December 10, 2012

Still Writing: an interview with Nicholas Kaufmann, author of "Still Life"

After reading and enjoying Nicholas Kaufmann's short story collection, Still Life, I had the chance to ask him a few questions about his stories, his approach to writing, and thoughts on the form itself. Enjoy.

Gef: Looking back at these stories, with the earliest published in 2001 all the way to the two original stories, how would you describe your evolution as a writer?

Nick: I would describe it, with great hopefulness and no small amount of wishful thinking, as "headed in the right direction." It's true what I mention in the author notes in STILL LIFE. I really do look back on many of my earlier stories and cringe at how poorly they're written and constructed. I don't think I'm alone in that, either. I think that happens to most writers, especially the ones who, like me, want to keep learning and growing and striving to be the best they can be. I'm one of those writers who thinks that we become better with every single word we write, even if those words don't happen to make it to the final draft. So I like to think I'm that much better a writer with every new story. If I'm wrong about that, I don't want to know it!

Gef: A couple of the stories include elements drawn from your Jewish heritage. When crafting stories, how conscious are you of things such as faith and race? Do these come to the forefront early in the creating process or just elements that organically appear as you write?

Nick: With the stories "The Jew of Prague" and "Under the Skin" Judaism was a part of the process from the get-go. In "The Jew of Prague" I wanted to have the main character, David, be a lapsed, perhaps even self-hating Jew who finds himself in a world not just where that faith is still very much alive for others, but where that faith still has enormous power. Even then, though, the story is really more about identity than religion. "Under the Skin" took a slightly different tack. The Jewish angle in that one is less about identity or faith than about making the theme of issues with the first-born more mythic by using the structure of the Passover seder. But generally I think details like faith and race come early in the creative process for me, if that's what the story demands. I've also written plenty of stories where they aren't mentioned at all. With a few exceptions where I've had to be specific, my characters could pretty much be any race, ethnicity, or religion the reader wants them to be. When it comes to issues of faith, I'd say most of my stories are actually faith-free. Not surprising, considering I'm not big on religion!

Gef: As a fan of monsters, the Golem seems to be one of the under-appreciated ones (at least in my experience). What monsters, if any, do you think could use a brighter spotlight?

Nick: Well, I'm definitely a fan of the golem, as you can tell from "The Jew of Prague." In fact, I'd love to see more stories about the golem and its cousin, the man-made monster. Too many writers are focusing on vampires, zombies, and now werewolves too. There just aren't enough Frankenstein riffs out there these days. But generally I'd love to see more creepy stuff and less gut-munching, whatever the monster.

Gef: How have you found the rise of the Kindle and similar devices affected short fiction, both as a creator and as a consumer?

Nick: I might not be the right guy to ask. I only just recently got a Kindle and have only read a small handful of books on it. So far, though, I find the learning curve of going from paper to Kindle very easy to handle. In fact, by the end of my first reading experience on the Kindle I was already used to it and enjoying it. But in this short time I haven't really found e-readers to have any sort of affect on short fiction, either in subject or form. I think e-readers have revolutionized the way we read, at least in terms of content delivery, but not necessarily what we read.

Gef: What's the best--or the worst--piece of writing advice you ever received?

Nick: The best piece of writing advice I ever received was to just put your butt in the chair and write, even if it's only for half an hour a day. But if you do it every day, or as close to every day as is possible for you, you will eventually finish what you're writing. And for writers, just finishing the damn thing is half the battle. It's not the end, of course, because then comes the really fun part: revising! For me, that's where the magic happens. I love revising and polishing, and I hate slogging through the first draft. But you can't get to one without doing the other first.

The absolute worst writing advice I ever received was that you have to start at the bottom of the totem pole before you can be successful. But writing isn't like working your way up in a company. Despite everyone who tells you that you have to start with short stories before novels, and that those stories have to be published by non-paying venues so you can get "exposure," there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of writers who start with a novel right out of the gate, and one published by a major publisher, too. Don't ever listen to anyone who tells you there's only one way to go. There are as many routes as there are writers. You should always strive for the top. If that means honing your craft until you're good enough, then so be it. You would hone your craft for any other career, wouldn't you? Why treat writing any differently?

Gef: What projects are in the works that readers should be watching out for in the future?

Nick: I have a novel coming out from St. Martin's Press in the fall of 2013 called DYING IS MY BUSINESS. I would describe it as a supernatural noir, though blended with some heavy fantasy and horror influences. It's about a thief who works for a Brooklyn crime syndicate who discovers he can't die, or rather he can't stay dead, and gets caught up in an age-old struggle between the forces of good and evil after trying to steal something he should have left alone.


A big thanks to Nick for offering his time and answers. Be sure to check out his blog (http://nick-kaufmann.livejournal.com/), as well as his collection STILL LIFE (http://www.nicholaskaufmann.com/books/still-life-nine-stories/).

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