Saturday, March 17, 2012

Author Interview: Daniel Powell

"Good speculative fiction challenges us to think creatively and envision other alternatives ..."

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I began writing with an eye toward publication in late 2006. After working for about five years as an adjunct instructor at various colleges, my workflow smoothed out and I found that I had more time to devote to writing on a daily basis. In each subsequent year, I’ve had a little more success, which is gratifying.

Your day job is as writing teacher at a small college in Northeast Florida. Recently I read a blog post from Anne R. Allen, a fellow author. In her post she said she’s often approached by parents or grandparents of children who have shown promise as a writer, and they ask for advice on how their children can learn to become a writer. We don’t have a full blog post to do that, but I’d be interested in your take on that question.

I think Ms. Allen has written a very practical post. I actually earned a finance degree in my undergraduate education at Linfield College. I passed the Series 7 and earned my brokerage license and went to work as a financial planner for a few years. My company gave me a laptop and, rather than use it to run valuations on securities, I wrote short stories. I had minored in English at Linfield, and I really wanted to focus on pursuing a career that would connect me to the world of letters and storytelling, so I applied to the M.A. program in English at Portland State. When I was accepted, I grounded myself in narrative theory courses while also writing sports for Gresham’s Outlook newspaper.

Both experiences have been valuable to me in my career. I learned to write clearly at the Outlook; I learned to value brevity and maintain narrative continuity. And I learned to teach at PSU. I contributed to a community of scholars that was reading amazing texts, and I learned a lot about academic writing and classroom organization. Ms. Allen’s final summation—read, write, and live—is right on the money, in my opinion.

As a final thought on the topic, I’ll also add that I meet very few students that come to me with aspirations of making a go of it full-time as a writer. Even in my creative writing classes, students that hope to write for a living are few and far between. Most folks at the college are just taking composition on their way to other degrees, and they are just as happy to put their writing courses behind them as I was to put calculus behind me when I was studying finance. Writers tend to congregate and talk writing, and I know you have many that meet here on the website. Sometimes it seems like there are more writers than readers, but I think the reality is that the opposite is true.

In that blog post, Ms. Allen wasn’t too keen on college programs, either creative writing or MFA programs, as the best use of the education dollar for most wannabe-authors. What are your thoughts on this?

It depends on what you want to do. If you want to teach or work in publishing, then enrolling in a writing program can be a good investment. These programs do create stronger writers. Some of them have awesome writers teaching in them, and the feedback and workshop setting can be very positive for a writer’s development. But if a person wants to make money as a commercial writer, I probably wouldn’t enroll in an MFA program. I’ll always advocate for people to earn college degrees, just because it often makes them more attractive to some employers, but a writer with serious commercial aspirations really only needs a job that gives him or her time to write.

The greatest benefit of my job as a collegiate educator is that I have lots of hours to work on my writing, in addition to spending time with my wife and family. Ms. Allen is correct that making a living at writing is difficult, but making a living in writing hasn’t been all that difficult for me. I teach writing, I spend lots of time with other productive writers at the college, and I work on my own projects a little bit each day. I doubt there are many other jobs where I would have so much time to devote to my work. In that sense, pursuing a writing-intensive college degree (and, unfortunately, its attendant debt load) can be a good career choice for a student with a sincere desire to write.

For a final question on this subject, I’d like to turn the question around. Can you make a case for college students with no interest in becoming writers to take more than the minimal writing classes required for their degree?

I can, and I’ve actually developed a pretty good following of repeat students from outside of the communications program at Florida State College at Jacksonville. I’ve taught courses on urban legends, Florida folklore, conservation literature, Pacific Northwest Literature, American film studies, and studies in horror literature. I meet many students that enjoy these subjects, and some pursue a double major by adding a number of communications courses to their loads.

We’ll be offering a new four-year degree in converged communication starting this fall. The program will provide instruction in film production, business and technical writing, web design, graphic design, and journalism. Our graduates will, we hope, move into positions in public relations, web relations, community development (social networking), and journalism with this degree.

Literacy rates in the United States, frankly, aren’t where they should be. I often edit articles and memos written by colleagues with doctoral degrees that require substantial revisions. These are bright people that just struggle to make themselves understood.

Clear expression will always be valued in the workplace. Whether students are studying engineering or chemistry or nursing, they need to be able to articulate their thoughts clearly, and taking additional courses outside of the required rhetoric and composition classes will help with that.

Have you always lived in Florida? If not, where did you grow up and what brought you to Florida?

