This week’s edition of Aspiring Voices finds us talking to the fascinating George Wells. George’s work has been featured in Spark: A Creative Anthology. We collided minds to talk about using personal experience as fuel for writing, using family and friends as blueprints for characters, how to establish a setting so that readers will accept implausible events and what inspired him to move south of the border.
Paul: I saw from your website that you were told by teachers growing up that you were a writer, but it took until you were around forty years old to sort of own that label. What do you think made being a writer a thing that you feared and what allowed you to overcome it?
George: I’ve suffered from self-esteem problems and social anxiety disorder for most of my life, something that I still struggle with. I was a terrible student, but when I did do my assignments, my teachers praised the potential of my work. My reaction to that, given those problems, was a fear of the attention I was receiving. Instead of focusing on the positive attention, my mind went straight to “attention”, and I backed away quickly.
When I went to college, I was doing a little better, and signed up for a creative writing class. I dropped out after a month. Again, I was getting a lot of positive feedback on the few opening scenes and character sketches, but I felt so under the microscope that my old anxieties were plaguing me again. I started to get sick just thinking about the class. I wouldn’t write another word of fiction for 20 years.
Over the years, I lived a lot, much of it difficult, including losing five important people to death in a five year time span, and two weeks in a mental institution after a nervous breakdown. I enjoy telling those stories, and people told me I should write a book about my experiences. It took a while, but I remembered that I was a writer. Ms McKean told me that in the 6th grade, Mr Veatch told me in 11th grade, Bill told me that in college. I tried not to believe them, but I was finally at a point in life where I could consider that they were telling the truth.
I was also in a good place with my anxieties. Despite still being fearful of social situations, I became a teacher at 30, and have taught groups as big as 20 students. I could do this. I found a writing group, wrote a story, submitted it when the time came, and waited for the dreaded feedback.
The verdict? Interesting, but with so many problems. I was torn to shreds. It was confusing, disjointed, it took too long to get to the point, etc. However, everybody said that there was enough good in the writing to keep them interested in seeing more, in watching the story take shape through rewrites. I was most surprised at my reaction. I wasn’t hurt or scared. I was thankful, and ready to keep on writing.
That was three years ago now. I am writing, submitting, getting accepted some, but mostly rejected. And I’m doing fine.
I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to believe in myself and in those who believed in me.
Paul: Sounds like you’ve got a lot of life experiences to draw upon when you write. How do you think things like losing a lot of people close to you in a short span of time or dealing with the mental health system have informed or influenced your writing? Do you ever think that without those experiences you’d have a harder time creating fiction?
George: We’ve all had life experiences, and I had certainly lived an interesting life even before all of that, but I think those incidents played a big part in my decision to go for it.
I have a good friend who is a therapist, and while he wasn’t my doctor, we have discussed my issues a lot. In the hospital, I was the only patient who had not attempted suicide. My friend asked me if I had ever thought about it. I had to answer honestly that no, I hadn’t. Why? Because whatever happens in life, good or bad, it’s just too interesting to pass up. After going through all of that, I found myself in awe of life.
While I will probably never write it in memoir, I do incorporate a lot of those elements into my stories. For example, in one story, the main characters are in a mental hospital. There is a short argument with a nurse, which is almost verbatim from a discussion I had. In another, during a post Mass funeral procession, a mentally challenged man runs into the street, yells and bangs on the back of the hearse. That happened while we were following my husband’s hearse. I often use events from my real life, but in a very different context.
Paul: [laughs] Wow, that’s intense! Must have been quite a scene. With that awe of life you mentioned, do you find that in spite of the trials you’ve endured your work is primarily hopeful or optimistic, or does your worldview not necessarily impact the focus of your writing?
George: I do my best to be hopeful in life, but when I’m writing, I let the chips fall where they may. One of the most satisfying comments I’ve ever received on a story called it “bleak and negative.” That doesn’t mean that I want to be remembered as the guy who writes terribly depressing stories, either, but that particular one was destined for an unhappy ending from its inception. On the other hand, I wrote another about my own death, and that has a very uplifting ending.
I think it works best when it’s organic. No happy or sad ending is going to work if it’s forced, no matter what my mother says.
Paul: That’s so true. I feel the same way. How do you determine what a story needs to be, tone-wise? Do you plan out a lot of your work, or are you more of a discovery-writer type and you just sort of let it roll out however it’s going to go? Do you ever sit down and think, “Okay I’ve written a lot of really depressing stuff, let’s try for an upbeat one now”?
