After the November First Wednesday Reading featuring James Winter, intern Cassandra Lawton interviewed him about his writing process and tips for writers.
Watch the reading here.
What is your writing process like?
I find with my fiction, which tends toward the historical, I read and research pretty thoroughly before I start a draft. For example, my story “Beyond Love” tells of the horrors a terrorist bomber suffers while detained in a Jordanian prison and eventually, Guantanamo Bay. As a basis of research, I studied Guantanamo: An American History by Johnathan Hansen, Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedu Ould Slahi, My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Khan, Inside the Wire by Erik Saar, and others, but most importantly, peer-reviewed, psychological analyses of Islamic terrorists that showed that many are educated, financially stable family men radicalized in the wake of personal, domestic failures. I found this fascinating when writing “Inheritance,” a story about IRA terrorists. Their characterization by historian Tim Pat Coogan as well as undercover interviews in SPIN magazine and scholarly journals like the UK’s Studies in Conflict & Terrorism depict most of “The Lads” as having barely graduated high school. They are part of a legacy, and instead of keeping activities secret from their spouses, many IRA wives know the organization in detail and provide emotional, and at times physical aid.
This kind of research gives me a shaky confidence that I can see the draft through to the end. However, I still need characters to bleed on the page. In this way, sometimes, the research boxes me in. The characters become shells of history rather than having agency in their own story. So, I write and revise long enough that the story’s voice, whether that of the narrator or the third-person teller, comes to me, grows legs, and carries me to the finish line, if you will.
My nonfiction process is scattered. I tend to write-out my experiences in fragments. They follow a sort of mosaic structure I then try to access from a distance for chronology and emotional honesty. I also try to see where I am unintentionally summarizing, which is to say, “I am summarizing because I don’t want to talk about that right now.” So, with nonfiction, combing these fragments for the seams of my writing is also an act of self-discovery and actualization. If my process for writing fiction tells me what I don’t yet know about my story and characters, my nonfiction process shows me what in my life goes unnoticed or that I intentionally overlook.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. There’s a fiery loneliness in that book, an aching for something just beyond the horizon.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?
To not preemptively organize a first draft. When I sit down to write, I think I know the story that needs telling. However, the story tells itself, shows itself to me, as much as I write it, you know? If I try to wrestle it into an organization that doesn’t fit it, I’m choking out the narrative as well as the natural, playful act of writing. Writing should be discovery. To write toward structure is to hold on too tightly. Hold on too tightly, you’ve already lost it.
What inspires you to write?
People, places, events, books, movies, music. It’s an intellectual curiosity, a combination of everything along with whatever, since childhood, has always driven me to write.
James Winter is an Associate Professor of English at Kent State University. His work has won the CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, a Pushcart Special Mention, an Honorable Mention for the J.F. Powers Prize, and was a finalist for the Frank McCourt Memoir Prize. He has been a Tennessee Williams Scholar in Fiction at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and published in One Story, Salamander, PANK Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and Dappled Things, among others.
To read more of James’s work please follow the links below:
“Beyond Love” in Craft Literary
“A Very Small Flame” in One Story
“The Light” in Dappled Things
“Little Green Devils” in Sequestrum