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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Pups of Letters, no. 1: James Simpson

I have a lovely, cosy feeling of satisfaction. I'm actually doing my New Year's Resolutions! Normally I never even remember what they were by March. Here is the first of my interviews with some of the younger writers (they don't have to be young in years, but they are novices) who have contacted me. They are drenched in aspiration and perspiration on the road to a first book.

Number one is James Simpson. I hope he will forgive me for pillaging the accompanying photographs off his Flickr collection. I'll swap and forgive him for quoting some of my immortal poetic wisdom!

And here he is.

* * * * * * *

I am up here in Cooperstown, writing a novel about the South. You are down South, writing a novel about Cooperstown. Explain yourself.

Both of my parents are from New York State (my mother in Lebanon, my father on Long Island), and my sister was born in Brooklyn Heights. Although my brother and I both were born in Florida, I've always felt a connection with the Empire State. My maternal grandparents owned a summer home in Cooperstown, and from the time I was four until the time my grandmother died when I was seven, we spent summers at their house on Leatherstocking Street, and later, Grove Street.

To me, Cooperstown is a place that has remained relatively unchanged. Long-time residents would probably disagree, what with the baseball theme park and influx of increasingly rude fans, but it's arguably one of the most unique villages in the country. It's a place I've always wanted to write about, but for the longest time I hadn't a clue what that might be. I'm sure there were many things at work lurking in my subconscious all these years, but basically, Cooperstown seemed a perfect and iconic setting for me to explore memory and history. The town simply exudes history.

Can you tell us about the book? (That can be done obliquely, if you don't like to talk about something "in progress.")

It's about a man who moves his family to Cooperstown after inheriting a large chunk of land from his uncle. Not knowing quite what to do with it, he visits the village and is surprised to find his grandparents' house for sale. With the proceeds of the sale of the land, he buys the old house and a small business off Main St. Through many seasons there he learns more about his parents than he ever thought possible and discovers the true story of his uncle's tragic death. He also reconnects with his globetrekking older brother and suffers through his wife's retelling of his childhood through a series of highly successful children's books featuring a pair of wacky penguin brothers.

Is the act of writing a novel: a.) a Frodo-esque quest; b.) an Ishmael-esque whaling adventure; c.) an investiture of the self in poky corners and bottom-to-chair velcro; or, d.) something entirely different, which you are not at liberty to explain. If you cannot answer by letter, explain yourself once more.

Definitely (c). It's about setting aside time each day to write, finding a routine and sticking to it. A wise and wonderfully unique writer once fed me some hortative doggerel advising me to write a page a day, to "sit my butt in chair, write in vestments rare, write in woven hair, write when dratted bare." I don't always get that page a day, but I try at least to follow the spirit of those sage words: I keep my feelers out all the time, looking for anything that might work within the story.

Write a 100-word sketch fit for a stuffy biographical tome, bragging on yourself and your writing strenuously but with dignity.

The bio would probably mention something about a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but unfortunately that phrase has been taken. Instead, I'll point you in the direction of my favorite defunct literary journal, Big City Lit, founded and produced by the late Maureen Holm. She edited and published my first story, which she later nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I worked with her on two subsequent stories, and she was a true writer's friend, as sharp an editor as there ever was. I get teary whenever I think of her. Seriously. Go here while I take a moment:

A short bio appears at the end of the story.

Write a 100-word sketch fit for the highly cool 'zine, Solar Necktie.

I'm not nearly cool enough to appear in Solar Necktie. Sorry.
Tell me about the most secret corner--the place most satisfying to a child--of your grandparents' house on Leatherstocking St.

The attic. This is odd because attics weren't places I frequented as a kid due to the ever-present possibility of monsters and other unspeakable horrors (a madwoman in the attic?). But directly under the roof of the Coop house there lived the most wonderful old toys. I remember an old red fireman's helmet, Tinker Toys, trucks. I can still smell the musty wood, see the rain streaming down the tiny window and hear its gentle patter above me.

