Interview with Marc Cullison

What inspired you to write your first book, Where’s the Ivy? Where does this story come from?

That would inspire me to try my hand at writing. And I wrote. When I began teaching at a community college, I found an environment rich in experiences. I felt like I could use these as foundations for stories and write about them. I built an entirely new environment with its own stories and they became a larger story, then a book.


What do you hope readers will take away after reading Where’s the Ivy?

Feeling good about themselves, and, of course, the satisfaction of being entertained. We all deserve an escape from everyday hassles. Just knowing that it can happen to someone else helps soothe the bite of some of the more caustic episodes in our lives. A more astute reader might discover the message of our failing public education system and the gradual dilution of higher education standards.


What does your story say about our current times? 

The story reveals how we baby-boomers might feel toward the younger generations, and the challenges their cultures presents to ours. They can be formidable, and they make us re-evaluate our own worth to society. Sometimes I feel like my generation is obsolete. But then, we present some notable challenges to the younger generations, as well, and I can’t exactly see that the are preparing for any better futures than we are enjoying. I think they might be in for a spot of trouble.


What works best for you: typewriters, fountain pen, dictation, computer or longhand?

My brain tends to work faster than my hands, so I use a computer most of the time.  Of course, when I don’t have my computer with me, longhand works just fine.


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

I was working as a computer programmer in the healthcare industry, and I volunteered for the company’s newsletter committee. I found myself writing short pieces for it. One of my supervisors made the remark, “Wow, finally, somebody who can actually write.” That was the one thing that prompted me to start writing in earnest. I began taking notice of things around me and recording my impressions and descriptions in a notebook I always carried with me.


What inspires you to write?

Most inspiration comes from events in my life and people I meet, not that I’m inclined to write about everything I encounter. But some events and people just have that aura of mystery or curiosity that beckons my writing muse.


How often do you write?

I try to write every day, but that doesn’t always happen.


Do you have a set schedule for writing, or are you one of those who write only when they feel inspired?

I don’t’ have a schedule. I write when I feel like it. Mornings are usually good times, and afternoons over a cappuccino. Starbucks is a good place to write.


How hard was it to actually sit down and start writing something?

I usually don’t sit down to write unless I have something to write about. It’s easier that way.


Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day?

No. For me, that is counter-productive. I just roll with the flow of inspiration. Some days I write a lot, others not so much. It all evens out. It’s difficult to write when you feel like you have to.


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

I can’t speak for all writers, but I am the kind of person who likes his solitude, at times, but not all of the time. I’m not necessarily an extrovert, but I’m not a recluse, either. It depends on the time of day and what mood I happen to be in.


Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea take you?

I usually have a general idea of a plot in mind when I start writing, but I let the story go where it wants to go. That leaves more room for originality, realism, and unexpected events. I can always change it if it gets too far off course. I don’t want my book to appear to be too contrived.


Do you read much, and if so, who are your favorite authors?

I read a lot. I didn’t use to like reading, especially in college, because that’s about all I did in college: read. And the stuff I read was excruciatingly boring. Now, I read everything I can get my hands on. It gives me exposure to what other authors are doing and their techniques. My favorite authors are Michael Connelly, Richard Russo, Herman Wouk, and John Irving.


Over the years, what would you say has improved significantly in your writing?

There is so much to the art of writing. Trying to identify all of the areas that I had to pay attention to was a laborious task when I started writing. With practice, my abilities to navigate the oceans of good writing tended to become more automatic, so that I didn’t have to think about them so much and could pay more attention to the storyline and how it evolved. Putting words together and forming sentences and paragraphs that blend into a captivating story takes a lot of practice. Once I began to get a feel for it, my comfort level as a writer grew.


Have you ever let any of your books stew for months on end or even a year?

I have several manuscripts that have lived in the electronic jungle of my computer for months, some for years. They just weren’t good enough and didn’t have that spark that would interst a reader. Someday, I’ll probably pull them back onto the screen and rewrite them.


What is your take on the importance of a good cover and title?

In the bookstore, the cover is what will draw a reader’s attention to the book at first, then the title should pique his interest. Without those two, the book will probably never be picked up from the shelf. For digital books, the cover and title is what will draw the reader’s eyes to that small image on the screen and prompt him to click on it. A bland cover or generic title that sends no message will go unnoticed. Both should have relevance to the book’s content without being garish or overdone and say something clever or unexpected about the book.


How would you feel if no one showed up for your book signing?

We all have those moments when our self-importance takes a hit and we must face reality. A lot of things will affect the outcome of a book signing, and you can’t put the blame on others for that. Unless there was some kind of failure in advertising or arrangements, I don’t think there is any blame. That’s just the way it is. If other indicators about your book are favorable, the failed book signing was probably just a fluke, and you should try a bit harder for the next one.


Do you read and reply to the reviews and comments of your readers?

Reviews of books are merely the opinions of reader’s impression of the books. There is usually nothing personal about them, although occasionally a reader will attempt to make it so. I respect the opinions of my readers and do not reply to their reviews. What they say about my books are their honest opinions and anything I say will probably not change them. I just try to understand what motivated them to say what they did and adjust my writing accordingly. Of course, no one can make everyone happy, so I understand that I’m going to receive some poor reviews. If a book receives only good reviews, I question the validity of those reviews and the quality of the books. If I receive an email from a reader, I always respond. I’m honored that they took the time to tell me what they thought about the book. It must have meant something to them on a personal level, whether it was favorable or not. I’m always glad to interact with my readers.


