Today I’m delighted to welcome George Polley to Virtual Book Club, a series of interviews in which I put questions to authors about their latest releases and their writing lives.
George was born in Santa Barbara, California and raised in Seattle, Washington. Early in 2008, he and his wife moved to Sapporo, Japan so that she could fulfill her dream of returning to the land of her birth.
His work has appeared in the South Dakota Review, Crow’s Nest, Expanding Horizons, The Enchanted Self, Community Mental Health Journal, Maturing, The Lyon County (Minnesota) Review Wine Rings, North Country Anvil, North American Mentor Magazine, the McLean County (Illinois) Poetry Review, River Bottom, Tower Talks, Foundations, GreenSpirit Journal, The View from Here, The Palestine Chronicle, A Rainbow Feast: New Asian Short Stories, and Speak Without Interruption.
He has also authored several booklets in the mental health field, two of them co-authored with Ana Dvoredsky, M.D. in 2007 and published by Tortoise and Hare Publications. Several are available from Amazon.com.
Q: George, perhaps you can begin by telling us how you came to be a writer.
A: My Seventh-Grade English teacher told me that I had a talent for writing stories. I’m a voracious reader of stories. Reading author interviews in The Paris Review and elsewhere also helped. In 1968, I met American novelist Frederick Manfred, who became my mentor for a little over a year. From that time, I’ve written short stories and several novels (not all of them published or publishable).
Q: What was your first success?
A: Having a short story “Jonah’s Birth” published in the South Dakota Review (in 1969 or 70).
Q: John Irving says that you can’t teach writing. You can only recognise what’s good and say ‘keep doing that.’ Do you think that’s true?
A: For me that is true. I have learned by reading, paying close attention to how different people tell stories, to what seems to work, and what doesn’t.
Q: Which five authors, then, do you think are the masters of their craft?
A: Jorge Amado, Nikos Kazantzakis, Khaled Hosseini, Carlos Fuentes and historian John W. Dower.
Q: You mention Hosseini. I was lucky enough to see him being interviewed recently. He said that he feels he is discovering a story rather than creating it. Are you an avid plotter or do you start with single idea and let the novel develop organically?
A: I agree with Hosseini. I begin with an idea, such as a dream about a Japanese monkey, ask the monkey what he’s doing in my dream, then “listen” to what the monkey has to tell me, and go from there. My most popular book, The Old Man & The Monkey: The story of a friendship was written that way. My inspiration might come from dreams, situations between people, a news story, a place that I can’t forget (such as Mexico City, the setting of my latest novel). One of my published stories, “Seiji” came from seeing a photo of the Tokyo firebombing in March, 1945 (published in A Rainbow Feast: New Asian Short Stories, edited by Mohammad A. Quayum and published by Marshall Cavendish Editions, Singapore, in 2011). I get an idea, ask a question, then listen and begin writing.
In all my living and all my studies I have asked this question; “What is it that makes living sing?” The answer, simply put, is compassion and gratitude; it is these that connect us to all that is. Leave them out and life begins very quickly to fall apart. (George Polley)
Q: Do you write a first draft on paper or do you prefer a computer?
A: To write anything, I must have a keyboard. My handwriting is so illegible, even I have a difficult time reading it. Aside from that, with a computer, file drawers full of paper are nonexistent, and all my notes are within reach of my fingertips.
Q: What were the key factors that influenced your decision to become an indie author?
A: Being able to publish in a timely manner, and knowing that there are reputable indie publishers willing to take on an author because a book interested them. The downside is indie publishers disappear fairly quickly, leaving the author scratching his or her head about what to do with books that are now out of print and no longer available on Kindle, iBooks and other ebook venues. I’ve had that happen twice, which brought me back to self-publishing.
Q: You use social media to interact with your readers. How important do you think this is to becoming a success as a self-published author?
A: Very important. The challenge is learning how to use it, and keeping up to date on the various social media platforms. It can be a dizzying task, but an important one that I am learning about every day.
Q: Which do you market as a brand — yourself or your published works?
A: Myself, and for this reason: readers identify with authors, and look for a favourite author’s work. When I see the name Hosseini, Fuentes, Amado or Garth Stein, I take a look at what he’s written recently that I haven’t read, and buy it. I’m seldom disappointed.
Q: Do any of your books have dedications? If so, to whom and why?
A: My wife, because of her support of my creativity over the years.
Q: Russell Grandinetti, who oversees Amazon’s Kindle business, says that the print book is “a really competitive technology”: it is portable, hard to break, has high-resolution pages and a “long battery life”. For your own reading, do you prefer eBooks or ‘tree books’?
A: For poetry, I prefer ‘tree books’, because the eBook format changes the lines of a poem, breaking up the cadence and rhythm. For everything else, I buy eBooks because of the limited space we have for paper books. Where else can I shelve over 600 books, carry them all with me, and have plenty of room for living?
Q: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
A: Keep fine-tuning your writing, and never give up. Get around successful authors, ask them questions, and write.
An excerpt from George’s latest novel, The City Has Many Faces: A love story about Mexico City
In the middle of the night, he feels it, a deep-down throbbing that comes from somewhere beneath the city, like a heartbeat. Ba-thump, ba-thump, ba-thump. Day and night, twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, the city is alive and moving. In his apartment on Calle Victor Hugo, the city’s great heart beats. Along nearby Calle Rio Tiber with its unbelievable traffic jams, the sound of the city is deafening. In the middle of the night, he hears frustrated drivers stuck on Tiber furiously blaring their horns. Someone’s horn plays “La Marseillaise” over and over and over again as the driver tries and fails to move the traffic along more than a few inches at a time. “Children of the Fatherland, let’s go, / The day of glory has arrived! / Tyranny is against us, / The bloody banner is raised,/ The bloody banner is raised!” over and over and over again. It does no good at all, he learned one day, standing at the bottom of Tiber gaping open-mouthed at the bedlam of cars log-jammed from Reforma to the top of the hill. “Children of the Fatherland . . . let’s go!” over and over again. Yet not one car moves an inch, a centimetre, a millimetre, nothing. It is sheer madness, repeated endlessly day after day, and it fascinates him.
How does anyone in the buildings lining Tiber get anything done? Soundproofing, plus learning to ignore it, to block it out.
“It’s deafening,” a bystander says.
“What?” Standing next to him, his friend cups a hand to his ear and laughs.
At three o’clock in the morning, it’s not quite as loud, but it is unrelentingly there. Oddly enough, after several months in his apartment, he doesn’t notice it much anymore unless it’s some madman stuck on Tiber blaring “La Marseillaise” endlessly on his car’s extra loud horn.
Mexico City is alive, and it is awake. Does it ever sleep? Anyone you ask will tell you that it does not.
Q: Will Self believes that the serious literary novel is dead. Do you agree?
A: I don’t agree. I think readers are interested in writing that has a moral vision, eclectic characters and minimal plotting. I like stories that have a moral (not as in “moralistic”) vision, eclectic characters, minimal plotting and what I call “depth” — the kind of story and characters that stick in the mind and keep one coming back time and time again, no matter how old they are. I don’t think I am alone in having this interest in “serious literary” novels. If a particular book is boring, it’s because the writing is formulaic and boring, not the genre.
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