Part 2 of an Interview with Phyllis Duncan.
Phyllis Anne Duncan (Maggie to her friends) is a retired Federal Aviation Administration safety official who has been writing since third grade. A commercial pilot and former flight instructor, she writes fiction from her home in Staunton, VA. She is a graduate of Madison College (now James Madison University) with degrees in history and political science.
She is the author of two short-story collections, Fences and Blood Vengeance, and has had stories published in eFiction Magazine. She is a submissions reader for eFiction Noir and eFiction Sci-Fi magazines.
She has studied writing at Writers.com, the Gotham Writers Workshop, and the Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop.
Jan: Let's continue our interview that we began last week by talking about your current work. What's your working style? What are you working on now?
Maggie: Because I have so many novel-length works (at least five), I work on one until it stalls, then I move on to another. Right now, I'm trying to "zip" two manuscripts into a single one. Coincidentally, they're both 9/11-based, but I wasn't satisfied with either one. As I merge them, I like the subject matter more. The bulk of both works was post-9/11 events, both military and political, so I'm trying to pull the best from both into a single novel. It's not as easy as I thought.
Jan: So you move back and forth between works. I do that too. It helps.
Maggie: Yes. I think it's good to set something aside; especially something you've worked on for a while. It helps you get better perspective on it, and, frankly, you can get bogged down in a manuscript. Stepping away for a while is sometimes the only way to get a handle on what needs to be done with it.
Jan: Who are your literary influences?
Maggie: Too many to name, but I'll highlight Harlan Ellison and Margaret Atwood. Both write speculative fiction, which is my favorite to read. Both Ellison and Atwood have such a grasp on the human condition and human frailties; their works always awes me. Ellison, in particular, can write something that sticks with me, plays in my dreams, and muddles me for days. He's that good at disrupting the everyday world. Atwood's language just flows so wonderfully that often after I read something by her I figure I should just give up writing, but what she's really doing is inspiring me to write better.
Others include Vonnegut, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Austin, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Stephen King, not to mention his son, Joe Hill. And, as I said, many more. I think every writer I’ve ever read has influenced me in some way.
Jan: What were your favorite childhood books? Do you ever reread them?
Maggie: Black Beauty was the first book someone gave me as a child, and I still have it, though the cover is missing and I'm afraid the pages might fall apart. I have re-read that over the years, and I cry every single time. If I re-read it tomorrow, I'll cry. Little Women, The Pickwick Papers, and anything by Edgar Allen Poe were my childhood favorites. I had to sneak Poe home from the Library because my mother thought he was too lurid, but I was reading him in fourth and fifth grade. Even now when I want to scare the bejesus out of someone in a story, I think about Poe, not King. I went through a stage of "horse" books starting with Black Beauty, so there was Misty of Chincoteague, The Horsemasters, and The Black Stallion. My first horse's name was, of course, Beauty. I had the entire collection of Nancy Drew stories, but I also loved the Hardy Boys stories.
I have re-read most of these over the years, and I'm looking forward to another re-read with my grandkids, though I may hold off on the Poe with them!
Jan: What books are in your ‘to read soon’ stack by your bed?
Maggie: It's a good thing I have a Kindle because my many bookcases are packed with the books I've read, and a stack of my 'to read' books would be in danger of toppling onto the bed! The 'to read' books go from the classics (Sherlock Holmes) to the modern (a series about the last Druid left on earth and he's 2,000 years old) to books on the craft of writing. On this particular day, I'm reading V is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton and Our Divided Political Heart by E.J. Dionne. I've a good split between fiction and non-fiction, and I majored in history, so I have many history books in the queue, including a memoir dictated seventy years ago by Joseph Stalin's mother.
Jan: What’s the most useless advice anyone has ever given you about writing?
Maggie: Frankly, the most useless piece of advice was when I paid attention to a writer friend (a man) many years ago who said my female character was too harsh and strident and that I should soften her and make her more vulnerable. Because he was a friend, I followed that advice, and I ended up abandoning that character for a long time. I didn't know exactly what was wrong, but I just knew I didn't want to write about her.
Jan: What is the best advice that guides your current work?
Maggie: I went to a talk by Sara Paretsky, who writes the V.I. Warshawski mysteries. She told a story about how an agent tried to get her to "soften" her female character and make her more "vulnerable." Paretsky went back and gave it a good try and found it just didn't work. She was starting to hate her protagonist, so she switched agents and wrote V.I. Warshawski just the way she wanted to, no arguments. After that talk, I went home and redrafted everything with the softer, more vulnerable character. I left her flaws in, but I made her a no-nonsense hard-ass, and I'm more comfortable with that character now, because that was how she was supposed to be.
Jan: Any other words of wisdom to share with our writer friends that might encourage them in their writing life.
Maggie: Only you know who your characters are, their likes and dislikes, their quirks and worldview. Don't let anyone else tell you who they are; the characters will tell you exactly who they are. Listen to them.
I'll add, don't adhere to the "write what you know" maxim. I write about spies, and I've never been one, but what I am is a political scientist who was an aviation safety investigator. So start from what you know, research, let your imagination go, and try something you don't know. You'll unleash yourself, and it's fun, too.
Jan: Thanks for the interview, Maggie. I hope people will check out your writing blog. It does contain 'wise advice' to those trying to set aside time for their writing life. And - of course - your political blog's insightful and interesting, also.
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at:
Website – www.janbowmanwriter.com
Blogsite – http://janbowmanwriter.blogspot.com