George: I mostly write flash fiction or short stories, from 500 to 3,000 words at most, and I don’t outline them very often, but I will let them percolate in my head. I keep a list of prompts and ideas on my computer, and by the time I get to writing them I have an inkling of where they’re going. Then I can choose the story for the writing session based on how I feel at the time, if I’m in the mood for something happy, sad, funny, whatever.
I’m also working on a novel, and of course I have to change my tack for that. It’s still in the planning stages, but I know it has a happyish ending. I appreciate that kind of ending more, not a happily-ever-after, more an everybody’s going to as well as can reasonably be expected, given the circumstances. You can’t not write the scene because you’re not in that mood that day when there’s so much work to get done.
Paul: Care to give the twitter or elevator pitch for the novel, or do you prefer to work in secrecy until it’s closer to being completed?
Sisters cleaning up the mess their estranged father left behind finally get to know him, themselves, and each other.
I don’t know if that’s a good logline, though. I’m still working on that. It’s going to mean a lot of planning and plotting, since I will be looking at three different time periods to give background to show how the family got to where it is, and why the sisters are different after having lived through the same family situations.
Paul: That sounds interesting, I know pitch summaries are a big pain in the neck for me, too.
What made you want to write about complex family dynamics like that? Is this more of the kind of thing that is drawn from your life experiences, or did this story germinate with you in a different way?
George: A huge chunk of the core story is directly from my family’s history. No character is a complete representation of any family member, but I took elements from both of my parents’ background and built upon that. So the main character is a mix of my mother and me, her mother is based on my father’s mother, who was bipolar.
I also take from stories that friends tell me and other people I’ve run into. For example, the main character’s father is partially based on an old friend of mine. He was a heavy drinker for years, and when he quit, he started hoarding. I remember the last time I was at his place, about 20 years ago, he had all these tennis rackets in the corner. It was especially worrisome because he didn’t actually play tennis.
We have also had experience with hoarders in the family, and my mother and aunt were left to clean it up twice, finding some very telling objects while going through it all. That’s a big part of the sisters’ journey here, connecting objects to a man they hardly knew.
Family stories fascinate me because of my own family. We’re very close, and are there for each other no matter what. I know people who haven’t talked to a member of their nuclear family for years, and I find that mind-boggling. As I get to know these sisters in this story, I see that they are very different, they have conflicts that go way back, they drive each other crazy, but not loving each other is not an option. This uncomfortable situation forces them to finally find a solution.
Paul: “Not loving each other is not an option.” I really like this sentiment.
I think most writers tend to create characters that are, at least at first, composites of people they’ve known in real life. Do you ever worry—or maybe more like wonder, depending on how much you care what other people think—that people are going to recognize themselves in the characters you create? Do you think the evolution process of developing or discovering your characters differentiates them enough so that you always have kind of a plausible deniability about where character origins lie? Or are there occasions where you just kind of say, “Forget it, this was my experience with you and you made it into my book, for better or worse?”
George: It’s more of a problem for memoirists. When I first started developing the idea, the first thing I did was discuss it with my mother, since it is taking some elements from her life and her experiences. I needed her to understand that I wanted to use some of those things, but only as a springboard, and it wouldn’t be her life story. After some discussion, she agreed that it really isn’t her story. There’s so much mixing and matching of characters and events. I figure that if anything is going to make her uncomfortable, it would be best to know before investing a lot of time in the project, but she’s been very supportive and even throws out ideas from other family stories.
Luckily, most of the people from the source material, my family, are dead. They can’t really protest. As for friends, I don’t take enough that I think anybody would recognize themselves. If I thought that were the case, I would ask. I wrote a short creative fiction piece last year that used an event from a friend’s life, only one sentence: The first thing I did after he left was to burn the steel-toed boots he used to kick me with. I sent her the piece and asked her permission, even though I changed her name.
I guess that’s the choice we’re left with: make the character distinguishable from any source or ask permission. Legal issues aside, it’s just the right thing to do.
Paul: That’s very true, and I suppose if you are pulling events from real life whole cloth without even scuffing the surface you have to reach out and ask. Maybe my life just isn’t that interesting and I always have to embellish.
When you sit down to incorporate these kinds of borrowed experiences into your work, do you ever worry that a reader might think, “Oh, yeah right.” Or even worse, that an editor will come back and say, “You’ve got to change this, it’s not believable enough”? Is there a sense that because you’re drawing out of experience that you have an obligation to be true to the source or are you willing to play with details to get the fiction working?
