The Wombwell Rainbow Interview: Shane Joseph

Reproduced here are the Eleven Questions with answers:

  • What inspired you  to write fiction?

I was always inspired by the parables of Jesus. So much of the world and its complexity was conveyed in a simple story. It was so much easier to digest and retain than something prescriptive from a non-fiction book. When I read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, I realized that parables could be extended into the modern day, and when Philip Roth said, “Nothing need hide itself in fiction,” I realized that the fiction canvas was unlimited and that we would be only limited by our imagination and our fear. So I chose fiction.

  • Who introduced you to fiction?

My drama instructor, James Goonewardene, was also a novelist, and I was introduced to his books and his life when I was 17. It was a heady and transformative influence at the time. Despite that early start, I had to lay my creative pen aside (yes, it was still a pen back in those days) at the age of 24, to build a business career, start a family, emigrate from a third world country (twice), and do all those things that men are expected to in their prime. Fiction always lurked like a guilty shadow during those years, and eighteen years ago, I finally stopped running from myself, bit the bullet, and committed to writing again. James was right when he said that writing is a calling, and we ignore that calling at our peril.

  • How aware were you of the dominating presence of older writers?

Very aware, and I welcomed their influence. Every wave or age of literature has had its masters, and it’s good to study their work to learn the craft, although one does not want to end up cloning their styles or being held hostage by them. I was influenced by Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and John Steinbeck. Then later by Fitzgerald, Roth, Updike and Maugham. I had to separate their reality from mine: they were 20th century writers who had made their mark early in their lives when print was still king and writing was an aristocracy; I was a 21st century writer starting (again) in my late forties, trying to make it in a digital age where content was expected free and writing had become a democracy.  Setting the right expectations can release any artificial constraints on one’s creativity.

  • What is your daily writing routine?

I still have a part-time day job that pays the bills, so I write on only about 2-3 days a week. Usually, I write in the morning for about an hour or two. I try to cover about 1000 words per sit down at my laptop. I find after that creative spurt I am writing mostly junk afterwards.

  • What motivates you to write?

There is an inner compulsion to express, to make sense of the world, to leave a trail of bread crumbs for someone else to follow. I am the eldest in my family, and I was always looking after the younger siblings, so this desire to leave lessons behind is hard-coded. I don’t force myself to write. After completing a larger work like a novel, my well of inspiration usually runs dry and I have to sit it out, confident that the reservoir will fill again, and it does. The world is too full of stimuli to miss out on the next act of creation. Since I started writing again, I have published 8 books, written 5 more unpublished works, and am working on a new novel. In addition, I have written over 200 essays/articles and nearly 600 book reviews. The constraints of rejection, time, and health act as powerful motivators as well, to keep creating while the ability is still there.

  • What is your work ethic?

I believe a work must entertain, educate and enlighten. It must leave the fictive world it portrays a better place in the end. It must provide hope. It should not contribute to the tsunami of useless literature that clogs the cyber waves today. I believe that luck is the product of hard work. And I believe that we need to create our own opportunities, however small they may be.

  • How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I have revisited my three teenage heroes Hemingway, Greene and Steinbeck many a-time in the recent past and I find that they still grip me. They led bold lives, venturing into trouble spots around the world, uncovering unpleasant truths (even about themselves) that lesser writers would have baulked at, stretching the novel and short story forms during their time to what they have become today. These writers may come across as pedestrian today because many have emulated their styles to make them the new standards, but I marvel at how alone and marginalized they may have felt at the time as they stuck to their guns convinced that someday, someone was going to believe in them.

  • Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

There are too many to mention but let me single out a few: Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates, Orhan Parmuk and Mario Vargas Llosa. Well, first of all, because they tell rollicking good stories in great settings, especially Parmuk and Llosa who situate their books in international locales. They handle character complexity very well. All their books make me think long after I have put them down. Vargas Llosa is an experimental writer who often weaves two or more scenes in alternating lines of dialogue that  render a split-screen, cinematic effect to his novels. Oates, being a creative writing instructor, runs a gamut of styles that we can all learn from. Parmuk writes under the shadow of censure in Turkey, and yet, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And Chabon’s renditions of comic book heroes and Jews transplanted to Alaska are story-telling at their best.  All of them are bold writers tackling the tough issues of today, even if we may not agree with their viewpoints.

  • Why do you write?

I think I have already touched on this in some way or other in the earlier questions. But let me add, that as I head into the final third phase of my life, it is now a time to record all that I have learned before. Although writing is not a physically demanding activity, it is a mentally, emotionally, and spiritually demanding one, and one that can only be undertaken when sufficient maturity has been acquired. Writing also demands stamina. I am writing now while I still have that stamina.

  • What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I would first ask, “Are you sure?” This is a cross once borne, and one should give the prospect great consideration before accepting the yoke. It is not unlike any other vocation, for it will change your life, your lifestyle, and your income (most likely lower it, due to the forgone opportunity cost of earning a higher income elsewhere). I would also ask, “How do you handle rejection?”, “How do you handle ‘hurry up and wait’ syndrome, waiting for publishers to respond?” “How do you handle locking yourself away in a room on a sunny day?” and “How do you handle ‘9-day wonder’ syndrome when your book is forgotten within the year of it being published and your publisher doesn’t return your calls?”

 If the answer is still, “Yes, I want to become a writer,” then I would say that learning the craft through a writing course and practicing constantly by writing daily is the necessary preparation for today’s writer. Olympic athletes train for years before they gain entry to the big arena, and writers also need to train for years before they can join the competitive literary market that exists today. Ray Bradbury wrote one short story a week for ten years before his “The Lake” hit the jackpot – I hope that conveys that there are no shortcuts to this business.

  • Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I am releasing my next novel, Milltown, in April 2019, one I wrote about ten years ago and put on hold as I wasn’t sure what reaction I would get ( ten years ago, I wasn’t in the class of my bold, teenage writer-heroes, you see!). In addition, I have written a historical trilogy set during the French Revolution, another novel set in Canada in recent history, and a new collection of short stories – all of these are awaiting publication, but I am in the  “hurry up and wait” syndrome phase with them. Maybe, not all of them will be published during my lifetime!

The above backlog notwithstanding, I am working on a new novel, experimental to some degree because it has an unreliable narrator, a first for me. I’d like to see where it takes me. In addition, I write regular articles and book reviews for journals, magazines and e-zines.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *