Bill Savage: Of novels and plays and stories

Bill Savage
Writer’s Interview

  1. What inspired you to write your books?

             There really wasn’t a lot of “inspiration.” I’ve been writing professionally (as a newspaper journalist) for most of the past 35 years. I’ve probably written millions of words over the years. But like anything, writing is a long process, and how you write and what you write about changes over that time. At some point around 2010 or so, I decided to focus more on fiction and dramatic writing, particularly the latter, than trying to write about real-life things happening now.

  1. What was the first thing you wrote after you made that decision?

             Actually, from about 2010 to 2012, I went on a sort of a binge of playwriting. I wrote five or six plays during that time. The first, which will never see the light of day in its original form, was sort of an odd trilogy of interactions a man, who had a terminal illness, had over his life with various females. But it had no central theme and was, quite frankly, not well-written. But when I finished it and printed it out, I had in my hands a play I had written. And that inspired me to write more things like that, only better.

  1. What were those plays about?

For the most part, they were what I like to call generational. My central theme in most of them was that people are the same over the generations. A young person going to war today isn’t all that much different from a person doing it in 1863, although, of course, their worlds are much, much different. I find the similarities fascinating.

  1. So how did that manifest itself in subsequent works?

I fired off a few plays in the next year or so, starting with one that reflected what I believe was the experience of my parents growing up in the depression. Then I wrote one about World War I, because that period fascinated me. I did another one about Halloween during my youth. And I did one about my first summer job. They all dealt with that same theme.

  1. Have any of the plays been produced?

No, although once I win the lottery, I would like to open a small playhouse and self-produce them. Production is a difficult nut to crack. I’ve come close to making it in a few contests, apparently, but the competition is fierce, and quite frankly, there is a bit of a trend in theater now for the so-called “edgy” play, which often deal with issues with which I am not familiar enough to write – urban issues, drug use, and so on. I have had readings in local groups, which were very daunting to me. It was fascinating to hear the words read, particularly by actors who are the same age as the characters in the plays.

  1. What led you to write fictional prose?

Essentially, the fact that some of my plays just didn’t work in that format. I wrote a play called “My Redeemer Lives by the Bay,” loosely based upon a low point in my life, and also upon a few interracial relationships that I had. But it just didn’t work on the stage. The scope was too broad, and the work required much more exposition than I could ever do in the dramatic format. I was told by one theater person to throw it in the trash. But I looked at it, and decided it might work if I just told it as a work of prose fiction. That enabled me to do much more exposition, and after about five years of adding here and subtracting there, and of endless, monotonous revisions, I finally felt comfortable enough to put it in book form. Believe me, the product you see in book form bears very little resemblance to the play, and is quite different both in form and structure, than even the original book.

  1. Was there another work like that?

Absolutely. I had written a play about my experiences with my first summer job, but there were two major problems. Again, there was no room for much exposition, and it was a case of “why is this kid here and where did he come from?” Also, because the play took place in a very loud environment, which I felt would have been crucial to the entire presentation, the actors would have spent most of their time on stage screaming. So I revised that, and I was able to provide backstory as well as a coda that the play didn’t have.

  1. What was the process of turning these works into novels like?

Painstaking. Between working full-time jobs and having a life, it took years to do. I would say that about half of each play’s content made it into the prose works. And I had to write about half a novel for each one to provide the exposition, new scenes, and so on. The first thing I did was to cut what I knew was not going to make it. Then I wrote new introductions and literally just took the plays’ dialogue and turned it into prose dialogue. Of course, stage directions had to be rewritten into descriptive prose, and the dialogue had to be restructured. It wasn’t exactly like cutting and pasting as much as it was going through the plays from start to finish, and then cutting and revising.

  1. What sort of scenes didn’t make the cut?

The “Bay” story had an ending in an airport that was completely cut. I have considered rewriting that as a one-act play. There were scenes where the main characters just talked about things in their background, and those became “show me, don’t tell me” revisions. The play about the mill had scenes in which the main character talked in monologue about things, and I was able to remove those and just write them descriptively. But really, there was a lot more addition than their was subtraction. This has happened within the plays, as well?

  1. Any examples of that?

I have a play called “On Our Way to the Fair,” about life for some second-generation immigrants in the 1930s. Originally, it had segments about a sick sibling who was in a sanitarium, and a male character who was the boyfriend of one of the family members. Those got cut out simply because they weren’t essential to the current narrative. Originally, though, one of the characters just sort of talked about getting out of the small town they lived in; after several readings, I had her just elope and do it. And in both of these plays-turned-novels, I added an element toward the end that explains the behavior of an antagonist in each.

