The Writers' Connection - E. C. Murray, Publisher          Wendy Hinman, Editor

 Scott Driscoll
with E.C. Murray

Scott Driscoll, author of Better You Come Home, is an award winning author, journalist and instructor who has been teaching creative writing for seventeen years at the University of Washington. Better You Go Home is the recipient of the Forewood First Debut Novel award. Note a fuller biography at the end of the interview.
At what age did you first determine you wanted to be a writer? Were you living in Seattle?
My first excitement for writing hit when I was in fifth grade. My English teacher, Mr. Megs, taught a more sophisticated version of grammar than many of the kids at our suburban school were able to appreciate. I fell in love with dependent clauses joined by conjunctions. “It hadn’t been my intention to cause trouble, yet, having earned a reprimand for speaking too loudly anyway, I decided to go ahead and ask to check out ten books at once, though, when informed by the librarian…” Clunky sure, but how those phrases bumped against one another. That started the love affair with language. It was not until I was twenty-one and traveling the world that it occurred to me, given that I now had the necessary time and leisure, I might try my luck with fiction. Quel horreur, as my French teacher liked to say. This impulse led to that incident at the boarding house in Darwin, Australia. Suffice it to say, I learned that I did not know what I was doing and that was the end of that. But the itch would not entirely go away. A year later, working in the overdraft department at an American Express Bank in Augsburg, Germany, taking my lunch hour at the local Kaserne library, munching peanuts pulled from my peacoat pocket to save money, I happened to pull off the shelf the trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett. I sat on the cold tile floor so as to be out of sight of the librarian and shelled and munched peanuts and stuffed the loose shells in my coat pocket and read and grew so angry, so incensed that this Nobel prize winner could call this a story that I threw the book against the stacks. Needless to say, I was reprimanded for real by this librarian. I picked up the book. I began again. Molloy. That voice got in my head. I could not shake it out. I was desperate to find out how Beckett produced that effect. That was the moment I really became a writer. Not that I got much writing done. I did start a novel in my attic flat on Aussere Maximillian Strasse, and later threw it away, but that is when I knew. I could not stop writing until I figured out how to get that voice out of my head.
How long between your Australian experience and your entering the University of Washington’s MFA program?
Thirteen years separated my adventure at the boarding house in Darwin and the fall when I started the MFA program at UW. In the meantime, I’d started and stopped and thrown away two novels. At an agent’s advice, I’d begun instead to write short stories, though nothing worth saving or worth submitting for publication to literary journals would come of that until my daughter was born. We were living in San Diego at the time. I was managing an apartment complex with a pool. It was midday, she was nestled in my arms and we were seated at the dining room table, her mom asleep in the back bedroom, when I realized I was telling my little wide-eyed sprout stories nonstop. Words flowed with little concern for structure. Okay, yes, I was imitating Beckett’s long monologue in Molloy, when an earthquake caused the ceiling light fixture directly above the table to sway. Popcorn ceiling dust rained like an apocalyptic mist. Now, I thought, considering your physical confinement, would be an excellent time to get serious about this enterprise to which you seem tethered.
I enjoyed Better You Come Home for the intriguing characters and plot, but equally for the fascinating insight into Czechoslovakia both in current day and in history. Which came first for you – the setting, Czechoslovakia, the characters, or the plot?
The setting, and the culture of Czechoslovakia came first. My grandmother in Cedar Rapids, Iowa spoke Czech. My aunt learned to speak Czech from her, but my father didn’t. Our family moved to Colorado. Summers we visited family in Iowa and my grandmother’s father, a terse, white-haired man who’d come to live with them, and who spoke no English, rocked on the front porch. I’d been told to leave him alone, but I found him fascinating. I’d play jacks on the porch so I could be nearby watching him. When I heard him speak, and learned of a far-away country with an impossible name to say, I imagined he must live in a castle that in my mind of course looked like Disney’s many-turreted knock-off of Neu Schwanstein. That’s how the seed was planted. Back in Iowa many years later for my aunt’s funeral, I discovered that she had a batch of untranslated letters sent from family in Eastern Bohemia. I found a priest at a parish nearby who was Czech and a relative of ours and who was willing to translate the letters. A few days after handing him the bundle, he handed it back, with translations enclosed, and said, “There. You have what you came for. I want to hear nothing further about this. Goodbye.” That intrigue caused me to travel to the Czech Republic to meet family and see the old farmhouse and hear stories. The idea and plot and most of the characters in the novel were born out of this search (all highly modified, of course).                                              
What aspect of the book was most difficult to write? Did you have any major elements—characters, plot twists, that you changed completely? 