You evidently are enmeshed in some sort of critique group. Is this jolly? Is this useful? "Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

The coffee's nice, as well as the camaraderie. And the criticism ain't bad either! Besides, I don't incessantly stand on my head during our meetings, and if I feared it might injure my brain, I'm perfectly sure I have none. (Wink, wink).

What is daunting and dampening to the heart of a novice writer?

Beginning is the most daunting, facing that blank page and trying to push aside the fear of failing by allowing yourself to write what Anne Lamott refers to as the "shitty first draft." My blog is the G-rated version of that -- I've got young impressionable kids! [They won't read this.] As for writing a novel, I've got E.L. Doctorow's well-worn quote in a tiny frame on my desk: "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." It's true, but my problem is that I have horrible night vision.

What is encouraging and enlivening to the same?

I'm encouraged when someone is moved by something I've written, when connections are made. That's deeply satisfying. Also, when I'm writing and totally immersed in the characters or some dialogue, a scene perhaps, my brain firing away on all cylinders and suddenly something jumps out on the page. It's usually totally out of the blue, nothing I've planned (consciously, at least) but it works perfectly for the story. Those are the moments of the creative process that amaze me. After those moments, I'm often reminded of a scene from The Last Waltz, Scorsese's 1978 documentary on The Band's final tour. The keyboard player, Garth Hudson, begins a song with this swirling, otherworldly riff that goes whirling around above the stage, and Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko look up, smiling, shaking their heads in wonder as if to say, 'How'd he do that? That was awesome!' Who knows; maybe they were just stoned. I like to think it was magic.

You appear to be a fan, shall we say, of Fan Yang's bubbles and of toast. Do these things have anything to do each other? Do they have anything to do with your novel, directly or in some subterranean way?

Who doesn't love bubbles and toast? (Separately, of course.) Neither has anything to do with the novel. I saw a photo of Fan Yang in Parade Magazine in the Sunday paper a few years ago. He had this supernatural look on his face, very mesmerizing. I researched the guy and discovered this bizarre subculture of professional bubble blowing performance artists. Now there's a fun story waiting to be written. And toast? Well, toast and I go way back.

Is there such a thing as useful advice for a youngish, as-yet-unpublished novelist? What is it?

Read everything. Everyone says it, but it's true. Even if it's bad, read it -- you don't have to finish it, though, just learn from it. Above all, write. Rewrite. Edit. Write some more. Revise, read aloud to yourself what you've written. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

What pleases you most in a book?

An engaging, believable (within the realm of the book's world) story. Realistic dialogue. Nothing turns me off more quickly than stilted, affected dialogue. I also love a good Acknowledgments page. I don't know why, I just do. Ask Ingrid Hill.

What three revelatory, enlightening questions did I fail (miserably!) to ask? Do not answer them.

1). Why do you spend so much time working on something that people might never read? (I'm not good at much else.)

2). Who's your favorite Stooge? (Moe.)

3). Ginger or Mary Ann? (Jeannie) Sorry, I can't let questions go unanswered.

Thanks, Marly, this has been fun. I feel like such a minor celebrity!

You can find more about James Simpson at his blog, Shoddy First Draft.


  1. Marly...I have an inkling that my in-depth analysis of potential still-life objects at markets and of subjects in human faces are akin to your usage of blogdom to consume us as potential subjects for your act(s) of creation. Thank you for continuing to share these diverse souls!

  2. Thanks for popping by and giving us a listen! I love what you're doing here.

  3. Coincidentally, we are planning an issue on the two themes of Toast & Bubbles and invite Mr. Simpson to submit, if we do not go under first. So many of our kind go under!

    At this point, we have neither computer nor website and distribute our wares randomly and surreptitiously by depositing them in mailbags and via little red wagons. Look for us in any of these outlets near you.

    Hattie Veerbohm
    Max O
    Joe Rattlesnap
    The Editors

  4. Over-the-sea Amanda--

    One might say that the writer is a predatory creature. One might say that she risks losing hold of the magnetic chain of humanity, as Hawthorne feared. One might say that she is unremittingly curious. Or that she is fond of seeing what other people do. Or that she just plain old likes people. Or that she lives in the absolute boondocks and depends on a few gossamer lines to connect her to people who have a passion for art.