  1. You said this process took years. Were there gaps in which the projects sat dormant?

Oh, absolutely! Depending on my professional situation, I was often so busy actually doing my job, or commuting to and from that job, that sometimes a year or so would go by before I could get back to these projects. A lot of this work was done in spurts. I would not touch it for several months, then get back into it and polish off a lot of work. All together, I’ll bet these projects have been worked on in two or three states, on about a dozen or more computers. Probably about 50 percent libraries, 30 percent laptops, and 20 percent at work (Did I say that?)

  1. Is revising harder than the initial writing?

The problem with revising is that you never feel as if you’ve finished. But yes, it absolutely is more difficult. The initial writing is certainly no walk in the park – I just am  not one of those people who “enjoys” the actual process of writing. There is a burst of innovation and imagination when you’re writing the initial work, but when you are revising, unless you are writing huge blocks of new text, you just feel as if the work will never be finished. I guess, to a certain degree, it never would be if we didn’t say “All right, that’s enough of that! It’s done!”

  1. Are there any other factors that lead you to introduce or remove characters?

Sometimes you just feel as if you need a certain type. In a play called “Men of the Empire,” set in World War I, I added a monologue for a British Army nurse just to have a female presence that I thought was needed to put the who war experience into perspective. In “Fair,” while I was cutting some characters, I added the boyfriend of the character who was eloping, for pretty obvious reasons. In the novel “Bay,” I first added the sister of the main male character in one chapter, then revised the whole thing to have her be kind of a Greek chorus off whom the story is told throughout. And in “Mill,” I added several characters from the original stage version, especially in the first and third framing sections.

  1. Do your novels both have framing devices?

Yes. “Bay” begins with a suicide, which is fairly obviously that of who will be the main male character in the work. I thought of the movies “Laura” and “Sunset Boulevard,” where we see the main character dead from the start, and then go back to review the circumstances of their lives. In “Mill,” the framing devices are slightly different, and this is where I inserted a character in an unusual way. The “tester” was a main character in the play, but as an adult. I inserted his teenaged self to introduce the narrative that the book will follow. Similarly, the third section introduces the teenager who was the protagonist of the main section, as an adult.

  1. Most of your work seems to take place in other timeframes? Do you just prefer period pieces like that?

Yes, but I don’t do that out of a sense of nostalgia or anything. The characters in these works live in other times, but their circumstances are often right out of today. The world of second-generation immigrants in 1939 was not all that different from the world of such immigrants today. Soldiers in 1914 dealt with the same things soldiers deal with now. Summer jobs might not be at factories anymore, but when a teenager gets his or her first job, it is still as daunting as it was in the 1970s.

  1. What would you like to see happen with your work?

Well, there are two “P’s” of course … publication and production. I would like for a literary agent or, better still, a potential publisher, to see my prose work and have it produced so I could take advantage of their promotional and other benefits. And, of course, I would like those books to sell. You’ll never get rich, as they say, but I’d like to have people read these stories and feel as if they know people like these characters. As for my dramatic writing, I would love to just have a good, professional reading and then, as the ultimate goal, production. Perhaps somebody will see them and move them in that direction.

  1. Do you have any more work planned?

             Yes, one of my life dreams is to write something that resembles a Western. But of course, I’m not talking “Gunsmoke” or Gene Autry. I’m fascinated by those who fought in the Civil War and then had to get on with lives in a tough world, so I have something planned about that. I also have an idea involving an Alzheimer’s patient. And some time ago, I began a work about young men in New York in the 1960s trying to get into a TV game show. That’s been one of those dormant ones. And I started a work for a dramatic writing class that I’d like to turn into a one-act, about a particular nasty habit.

  1. What about recycling parts of other works?

Yes, as I mentioned, I have a vague idea for that airport scene. And one of the acts of that first play could easily be turned into at least a one-act; in fact, two of them could. And that play had a prologue that I might try to revive somehow. Also, I have a short story about a car sale that could be restructured somehow. Again, it’s all finding the time. Hence the lottery (LOL).

  1. What was the very first thing you had published?

             Not sure if you’d call this “published,” but in junior high school, I wrote a poem that got picked for selection for the Christmas presentation, and was put in the lobby of the school auditorium. After that, I wrote both newspaper articles and short fiction for publications at the University of Scranton, but my first paid writing was for a small newspaper in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania in 1979. Since then, I’ve been getting paid for writing or editing for at least about 90 percent of my life.

  1. What is your favorite part of being a writer? Your least favorite?

             The favorite part is being finished. Really, that’s true. That is a superb feeling, kind of like the last day of school. It’s great to see the work all in one finished form. And of course, in writing fiction, there is the ability to create characters and infuse them with some of the things that happened in one’s own life. The least favorite part is grinding out the work, finding time, and of course, revising it endlessly. Writing wrenches the brain quite a bit and leaves you mentally drained. But those of us who can do it are eternally grateful for the blessing (and aware that it could also be considered, by some, a curse). Oh, and by the way, being paid is nice, too.