By the time I met him, Brian Shawver had already published two novels, Aftermath and The Cuban Prospect. The former, a story of small-town crime and redemption, had just hit shelves, and was praised by critics who called it “powerful” and “heartwrenching”; the latter was written as his MFA thesis at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I had written a lot, but I knew nothing about writing when you got down to it, although I had no idea how little I knew until I spoke with Shawver. Later, he served as my thesis advisor during my first Master’s program in English, and never failed to give pointed yet helpful criticism on my writing. That’s his other talent: In the Program Era, like so many successful writers, Shawver is an exceptional teacher.
After publishing his novels, Shawver turned his attention to the craft of fiction, producing first The Language of Fiction and then Danger on the Page: A Fiction Writer’s Guide to Sex, Violence, Dead Narrators, & Other Challenges. Now, after writing these books—the kind he wished he’d had in his creative writing classroom as a professor—he’s going back to fiction.
Shawver teaches at Park University, a former Presbyterian College founded in 1875, where he’s also an associate dean. We spoke in his office among his bookshelves and his typewriter collection, not far from the campus’s iconic clocktower, which stands atop an extensive network of limestone caves and looks south and west along the Missouri River.
The Rumpus: Let’s start at the present day and make our way back. Tell me about the new book and your nonfiction work with the University Press of New England.
Brian Shawver: The new book, Danger on the Page, is a writing guide, a follow-up to my previous book. It’s focused on situational moments in fiction. How do you describe a character who’s ugly? How do you write about sex? These issues that really constitute the bulk of a writer’s day. Where I think sometimes in the beginning stages of our careers, when we’re students, we think of writing as a very conceptual thing. We’re thinking grand thoughts about theme and plot. What I’ve found to be true as a professional writer is you really are not doing that most of the time. You’re trying to solve a much more specific problem.
In my career, a huge percentage of my writing time has been saying, “Oh, crap, I have to figure out how to do this,” and going to my bookshelf and seeing how other writers have done it. I’d remember Nabokov had done something with a character, and I’d vaguely recall that, and I’ll go and look and see how he did it. This guide is sort of so people don’t have to do that. I’ve compiled a lot of examples of writers with specific in-the-moment situations. I’ve talked about the techniques, whether they work or not; there are a lot of negative examples of writers who are not pulling off a situation, and why I think they aren’t. And so, basically, I tried to find the most common of these situations—challenges a writer is faced with in writing a novel or a story.
Rumpus: Is it just for beginning writers, then, these situations?
Shawver: And intermediate writers as well. And anyone—some of them are trickier than others. Professionals are going to be comfortable in their ability to deal with, say, physical presentation of character. They might not be as comfortable writing about sex or violence. I think many, many writers, including me, are not at all comfortable writing about violence. Not in a squeamish way. It’s not that we don’t want to see blood. But we’re worried about doing it in a way that is original and non-formulaic. Same with sex. A lot of these situations can trip up most of us at one time or another in our careers.
Rumpus: This sounds like something people have been going back to, as a technique, a pre-MFA thing, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose—it’s how writers learned to write back in the day, before the workshop model.
Shawver: Right. Exactly. MFA programs tend to do this in a much more slapdash way—which isn’t bad, that’s how we learn to write now—but that’s just how they do it. Once in a while in a workshop, the professor will say, “This writer is having trouble with dialect. Let’s go look at Zora Hurston and see how she did it.” It’s not always as focused. This is a much more categorized way of looking at the same thing.
Rumpus: Let’s talk a bit about MFAs, because we’re kind of getting into that. You went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Shawver: Fifteen years ago—that’s when I graduated.
Rumpus: Can you tell me about that experience?
Shawver: It was a great experience. I was one of the ones who enjoyed it. I know it can be a divisive place, but I found it to be really thrilling and invigorating. I was very young. Not far out of college. I had a lot to learn about a lot of things beyond writing. But I found it to be as helpful a place as I could have gone. There are other models, but just in terms of throwing in writers together, seeing what happens when they talk about their work. Obviously, that leads to confrontation and awkwardness sometimes. It did when I was there. It’s known as—I don’t know. A competitive place. Where sometimes people have the claws out a little bit. I was okay with that. The claws were out a lot, but writing is a competitive thing. You’re going to hear horrible things or maybe you just hear nothing when you start getting rejections later.
