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
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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: