Interview with Oklahoma Storyteller, Phil Truman

In the community of authors at large, how would you describe yourself?

First of all, I’m not that large; only around 205, 200 on a good day. Also, I’m pretty far down the pecking order, bobbing somewhere in the sea of Multitudius Obscurus (let’s pretend that’s Latin so readers will think I’m smart and/or pretentious). I’m one of among tens of thousands struggling to get my words into the brains of readers. Don’t have an agent, don’t have a NY publisher, don’t have an advertising firm, don’t have a law degree, never lost or won an election. Just me, an Indie, self-published, Joe the Plumber of writers. But you know what? I’m damn proud of it. I’ve learned that being an editor, publisher, ad copywriter, publicist, graphic designer, oh, and sometimes a writer is exhilarating. The challenge of it all is overwhelming, but the accomplishments are extremely gratifying. I’m among the blue-collar working-class of authors.

So, do writers become narcissists once their book starts to sell well?

I’ll have to get back to you on that.

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

Not sure it ever really dawned on me. More like, it was always there. Once in the fifth grade, I got the idea to write a play. It was pretty much a copy of something I’d seen on TV; had pirates, ships at sea, damsels, and such. Never did finish it, but I found the experience exhilarating, thought I’d want to do more. Didn’t really pick the urge back up until high school.

Did you specifically plan your studies around your interest of writing?

Can’t honestly say that, not deliberately. Had some small published successes in high school—the non-paying kind, wrote a column for the school newspaper. English was my easiest subject, so I majored in English as an undergrad, with the intent to teach.

If you were offered a teaching position today, would you accept?

Maybe, but not writing, not college classes. Sometimes I think I wouldn’t mind going back to the high school level. I believe I’d be much better at it than I was forty years ago. That’s where young people need to learn the value of reading and writing, appreciate the roll of language. That’s what sets us apart from all the other creature on earth; except the space aliens, of course. I used to tell my students, “It all starts with reading and writing. No matter what you plan to do with your life, you must first know how to read and write. The more you learn, the better you’ll do.”

Do all authors have to be grammar Nazis?

I don’t think so. We should know the basic rules, but there’s no need to be smug or tyrannical about it. That’s why God made editors.

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

I’ve always been more of an introvert, but not reclusive. I think you have to have a seclusion bubble to write. I strive for that, not always with success. I have a wife and a dog.

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

An astronomer. We lived in the country. Back then light pollution wasn’t a problem. I’d lie in the cool summer grass and look up at the Milky Way in awe, wanted to see more. Then I learned astronomy required a lot of math, so I switched to English teacher.

Do you recall the first ever book/novel you read?

It was in my fifth or sixth grade in school. Don’t remember the title or the author, but it was about a man hunting a black cougar somewhere in the mountains. The cougar had killed someone the protagonist knew, a relative or the like, and was stalking the hero. Sort of a Jaws theme, only with a mountain lion—man against beast. Had sort of a mystical feel, kind of spooky.

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

Always been a reader, and I do read a lot. Favorite authors? That’s changed over time with my taste and mindset. In college I read the heavies: Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway, Faulkner, Hugh Hefner. Those mostly for class assignments. Took to Science Fiction after the movie 2001: A Space Oddity came out: Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Niven. Read a fair amount of Stephen King, but quit; he started to get on my nerves with his over-writing. Last twenty years or so have swung to history and the American West. Read most of McMurtry, L’Amour, Elmore Leonard. Now I’m a Longmire groupie, can’t get enough of Craig Johnson.

What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?

Sitting down and doing it, ignoring excuses not to do it, things like Facebook, TV, checking emails, Oreos.

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

I’ve tried to set schedules, but have generally failed miserably. Again, I can find 1,001 excuses not to write. Schedules are for train engineers and astronomers.

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

Well, sure. At some writing seminar somewhere early on, some noted author said to set a goal of one thousand words a day; do that, he/she said, and in two months you’d have a novel. I dutifully wrote that in my notes. Unlike most things at seminars, workshops, symposia, that stuck with me. Sadly, it has become more of a guideline than a rule.

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

Never been much good at outlining, laying out a plot, or knowing the ending. Kurt Vonnegut once put down 8 tips for writing a good story. One of them was “Start as close to the end as possible.” Never figured out how to do that. Closest I ever got to starting near the finish was the beginning. I usually have a general idea about a book or story and just start writing it. I’m always surprised at the twists it takes, the characters that show up. That makes it a lot more interesting for me, and fun. Keeps me guessing.

