Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Ellen Feld is talking with Richard Voigt, author of My Name on a Grain of Rice.
FQ: Have you always enjoyed writing or is it something you’ve discovered recently?
VOIGT: Although I have been writing for a long time (legal arguments and opinions along with fiction), I cannot say that I always “enjoyed it.” Some days “yes”; some days “no.” When I was writing my novel, my response to the enterprise depended on what the characters were saying; what was happening in the plot; how well I thought I was finding the right words and phrases; whether I was developing solutions to problems I had identified in the text. Some days the words were there; the pieces seemed to fit; I was totally absorbed in the effort and took pleasure in the focus. On other days, I was struggling; it was hard work and something other than fun, but I knew that I had to grind through the difficulties so that on another day I could rediscover the pleasure of writing and actually finish the project.
FQ: What was the impetus for writing your book?
VOIGT: There was no single impetus for writing the book. However, there were several things that got me to thinking about taking on the project. Although the plot of the book is a complete invention, several fatality cases I litigated as an attorney introduced me to the rigors and dangers of heavy construction work. I thought that this world should receive more attention by fiction writers. I also thought that more attention should be paid to “ordinary” people struggling to “solve the problem” of their lives; that there was a significance to these struggles even though they might not have involved overcoming drug addiction, sexual abuse, poverty, or other daunting challenges which have rightly been the subjects of many fine novels. The challenge, which pulled me forward, was to create a story which captured some of this drama and the significance which flowed from it.
FQ: Please give our readers a little insight into your writing process. Do you set aside a certain time each day to write, only write when the desire to write surfaces, or ?
VOIGT: There has been nothing “systematic” about my writing. The main problem I faced was the need to support a family, which dictated that my writing of fiction had to be subordinated to other demands on my time. So it was not possible to write every day at a preferred time; it was not always possible to write when I was in the mood or felt a certain creative energy. Basically, I just hoped that the spare time I would be able to find would line up with me being in the mood to write and having some ideas in my head.
FQ: What was the hardest part of writing your book? That first chapter, the last paragraph, or ?
VOIGT: There was no single “hardest part” of writing the book. Hard parts appeared at various locations in the text and when they appeared, at that moment, they were the “hardest part” of writing the book. Nevertheless, I can say that it was much harder writing a first draft than editing and revising that draft. When editing and revising, I had something to work with. Even if the first draft was disappointing, it provided me with an initial starting point for the next writing session’s efforts. Existing text invited me to continue to write with the hope of improvement. I also can say that writing the first chapter was not the hardest part of the process. In fact, if it had not been comparatively easy to write the first pages of the novel (the beginning had been rattling around in my head before I touched the keys), I am not sure that I would have ever started the book, because I would not have known where to begin.
FQ: What is your all-time favorite book? Why? And did this book/author have any influence over your decision to become an author?
VOIGT: This question is impossible to answer. There have been many, many excellent books, both fiction and non-fiction, which have impacted me. I cannot single out one of them as my all-time favorite. This conclusion is reinforced by my awareness that some books which knocked my socks off when I was younger may not have the same effect on me now. I am simply grateful that I continue to encounter well-written books which, perhaps at the time that I am reading them, are my “favorite.” Did any of the excellent books which I have read influence my decision to become an author? Yes, but it was not to inspire me to write a novel. More like the opposite. The beautiful, clever language, plotting and character development of these excellent books were intimidating, discouraging. “Damn,” I would say to myself. “That is really good writing. I’ll never be able to write like that. No way am I going to write a novel. Better stick to writing legal arguments.” But then I would read a novel which, in my opinion, was really bad, and I would say to myself “I could write at least as well as that, maybe even a little better. Why not give it a shot?”
FQ: If you were to teach a class on the art of writing, what is the one item you would be sure to share with your students and how would you inspire them to get started?
VOIGT: I can identify two interrelated points which, knowing myself, I would probably repeat multiple times. First, at the risk of contradicting my comments to previous question, I would say: “Don’t be afraid of getting started just because you are worried that your first draft will not be very good.” Someone once told me that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. In fact, there is a very real probability that your first draft or maybe even your first three drafts will not be very good. No doubt, that would be a problem if you stopped there. Which brings me to my second point: be prepared to revise what you are writing over and over. Don’t worry about the first draft (other than creating one) because it is not going to be your last draft. The hope is that with each revision, the text will get better until you are finally seeing something that is very good, or at least, gives you the satisfaction of having said what you want to say. Of course, to get started you need to have something you want to say. If my experience is any teacher, you don’t have know everything you want to say, but you need to have some idea of where you want to go. Then you get started and see what develops, cutting yourself some slack along the way, knowing that if you keep coming back to it, you can and hopefully will tighten things up.
FQ: Did the story change as you wrote the book?
VOIGT: Absolutely. Many changes were made, particularly in how the characters were developed. But the basic arc of the story remained the same, because, in my judgment (rightly or wrongly), it had to stay intact to protect the “point” of the story.
FQ: Are any of the characters based on real people you know? If so, how closely does your character mimic the real person?
VOIGT: None of the characters are based on real people whom I have known. I have known people with attributes somewhat similar to those assigned to characters but none of those people come close to the actual characters in the story. The need to invent characters was one of the things that drew me to writing the novel.
FQ: Tell us about your favorite character and why that person is your favorite.
VOIGT: Different characters were my “favorites” for different reasons at different times. One character was my “favorite” because I particularly enjoyed inventing him, even though he was not likeable. Another was my favorite for a time because the completed character entertained me through unpredictable behavior. Yet another character earned my prioritized attention because of an emotional connection between the two of us. And at times, Minnie Sollis went to the top of the list because she played the hand she was dealt with a calm confidence and no self-pity – qualities I admire.
FQ: How did you approach the need to keep readers engaged and tuned in to keep turning those pages?
VOIGT: The story is a circle. It starts with Harry Travers, the narrator, describing horrible fatalities. Then he goes back in time to explain how it was that he became involved in these tragic circumstances and how these events changed his life. While the plot is working its way back to where it started (to the deaths), the reader is aware that this is where things are headed, which was intended to create some tension underlying the unfolding events. In addition, Harry becomes involved with Minnie Sollis, who demands serious things of him. Whether Harry can meet these demands is not clear for much of the story, which is also intended to be a source of tension. Early in the story, Harry says that he wanted to make something out of nothing and that something would be himself. Essentially, the novel is an exploration of whether he succeeds. The hope was that the answering of this question would also hold the reader’s interest. In a very risky test of how I was doing, I used my own reaction to the writing. If I was interested in the narrative, I hoped that the reader would be too (a big risk); if I was losing interest, I had no hope that the reader would keep turning the pages and I needed to change direction (a smaller risk).
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