The following is an interview that appeared in the Writers Connection Newsletter in March, 2019.
E.C. Murray with Peter Mountford
ECM: First, thanks so much this interview. I find writing fiction extraordinarily difficult. Most challenging is establishing depth of character. George Lucas wrote seventy pages before he came to the beginning of Star Wars. You've written that you know "oceans" about your characters; that "you inhabit them." How do you do that?
PM: Character development can be extremely hard, or else it’s the easiest thing in the world. I think there are basically two methods of really getting to know a character: one is to have them be based on yourself and/or someone you know very well. Sometimes I take someone I know, and put them in the body of an actor who I’ve seen on screen. Then they’re very easy to see.
The other method, which you probably have to do anyway, is to really research their life. Go find their elementary school, and the house they grew up in, and where do they live now. It’s as if you’re going to write a feature article about a real person, you have to do similar work. I often find real places on Google maps now—and choose a house for them. With a new character I’m working on, I just tried writing a pages intake session for him with a psychotherapist. I wrote it in first person with lots of his interior thoughts and perceptions. The scene will not be in the book, of course. But it was very informative for me. What does he do for fun when he’s not working? How does he see his childhood? I have my students in one of my yearlong classes at Hugo House doing the same for their characters.
Elizabeth George spends more than a year studying her characters in this way, learning everything about their compulsions and psychological makeup, their needs, desires and eccentricities. Then you can put that character into a situation and you understand how they see the situation, what they will do, and so on.
ECM: Many aspiring writers start and restart their manuscripts, getting so bogged down they never finish. Do you have a linear process for tying together your research, plot, and character development? Some people use note cards, some sticky notes on a white board, some pen and legal pad. Some absorb their research, some go back and forth between the manuscript and their research notes. What do you do?
PM: Like a lot of people, I love writing that first 50-70 pages of a book. There’s little to no prep—it’s fun and free and anything’s possible. It’s a lot like the beginning of a relationship. Infatuation. No one is worried about who takes out the trash. There is no trash in a new relationship! Lorrie Moore once said something about how a short story is a wildly exciting love affair, and a novel is a marriage. With a novel, at some point it’s time to get serious…like are you going to move in with this novel and live with it? How is this actually going to work?
So I do that first 50 pages and then I pause and explore characters deeply, and thoroughly. I map out the major turning points. Five or six of them. I’m working on a detective novel now, and that’s a slightly different thing, because you need to know from the outset who the killer is and lots of other information that the reader won’t know until the final 10% of the book. You need a collection of suspects and red herrings. I don’t really believe in taking a full outline too seriously, since you don’t truly know what will really happen until you’re on the ground, so to speak. You can plan the next 8-15 scenes with some degree of accuracy, but the further down you’re planning the more it’s just a bit of a guessing game, because while you’re on the page things come up, opportunities and so on. You have to respect the plan but also respect the information that emerges in the moment.
Editing or re-writing can be a procrastination tool for writers who are afraid to exit the comfort of that carefree first 50 pages. To commit to the book. I often open a new document called “ACT II” or something and then I’m forced to proceed, because the original pages aren’t in front of me anymore. Also, revising on a computer is dicey, people become cavalier on the computer. It’s better to print and make notes with pen and then if they’re really that valuable you can input them later.
ECM: Many writers claim there’s a difference between writing, publishing and reaching readers in New York versus Seattle - that writers in Seattle are at a disadvantage. What are your thoughts?
PM: Knowing people in publishing does help. Of course relationships matter—it’s a fact of any business. And 90% of publishing is in New York. I’d say that attracting the attention of these gatekeepers by attending lots of Paris Review parties or whatever is actually a labor-intensive and limiting approach. Better to get on their radar through publishing essays or stories that these people read and admire.
Ultimately, publishing begets more publishing. If you’ve had stories in Tin House (RIP!), and A Public Space, and Southern Review, then any agent will pay close attention to whatever you send them. Roxane Gay, for example, didn’t spend years hobnobbing in New York, but instead spent years writing and publishing fiction and nonfiction constantly, building a lively social media presence, and in time she was well known and admired by the gatekeepers, and was signing major book deals. Anthony Doerr has lived in Boise his entire career and it’s going pretty well for him. You write stuff that people will notice and they will, in fact, notice.
ECM: Your prose, like many writers I admire, is precise and lyrical. Do you have suggestions for writing strong, poetic prose?
PM: Lots of cutting. Also, read it aloud and imagine there’s a sizeable audience in front of you. Now how do you like that sentence? I spend upwards of 10 hours a week working with clients as a writing coach and manuscript consultant and I also often read my clients’ work aloud to them. It sounds awkward but it’s not. I pause whenever something occurs to me. Could be as simple as “oh, that’s a great detail,” or, “I’m confused by this,” or, “I like how you organize the tension here, making it really clear, but this metaphor is taking me away from the specificity of this situation.” People’s writing improves quickly this way. There’s nowhere to hide. And they begin to see what a person will actually experience while reading their work.