How important is research to you when writing a book?

I think you have to know what you’re talking about, even writing fiction. Some of my books I call historical western, so I feel I have an obligation to my readers to be as accurate as I can about cultural settings, technology, and lifestyles, even language idioms.  Those written in present day require diligence in those attributes, too. I think this was brought home to me when I read (college) Mark Twain’s scathing and hilarious essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” on how not to write, especially with factual inaccuracies. Research is pretty easy nowadays. Seems you can find answers to just about anything on the Internet. The trick is figuring out which facts are true.

Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or pay someone to do it for you?

Yes, I do proofread and edit my work, it’s called revision. And I actually enjoy that part of the process. Gives me a chance to add to, cut away, and enhance. The final proofread should be done by a pro . . . if you can afford one (Check their prices. I’m in the wrong binness).

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

I guess stew is one way to put it. I’ve let them sit ignored for weeks on end, even years. My first novel took seven years to complete. Started out as a short story, it sat unfinished for several years. When I pulled it out to finish it ballooned into a novella, so I just kept going—off and on. Just too lazy to get after it, undisciplined. And for the life of me I can’t figure out why I did that, and still do, because I enjoy the process . . . most of it.

How realistic are your books?

The historical fiction, very; the mysteries, I hope so. They have some paranormal intrusions, but I work hard to suspend disbelief.

What’s your favorite movie which was based on a book?

Grapes of Wrath. I saw the movie first, when I was around eleven or twelve, was very moved by it, maybe because I was born in Oklahoma and my relatives had suffered through the Depression and Dust Bowl days. I’d heard their stories. I read the book when I was a college freshman. Thought the movie, the actors, captured the artistry of the novel. Still my all-time favorite book.

Does a bad review affect your writing?

I usually try to consider the source. Everybody is a critic, especially those who’ve never written. But I don’t get hurt feelings or angry. If a negative review is constructive, I listen. I may mutter, but I listen.

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

Been there. More than once set up in big chain brick and mortars with plenty of copies stacked high. The “signing” went virtually ignored. Many would glance at my table, but hurry on by without looking at me like I was some kind of time-share salesman ready to pounce on them.

True story: Had a book signing one Saturday at the busiest big-name book store in town (won’t say which, but their name rhymes with Arnes and Oble). Tons of traffic. They parked me next to a table displayed and stacked high with Trisha Yearwood’s (CW singer married to Garth Brooks) new cookbook. A big sign announced she would be there the next day for a book signing. People were grabbing those cookbooks up like fresh donuts. You could get your free tickets at the customer service desk to attend the signing, a poster announced. Tickets? I signed three books that Saturday. There was so much traffic the next day at Trisha’s signing, they had to call in cops to unsnarl it.

So, I don’t do book signings. I might try it again, when my readers have to get tickets for it.

Are all writers rich?

[head-rolling laugh] Next question.

Do you like traveling or do you prefer staying indoors?

I’m an avid indoorsman.

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

Only if they’re legends in their own minds. Ernest Hemingway put it most succinctly: “The first draft of anything is sh**.”

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?

Almost all? Well, almost all writers are part of the human race, in which case, they’ve had their hearts broken. So, I guess that makes me human.

Can you tell us about your current projects?

I have four titles on the market currently. Promoting and selling them are always ongoing projects. Three novels are in various stages of completion: Dire Wolf of the Quapaw is the first in the series I’m calling the Jubal Smoak Mysteries. Settings are turn of 20th Century Oklahoma/Indian Territory. Another is the second in the Legends of Tsalagee series, set in small town, modern day Oklahoma. These two novels are expected to be launched in the Spring of 2018. The third novel is a re-work of a novel my brother Gary—now deceased—and I wrote in the ‘80’s. It’s a Vietnam era epic novel based our combined military experiences. We shared a great deal of hilarity writing it, but never sold it. I have the original manuscript, now I need to carve it up and re-write it. It’s only on paper, which makes it that much harder.

Any advice you would like to give to your younger self?

Don’t take yourself too seriously. Be patient. Write what you know AND can learn. Don’t marry that first girl you married. That ’71 Mercury Capri—don’t buy it. Don’t be afraid to slash and burn what you write; first drafts ain’t that good. Don’t write for free. If someone offers you twenty dollars for a piece, take it. Don’t tell your boss she’s stupid to her face. Buy Apple and Microsoft stock.