Friday, March 2, 2012

World of Writing, Interview

-- World of Writing --

Well - it is time for another World of Writing Interview... Today's guest:
Magdalena Ball is the author of a number of poetry books, novels, nonfiction books, and a wide number of stories, articles and collaborations.  Her latest book is the newly released critically praised novel Black Cow. “Fast-paced, gorgeously-written and stunningly perceptive, Black Cow is not only a great read; it is a timely and important one.”  Grab a a free mini flip book of the book here:
Q: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A: I went through a fairly long period of wanting to be an actress.  I took private drama lessons for years, was in lots of school plays and even auditioned for a big movie (the part that Trini Alvarado got in Times Square), though I found the process of auditioning for a film so intense that it was enough for me to rethink my career choice, deciding, mostly over an egg cream at Chock Full O’Nuts with my grandmother, that I could still inhabit and explore characters as a writer, without having to subject myself to the physical indignities of auditions.  Of course at that point I had no idea about the joys of rejection, but never mind.  The desire to write professionally stuck with me and stayed firm from that point onward.  Acting has remained a very useful skill, and I have to admit to still being a bit of a ham when the occasion arises (and it tends to arise…). 
Q: What makes a good story?

A: As a reader, I’m always looking to become absorbed into the fictive dream – that is, the story needs to be engrossing and to draw me in enough so that I begin, at least in some part of myself, to believe in it, in the characters, and in the situation.  This is no easy skill to develop, and involves all of the writing competencies coming together smoothly: engaging, accessible characters, a rich setting, a plot that grow, intrinsically, out of the characters and the choices they make in terms of the conflict they face, and a subtle, deep seated theme that I can relate to.  I have to admit that I’m a character driven reader and writer – for me, a good story has great characters, and I need to care about them and their lives and transition through the work.
Q: What makes you write in certain genres?

A: Genre is almost always a fuzzy distinction. There are elements of romance, history, science, horror, or fantasy in most novels.  All of these threads are part of the multi-genre nature of my books and the books I enjoy reading.  I suppose the reason why I avoid genre labels (unless they’re going to draw readers, in which case I welcome them!) is that I have, to date, avoided the kinds of rote plot lines that are often associated with specific genres.  My first novel, Sleep Before Evening, was set in an historical context (though we don’t often think of recent history such as the 1980s as historical), and has occasionally been referred to as historical fiction.  My new novel Black Cow has been called “recession-literature” as well as “sea-change” or “green-literature” – all relatively new genre categories based on the overall themes of the book.  However, I tend to use the slightly snobbish label “literary fiction” or the more accessible “contemporary fiction” as an indication that this is a book where genre isn’t really a major aspect of the book – the genre elements are subservient to the story, the character development, and the overall themes of how we live in the modern world.  
Q: Do you insert your own characteristics in your writing?

A: I think it would be fair to say that all writers insert their own characteristics into their characters in one form or another.  They may not be overt aspects of my personality.  My antagonists for example may not act like me, sound like me, or have experiences like me, but in the hearts of who they are, there is always something essential from the chaos of my own character that I’ve extracted and ordered into the individuals who people my books.  Certainly I’ve taken threads from my life for plot, from simple observation to deep seated concerns, but of course it’s all worked out into the story that forms the novel – it’s me, it’s what I’ve picked up, absorbed, kept about my person, and then it’s not me at all – it’s the story I’ve fabricated.
Q: What are the biggest surprises you’ve encountered as a writer?

A: I think most people, and I was no exception, believe that writing is stimulated by ‘the muse’, and that native talent and inspiration are at the heart of good writing.  However, what I’ve discovered, particularly as I’ve begun to write longer works for publication such as novels and full length poetry books, is that the heart of good writing is both observation, and above all, hard work.  The last point is one that can’t really be taught – it has to be experienced.  It’s about doing the time, and developing, though sheer effort, the elements of the story, building the characters, creating the scenes, and working and working and working until at last it the end product looks smooth, inspired and effortless. 
Q: Who are your favorite authors/poets?

A: As a book reviewer, I’m lucky in that I’ve got a constant stream of excellent books coming through the door.   And I’m consistently surprised at the overall high quality, and utterly innovative work that keeps coming in as new.  All of this is a long-winded way of saying that this is neither a static nor an inclusive list – there are always new favorites coming along and I’m sure I’ve left a few of my favorites out.  Authors and poets who have stood the test of time for me though and keep me re-reading their work include James Joyce, Peter Carey, Julian Barnes, Umberto Eco, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Adams, China Mieville, Dorothy Porter, WH Auden. I could probably go on for a while about it and, if I had lots of space, give you a mini essay on each of them and why they are so incredible, bringing me back repeatedly t o their work. One key link between these authors is the way they all move beyond any notion of genre (yes even Adams, and even Porter and Auden, my poets) to create something that crosses every boundary. 

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  1. Thanks very much for hosting me Lillian. Those were great questions.

  2. Thank you for this interesting and inspiring interview. I'm new to writing. Heck, I'm new to all of this for that matter. I appreciate the comment, to paraphrase, about hard work until your work seems smooth and effortless! That is the ultimate goal, isn't it?! Now to find the patience...

  3. Acting certainly has been good for your present career. I love the videos you do reading from our poetry books, Maggie! How about posting a link to one of them. That voice of yours...and the accent doesn't hurt. (-:

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Excited about the new edition (expanded! updated! even more helpful for writers!) of The Frugal Book Promoter, now a USA Book News award-winner in its own right (

  4. Thanks for hosting me Lillian and for the insightful questions!

  5. Great interview. Hard work wins in the form of published successes hopefully. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Whoops, sorry for the double thanks (though I am doubly thankful). Carolyn, here's a link to me reading from the
    opening of Black Cow.

  7. Thanks for your interesting interview. I've always been intrigued by your title, "Black Cow".

  8. Great interview. Generally,I think the writer's world is hard for non-writers to understand, but you gave some great insights.

  9. I loved learning you wanted to be an actress. Me too. I'm glad you became an author. You're suited for it.

  10. Excellent interview, Maggie! When I was about 12, I also wanted to become an actress. I took professional acting lessons and even got a small part as a maid in a major play. But, as you said, I found the experience way too intense, so I changed my mind and decided to become a private detective instead. :-)


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