I’m an Oregonian now living in Jacksonville. My wife and I moved out here in 2005 for my job at the college. The labor market in higher education is pretty tight, and we’ve been very fortunate to find such a great fit here in Duval County, where she is employed as a guidance counselor at a local high school. But I’ve lived in almost every part of Oregon, and we plan on returning to the state at some point in the future.

What do you like to do in your leisure time?

I ran track at Linfield, and I’m still an avid runner. I spend a lot of time fishing with my daughter, and I watch a lot of movies and chew through books pretty quickly. I also really enjoy cooking, and I’ve won a pair of chili cook-offs in the last year!

You identify yourself as a writer of speculative fiction. Define what that means to you?

Speculative fiction means possibility. Speculative fiction embraces the odd and the supernatural and the bizarre, often doing so in a fashion that makes those qualities appear conventional. I mean, most of us have a soft spot in our hearts for newborns, but if you hold one in your arms shortly after reading Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin, the entire experience is likely changed just a little. Good speculative fiction challenges us to think creatively and envision other alternatives, and it gives us a healthy outlet in which to access our personal darkness quotients.

Your first three books, These Strange Worlds (a collection of fourteen dark short stories), Survival, which is a dystopic thriller, and The Reaper’s Harvest (originally titled An Autumn Harvest), are all speculative fiction, although much different. Tell us about each of them.

These Strange Worlds collects the best of my early short fiction (2007-2010). The collection includes seven reprints, in addition to a few original works. I’m fond of the collection because it includes a story that was pretty influential in my growth as a storyteller. I think most writers can pinpoint a moment when the writing seemed to crystallize for the first time, and that happened for me in writing the tale Picture This.

Survival popped into my head when I was at the hospital, waiting for my daughter to join us in March of 2010. It’s a political novella set in a world in which overpopulation has placed an exorbitant price on the natural right to raise a family. Men must abstain from alcohol and prescription drugs for ten months. They have to fulfill a quota of uncomfortable, sleepless nights. Then they have to survive a twenty-four-hour gauntlet called Labor for the right to become a father. Pulpy science fiction, to be sure, but it was great fun to write!

The Reaper’s Harvest (I changed the title to avoid confusion with another book) is a ranch novel with a touch of mythology. I grew up in the wheat country outside of Pendleton, Oregon, and I’ve always wanted to write a ranch novel in that setting. The story focuses on William Lowell, whose pregnant wife falls into a coma after an automobile accident. A sudden spike in the number of deaths in the community seems to coincide with the arrival of a mysterious antiquities trader and his beautiful daughter, who purchase a large wheat farm on the outskirts of town. Will quickly discovers that his neighbor is much more than a gentleman farmer, and he has to scramble to save the lives of his wife and unborn child.

I’ve actually written four novels. I grew to care about the characters in The Reaper’s Harvest and made the decision to put the book up on Amazon KDP, but I firmly believe in the notion that not everything I’ve written is ready for public consumption. I believe all writers should think seriously about the body of work they’re cultivating. I also have scads of short stories that I’ll always be fond of, but that will probably never see publication. Why? Because they were formative pieces. I had to write them to improve as a storyteller, but that doesn’t mean they’re any good.

Your most recent release, Frozen, appears to be a straight-ahead thriller. Tell us about it and why you decided to branch out from speculative fiction.

Frozen concerns a woman taking revenge against the man that killed her daughter in a hit-and-run accident. I wrote it quickly, and it’s been garnering some great reader feedback. I left the speculative path here because the story called for it. Since my daughter was born, I’m writing more frequently about the bonds between parents and their children. This story just seemed to call for a grittier, more realistic tone, and I was happy to oblige. Torched, a sequel pitting Terri and Vivian against each other again in Mexico, will be released later in the summer.

Who are your favorite authors?

Ray Bradbury, Joe Lansdale, Jeffrey Ford, Cormac McCarthy, and Stephen King. Outside of the speculative realm, I like Willa Cather, Ray Carver, Tom Robbins, Ernest Hemingway, and Joyce Carol Oates.

Some of your books are published by a small press and others self-published. Tell us about the route to publication for your books, and why you chose the route you did.

I’ve worked with a local small press on my shorter stuff and story collections, mainly because I know the designers well and because we enjoy collaborating on projects. These are folks with backgrounds in design and digital media, in addition to some other writers from the American South (Georgia and North Florida). We meet up from time to time to talk books over some cold ones, and occasionally something creative actually comes from those meetings!

At the same time, I’m about to deliver a science fiction novel to my agent, Bernadette Baker-Baughman. I’m definitely still pursuing traditional publication routes, as I feel those will funnel readers to my other projects. Bernadette has been a tremendous partner in helping me grow as a writer, and we’ll just continue to work at getting more readers interested in the stories.

