And now, Part 2 of our interview with Scott Dominic Carpenter, author of This Jealous Earth: Stories, the debut collection by MG Press due out January 15, 2013.
MG: You’re multilingual—how has that influenced your writing and your worldview?
SDC: On the one hand, I firmly believe that the best way to understand one’s own language is to learn another. On the other, sometimes other languages interfere with your native tongue. If I’m lucky, I can use this to my advantage: one of the hallmarks of literary writing is that a strangeness inhabits the language. Literary language should always sound a little bit non-native, as though spoken by a newcomer who doesn’t know all the set expressions.
Sometimes an image will come to me in French—inspired perhaps by a sound, or by the fact that French happens to have the word I need and English does not—and then I have to convert it into English. It’s like other kinds of metamorphoses: a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, but in some way the original worm is still there on the inside.
MG: How is literature different overseas? Any significant or interesting similarities or differences between American writing and other countries?
SDC: The biggest difference is in the area of plot. Americans hunger for story. They want their narratives whipped forward in a forced march. A lot of the European literature I read is more relaxed, with authors taking more time for reflection and description.
MG: You’re publishing your debut short story collection later in life—did you get a late start to writing as well?
SDC: It depends on how you count. I’ve been writing my whole life and publishing since my early twenties—with four books before This Jealous Earth, and a scad of articles. It’s true that most of that work was in the area of non-fiction, predominantly in literary scholarship. I’d done creative writing in college, when I published work in a now-defunct journal. Then, except for a bit of dabbling, I abandoned it for academic writing for a long time. Several
years ago I started again, gradually publishing one or two stories a year.
I’d say that fiction is similar to non-fiction—at the same time that it’s very different. Both kinds of writing need to develop their content in the form of a story, and I find that my preoccupations as a creative writer overlap considerably with my interests as an engaged reader. Probably that’s not so surprising.
Anyway, I’m about to turn fifty-four. I think I still have some good miles left.
MG: How do you think your writing journey is different from someone who got their start in their twenties?
SDC: A writer in his or her twenties would have the good sense to do an MFA. Not having had time for that, I took the option of the “MFA of hard knocks,” which left me with a lot of bumps and bruises. It’s terribly important to get honest, critical feedback, and I’ve been lucky to find that support in a less formal environment. But it took a while.
On the other hand, because I’ve been writing non-fiction for a long time—often pieces that required months or years of research—I have a lot of patience and perseverance. I can revise, and then revise the revision, and then revise that, and then throw it away and start over. That’s hard for a lot of people.
MG: Has the teaching of others the craft of writing influenced your own work?
SDC: Not only that, but teaching the craft of reading has been a major influence. I never really understand something until I have to teach it. Working with students in literature classes has helped me to read, and reading deeply has been crucial to my own writing. When I have the opportunity to teach creative writing, I find that it’s once again the teaching of reading: students critique each others’ work, and their ability to articulate their reactions
guides them in their own writing.
And, of course, after I harp on the importance of characters with my students, I sometimes go back to my desk and find that I need to take my own advice.
MG: What’s next? What are your plans for the next year or two?
SDC: I have a novel coming out in June of 2013, (Theory of Remainders, Winter Goose Publishing), and there’s still quite a bit of editing and promotion to be done. After that, there are more projects in the pipeline. I don’t like to speak in detail about work that’s not yet finished, but I can tell you that I have a couple of stories in progress, a travel essay, and the beginnings of a new novel. I’m also working on another academic book. What can I say? I don’t know how to stop.
MG: You can only do one thing on your bucket list—imagine that it becomes reality—talk about how you see it going down.
SDC: I have this dream. I sit down at my desk one evening with a foggy notion for what might be an OK story. I start sketching it out, jotting a few notes. It’s not too bad. In fact, as I work away, I find I’m breathing hard. With excitement. I’m smiling and talking to myself. It’s a good story. A helluva good story. Pretty soon I’m typing on my laptop. Just a rough draft. But it doesn’t feel rough. It’s smooth. The words flow from my fingertips into the
keys, streaking across the screen, line after line. I finish it at three a.m. I re-read the whole thing, changing two words and fixing one typo. It’s the best damn thing I’ve ever written.
A swagger to my step, I go over and pour myself a scotch, which I nurse for an hour, marveling at the night sky until the horizon starts to glow. Finally, I fall asleep.
And then, when I wake up, for once—just one freakin’ time—I read over my night’s work and decide that it’s not crap.
MG: Tell us your favorite joke.
SDC: I would, but my favorite joke is from Monty Python—The Joke That Won The War. By definition, if I told it to you, it would kill you.
MG: If you could go back and talk to your younger self for one minute only, what would you tell him?
MG: If you only had a sentence to write the story of your life, what would that sentence be?
SDC: “For what other life was he saving himself up before expressing, at long last, his true feelings about things, before crafting opinions he didn’t need to put in quotes, before ceasing to devote himself, with punctilious decorum, to endeavors that he claimed at the same time to be ridiculous?”
Of course, Marcel Proust already wrote that sentence before I had the chance, but I would have written it if he hadn’t. And that’s why I chose it as the epigraph for the book. Don’t wait. Do.