George: It’s more important that it reads as believable. It doesn’t matter if it’s memoir, creative non-fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, whatever. If you check out the IMDB page for Star Trek, for example, there are plenty of nitpicks about the technology not behaving as it’s supposed to in that universe. If the warp engine behaves in a way that is illogical to the established science, viewers are disappointed. It doesn’t matter that warp technology doesn’t even exist. The same goes for any kind of fiction. If I use an event from real life and readers say it isn’t believable, I have to take into account that I probably missed the mark in the telling, and not come back with, “But that’s how it happened!” That’s not an acceptable answer. Of course, it also depends on how many readers find it unbelievable, and if their protest comes from blatant ignorance. For example, if I have a bipolar character hallucinating demons, the reader might say that I’ve misdiagnosed the character, not knowing that I got that information from a good friend’s experience with bipolar disorder. I still have to sell it with the writing as best I can.
Paul: Obviously a lot is going to depend on the specific scene and situation, but what are some things a writer can do to really stick the landing with these kinds of maybe hard-to-swallow events?
George: Well, I still struggle with that at times, but I think a big part of it is understanding that the reader doesn’t have your knowledge and experience. There has to be an internal logic to the story, but if your reader doesn’t have the rule book, you could be in trouble.
For example, I was recently workshopping a story set here in Mexico, where two cab drivers get in a fist fight and one ends up with a broken nose. They calm down and the nosebreaker sets his opponent’s nose. This tripped several readers up, because the story didn’t state facts that I took for granted. First, the wait for medical attention at a government run hospital here can be very long, so setting your nose on the street makes perfect sense; second, that most working class Mexican men know how to set a nose, even their own, if necessary; and finally, that honor among adversaries is not too uncommon here. Two Mexicans read the story and didn’t say a thing about that part.
The challenge with introducing that kind of information is doing it in such a way that you inform the reader without it coming across as obvious exposition. The further you get from common knowledge, the greater the challenge. I should probably go back to reading sci-fi and fantasy novels to see how they deal with it.
Paul: I think the benefit science fiction has is that there is no presumption of familiarity. Often times the setting and details are expected to come out of the author’s mind, so readers don’t mind being told, “okay, in this society, grudges and long conflicts are basically frowned upon”. In contemporary fiction it can be harder to contextualize basic rules of interaction because, for better or worse, most people think they already know how the world functions. On the other hand, you get to play with those assumptions and expectations. I’m not sure Americans really have a true sense of honor, for example, so the notion of adversarial honor is fascinating on the surface of it. Maybe those are the kind of hooks you can use to impart the internal logic or frame the events of the story so they aren’t jarring to readers.
George: Thank you for your thoughts on that. As I said, I’m still working on all this, so any advice is welcome from fellow writers.
Paul: Are you originally from Mexico, or did you move there at some point?
George: I’m from the Sacramento Valley in California originally. I tell people I’m from Sacramento, but that’s only partially true. When I was seven, we moved out of the city, and I grew up in a rural area. I went from walking around the corner to school to taking an hour long bus ride. I didn’t like it initially, but I’m happy to have had the experience. I’ve got some country and some city in me, so I’m comfortable living in both, but I really am a city boy at heart. I lived in Sacramento for a time as an adult, then in Berkeley, California for a few years. I moved to Guadalajara in 2001.
I was a sous chef in California, and I studied Spanish in college, so I was able to make friends with the Mexicans I worked with. One close friend suggested that I move here, seeing how much I took to the culture. I had also wanted to be a teacher when I was a kid, so this was an opportunity to do that. I took the certification course and moved down with the intention of staying forever. It’s going well so far.
Paul: Okay, one last question; this is the one I’m asking everyone: Tell me about the best book you’ve read recently.
George: This is a terrible thing for an author to say, but it’s been a while since I’ve gotten through a novel. I’ve been focusing so much on workshopping that I tend to read other people’s short stories or novel chapters. I am currently reading His Family by Ernest Poole, the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize, as part of a long term project to read all the winners. It’s slow going, though.
The last thing I read from cover to cover was Spark: A Creative Anthology, Volume II. My story, Patron Saint of the Lowlands, features in it, and Brian Lewis, Editor-in-Chief, asked me to help him with a final proofread on it. I enjoyed all of the stories, some more than others, of course, but Brian has put together a solid collection and I’m glad to be part of it. There’s some good poetry, too. I’m not much of a poetry reader, but that’s something else I’m trying to change.
George Wells is an American expatriate who teaches English and writes in Guadalajara, Mexico. He mainly writes literary flash fiction for anthologies.
He is currently a regular contributor to Spark: A Creative Anthology, and his short To The River will be featured the forthcoming Volume III, available in October. Check out George’s blog, follow him on Twitter, and Like his page on Facebook.