Two things proved the hardest part of writing this novel to completion.The first was finding the central story line, then sticking to it. Once I started uncovering family stories, I wanted more. I went back, second time with a translator and took copious notes, shot many photos, and along the way read numerous books, histories, novels, essays. Of course, I wanted everything I knew to fall in there somehow. to his search for his Czech half-sister, coupled with his need for a kidney and the old conflict with his father, who had after all in effect abandoned his half-sister. I had to throw away several early chapters and write chapters beyond the first end that I’d imagined. An editor helped me make hardball decisions regarding what had to go. Then I hit the second problem. Because it took about ten years or even a little more to move from research notes to finished novel, my interests shifted. Meanwhile, I was reading books on torture as practiced in Eastern bloc countries and I wanted some of that material in there. So, in a late draft, I found myself shifting the heart of the story in the direction of a political intrigue. That changed the characters and, especially, changed the tone and quality of the dominant voice telling the story. Being only human, I couldn’t see this myself. I showed the novel to one agent, whom I happened to know. She read it. Her partner read it. They seemed disposed to want to like it, but ultimately it came down to: There is something about your main character that I don’t like. Maybe it’s his voice? His attitude? It’s hard to sell a book like this. I just don’t know that I believe in him enough. Something to this effect. I took a vacation for two weeks. Refused to look at a single word of the tome that had been my life’s project for the entirety of my son’s life. When I did come back to it, I saw exactly what I suppose she meant. The voice telling the story had become what I like to call “brittle,” that is to say, insincere, forced, trying to convince a jury of readers to believe a story he didn’t believe himself. I had to take out most of the new material and move up the family events and characters who were the true heart of the story. I rewrote the entire thing, start to finish, in eight months. Because this version was written quickly, the voice was consistent and stayed on task.And that’s the book with small changes, Better You Go Home, published by Coffeetown Press.
As the literary fiction instructor at the University of Washington’s School of Professional Education (note to reader: interviewer was one of Scott’s students and received the Literary Fiction certificate) can you name one of the two common difficulties that your students struggle with again and again?
My students at the UW School of Professional and Continuing Education are typically in their thirties and forties, some younger, some older, with degrees. They seek to discover, or rediscover a passion that career and family and mortgages buried under more pressing demands. This demographic produces ardent, yearning students. They know what they want, and they are hungry for it. My job is to teach them craft, the best way I know how, so that they will be enabled to succeed at least at some level in their quest to pursue a goal with this passion for writing. So I harp on certain things. Take narrative distance. The relationship between the owner of the words used (choices include: the author, a flaneur, an objective observer, a limited point of view character,) or free indirect discourse), the characters, the story, and the reader. This issue is at the heart of how stories get told. Learning how to control and manipulate narrative distance is perhaps the single most powerful weapon an emerging writer can have. So we spend a lot of time coming at it from various angles. What I continually run up against is a persisting prejudice that I swear sometimes seems like a form of mental illness. Too many of us have been taught that the words must belong to the character. That’s nonsense. You would know it’s nonsense if you picked up any novel you admire and parsed it line by line asking yourself: who speaks? On what occasion? To whom do the words belong? Told from what distance? Overcoming that prejudice is hard. The problem surfaced again in class just the other night. A writer hard at work on a novel that is highly autobiographical allowed the word “bloviate” to appear in the context of her young adult narrator visiting her mother at her step-father’s funeral. During workshop, the class criticized the author for using a word that would certainly not fall into the bucket of words available to that limited character. I once again had to point out that a flaneur, operating in an emotional trough of narrative summary, might certainly employ that word, if it accurately describes the character being observed.
For most new or fairly new authors, a financial investment is required, just as for debut artists and musicians. My hypothetical question to you is: if an aspiring writer had $6,000 to spend, how would you recommend they spend it? Classes? Books? Book Covers? Editors? Formatting? To a publisher? Newspaper Ads? Trailers? Copyeditor? Free giveaways? Etc?
With $6,000 to spend (sounds like a lot, but…), I’d say, if they really hope to have a chance to succeed (and I’m assuming they already own the necessary electronic devices), they should start by taking a series of classes. This will raise the level of professionalism in their writing. Some of that money should then go toward submitting to contests. When well along in the process, they should attend a conference or two. Some money should be invested in buying and reading books by authors doing well in their chosen genre. Whatever is left, and it won’t be much, should probably be spent on hiring a professional editor to do a thorough vetting of the manuscript before submission to editors or agents. Now the money is gone. If you should happen to get a publishing contract for your book you will need a new infusion of about $3000 to $5000 for the costs of promotion. But, this is an investment in yourself. It’s worth it.
I’ve heard it argued that the protagonist must be likeable, or at least interesting. Do you agree? How did you feel about Chico (in Better You Go Home)?
