Countdown to the Muse: Micro-Interview 9 (Cam Terwilliger)
... And we're back. Merely three short days until The Muse and the Marketplace. This is the ninth in a series of micro-interviews by an author, agent or editor who will be attending the event.
Micro-Interview with Cam Terwilliger
- What is the toughest criticism to give or receive on writing?
The most devastating criticism I ever received happened in graduate school, while a class was workshopping a story I wrote about a young pilot living with his parents after losing his legs in a plane crash. Despite its dour subject, I felt like the workshop was going well and that the readers were finding the material pretty compelling. But then the professor spoke up. “Sure, sure. It’s pretty well written,” he said. “But don’t you have the sense that Cam has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about?”
I laughed nervously, my stomach clenching with dread.
It turned out he was thinking particularly about the details of the plane crash, and how the authorities handled it. After some discussion, it came to light that—in fact—I didn’t know what I was talking about. I hadn’t read a thing about airplane mechanics or the aviation industry, a fact that was shining through in the story’s descriptions. In my naiveté, I guess I’d thought—if I thought at all—that these minor details weren’t that important. Obviously, they were.
His comment left me rattled. And when I went back to all my other stories I came to them with the same searching eye. As I read, I suddenly felt like I didn’t know what I was talking about in regards to anything. Were hospitals really as I’d written them? Were junkyards? Or lawyers? Was everything I’d ever written, on some level, just a product of my self-amused imagination? Or worse, the result of clichés received from popular culture?
On one level, my existential crisis was overblown. It really was just the “details” of my stories—things that could be corrected by research. But then again, in fiction, the details are everything. If they aren’t right, the whole enterprise is compromised. If they aren’t right, why should you believe anything a writer tells you? As John Irving said, if you don’t know your story backwards and forwards, then “What kind of a story teller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind making it up as you go along, no better than a common liar.”
- What is the strangest interaction you've ever had with a reader?
Once I was doing a reading from a story about an anthropologist whose violent, alcoholic brother comes to live with him. (It seems that a lot of my stories focus on difficult family members…) Anyway, a guy from the audience came up to me afterward, brimming with this weird mix of giddiness and anxiety. “So was that story, like, related to the movie?” he asked. “You know. The one about those same brothers?”
He went on to explain that the plot of my story was basically identical to the plot of a Sean Penn movie I’d never heard of called The Indian Runner. The movie also featured two brothers, including a similarly upstanding one and a similarly violent alcoholic one. To make matters worse, the violent one was even named Frank, which was the same name as my violent alcoholic!
I had no explanation to offer. And once the guy discovered that I hadn’t written this imitation on purpose, he seemed to feel kind of sorry for me. Yet in the end, what could I do about it? There wasn’t much. I changed my character’s name from “Frank” to “Hank” and tried my best to forget the whole thing. To this day, I still haven’t seen the movie.
- What is the strangest place you've ever been?
The strangest place I ever visited was the village of Vang Vieng in Laos. Located on a river in the mountains between the country’s two major cities, this place somehow became a stopping point for western backpackers bumming around the area (as I was). What was once a quaint little village has now transformed into the most out of context spring break imaginable. The main attraction is to have villagers take you upriver, where you can float down in an inner tube, stopping at a series of bars stationed along the shore—many featuring rope swings from which you can launch yourself into the water. As a result, all the hostels have these lounges where kids exhausted and hungover from days on the river can recover by flopping out on couches and gigantic pillows. As they do so, they watch countless hours of television (the show “Friends” being especially popular). Also, every food stand in Vang Vieng will sell you items with marijuana cooked into them. You can always tell these on the menu because they’re described by the word “Space”—Space Pizza, Space Shake, Space Brownie etc.
For the right person, this might be heaven. But I didn’t stay very long.
- What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to give to writers?
When I was still in college I heard a poet named Kenneth Brewer say, in total seriousness, that the hardest part of becoming a writer is the first 10 years. One obvious aspect of this is the fact that you are still struggling with the craft. But an equally difficult challenge is that you are probably isolated, without a support network to urge you forward.
That’s why I think all beginning writers should volunteer in the literary community—either in their city, or through the internet. There’s countless magazines as well as websites dedicated to reviewing those magazines. These places often need writers to help them out, and pitching in with the work is a great way to form some sustaining connections. Not only do you get to know the literary landscape, but you’ll make friendships that could last your entire life.
Cam Terwilliger's stories have appeared in many magazines, including The Mid-American Review, Post Road, West Branch, and Narrative, where he was selected as one of the magazine's "15 Under 30." His fiction has also been supported by a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, as well as fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Elizabeth George Foundation, and the American Antiquarian Society. A graduate of Emerson College's MFA, he now teaches at Louisiana State University.
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