I’d discourage lyricism for the sake of lyricism. It’s like a long guitar solo in a song that doesn’t need it. The prose style has to be organic to the character and the point of view. If you’re writing from the POV of a 12-year-old boy, he’s probably not going to be admiring a stand of poplar trees, or whatever, or deploying canny metaphors. You don’t have to strip away the charm and descriptiveness, but you also want to honor the basic framework for the character’s perspective.
Generally speaking, selecting very apt verbs and nouns does a lot of work, also a natural but varied syntax. Generally avoid describing emotions—they’re abstract. As William Carlos Williams said, “No ideas but in things.” There are some fairly straightforward techniques that can help make your prose feel alive.
ECM: When I start a work of fiction, an idea comes to me and I feel I absolutely must write that story. Is this true for you, or do you start with a larger purpose - a theme - you'd like to explore? It seems one theme, or stream, you write about is that no matter how hard you work to make the right decision, you cannot predict the outcome. If this is correct-that you aimed to explore this idea, where in your process did it come?
PM: Yeah, I feel that too. With short stories in particular, it’s often just a character in a situation. And it’s so alive with conflict and engaging thematic potential, and then it’s a lot of fun to write. The thing writes itself, in a way. I love that. But generally I find the theme while writing, and that organizes my revision. Halfway through, I say oh, this story or novel is about x and y and z. Then I have to go back and make sure that it’s really about that—everything that is extraneous to that theme is omitted, and characters and situations are re-imagined to add pressure to that theme, or make it do something interesting.
Like my Modern Love column about a table and chairs I inherited. While I was working on it I realized that the table was a metaphor for connection and community and embracing your past, even the difficult flawed parts of your past. Once that theme was clear, I just went through the piece and removed anything that wasn’t bolstering that theme—the first draft to the final draft was a radical change, but it wasn’t hard. The first draft felt like an episode of Antiques Roadshow, or something, fun, sure, but ultimately frivolous.
ECM: We all know our writing shouldn’t be boring. Do you have any tricks to make your writing “un-boring?” Riveting, scintillating, engaging?
PM: Absolutely, and I talk about these in my classes at Hugo House, and with my coaching clients. A lot of what’s crucial is to put the source of tension in front of the reader more or less immediately. A lot of students and clients of mine have taken the idea of building mystery and assumed all mystery is created equal, and that’s not quite true. Some unproductive mystery would be like who is this person and what do they care about, or what do they want. That can sap heat from a story. Is this person old or young? Are they inside or outdoors during this scene? Those questions are distracting and create confusion. A reader needs to see need to see those things as quickly as possible.
Very often in their zeal for writing scenes, people forget the importance of simply coming out and saying something to the reader. They spend a page getting the reader into a very situation that might be interesting, sort of, but in the process they’ve neglected to tell us anything substantial about the characters or the situation. Often you have to let a narrator narrate a bit more—a little more telling and less showing.
My essay called “The Laughter Club” which appeared in The Sun a couple years ago opens with the following two sentences: “If you happen to survive base-jumping with a bum parachute in Montana, or make it through a gory woodchipper mishap in Alaska, Harborview Medical Center—the only Level One Trauma Center in the Pacific Northwest—is where you’ll end up. My job there was to collect anesthesia records—crumpled yellow sheets covered with doctors’ scribbles—and determine how much patients owed for their life-saving, if temporary, failure to feel.” The relevant information is right there.
ECM: What are a few elements that contributed to you being the writer you are today? What tips do you have for aspiring writers?
PM: My main thing was that I like the act of writing, the experience itself. And it was helpful to realize that publication and so on is a way to buy time to write. My goal is to have at least 20 hours a week to do the thing I love to do. Publication is a means to that end.
The other thing is that a piece of writing is an offering to a reader. It’s for their benefit. It has to grab their attention and sustain their attention, or else it’s not a very kind offering. You want something that they will appreciate in some way, whether it’s upsetting or funny or thrilling or fascinating or some combination of these qualities. Once I realized that the bar for engaging a reader’s attention is actually quite high, I was able to stop writing stories in which nothing happened—where it was just people sitting around the dining room table having subtext-rich conversations about their subdued conflicts.
Also, finally, respect the process, even though the process often requires quite a lot of a attempting and re-attempting before something works. Failure is good. Really. It helps you get better and find the thing that’ll work next time. My writing habit is the only aspect of my life where I manage to apply sustained attention (I have terrible ADD). I’m hugely impatient in most other ways, but when it comes to working on a book, say, I am relentless, because I love the experience of being inside a story as it comes alive, so I don’t want to stop and do something else.