About likeable narrators. There are too many exceptions in stories or novels that I’ve enjoyed, so, no, I don’t agree with this statement. That said, however, I do feel it is necessary to have a protagonist to whom it is easily possible to extend empathy. If I have a strong sense of what disturbance a character is reacting to, and if I see that character mobilizing a desire to achieve a goal aimed at settling that disturbance, and if I sense within the character the presence of a contradictory desire, and if I see that character struggling against opposition, then I will probably find the character interesting, even if not likable. Keep in mind, when submitting manuscripts to agents or editors or readers who don’t know you, which is most of the time, it’s the voice telling the story that they will encounter, even before they get a chance to like or dislike your main character. Managing voice is as important as creating a main character for whom we feel empathy. About Chico, yes, of course, he’s very empathetic, right? Some Czech readers didn’t exactly agree. They felt he was being demeaning to Czech people at times. I was completely flabbergasted to hear this objection. Often, when pinned down to explain, what they were objecting to was the use of broken English when Czech characters spoke aloud to Chico, who can’t speak Czech. Or the use of descriptive language that seemed too eager to point out flaws, in their opinion. I wanted to achieve a high level of realism. The world I tried to create in my novel includes, as they say, the good, bad, and ugly.
What should readers feel about the antagonist to make him a successful character? Must the motivation in the antagonist be as defined and transparent as it is in the protagonist?
A strong antagonist is a good foil for your protagonist. Keep in mind the dictum that even bad guys believe they’re doing what’s best. We may not share their values, and we might not like their methods, but they believe that it is right for them to pursue their goals, just as the protagonist believes it is right. In the novel I am currently reading, every main character is a protagonist when it’s their story being told. Because we can extend empathy to all, it’s hard at times to know who to root for. We want to root for them all, even knowing that ultimately, because of a war situation, the actions of one will likely destroy the other.
What are the best ways to reveal motivation? (Backstory comes to mind readily.)
Motivation arises from a combination of factors. At the heart of it is what is buried in the character’s familiar world. The best advice I have heard on the subject of what motivates a character to do what they do is to understand subtext. What does that mean? That means ask yourself a series of questions about your character: What does s/he fear? What does s/he need? What does s/he most want (or yearn for, what are they passionate about, obsessive about)? What desire is s/he repressing? And, finally, what “darkness of the soul” does this character finally want exposed? But, underneath all that, it’s very very important to establish what this character values (what does this character consider worth living for? What would this character consider dying for?).
What recommendations do you have for aspiring writers?
Aspiring writers should keep in mind that while the writing itself can be a lonely enterprise, they are not in this alone. Take classes. Learn craft. Participate in writing critique groups that can workshop your manuscripts at a level that is at or above your skill level. When you feel you’ve learned something about craft, deliberately imitate the work of an author you admire. You will learn more from this than any other method, but it won’t do you much good if you don’t first learn the fundamentals of craft. Be willing to take chances. Push your characters beyond limits you would place on yourself. Don’t protect your characters. Make them suffer the consequences of their flawed behavior. The list could go on. Most importantly, persist. Persist and persist and persist. Those who succeed are not always the smartest or best writers. They are the ones who put in the hard work and persist, persist, persist.
Thanks so much Scott.
Better You Go Home
An award-winning instructor (the University of Washington, Educational Outreach award for Excellence in Teaching in the Arts and Humanities 2006), Scott Driscoll holds an MFA from the University of Washington and has been teaching creative writing for the University of Washington Extension for seventeen years. He writes feature stories on subjects ranging from health to philanthropy to education to general reporting for Alaska and Horizon Airlines Magazines, but he also does profiles and book reviews, including an October 2010 profile for Ferrari Magazine 11, and a July/August '08 profile in Poets and Writers Magazine. His short stories and narrative essays have been published extensively in literary journals and anthologies, including Image Magazine, Far From Home (a Seal Press anthology), Ex-Files: New Stories About Old Flames (a Context Books fiction anthology featuring high-profile writers such as David Foster Wallace, Jennifer Egan, and Junot Diaz), The Seattle Review, Crosscurrents, Cimarron Review, The South Dakota Review, Gulfstream, American Fiction '88 and others. Driscoll has been awarded seven Society of Professional Journalists awards for social issues reporting, and best education reporting and general reporting 2004. His narrative essay about his daughter's coming of age was cited in the Best American Essays, 1998, and while in the MFA program, he won the University of Washington's Milliman Award for Fiction (1989).Contact: 
 “Writing for me is about applying form to the mysteries we suffer. The job requires inspiration for sure. And some invention, it's about knowing how a story gets built, then pouring the raw material of life into the forms to see what truths emerge. When I find the material I care about deeply, and stiffen it with scaffolding, writing emerges.”


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