Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Interview - Frederick A. Lierman

Frederick A. Lierman interviewed by Frank Burton

Frederick's short story collection, Buryin' Gran, is available to read online or download for free here.

When did you start writing short stories?

I wrote my first story in junior high, in ninth grade, I think. It was dreadful. The only good thing I can say about it is I actually finished it. After that, I started a number of stories and never finished them. Somewhere along the line, they bogged down and left me scratching my head wondering why, what had seemed like a good idea, had foundered. And somewhere along the way it occurred to me that, if I was trying to say something and I couldn't find an interesting way to say it, it probably didn't need to be said. That was lesson number one. After that, I could start things and finish them, even if most of them weren't particularly good.

The first time I had any success was when I entered a short-short, it had to be under 2000 words, into the Writer's Digest short-short contest. The story was called "Roots," about an old widower who lived alone in a small farmhouse in the North Carolina foothills. The story takes place on what was supposed to be his last day there; he was leaving to go live in Asheville (hill country town in North Carolina) with his surviving son, and he decides not to go. It won a prize in that contest. The first three prizes were money, and the winner also got published. I got a book.

I had thought it was a good story and the recognition, small though it was, was gratifying. I think it could have spurred me to write more, but time was at a premium then. I was a new father, and I was working second and third jobs so I could pay for the college courses I was taking then. Most often, I turned to poetry, and I didn't have time for much of that. If I was writing a paper and found myself looking out the window composing a poem and not writing the paper, then I would give in and write what was really on my mind. Poetry worked, though, because I got a thought and started writing, and I usually finished it in the first sitting.

Would you say there are underlying themes which tie all the stories in Buryin' Gran together?

These stories were all written at different times, and I can't say what it was that triggered most of them. The deer for the "The Hunters" and "History," and there is a lot of time fishing from a canoe that entered into the character of "History." "Is It a Hallmark?" was another class assignment to write something trite. I think I accomplished that, but I had fun doing it. Of course, "Conversation on a Foggy Morning" and "Tuesday Morning" go together, and there is a third piece in the back of my head that has Dean returning home a widower. It wasn't written at the time because, to tell the truth, I found it hard to write. Maybe it will get written, and maybe it won't.

"Buryin' Gran" was originally conceived as a performance poem, but before I put pen to paper it grew beyond that. So, no underlying theme ties them all together.

Your stories have a strong emotional impact without being sentimental or melodramatic. Is this a difficult feat to accomplish?

The second lesson I learned was in a creative writing class, when the professor, Dean Baker, said, "Show, don't tell. 'The king died and then the queen died' is narrative. 'The king died and the queen died of grief'' is a story." Show, don't tell is a great lesson, one that not all writers ever accomplish. I have a story you might see some day in which the protagonist has left his old dog with a neighbor while he was away for the weekend. When he returns to pick up the dog he has a conversation in the house.

"Captain behave for you?" he said, scratching the dog behind the ears.

"'Course. Mostly ate a bit, drank a bit, slept a lot. Doesn't seem to be as interested in sniffin' and whizzin as he usta," said Matthew.

"Shit," he said.

"Something the matter?" said Anne from the kitchen doorway.

"Dogs don't live forever," he said.

I can see the exchange in my mind, and I can feel the emotions of both men, Matthew not wanting to state the obvious, and the protagonist not wanting to recognize it. To me that is enough. I work at keeping to images, to showing, not telling, and I think that's why you don't feel hit over the head with it. There is a movie, "Glory," about our civil war. In a scene near the end of the movie the character Matthew Broderick plays is mounted on a horse watching a most glorious sunrise. I don't know how the scene was done, but the cut they used does not show faces and does not have words, but I knew that he knew that he was seeing his last sunrise. I try to work like that.

Who are your influences?

Every good writer I have ever read. A sign of good writing is when you don't notice the writing. Another sign is when the characters become people, and you realize about fifty pages from the end that pretty soon, you will be setting these people aside, and they won't be part of your life anymore. "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe," by Fannie Flag was like that.

Are any of the stories autobiographical?

None. I see from my characters' eyes, sometimes first person, and sometimes third person. I try to make what they say and do true to the character I'm creating. Sometimes it starts with a brief encounter or experience but none of the stories were part of my life except through the process of conceiving and telling. I think the first stories I sent you were obviously entirely different from the stories in this collection so you can see that my mind runs in many different directions.

Have you considered writing a novel?

I've started several, and I have one going on in my head right now. That brings me to the third lesson I learned, which was also from Dean Baker. "Write about what you know," he said. That has merit, because, if you write about what you know, you don't make obvious mistakes. I hate to be reading something and run across elements that just don't fit reality. One book I read was set in the early 1920s, and everyone had a phone, a dial phone. Most people didn't have phones then, and the ones that did were jiggle the hook and then say, "Hello, Central?" My family didn't have our own phone until 1954. Another book had a character getting on a Boeing 707 in 1944 and flying to Venezuela, I think. The 707 didn't go into service until late in 1958, and even then, it was not a common carrier.

So I write about what I know, which means if I ever complete a novel, it will be pretty pedestrian, because my life is pedestrian, like most of our lives. There is a lot to be said about a pedestrian novel, though. John Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize in 1962 or 1963 for "The Winter of Our Discontent," which, like his other works, was pedestrian. The thing is, pedestrian though it may be, there is in that work and all his works, an underlying tension that drives, not the everyday events, but the story and its resolution.

If I do my research and finish the novel, you'll see it.

How do you feel about online publishing?

Blessing and a curse. Blessing because there are more good stories and poetry written than were ever published before, so online publishing has provided many writers a voice. Since it doesn't cost anything, or much, there is a lot of crap, too.

Curse, because I like to stand in real bookstores and have real books in my hands. I suspect online publishing will put an eventual end to both.

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