Interview with Chester Patton, author of “At Bay: Short Fiction from San Francisco and Other Wilderness Areas”

What makes this particular genre you are involved in so special?

The short story is something of a lost art form. Tastes change, and entertainment evolves in tune with the times. But like opera, ballet, sculpture and poetry, the short story still finds a place with those with a taste for its ability to surprise and delight.

How important is research to you when writing a book?

Research is critical to the writing process, as excruciating as it can be. Each short story requires the development of its own world, and the author has a responsibility to draw the reader in by constructing it well. It adds to the time and effort of creation, but your standards shouldn’t permit sloppiness. Rarely, you can create a whole story out of experience and imagination, but these happy instances are few and far between.

When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?

Like a lot of writers, writing was always part of my identity. It probably starts with an early compliment on your facility with words, and there you go. You’re a writer!

What inspires you to write?

It’s not like you have a choice, really. You feel guilty when you’re not writing, because nothing else is as important. Sometimes you can distract yourself with other activities, but the impulse of creation is always in the back of your mind. Inspiration is a gift, but not the primary driver. If you waited for inspiration, your productivity would suffer. It’s work, most of the time. Occasionally, however, you are blessed with a pure work of inspiration that flows through you onto the page in a torrent of creativity. That’s a gift from beyond.

How often do you write?

Every day. I’m not terribly structured about it, but since I write full time now I have a lot of freedom. I might roll out of bed at 4:00am and get to it, or I may start at noon. As long as I get something down, I’m doing all right.

Tell me more about writing when inspired.

Well, it’s called “flow” in psychological circles. These are the times when you realize an entire story in a dream, or it comes to you almost magically. Then you can hardly type fast enough to get it down. It literally flows like a fire hose through your consciousness. I wish I could summon it at will, but I’m grateful for those stories that come so easily. I usually have to beat my brains out for weeks, spend hours researching, and then more days of rewriting and discarding so much of the work I got down. Inspired stories happen when everything within you is in perfect alignment, and the experience is thrilling. It’s a tremendous high, and the resulting work is generally very good and nearly complete at first writing. This happens for me a couple of times a year, if it’s a good year.

Writers are often associated with loner tendencies; is there any truth to that?

I’m afraid so. I think we are compelled to create narratives that have an internal logic and justice, or an absence of these in satire. Having an independent sensibility may heighten your ability to see the world in different ways. It’s a curse and a blessing.

Do you think writers have a normal life like others?

Probably not. Like other artists, there is a consciousness of being different, and struggling with the impulse to create. This often leads to the well-known tendencies of artists to seek relief in substance abuse.

Have you ever experienced “Writer’s Block”? How long do they usually last?

This is called normality. It’s always a struggle to create something of quality, excepting those rare instances of “flow.” You fight through it, you do the work anyway, one sentence at a time. Unfortunately, this often means creating just as much to throw away as to keep.

Any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?

I read a novel once, a novel by a famous author about a famous author. The main character shows up drunk at a lecture about writing. He stands swaying in front of the audience and asks how many of them want to be a writer. Everyone raises their hands, and he says, “Why the hell aren’t you home writing?” And then he leaves. I think that says it all.

Tell us about your writing style, how is it different from other writers?

That’s hard to define. Mass markets for writing demand a certain degree of homogeneity in style. Writing styles these days are often very similar. I write in the manner that I can do best. I have shaken off most of my early influences, like Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson, Bukowski and even Flannery O’Connor. I now write like me. I have to tone down the rhetoric, and guard against entering the narrative too much. But I like my writing and work. It still pleases me when I read it.

Do your stories carry a message?

Sure they do. I can’t help it. Sometimes the message may be embedded, but it’s there someplace. I can’t help myself. Life and art have meaning.

How much of yourself do you put into your books?

Everything. All of me. It all goes in. After writing a good story, I feel depleted. I have to charge back up with experiences and life.

Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your work?

Many times. Where else do ideas come from? I embellish and develop an insignificant encounter, for instance, crafting it into something of significance.

It is often believed that almost all writers have had their hearts broken at some point in time, does that remain true for you as well?

Next question.

From all that we have been hearing and seeing in the movies, most writers are alcoholics. Your views on that?

It’s hard to dispute. The stress and emotions that are generated from intensive work must find some sort of release. Alcohol is an easy, if irresponsible, answer. Early in my career, I was guilty of indulging to excess. Youth is permitted certain stupidities, I guess. It’s been many years since I abused the temple of my body in that manner.

People believe that being a published author is glamorous, is that true?

It’s hard to see how. Beating the keys of a laptop for hours a day, researching arcane professions and trivia in obscure libraries, interviewing people with other stuff to do is not that romantic. It’s hard work, and not really fun. It’s more an obsession.

Is it true that authors write word-perfect first drafts?

You hear that some pulp authors are able to do this, like Louis L’amour. It may be true, but in my case, it’s only during the rare inspirational “flow” that this happens. That it happens at all is a miracle.

Whose work do you enjoy reading the most?

Homer. I reread the Iliad and the Odyssey every couple of years. I like to reread the Holmes stories very ten years or so. I read a lot of novels and short stories. Irwin Shaw is one of the two or three best short story writers of any era. Flannery O’Connor, as well.

Have you ever written a story you wish you hadn’t?

Only those I have to throw away. That’s painful. About 25% of the time, after days or weeks of work, I have to admit that a premise isn’t working. I can’t put out substandard work. What’s the point?

Have any of your past loves inspired characters in your books?

Do you have anything else?

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