Any place can be difficult if you feel like you’re not getting honest feedback. If everything isn’t given in good faith. But the great teachers I had at Iowa were good at fostering good faith as well as rigorous analyses of your work. I had Barry Hannah, Barry Unsworth. John Casey. And Frank—Frank Conroy, the director of the program, and he really did let you know what a serious endeavor he considered it. If you were a dilettante about it, there was no room for you. If you wanted to talk about how to get agents or how to get jobs or what was “hot” in fiction there was no place for you. (Laughs) He was all about the art, and that was infectious. For me, anyway. I thought it was a tremendous experience.
Rumpus: And you wrote your first novel, The Cuban Prospect, while you were there?
Shawver: I wrote about half of it while I was there. The one drawback was the program wasn’t receptive to writing novels. I’ve never been that comfortable with short stories. I’ve always felt that I’m a novelist. That’s not a great place to share your work, because it’s hard to talk about novels in the workshop format.
Rumpus: That’s all MFAs, really.
Shawver: All MFAs. I don’t know how you get around that. The avenue available to you was to work independently with a mentor as a thesis advisor. And so Barry Unsworth, the great historical novelist—may he rest in peace, he died a few years ago—he worked with me. He was British, and this book is about baseball, and he knew nothing about it. (Laughs) But he knew more about narrative than I’ll ever know and was very good at helping me through that. By the time I left Iowa I had half of a very rough draft. I finished the novel within a year.
Rumpus: Did you go to Cuba? What made you want to write about Cuba?
Shawver: I never did. It never occurred to me to go to Cuba. Now it’s so much easier, they’re adding a ferry, apparently. (Laughs) They gave approval for it, to Florida. At the time, you couldn’t go unless you had money or journalistic credentials. I was completely broke. There was no way. The book didn’t begin with Cuba anyway. It began with, I wanted to write about a person who had a problem: The main character is a guy who wants to help a great pitcher out of Cuba. But he wants to do this because he wants to attach himself to greatness. My idea was just attaching oneself to greatness. What we will do to become a part of something bigger than ourselves. And also, in America, that often means sports. I don’t know if it was the best way to start—I would probably never do that again. It started with the theme.
The sports thing got added later. And Cuba got added after that. At one point, Livan Hernandez, the pitcher, said he was going to write an autobiography, and he’d gotten himself out of Cuba in a similar way, and I was terrified. (Laughs) I had written my book and I was trying to sell it. And then I found out Livan Hernandez was going to write the exact same book. I thought, “Crap.” I thought about changing the entire thing. I was going to change it to a guy trying to get a hockey player out of Soviet Russia. (Laughs) Same thing. A repressive society, an athlete—that wouldn’t have worked. Baseball has all sorts of connotations that support the theme better. But it just goes to show what I thought was central to the story.
Rumpus: You finished it while you were teaching in Boston?
Shawver: I was a high school teacher in Boston. I finished it my first year. It was very difficult. Waking up very early to write. Trying to grade. Being a high school teacher is incredibly hard. Especially if you’ve never done it before. That was just—I’m amazed I didn’t pass out more back then. I’d get up early and write. After the end of a year, I got an agent. About a year later, I got a contract for the book. And a year after that, the book came out. At that point that I quit. So I was a teacher for four years. I thought I’d get a higher education job where I wouldn’t have to wake up at five in the morning.
Rumpus: You said to me one time that these stories of people who wake up at five in the morning to write sound romantic, but in actuality it’s awful.
Shawver: So awful. I felt sick all the time. I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I was doing bad writing, too. I had the summers off, which helped me clean up some of the bad writing. But I don’t think anyone’s writing very well at 5:30 A.M. Not with a full-time job. You’re putting words on the page that can be reshaped. I would not encourage anyone to take that path. (Laughs)
Rumpus: So you were looking for a higher ed job and writing your second book, Aftermath, which was also published through Nan A. Talese?
Shawver: Yeah, I was adjuncting at Boston University for a year or too. The first book was Overlook Press, actually, in New York. It’s a great press. It’s a mid-size press. The guy who runs it, Peter Mayer, was just a giant. It’s such a cool place. They didn’t want the second one. That was upsetting to me, because I liked them. But it turned out to be okay because I took it elsewhere and we sold it to Doubleday.
That was an interesting time. Because it came out after the whole James Frey thing blew up. So Nan, who was working on the book—she chose the title for the book—she had to go on TV and get yelled at by Oprah about A Million Little Pieces. So it was a weird time. This happened when my book was coming out. By that time I had secured a tenure-track job at Missouri State University.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about Aftermath and where that idea came from. That book also explores big themes, but it sounds like it starts with the situation that opens the book.
