Into the Killbox with Brian Wood

An interview by Bryan Michielsen and Xavier Millerd for the 73rd issue of Cabbages & Kings

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Brian Wood is the author of Joytime Killbox (BOA, 2019). He has served as the Managing Editor of Reed Magazine and the Fiction Editor for POST. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Jose State University, and his work earned him a Ludwig Scholarship for Excellence in Creative Writing, as well as the James Phelan Award for Short Fiction and Familiar Essays. He lives in Rochester, NY, where he is a writing instructor at Writers & Books and the co-host of the Two Month Review podcast produced by Open Letter Press.

BRYAN MICHIELSEN: What are common traps for aspiring writers?

BRIAN WOOD: I think a common trap for, I can’t speak for all writers, but for myself is resistance. There’s a wonderful book by Steven Pressfield called The War of Art. The whole book is about overcoming resistance. Resistance comes in many forms like procrastination or self-doubt. I have all of those things, and the cure for thinking you’re not a good enough writer is to shut up and write. It’s like the easiest simple fix, but it’s also the hardest. I’d rather take classes on ten ways to develop plot or how to make your character better, but it’s as simple as sit down and write. For me it’s just having the discipline to sit down and write and realize that resistance happens to everybody and it’s a battle we all have to face. Sit down and write; you’ll be all right.

Shut up and write.

XAVIER MILLERD: If you could tell the younger writer in you anything, what would it be?

BRIAN: Read more. You have to be a really good reader first. I wanted a shortcut to be a writer. I started writing short stories and I’d read some as well, but I wasn’t reading enough. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school where I started reading a ton, and my writing increased exponentially.

BRYAN: What did you learn from publishing your book that impacted or changed your creative process?

BRIAN: I like writing and creating a lot more than publishing. For the longest time I would go to every author interview, every reading, and I would have these starry eyes. I thought, one day that’s going to be me, or one day my book is going to be on the shelf. For the longest time that was the motivating factor for me to not give up. I’m realizing now it’s the process and the joy of writing that’s where it’s at. Don’t worry about the results; it’s the process and the creation that’s everything. I know that’s easy to say now that I’m finally on the other side where I have something that came out, but it doesn’t make it any less true. We’re here to create beautiful art and put it into the world, so create, create, create. Getting wrapped up in the publishing part of it, that’s not fun.

XAVIER: What’s your favorite part about teaching creative writing?

BRIAN: My favorite part about teaching creative writing is getting to share that the process is hard for everybody. Sometimes it’s not fair because they’ll look at some piece I have that’s polished and ready to go, and they’re presenting a piece that’s in a rough spot, and my favorite thing to do is just share with everybody how rough my own writing is and how crappy my first drafts are. I just like getting to interface with other writers at the ground level and build each other up together. I love that community that we have as writers. We’ve all been through it, that terrible burning feeling when someone’s reading your work, and you feel like your face is on fire because you’re so embarrassed. I love trying to make that as enjoyable or as manageable as possible. Usually I just make fun of myself though.

I just like getting to interface with other writers at the ground level and build each other up together.

BRYAN: What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex or sexuality, and how do you overcome that?

BRIAN: I had the hardest time with this. When I was doing my MFA, I was really worried about telling a story from a different point of view other than my own. I thought, who am I to try to speak with a female voice or if I had a gay character versus a straight character. Who am I to tell someone else’s story? I brought it to one of my professors and she said, “what you need to do is, when you’re telling your story, instead of using ‘he said’ say ‘she said.’” You know, humans have a lot of the same needs, wants, and wishes. If you want to tell it from a female perspective, have those same wants, needs, and wishes and change he said to she said. Think hard and deep and be empathetic with what it is for them to go through the same human situation. We’re all human beings. For me it was getting the idea out of my head that I’m writing about a different gender, and it became more about being empathetic, and getting really deep into the skin of that character. What are their wants? What are their wishes? How do they pursue them? That made me feel much more comfortable with being able to do that. But I think you have to come from a place of empathy, otherwise you’re just using them as a tool.

XAVIER: What’s your favorite part about being in Rochester?

BRIAN: I like the seasons. Where I grew up, there’s no seasons. It’s just sunny and warm, that’s it, which it great, but I like the changing. I like seeing things die. I like seeing fruit freeze and become miserable, and this wonderful hope for a melt in the spring. Also, the summers here are fantastic. It sounds weird but I would always take a sunny day for granted, but here it’s like this magical gift from above. The sun is out! The birds are chirping! I like that there’s actually seasons here.

I like seeing things die. I like seeing fruit freeze and become miserable, and this wonderful hope for a melt in the spring.

BRYAN: What was your hardest scene to write?