Have you read books by your fellow Indie authors and, if so, are there any you would like to recommend?

I read widely in the independent pool; it’s stocked with so many talented writers. The line between mainstream and independent writers has become so thin that it’s just about gone. That puts the onus on the story, where it should be, and I think that’s a positive for the readers.

Blake Crouch’s Run was probably my favorite book of 2011. I liked it so much that I read the rest of his catalog and purchased three hardcopies to give out as Christmas gifts. Ania Ahlborn’s Seed was really unsettling, and I’ve liked just about everything that Aaron Polson has written. Give Loathsome, Dark and Deep a try, then just work your way through the rest of his books. Anderson Prunty’s Morning is Dead was loads of weird, crazy fun. There are dozens, but these are four that I’ve recently enjoyed.

Tell us one thing about yourself that you think would come as a surprise for most people to hear.

My wife and daughter and I dork out almost nightly to ‘80s power ballads. We’ll throw on some Mike Bolton (my daughter can’t resist all the horses in that video!) and get down with some seriously silly interpretive dance!

What’s in store for the rest of the year?

I’ve got five short stories scheduled for publication in 2012, including a middle-grade campfire tale whose setting will be familiar to many Florida history buffs. I’m just finishing the revisions on the first draft of the sci-fi terrorism novel I mentioned above, and I’m about halfway finished with a supernatural horror novel set in a small town high in the Sierra Nevada.

Torched will be released later in the summer, and then I’ll begin taking classes at the University of Central Florida. I’m very excited about participating in this doctoral program! The curriculum emphasizes programming and design, and I think it’ll be great fun to work with a community of scholars that is contributing to the next wave of developments in a rapidly changing publishing environment.

Also, my second collection, The Silver Coast and Other Stories, will be released in June. It will feature eleven speculative tales, with a mixture of recent reprints and a few original stories.

Thanks so much for this opportunity, Al! I appreciate all that you do for the book-loving community! 

Authors interested in participating in our weekly interview series can find the details here 

For More Daniel:

For more, visit Daniel's blog.


These Strange Worlds    Review Amazon US  UK                           Paper
Survival                                  Amazon US  UK  B&N Smashwords Paper
The Reaper's Harvest               Amazon US  UK                           
Frozen                                    Amazon US  UK                          Paper

Also mentioned:

Blake Crouch - Run                  Amazon US  UK  B&N  Smashwords Paper
Ania Ahlborn - Seed                 Amazon US  UK                           Paper
Aaron Polson - Loathsome, Dark and Deep
                                            Amazon US  UK  B&N  Smashwords Paper
Anderson Prunty - Morning is Dead
                                            Amazon US  UK  B&N                    Paper


Morgan Mandel said...

I had to smile when I saw your picture, because my DH is an avid fisherman. We have tons of pics of him holding various fish he caught.

Morgan Mandel

Arthur Graham said...

I'm glad to hear that your school is putting more emphasis on writing/communication in the curriculum, Daniel. I remember being in high school, in the mid-nineties, rolling my eyes every time an English teacher would bemoan the effects instant messaging was having on our diction/vocabulary. Fast forward ten years, and I was lecturing college students on the importance of compartmentalizing their text-speak from their essay writing!

I also agree that the skills learned in writing courses have a much broader applicability outside of writing occupations, and this will only ring truer with each new iPhone to hit the market. The irony is that the more we all write these days, the more practice we end up needing!

Karen Wojcik Berner said...

Great interview, Al.

I agree that everyone, writer or not, needs to take writing classes to help facilitate effective communication skills. That is really important.

Daniel Powell said...

Thanks again for the interview, Al!


Yeah, those photos are all over my hard drive. The fishing is good down here in Jacksonville, and part of the fun is that you never know what you might bring up!


I see some of that, and (thankfully) I find that students are really willing to work at improving their writing skills. You get some of that eye rolling early in the term, but once expectations are made, then you see some solid improvements throughout the term.


It's amazing to read some of the stuff that goes unedited. Our daughter's recent progress report had so many misspellings that it was just a little sad...

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks for all the great comments, everyone. When I asked Daniel the question about writing courses for everyone, I knew the answer I was hoping to hear. I think writing skills are going to help virtually anyone, regardless of profession and other interests.

In the age of the internet where so much interaction happens online the ability to articulate your thoughts matters. That is how you make first impressions in today's world. I know I have a hard time giving people on Facebook, forums, etc much credit for intelligence if they don't express their thoughts well.