- Finding the right ending is often a matter of discovery.
- How writing with pen and paper makes us think of every word as we write.
- Deliberate practice and how it helps us improve our prose.
My experience with writing plays helped to train my ear for human voices.
Welcome to the thirty-sixth episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft. In this episode, I chat with fiction Rick Hoffman.
Christmas Eve and the eight-year-old boy wakes to darkest midnight. He has been dreaming about heroes and monsters, and their battles have frightened him awake, as they often do. Eyes open in the blue-black of his room, he sits up alert to noises downstairs. He stumbles to the window, opens it to crisp night air and a quiet wind in the pines. He hears again the noise that startled him, clearer now with the fog of sleep fading. A shuffling downstairs. Someone is awake.
Arthur: Has your experience as a playwright helped you in your novel writing? How?
Rick: First of all, thank you so much for the opportunity to have a voice on your platform. I think this it’s a wonderful thing you’re doing to allow emerging writers a chance to be heard. But back to your question. My writer friend Adam Bjelland says he loves my dialogue. I think my experience with writing plays helped to train my ear for human voices. When the characters start talking, it can be difficult to make them stop. I usually find in my fiction that I write too much dialogue at one time, and I have to go back and insert more narration within it to break it up or sometimes cut whole sections.
Arthur: How did you get into writing plays?
Rick: I’ve always loved the theatre. Throughout my childhood, I was involved in drama in one form or another from about age twelve on up through college. I love acting, directing, stage crew… You name it, I did it. I also had a profound love for film. I wrote a screenplay in college and even went to film school at the New York Film Academy after completing my bachelor’s degree. It became clear at NYFA that I didn’t really know how to tell a story with pictures, though. Words had always been my passion. That’s when I thought I would try writing for the stage, so I wrote a play. Then I wrote another. The second one won a small award for local theatre on Long Island.
The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.
Arthur: Did it come before or after your short story and novel writing?
Rick: I took up fiction later on. I was reading more fiction than drama, and it just seemed to be the natural progression. These days the thought of writing a play is intimidating to me. It’s really very difficult to write a play that works.
Arthur: In your interview with Driftwood Press, you talk about picking a theme before writing a story, so as to use the story as a means to explore that theme. What other themes have you written about? What have you learned most about writing around a central theme?
Arthur: It’s weird to some writers that I think about theme first, but I often do. Not always, but often. In one form or another, though, all of my stories seem to be about broken people. Sometimes they’re able to mend, and sometimes they tear themselves down, but ultimately either the damage has been done or it’s about to be done. That’s just what interests me. I have that quote from A Farewell to Arms on my right forearm: “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” I love that Hemingway uses “every one” as two words, as if to say “each individual, independent of one another.” In keeping with that idea of being broken, I’ve written about redemption, betrayal, abuse, coming-of-age, mortality… all those things that test us and break us.
You think of the story you want most to read, and then you sit down and write it yourself.
Arthur: I’m very glad to hear you’re a Moleskin fan. I am as well. In a previous interview, Joseph Pascale and I discussed notebooks and pens. He has a great series where he explores the notebooks used by other writers. In the future, long beyond our time, what would you hope for someone to find or discover in your notebooks?
Rick: That’s a great question. I guess if I’m being honest, I’d love for my work to last. I don’t need fame. Money is always nice, but it’s secondary to a legacy. If someone in the remote future found one of my Moleskine notebooks, I guess I have to say, I hope he’d find a story he recognized.
Arthur: What has been the hardest work to write for you? Why?
Rick: The novel I just finished has been the hardest. I worked for three years on it, and I’ve only just started querying agents. It’s a southern coming-of-age story, and that means rather a lot to me because I grew up Mississippi and Louisiana. I haven’t lived there for quite a long time, but the South was instrumental in shaping me. Consequently, I always struggle to get my southern stories just right. I never want to mischaracterize a region that has been so significant to my own life. Every writer wants to be published in The New Yorker, but to be honest, Oxford American is my white whale.
The ending is a matter of discovery.
Arthur: When you get a new idea for a story, how do you decide if you’re going to pursue it over another?