BRIAN: There’s a really rough sex scene, which oddly wasn’t hard to write; I was just not sure how it was going to be received, which made me nervous about sharing it. I’d probably say that was the toughest scene to write, but it ended up being easy to write because I wasn’t trying to be super sexy with the sex scene which made it a lot easier to write it. If I was trying to write a really serious passionate love scene, that would be hard for me to do, I think.

XAVIER: What resources do you use to research?

BRIAN: One of my favorite tools for research is the collegiate dictionary because it gives you the dates of when the words came into use. I don’t write a lot from the past, but if you’re writing something that takes places in the 1600s, you better not use the word electrocution because that didn’t exist yet. A decent thesaurus is good. I try not to use the internet too much, but sometimes you can’t help it. The other thing I use is this book I have on architecture that shows you what different houses look like from different times. For the most part though I write based around characters, which don’t require a whole lot of research for what a character is feeling or thinking.

BRYAN: If you could spend the day with any of your characters from your collection, Joytime Killbox, which one would you choose and what would you do? 

BRIAN: Oh dear, I don’t know if I want to spend time with any of these poor fools. That’s a great question. I would probably want to spend it with the Gregory gentleman in the title story “Joytime Killbox” because I wonder what that experience, what that contraption, that thrill ride would be like, but I don’t think I’d want to ride it myself. To see somebody go through that would be an interesting thing. I wouldn’t mind having a drink with Roberta from “My Roberta” because she seems like a pretty cool cat. Having drinks with Roberta I think would be fun too. I liked writing her.

XAVIER: What are you currently reading?

BRIAN: I’m currently reading this giant book called Ducks Newburyport. It’s a thousand pages long and a total of eight sentences. It’s by a writer named Lucy Ellman. The book is about this housewife in Ohio and she has this long monologue about everything that’s frightening her about the world, like concealed carry people, MAGA hats, school shootings, the fact that she can’t get her lemon drizzle cake to come out right, the fact that her daughter doesn’t love her anymore… We know stream of consciousness, but this is a torrent of consciousness. It’s just this wonderful thousand-page book. I don’t like long books because for me it’s about bang for my buck. If I’m going to read a thousand pages, I could knock out five or six books and feel really good about myself that I’m so well read, but it’s been a really awesome challenge to read this thousand-page book. It reads so fast and she’s so amazing; it sounds so beautiful. I encourage anybody to pick it up and read a little bit out loud. It’s a really cool experience.

If I’m going to read a thousand pages, I could knock out five or six books and feel really good about myself that I’m so well read…

BRYAN: What’s your favorite literary journal?

BRIAN: Oh dear, that’s a good question. For the longest time I would read a lot of stuff from GrantaThe Paris ReviewZoetrope, and McSweeney’s. Those are the big ones that I read. If I had to pick one out of all of those, maybe Granta, but I really like A Public Space. They have some really good criticism and awesome short stories. They have a really cool editor, Brigid Hughes.

XAVIER: Have you explored other forms of writing like playwriting, poetry, or creative nonfiction?

BRIAN: Starting off, I wanted to be a poet. I love reading poems. When I first took creative writing, the poetry packet was probably my favorite, but I realized I wasn’t really the greatest of poets. Then I discovered short stories and I really liked short stories, so I focused on that. I’ve written some essays–won some awards for some essays I’ve written. I have not done plays, but currently I’m writing a script for a short film, which I’m nervous about because we had the funding for the film to take place, but I haven’t started writing it yet, so I have to get my ass moving on that.

XAVIER: Ah, procrastination.

BRIAN: Resistance!

BRYAN: What was your first writing related job and how did it bring you to where you are now?

BRIAN: In Northern California I worked in the wine industry. I worked with fine wine for about eight years and when they found out I had an English degree, they wanted me to start writing all of the descriptions of the wines. So, my first writing job was writing about the color of wine, the taste, the finish, all that kind of lame stuff, but then I started writing all the copy that went on the labels for the wine bottles and on all the brochures. It was all beverage related. If you need me to describe wine, I can hook you up with some really good descriptors. But yeah, this overly romantic language about wine was my first writing gig.

If you need me to describe wine, I can hook you up with some really good descriptors.

XAVIER: How do you spend your time when you’re away from your writing?

BRIAN: Hobby wise, I snowboarded for about twenty years, so if I get a chance to go snowboarding, I love doing that. Oddly enough I still enjoy wine and food. I’m really never away from writing because if I’m not physically writing, I’m thinking about what I should be writing, or when I’m out and about, I’m always trying to piece together interesting concrete details, or thinking about an overheard piece of dialogue that I want to use and have germinate into something bigger. It’s almost like it never leaves you; it’s always right by your side. The writing is always there. Or I read something, like a menu or a sign on a train and think, this could be edited way better.