Does a bad review affect your writing?

That depends on the review. If it offers insight into how it affected a reader, then I have to take note of it and decide if my writing could have been better. It the review is merely a rant about a reader’s personal agenda that has nothing to do with the book, then I ignore it.


Any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?

Read a lot, study what you read for technique and structure, and learn as much as you can about the English language, especially grammar and punctuation. Then practice.


What did you want to become when you were a kid?

When I was old enough to understand the concept of a career, I had always wanted to be an architect or structural engineer. I carried through on that dream through college to a master’s degree in architectural engineering. That education gave me a good background to do many different things; writing was one of them.


Which book inspired you to begin writing?

My first inspiration came from a book of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. I was intrigued by the way the stories were structured and how the characters seemed so real. I convinced myself I could do something like that, too. That’s when I began actually trying to write.


How much of yourself do you put into your books?

When I construct a story, I draw on my own life experiences and inject my characters with some of my own personality. I’m the person I know best, so it’s easy to incorporate those characteristics into a book. I just try not to overdo it.


How realistic are your books?

Well, it goes without saying that if a book isn’t realistic, who’s going to believe it could happen? A book has to be realistic to get the reader’s attention and keep it.


When you were young, did you ever see writing as a career or full-time profession?

As a kid, I hated to write. Even through college, I hated to write. I never envisioned myself as a writer.


Is it true that anyone can be a writer?

I suppose that might be true, but not everyone should be a writer. I know a lot of folks who don’t have the courage or motivation to be one. And I know some folks who want to be but just don’t comprehend what writing is all about.


People believe that being a published author is glamorous. Is that true?

I don’t know who these people who think that are, but they must have the same impressions as those who think movie stars are glamorous. Some authors may indeed revel in glamor, but I suspect their numbers are limited to those who have made it to the New York Times Bestseller List. I try not to get caught up in the hoopla of fame and glamor, because I’ll probably never be that famous. I just like to write something that people enjoy reading.


Do you like traveling, or do you prefer staying indoors?

I love to travel; just not all of the time. I still have this need to keep in touch with a home base. I enjoy seeing new things and meeting new people, but I also crave the comfort of my home.


How does it feel when you don’t get the recognition you deserve?

I have mixed feelings about his. Unless an author has written some work that exposes a grave wrong or incites people to a higher level of patriotism or morality, I have to wonder why any recognition would be necessary. As an ordinary, run of the mill author, what would I have done to make myself any better than anyone else to deserve recognition? I try not to place my self-importance too high.


Do you enjoy book signings?

Yes. This is an excellent opportunity to meet the folks who read, or will read, my books. My interaction with them gives me feedback on how I’m doing as an author. It also puts my face and name out there in public. It’s good publicity.


Now, when you look back at your past, do you feel accomplished?

I can look back at the books I’ve written and get much satisfaction from my accomplishments. I think being able to so something few others can do gives me a sense of pride in what I set out to do.


What do you do in your free time?

I live with my wonderful wife in a log house in the country. It requires a lot of maintenance. That’s what I do. I also dabble in other carpentry projects and work on my daughter’s house. It keeps me busy.


Given the chance to live our life again, what would you change about yourself?

This is a misleading question, because much of what we become is determined by our environment and parents. Although we make choices along the way, our fundamental character is formed as a child. We don’t have much control over that. But, I would hope that I could be astute enough to make better decisions on how to handle events in my life. For example, recognizing insecurity and finding ways to correct it, or overcoming the fear of being ridiculed or of failing. None of us, though, have that kind of foresight.


If you die today, how would you want the world to remember you?

I would like for people to think that I gave them some escape from their troubles in life by reading my books, or making them feel more comfortable with their feelings after reading about my own experiences that might be similar to theirs. I just hope that when then read one of my books, they think, “What an enjoyable trip.”


Do you write down revelations and ideas as you get them right then and there?

If I have a notebook or paper handy, or even my phone, I’ll make a note for use later.


Did you ever change sentences more than five times just because it didn’t hit the right notes?

That happens frequently during rewrites. It is the rewrites that finishes the book. I try to find the right rhythm and pace for the story.


How big a part does music play in creating your “zone”?

I usually don’t use music as a muse, but if it is playing in the background, it can affect the way I write.


Do you need to be in a specific place or room to write, or can you just sit in the middle of a café full of people and write?

I can usually write anywhere, anytime, providing I’m in the mood for it. If I’m not in the mood, no place is right.


Do you encourage your children to read?

My daughter is well beyond that stage now, but when she was young my wife and I did everything we could to encourage her to read. We do the same with our nieces and nephews and any other children we are associated with.


Do you have a library at home?

I don’t know of any author who doesn’t have a library at home.


Is there a particular kind of attire you like to write in?

No. As long as my clothes are comfortable, I can write.


If you were given a teaching opportunity, would you accept it?

Providing it was convenient and not a hundred miles away, of course. I taught math and science at a community college for thirteen years. I loved it.


How do you incorporate the noise around you into the story you are writing at the moment?

If the noise is relevant to the story, I make not of it and work it into an appropriate setting, If not, I ignore it.


Anything else you’d like to talk about? 

When I started my first book, “Where’s The Ivy?”,  publishing it was not a serious goal. I just wanted to see where the story led me. It turned out to be educational for me. I’ve learned a lot about our youth by observing and thinking. I hope the reader can find something of value there. And, I hope this book might inspire someone else to write.


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