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Interview with:

Paul Charles Howell [paulchowell] 

What did you first read? How did you begin to write? Who were the first to read what you wrote?
My mother read beautifully aloud: Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Bobbsey Twins, Toby Tyler, Hardy Boys, Little Men..., so I read now to my wife Betty, or she reads to me: recently Anthony Powell's Dance, Dickens' Dombey. I read her Beckett's novels while she nursed the kids. For awhile we read Rilke's poems, or Wallace Stevens'. Not every style is easy to read aloud: Thomas Mann, Heimito von Doderer, Proust. But Theodor Fontane works and so does Balzac. The first novel I read carefully line by line was Das Niebelungenlied, and I don't think I read right before I did that. Reading is sometyhing a writer does against writing, not for it. Writing should take its chances and come from life, not from books. My first essays, teen-age stuff about conformity (a big issue in the mid-fifties in America) and music, was read and liked by teachers, but I felt the need for long immersion in life before taking up the pen (or computer).
What is your favorite genre? Can you provide a link to a site where we can read some of your work or learn something about it?
I like some novels, many plays, and poems that are intense and surprising. I write poems ocassionally. I have written plays and screenplays. I wrote my first novel - Burning Bodies - in 1964 (never published). Politics of Joy, about the 1968 US presidential election, can be downloaded for free from the pair.com site: "Il est l’auteur de Joseph’s Hardware http://www.lulu.com/content/1714873, Politics of Joy http://www457.pair.com/aep/poj/, et l’histoire des Jeux Olympiques de Montréal, à paraître aux Presses universitaires de McGill-Queen’s http://mqup.mcgill.ca/book.php?bookid=2326" Eustis Circle will be available from Lulu sometime soon. It'll be followed by Telling Time, People You Can Trust, Seventy Time, and Broken Premises - all about ten American kids from 1946 to Dec. 2000.
What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
First, I'm fairly disciplined about writing - life-long habit, since I wrote for a living. I get to the computer in my office shortly after 6:00 a.m. and *write until I'm spent. Then I do editing & admin chores, walk the dogs, play tennis or work out, practice the viola - I play in an amateur symphony orchestra. Write is *ed, because writing happens in the head, while walking the dogs, say, or tossing & turning in the night. *writing means writing down, a process in which what you planned to type takes on a life of its own. I like to write but anyway can't avoid it - too bad, because I can certainly earn more money other ways. And I write stuff I'd like to read: however, this is not a good enough test. I also have readers & editors whom I pay to tell me what they think. The reader is always right (damnit!).
What type of reading inspires you to write?
Reading isn't what usually inspries me to write: I'm inspired by the sights and sounds and intimate discoveries in conversation and the challenge of getting things exactly onto the page - sort of like Scott Pryor's paintings. If I read Karl Popper, say, or Erich Kandel, or sometimes Martin Wolfe in the FT, they can get the writing juices flowing.
What do you think are the basic ingredients of a story?
Words. And where there aren't already words that mean what I want, metaphor. Words need to flow. Rhythm can be nice. I hope I give my readers stuff they can see. Some stories, whole long novels, do not have or need more than this. Story is important sometimes. Some readers like form. Character can be a big player, but sometimes the actor is an implement, the violin he's playing, say, or a feeling, like unsoothable longing... I know novels with good plots - The Secret Agent - but also novels where the "plot" is a maze on many planes; sometimes there are episodes. I don't care much about plot. What I like as reader or writer is something I never imagined. (Based on book sales, I guess many readers prefer the tired and true.)
What voice do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Either one (second person, too, in those rare cases when it works.) First person is very much about the speaker. Third person, if the reader doesn't worry about who's speaking, how's s/he know, works fine. When a painter gives a portrait of society, Max Beckmann, say, do we ask, is it first or third person? Or the Iliad? Or a Shakespeare play?
What well known writers do you admire most?
Homer, Shakespeare, Balzac, Doderer, Stevens, Rilke. I'd love to do a seminar on any one, or each of them.
What is required for a character to be believable? How do you create yours?
Resonance, I think, i.e., the character's approach to events has to be a complete surprise at the same time that the reader realizes that that approach was the only possible approach in the circumstances of that moment for that character. It's better if the surprise is created because the character's ears have just been opened (than if the author had withheld information). Whether the character surprises readers in a heroic way or by making a tragic mistake, we are engaged and transformed (and maybe can't get that character out of our imaginations).