BRYAN: Do you have any spots around Rochester that inspire you or that you go to write?

BRIAN: I write from home for the most part. For the longest time, I’d want to go to a café or a coffee shop to write, but it costs money and I realized when I was going out, I almost wanted people to see me writing more so than I was actually writing. It sounds silly and it might be embarrassing to admit, but I wanted people to think, oh, he’s a writer. For me now, I like to be home, preferably alone, and I turn off my phone because it’s too much of a temptation. Before you know it, I’m watching YouTube videos rather than writing. So, I turn everything off and just focus. As far as inspiration, I live by the Genesee River, near the library, so I like to walk to the library and look at other books. That gets me inspired. Or, if I go for a walk, I don’t take my headphones with me, that way I’m not listening to anything; I’m actually observing and thinking. Too often if I have music going, it’s a way of bifurcating my mind and not letting it focus on being creative. Hearing the wind, people saying things, and the clattering of bottles if there’s trash around helps inspire me to want to write.

XAVIER: Do you ever write outside?

BRIAN: No, not often. The weather is too terrible here, are you kidding? I typically write at my dining room table; it’s got a window that faces outside. I write there.

XAVIER: Do you believe in writer’s block?

BRIAN: Certainly, writers can get jammed, stuck, or feel overwhelmed. I hate the thing “there’s no such thing as writer’s block,” because I’ve had it, so it exists. The best way to combat it is to just write. It’s like the most obvious thing to do, right? For me it’s about forgiving myself or allowing myself to write poorly. Sometimes I just hold myself to too high of a standard and it puts too much pressure on the act of writing. Allow yourself to be bad. There’s nothing wrong with it. Bad writing is only bad writing if it’s in your final draft. You can’t edit nothing, so just put some words down. I have to keep telling myself that. Another way to combat it is I set a timer. I call it my power hour. I set a timer for 25 minutes and as soon as I hit start, I have to write without stopping for 25 minutes. No excuses. Once the timer goes off, I take a ten-minute break and do something mindless, like folding laundry or washing the dishes. What you’re doing during that ten minutes is you’re going to be thinking about what you just wrote and kind of get excited to get back into your story or whatever you’re working on. Why do all the great ideas come in the shower? It’s because it’s just the mindless act of showering. Then you have your second timer of 25 minutes. You can get a lot done in one hour. That’s one way to combat writer’s block because it’s only 25 minutes at a time. That’s not long.

Allow yourself to be bad. There’s nothing wrong with it. Bad writing is only bad writing if it’s in your final draft.

BRYAN: Do you see yourself sticking with the short story form or exploring other avenues?

BRIAN: I’m currently working on a novel. The thing with publishing is short story collections are nearly impossible to get published; it’s so hard. You can get individual pieces published, but the whole collection is such a grind. I kept running into this weird catch-22 where literary agents would see my work and really enjoy it and say to let them know when I have a novel. A literary agent is your gateway to major publishing houses and apparently, they’re real people who have to live and pay rent and eat food, and short story collections don’t make them a lot of money. If money were not a thing, I would just write short stories all day. I love the form; it’s amazing. I’m enjoying the process of writing a book but as soon as I finish the novel, I’m going right back to getting a new collection together. I like them both, but if I had to pick a favorite child, I’d pick the short stories.

XAVIER: What is your support system like for writing? Have you participated in any writing groups?

BRIAN: I have participated in writing groups. They can be extremely helpful, but it’s a double-edged sword; they can also hinder you figuring out what to do with your work because you get like four or five different opinions and you can get kind of lost in that. My favorite thing is to find somebody who you think is a good, caring reader and is willing to give you some of the hard feedback. Try to find one or two really close readers, and I’ve found that for me to be more helpful than a larger group. It just helps me stay more focused and understand a little better where I need to go. For the most part I tend to be on my own in the early stages and when I get to a pretty good spot, I like to share it with a few readers.

BRYAN: How do you select the names for your characters and the titles for your stories?

BRIAN: It depends on the style of story your writing. For mine, they kind of have that dirty realism feel. They’re hopeless, sad characters or people that are kind of bumbling their way through life. So, I want to try to use real simple, salt-of-the-earth kind of names. I didn’t want to get too extravagant, but I wanted them to be memorable enough. So, instead of calling someone Bob, I’ll call him Curtis because you can remember it just a little bit better. For any characters, I try to keep it really simple, but with just enough twist where they’re a little more memorable. As far as titles, I try to figure out what’s the theme or what’s central to the story and how the title could relate to that someway. Sometimes it could be super obvious like, “What to Say to a Child in the Speedway Bathroom,” when it’s about a person trying to figure out what to say to a little kid. I chose that one just because it seemed liked an interesting title, and I’d want to read that if I just saw the title. Then other times, it comes to an overall feeling. For “My Roberta,” I like the idea of “my” being possessive and the character is losing control of what he thought he had, the possession of his wife, and he realizes he has no control over this person that he loves. I don’t know, I just throw stuff against the wall until it all sticks.

