated to come out in May, 2013. It’s the gripping story of a psychiatrist wrestling with trauma his own past. You can learn about it here: http://wintergoosepublishing.com/products/theory-of-remainders/.
And there are plenty of other projects in the pipeline. Readers who want to keep abreast of developments can check on http://www.sdcarpenter.com.
I’m a Kindle girl, myself. E-readers – love them or hate them?
Because I don’t want to be chained to Amazon, I prefer the iPad. No, it doesn’t have the feel of an old-fashioned book—and I miss having current titles lying around the house where I encounter them again and again. However, I do value having an entire library with me when I travel, which I do a lot.
Biggest problem in the publishing industry you see?
I feel the industry is narrowing its focus, seeking books that fall into a narrow band of tastes. They’re looking for economies of scale at precisely the time that electronic publishing and print-on-demand should make it easier to offer a vast array of niche titles. Pretty soon all we’ll have are best-sellers—which are often pretty formulaic.
Weirdest unknown fact about you (that you are brave enough to share)?
I once worked in a uranium mine. That was a little unusual.
Any other updates?
I’ll be doing readings from This Jealous Earth in a few cities in January, February and March. If readers would like to learn more about these events—or if they’d like to inquire about the my availability for book groups (sometimes I do Skyped visits), they can find all the relevant information under “events” at www.sdcarpenter.com.
Excerpt from the story “Field Notes” in This Jealous Earth:
One evening near the end of our vacation Mom placed in the center of the table a vat of macaroni and cheese with little frankfurters mixed in, the size and color of pinkie fingers. Dad greeted this dish with a minced oath, and she shot back with how, if he didn’t like it, maybe we should go out for a meal. Well, maybe he would go to a restaurant, he allowed, if that’s what it took to get a decent meal around here. Conversation lulled after that. Forks clinked against the bowls, accompanied by the sound of five jaws laboring at undercooked pasta.
Above my bed that night I made out the dark outline of the ribbon of flypaper as it twisted slowly on its string. Several black dots showed dimly, one of them still budging. I imagined myself in the fly’s situation—only able to raise one foot by pushing down and sticking the other. There was no way out of glue like that. He was a goner, fully exposed on the strip of tan paper, not even able to turn invisible.
An animal crooned in the distance outside, and a flap of metal creaked in the wind. Willy wheezed in the bed to my left, and Neil’s deep breaths rumbled in the dark to my right. Something was different, a hint of atmospheric disturbance, as though the barometric pressure had plummeted and a storm was brewing.
This Jealous Earth is available in print and eBook formats from MG Press.