Are you equally good at telling stories orally?
I doubt it, but I really like to listen to people who can talk, even trivial gossip, even lies.
Deep down inside, who do you write for?
If I were any good, I'd write for that paying audience of five or six billion. I write to justify myself. My readers should be my adversaries and Howell-skeptics.
Is writing a form of personal therapy? Are internal conflicts a creative force?
I've read writing for therapy; it can be childish and egomaniacal. I don't consciously try to do it, even in my logs, where I work with words about the day-by-day. Internal conflicts are anything but a creative force; they stop creativity. Later, with hindsight, I might write more intensively about them. For writers it's better to be even-tempered craftsmen.
Does reader feed-back help you?
Yes. It's critical.
Do you participate in competitions? Have you received any awards?
I have. I won two third prizes, found the whole process too complex and costly for the benefit, and stopped entering. Anyway, find no contest for novelists to enter.
Do you share rough drafts of your writings with someone whose opinion you trust?
Rough drafts? Not any more. I've had them put before my eyes for my honest comment - and the only honest comment can be, "Yeah, it's rough" - but more like fishing for compliments. And I've made the same mistake with friends. The earliest a writer can ask someone's opinion is when specific questions can be raised. But it's the writer's job to get the manuscript ready, not try to flog it or need encouragement while it's still rough. Until you've got a manuscript ready, however, you probably struggle to determine how ready it is. Feedback on rough drafts can only be, well, rough.
Do you believe you have already found "your voice" or is that something one is always searching for?
It's a compliment when a reader says, "You've found your voice." It's easy for authors to fool themselves. If I called and I picked up the phone, would I even recognize my own voice? Some days I think I've found it. Some days I say, "It's time for a new voice." Some days I think it doesn't matter. Some days I throw in the towel and go play tennis.
What discipline do you impose on yourself regarding schedules, goals, etc.?
Writing is my business. Deadlines must always be met. Goals may come without time limits, however. But text is always finished in time for the editor, even when you are the editor yourself.
What do you surround yourself with in your work area in order to help your concentrate?
Sometimes silence. Sometimes loud music. A window with a long view.
Do you write on a computer? Do you print frequently? Do you correct on paper? What is your process?
I write on computer as fast as I can. I revise every two or three pages on the screen first, then I print and, usually that afternoon or the next afternoon, revise the paper. Then I go back to the previous three (or so) pages, i.e., the day-before-yeaterday's work and re-revise it. Then I revise a section on paper. Then I revise a book on paper. Then I read the book aloud and make it up as I go. If possible, I have listeners, but not always. Then I ask friends for feedback on the manuscript - key: could you read it from beginning to end, or when did you give up? Any hope for this one? By now the friends I ask are pretty honest, but I tell them I can take it.
What sites do you frequent on-line to share experiences or information?
E-mail one on one.
What has been your experience with publishers?
Those who published me were OK. Those who didn't quickly became invisible. The process in many cases is a carry-over from horse and buggy days. In a few cases, it's all fast cars. I expect that brick & mortar publishing will be gone soon. There may be an opportunity for the new selector-editor-POD printer-payment collector, etc. I know publishers who claim they're in business, but having seen some businesses, I don't believe them.
What are you working on now?
I'm getting the Olympic manuscript ready for June publication. I'm getting Eustis Circle ready for release on Lulu as soon as possible. I'm writing (including researching) People You Can Trust, which is in part about the Vietnam War.
What do you recommend I do with all those things I wrote years ago but have never been able to bring myself to show anyone?
If you think others might find them interesting, and they're free of libel, slander, defamation, etc., show them in a jocular way to a sympathetic friend. No false modesty. If you don't think anydody would be interested, put them back in the drawer for a year. With more than 700,000 new titles in print in English this year, who needs another writer? If you are afraid of criticism, better leave them in the drawer.

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Paul Charles Howell
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

[paulchowell] Paul Charles Howell
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