XAVIER: Who have been your biggest mentors or influences?

BRIAN: Starting out, my biggest influences in one of my first creative writing courses when we started studying modernism, in particular dirty realism, was Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, and Flannery O’Connor–for the short story form. I grew up poor, and I could really relate with those type of characters more than the ones in stories you read about in The New Yorker where everybody has martinis at country clubs and stuff. The ash stray overflowing at the table with the gin bottle–that kind of sadness resonated with me a lot more. I didn’t realize you could write seriously and have those type of characters, which was really eye-opening for me. In the novel form, one of the huge influences for me was getting into translated literature. You go through your core canon of war literature, American literature, but reading stuff that’s translated from other cultures is really important and eye-opening to different avenues of how you can write or construct your sentences. In particular, South American translated literature has been a big influence with me. One author in particular is Rodrigo Fresán. He’s an amazing novelist, unbelievably talented. He’s one of those writers where I don’t want to read another book for a week after finishing one of his because there’s just that echo of the way he writes and the joy I feel from reading his work. You pick something else up and it feels kind of hollow.

You go through your core canon of war literature, American literature, but reading stuff that’s translated from other cultures is really important…

BRYAN: What book recommendations do you have?

BRIAN: The first one I have is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. It’s nonfiction, but it’s about writer’s block, am I good enough, what am I doing–all those kinds of questions, he addresses in The War of Art, and it’s been so encouraging. That’s a huge recommendation. As far as the short story form goes, a big influence for me was Airships by Barry Hannah. Also, anything you can get your hands on by Flannery O’Connor. A Good Man Is Hard to Find–you can teach anything about writing from that work alone. Then as far as a craft-oriented book, there’s one called On Writing Well by William Zinsser. There’s a chapter in there called “Clutter,” and it’s one of the best chapters on writing.

XAVIER: Before you were published, did you ever consider self-publishing?

BRIAN: No, I’m not great with computers and it wasn’t quite as huge of a thing as it is right now. So, I didn’t consider self-publishing oddly enough. I would now though, since it’s readily available and easier to do. There’s no shame in that game.

BRYAN: What was your favorite childhood book?

BRIAN: I was a weirdo. I had to go to Sunday school all the time and I loved all the stories you get from Genesis and the Exodus, the First and Second Samuel, all these stories about kings and people killing each other. I really enjoyed all those types of stories. I had a book on Greek mythology, which again, mirrors all those Old Testament Bible stories where magical things happen and if your character has some sort of flaw, it’s going to be their downfall. I read those like crazy more so than children’s books. But I loved Jack and the Beanstalk; I always wanted my mom to read that. There was something about growing big that seemed interesting.

XAVIER: How do you market yourself and connect with your readers?

BRIAN: I’m terrible at marketing myself. I feel super cheesy trying to market myself. So, to answer that, not well. As far as connecting with readers, there’s this old thing, “write what you know.” Well I tried writing what I know and had like four pages and that was it; I don’t know anything else. I realized much later that “write what you know,” doesn’t necessarily mean “I have a job in construction, so I can write about construction.” To me it’s about human emotion. You don’t have to know a lot about an astronaut to write about an astronaut, but if you understand loneliness and separation, you can write about anybody doing anything that has those feelings. So, to connect with readers I try to focus in on pure human emotion, like the drama of the character. I think anybody can connect with that no matter who the character is or what they’re going through. That’s the kind of stuff that reigns through. You could have a character that’s old or young. If they’re going through something that’s interesting and you feel for them, there will be a connection… I hope.

…if you understand loneliness and separation, you can write about anybody doing anything that has those feelings.

XAVIER: How do you feel about the traditional vs. self-publishing debate?

BRIAN: I don’t have much of a feeling one way or the other. The one thing that concerns me with self-publishing is there are a lot of people who probably shouldn’t be publishing their work just yet that have that platform. I worry that’s going to ruin it for writers that have really good polished work, but they get lumped in with other self-published works that maybe haven’t put in the time or effort to put their work on display. That seems really unfair to people who have put in so much time and effort. That’s the one thing I’d be worried about. With the traditional publishing route there’s enough filters in place where you have to be pretty decent to publish through that route. Self-publishing is just unfiltered and you’re not sure what you’re going to get. Some folks just have no business putting work out yet, but they have the platform, so they do it, and I think it’s unfair for the ones that really work on their craft and want to self-publish to be lumped in with people who just aren’t taking it serious.

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