    But you would know whether one or some or all might possibly be true!


    Oh, it was delicious! If anybody else wants a listen, that's Greg singing an aria from the Stabat Mater--see his March 11 post. If you see semi-naked men, you've gone too far. So to speak. (Greg is a dear friend of Susanna, the memorable first victim of "I Interview my Readers.")

    You are so blessed to have that splendid soprano voice. I'm counting on hearing it in a Glimmerglass opera some day...

    And thanks.

    solar necktie,

    Thanks for your interest. I'll be dragging out my little red wagon come spring.

  5. very enjoyable

    THe novel sounds great. I love that his wife tortures him by turning his childhood into stories.

    and I love the last waltz, great music.

    I was encouraged by several of the things you said. I am no professional writer, but I have times where I want to create a narrative just to remember things and elaborate on things, but I sit down and face that blank page that you mentioned and I just think I dont dont know what to do...or Im to tired and your headlight reference is really insightful.

    very good interview.

  6. James Simpson's novel-in-progress sounds wonderful. Since it's a "first novel" I have a great deal of hope and confindence that he will pour his heart, soul, and talent into each and every page. I send him my very best wishes towards its completion and finding his "voice," the right match for a literary agent--one who knows where to place his work and will partner with him until it's published, and most of all, that he will take his readers on a journey that they will never forget.
    Eileen St. Lauren
    South Mississippi Writer
    Momma said, "Just Write!"

    Momma said, Just Write!

  7. One more thing, if properly developed I believe that James Simpson's story has the potential to be a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie.
    The undertones, the depth of the story-line has that heartwarming, family--past, present, and future--events that mold or change an individual's life that the general public can find themselves captivated by.
    In short, I can "see" this story....
    "Keep writing!"

  8. Susanna,

    Penguin frolics! I like that idea, too.


    Those are good wishes for a writer...

  9. Eileen, thanks for your kind wishes and words of encouragement. I'm a sucker for those Hallmark Hall of Fame movies, too.

    Susanna, I'm glad I could offer encouragement to you. You tell wonderfully engaging stories already.

    Thanks everyone, and especially Marly for the spotlight.


  10. From the Marvelous Coincidence Dept.: Big City Lit has been resurrected and they're accepting submissions (including poetry) for the Spring 2007 issue.

    Go to for details.

    Just in time for Easter....

  11. That's cheerful, isn't it? Jim, that was a nice tribute to Maureen Holm...

    You ought to see it up here tonight. It got warm (by local standards) and a lot of snow melted (though we have much, much left), and then it rained. We have had the most splendid white fog all evening, very lovely and pure.

  12. Cooperstown sounds really nice, especially with fog. He should put up a picture of the old cooperstown house.

  13. I so enjoyed this interview, Marly. I will now go check out his blog! And congrats on your perseverance, industry and fidelity.

  14. That's a lovely idea, Susanna! I need to walk by and see which house it is, too.

    Laura, it's very nice of you to pat me on the back for giving James a lot of work to do!


    Fooh. Fresh inches to shovel. The radio said 16, but whatever it is, it is enough.

  15. I feel a bit like Wolfe writing about the Old Kentucky Home fictionalized as Dixieland.

    JB and Jo's house was 11 Leatherstocking, but in my book it's 10 (genius, eh?). "Eleven Leatherstocking" is somewhat of a tongue-twister, at least to me as I read & speak it, thus ten.

    I don't have a photo handy, as I've made some additions in my mind and would rather have that idealized image with me as I write.

    I'll dig through some old boxes and try to post an image on my blog.

  16. Brilliant interview, MArly. Thankyou.Great guy with great book.
    (And that advice from Momma: " just write!" obvious, so honest, so true...but so hard..

  17. Ah, there we go.

    Another person giving me credit for brilliance when Jim did all the work.

    Thanks, Jan!

  18. Hurrah for James--he recommended Big City Lit.

    Hurrah for Eileen--she sent them a story, and it was accepted.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.