Shawver: The scene that opens the book is a fight. This is something that’s I always struggled with as a young writer. At the time, it was almost like a writing exercise. A friend of mine at Iowa—he was kind of a rough-and-tumble New Jersey guy—and had been in fights before. I never had. He described this fight he was in where he was in a car trying to escape all these people trying to beat him up. He was pulling the door closed. That image, of fingers on the door, trying to pull it closed. I think Joan Didion has an essay about this kind of thing—the shimmer around the cat. It means an image that stays with you and you’re not sure why. So it was one of those things.
Around the same time, I’d been in Pennsylvania for something. I stopped at a Denny’s and witnessed this manager dealing with a customer complaint. He was so put together. His clothes were so ironed; his hair was perfect. I thought, “Wow, this guy has his stuff together.” I wondered what would happen if he had to deal with something that was outside the Denny’s Manager Manual. Like he clearly knows how to be a good Denny’s manager.
Rumpus: But what happens if someone hits another person over the head with a tire iron and leaves him bleeding out in the parking lot? This is during a brawl between kids from the poor school and kids from the rich school.
Shawver: That’s the opening scene. The fight is witnessed by this fictional version of the manager. He’s not good when chaos intrudes into his realm. He’s not sure what to do. Also, that idea has always interested me: The sins of omission. One of the epigraphs is from Thomas Aquinas. “Hence it is evident that, simply and absolutely speaking, transgression is a graver sin than omission, although a particular omission may be greater than a particular transgression.”
The failure to act is sometimes a worse sin than acting. The manager doesn’t do anything about the fight. He worries about the police coming. He just hopes it will go away. It doesn’t. A kid gets maimed.
Rumpus: The whole book is him atoning for that sin. It launches him on his journey.
Shawver: It’s him trying to figure out whether he needs to atone. He’s mostly concerned with proving to himself that he couldn’t have done anything differently. It’s unclear whether he figured that out.
Rumpus: You had written a third novel about an astronaut, disgraced, who has to return to Western Kansas. You had actually sold it. What happened with that third book? I bring it up because I think maybe other writers can relate to this. That just because you have your book out with one of the Big Five Publishers, it’s not like the path forward is always clear.
Shawver: That was a mess. It was accepted by Doubleday. It was about Western Kansas, about the meatpacking industry, too, a little bit. They said, “We’ll take it,” but they kept dragging their feet on the contract. Then they said, “We changed our mind.”
Rumpus: The work never ends. There is an idea among MFA students and graduates that once you sell a book, you think, I’ll quit the job, I’m a writer now. When, in reality, it’s not—I hope it’s not too disheartening to say, for the majority of writers out there, it continues to be work. You can never slow down or take anything for granted.
Shawver: Oh, yeah. For the huge majority of writers. That’s definitely true. When you have a couple of books, you have some advantages, in that you know people in the industry, and maybe you have an agent. You can say in your cover letter, “Look, I’ve been published before.” It makes them take you a little more seriously. But that’s the end of the advantage.
Oftentimes, it’s a disadvantage because you have a track record. If you’re twenty-three, and you recently came out of Iowa, there’s always the possibility that you’ll be the hot new thing. If you’ve published a couple of books, they’re pretty sure you’re not a hot new thing. (Laughs) Which isn’t to say you can’t recover from that. A lot of people, it’s their third or fourth books that take off. If you had a couple that didn’t hit, you’re still okay. You don’t go stale in the way people worry about.
They are just looking for a book they can sell. They want a good book. They may worry about whether it fits certain market criteria. But you can’t overthink that.
It’s true. You’re never safe. Maybe if you won the Pulitzer, you can say, “Okay, for the rest of my life I won’t have trouble getting a book published.” But if you’re not one of those bestsellers or Pulitzer winners, it can be a problem. It’s amazing to me the writers of a certain stature I’ve heard who have been, you know, fired by their agents, or didn’t get a book contract, or can’t get published. Writers you’ve heard of. If your numbers say this, the publisher will say, why should we give them a contract, even if they’re kind of famous?
Rumpus: It gets back to that idea: Writing is a job like any other.
Shawver: I think that’s terrific. The idea that it’s a meritocracy even among established writers. I like the idea that writers have to prove themselves every time. On the other hand, you don’t want to be thinking about the marketplace. You don’t want to write a book just because you think it can sell. I do think if a book is good, that factors in with people who will buy it. It rarely happens that someone will say, this is an amazing book, but I have no one I can sell it to.
Rumpus: Never stop trying to do your best work. Always be trying to do something better than what you did before.