Rick: When I start writing, I know whether it’s working. I don’t always know whether it will continue to work, but I know in the moment at least. If it’s working, then it’s worth pursuing.
Arthur: How do you do know if one idea will be more successful as a book or short story with your audience versus another?
Rick: I think that just depends on the scope of the story. The bigger it is, the more space I need to tell it. Most of the time, a short story starts as a short story in my head and ends up that way too. My novel, THE DEVILS THAT HAUNT YOU, on the other hand, started as a short story and then got too big for that format. The novel I just finished was always going to be a novel.
I try to be open to possibilities and let the story go wherever it needs to go.
Arthur: Do you monitor trends in the book market? Before you wrote THE DEVILS THAT HAUNT YOU, what inspired you to write it and how did you know if it would sell? Did you do any market research before writing it?
Rick: I prefer J.D.Salinger’s advice from Seymour Glass to his younger brother, Buddy (the writer in the family). He tells him that every writer was a reader first. You think of the story you want most to read, and then you sit down and write it yourself. What inspired me to write DEVILS was the island in the middle of the Hudson River where a strange old industrialist built a castle to house his inventory of military collectibles. That part of the book is real. I just took the history and ran with it.
Arthur: Your short story, Biyani, has a great ending. Did you know the ending before you started?
Rick: Thanks for your kind words about that story. It’s still very important to me. You know, no one wanted to publish that for the longest time. As with every aspect of “Biyanî,” the ending was a matter of discovery. I knew the protagonist, Berzê, needed to dispel some of the horrible things that had happened to her. She was never going to do that without first facing violence again, and then transcending it, moving past it, embracing something foreign to her. That’s part of the significance of the title of the story, which is a Kurdish word for foreigner. Jennifer Porter at The Tishman Review understood that story when no one else did. I’m forever grateful to her for that.
Ink is a bigger commitment than a keystroke.
Arthur: When starting a story, do you plan the conflict out to provide a satisfying ending? Or does the ending just come to you?
Rick: I usually know the ending or some version of it, but I try to be open to possibilities and let the story go wherever it needs to go.
Arthur: Your short story, INITIATION, is incredible. It’s amazing how much meaning is weaved within the few pages. The contrast between the beginning (which has a more negative start) to the ending (which is extremely positive and uplifting) is well established. What is the theme in this story and how did you develop the voice to write it?
Rick: That one is actually a standalone chapter of the novel I just finished, so the voice had been in development for some time before I started submitting it to literary journals. As for the theme, it’s a departure and return. Joseph Campbell tells a story about a community of indigenous people in New Guinea, where the initiation ritual for boys is to abduct them while wearing the masks of the gods. The kid is terrified that the gods are going to eat him. The elders rough the kid up a little bit, and when he ultimately stands up for himself, the elder takes off the mask and puts it on the kid. That story is so moving to me. I had to put a western spin on it. It’s about casting off the infantile ego and embracing adulthood.
Arthur: Do you have any specific writing techniques you employ to hone your craft?
Rick: Writing with pen makes me think about every word. If the word doesn’t look right, sound right, feel right, then I have to cross it out. Ink is a bigger commitment than a keystroke. That keeps my writing more deliberate. Sometimes I’ll deliberately write whole paragraphs in iambic syllables, just to challenge myself to think more carefully about words. Some of those paragraphs make it into the final drafts.
Arthur: What is a future writing project you hope to complete one day, but perhaps aren’t ready to write yet? What is keeping you from starting? What do you need to improve to start it?
Rick: I’ve had several false starts on a novel adaptation of my first play. I think I finally know what direction I want to go with it, but for now it will have to wait, since I’m caught up in another project at the moment. I think the difficulty came from having invested so much time in trying to rein the story in to a single manageable set on stage. With a novel, you have freedom to go beyond those boundaries. I need to spend some more time thinking about it in a different light and getting the characters out of the confines of the single setting of the stage version.
Rick, thank you so much for sharing your writing wisdom with us. Be sure to check out Rick’s other works and his amazing prose.