Shawver: You have to accept that the reward is the writing itself. It’s on coffee mugs, it’s cheesy, it’s trite. But it’s the truth. If you live your life without accepting that writing is a pleasure, you’re going to be miserable. If you need that external validation, to make this a worthwhile endeavor, it’s going to be a frustrating road. Writing the book you want to write is better than seeing your work in a Barnes & Noble. That’s not bullshit—that’s true.
Rumpus: Speaking of doing new work, you’re working on something new right now? You don’t have to talk about what the book’s about, but how has that been to go back from nonfiction to writing novels?
Shawver: It was strange to switch back. When I did The Language of Fiction, it was because I wanted to do it—it was a guide that I would have wanted in my classes. So I was focused on that. I believed in the follow-up, too, but it was a job with a deadline. I didn’t have a lot of time to write fiction. No fun. It is interpreting to write when you’re sitting down and you’re not tapping your fingers and saying, “What comes next?” You know what comes next in nonfiction. Your outline tells you what you have to deal with. If you get stuck, you need to go and do research. It was invigorating to have that kind of project.
When I moved back to fiction, I’d write a paragraph, and then I’d think, “What comes next? How did I ever do this, how did I fill up three hundred pages of this?” (Laughs) I needed something to guide me. To some degree I was helped by the fact that this is a historical novel, there were events I could return to—the research. But you don’t want to depend on that too much. Research can become a crutch. It’s just too easy to say, “Oh, instead of writing, I need to go read this.” You don’t really need to. It’s easy to tell yourself you do. But you don’t need to learn Latin because some of your characters speak Latin. Anyway. I had to get back into it, force the words out. You build momentum and it comes back to you. I don’t want to go back to nonfiction for a while. I did that for a couple of years. I definitely want to stick with fiction for the next however long.
Rumpus: This is a long question, but it’s the last question, so bear with me: In On Becoming a Novelist, there’s a part at the very end where John Gardner says he always gets asked, “Do you write with a pen, a pencil, or what?” He says a lot of people think it’s a frivolous question, but I think it’s a question about “Is there any hope for the young writer?”
Shawver: It’s interesting that Gardner asked that before anyone was writing on a computer. He is talking about hope, but he’s also talking about process. What gets those things from your brain to the page? Does the medium matter? I assume it does. When I started out as a kid writing stories I’d write with a pencil and a piece of paper. I wrote a lot in college, at first in paper, and then when I was junior in college I got a word processor—not a computer, but one of those things where you could see three lines of text at a time. That changed the way I wrote. You can type so much faster. You’re not being as deliberate. These days, you can use a computer to search for synonyms. I assume most everyone uses computers. Some write with voice recognition software—that’s amazing to me. I can’t even fathom that. But I use the computer. I type very fast, too fast.
As for hope. Once you have kids, you realize a lot of that stuff is meaningless. When you’re a young writer, you tell yourself that it has to be the right temperature, the right setting, and you pen has to be the right ink—you computer has to be a whatever. A MacBook probably. You do feel that the situation has to be perfect. That’s treating writing as a sacred, ritual thing. The temple has to be clean for the god to come. If the temple’s not clean, if you don’t have the ink, or if the computer is making a weird noise, the god won’t come. I can see that. It’s better to write in some circumstances as opposed to others. My ideal circumstances would be in my office at home with my dogs, my two big, black dogs, lying next to me on the floor. But I don’t get perfect much. I have kids now. A job. What I’ve found—I’ve written in my car before. I’ll come home, I’ve been thinking about my book all the way home, and it has to be done or I’ll forget it. Once I go inside there are all these wonderful things—wife, kids, dogs, wonderful things—but they don’t let you run to the computer. So the temple doesn’t have to be clean for the god to come. Anything can be a temple. It’s just you and your fingers.
If you invest too much faith in the circumstances, you’re going to be disappointed or incapacitated.
Rumpus: What should you invest in, then?
Shawver: Hard work. Being the kind of writer who says, “I’m not going to walk into that house until I get this paragraph cranked out.” Or waking up early and feeling like crap all the time. It’s something you’ve got to do. People who do it and don’t ask anyone to applaud them for it are the ones who make it. No one wants you to write. (Laughs) You have to dig in with both hands. Sometimes it’s easy to get distracted. That’s a shortcoming of MFAs, or going to the bar in Iowa City, or going to AWP and talking about writing. Then being too hungover to write. That’s worshipping the priest or the temple and not the god. Writing is the god. Young writers should be aware of that.