There’s nothing like talking to an old friend. Or maybe not a friend per se but someone who came from your same small town. Or someone who worked the same job you did. You reminisce about past experiences and you remind each other of the great things you’ve forgotten.
Interviewing Cynthia Shearer was like sharing a good drink, leaning back in the chair, and talking about the good ole days for me. Shearer took some of the same classes I took. She studied with the same teachers I did. But she’s a helluva lot better writer than I will ever be and she’s got the pubs to prove it. In 1996, Pantheon published her first novel The Wonder Book of the Air and just recently, Shoemaker & Hoard published her new work, The Celestial Jukebox. Shearer has always been like that kind upper-classman, the one that’s older than you, more accomplished than you, more cool than you, but instead of picking on you like all the other seniors, she takes you under her wing. Maybe buys you some beer or gives you a ride downtown. She has always been kind and generous to aspiring authors and her time and generosity with this interview proves that. Shearer talked to us about the great literary community of Oxford, Mississippi, the selective focus of “realism,” snuff film culture, and the diverse demographics of the Delta.
Slushpile: Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up? What were your earliest literary loves?
Shearer: I grew up in South Georgia, in a small rural town called Alapaha, in the 1960‚Äôs. We were ahead of the curve in that town: our family had a telephone and a divorce. My mother was a high school English teacher who believed in school integration and was outspoken against the Vietnam War, so we were pretty isolated. I remember this one two-year stint when people in town would not speak to us. Looking back on it, they probably had no idea what to make of me: I had the WANTED posters of Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver from the post office pinned to the wall of my room when I was fourteen. A lot of those memories I used with the characters in my first novel, The Wonder Book of the Air.
Our television mysteriously became dysfunctional the night of the King riots in 1968, so for the next decade, I read books. One of my brothers worked at a bookstore in Athens when he was at the University of Georgia, and he‚Äôd send me boxes of paperbacks with the covers ripped off. That was where I first encountered Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble, Brendan Behan (Borstal Boy!) all that wonderfully subversive fiction being published as paperbacks in the ‚Äò70‚Äôs. I loved it all. Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout had a really big effect on me. Recently when all the Hogzilla story broke out of that same town, all I could think about, staring at the television, was which of the principals had been in the Klan and which had not.
Slushpile: When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer? Was there any specific catalyst to that decision or did it slowly happen over time?
Shearer: I should say here that I have spent more time in my life trying to avoid being a writer than in “being a writer.” The catalyst was probably a confluence of things: The Ole Miss English Department and the lit professors there, plus Oxford, Square Books, The Oxford American, and most specifically, Barry Hannah encouraging me.
Slushpile: How did you end up in Oxford, Mississippi?
Shearer: Came there to go to grad school in 1984, in the English Ph.D, program, and met my future husband, Dan Williams who had come there from Germany to teach. We were there nineteen years.
Slushpile: How did living in Oxford influence your dreams of writing?
Shearer: In my particular case, I think it was probably the symbiotic relationship between Square Books and the Ole Miss English Department that made me understand my potential. I was taught literature by some good people. Those good people were willing to live and teach in Oxford partly because the bookstore was there. It sure as hell was not because of the money Mississippi pays professors. The semester before I was to take comps for the Ph.D., I ran into Barry Hannah on the second floor of Square Books one rainy afternoon, told him I was burned out, and needed to get clean in my mind somehow. He recognized instantly what I was talking about and welcomed me into his graduate workshop.
I eventually drifted away from the Ph.D. program, but there was a lot of early encouragement or advice from professors whose classes I wasn‚Äôt in, like Ann Fisher-Wirth, David Galef, Jay Watson, and Bob Brinkmeyer. Brinkmeyer had a Sunday-afternoon radio show on African music which was quite helpful to me when I was researching The Celestial Jukebox. David Galef was, and still is, pretty reliable for telling me when I am full of shit. And in the years when Lisa Howorth and Tom Rankin(now directing documentary studies at Duke) were at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, and Ron Dale in the Art department there was an ambient energy that crossed over into the literary life.
And up sprang The Oxford American, published basically out of Marc Smirnoff‚Äôs apartment while he was working at the bookstore, and it helped all us beginners in Oxford understand that we didn‚Äôt necessarily have to wait on New York to grant us permission to publish. You never had to convince Marc of the merits of writing about, say, an unknown Cajun fiddler who died in obscurity. He was up for anything. I picked up another Southern magazine in an airport recently and realized they had ripped off the quirky layout of The OA for its fiction. Imitation is the most honest kind of flattery. Here in Fort Worth, I picked up their re-launch issue that came out of Arkansas, and when I read the hilarious parodies of letters to the editor, I immediately thought: ‚ÄúBaker. Baker did this.‚Äù I first learned to identify Jeff Baker‚Äôs handiwork in Barry Hannah‚Äôs workshops, years ago.
Whatever I learned about fighting good fights, I learned from Richard Howorth in the years he was actively involved in the American Booksellers Association‚Äôs anti-trust litigation. They used the Wright-Patman law to help independent businesses in this country get fair treatment in the face of predatory corporate schemes. That is no small thing. So it wasn‚Äôt all just Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous As Well as Broke and Obscure Writers that we learned from the traffic through Richard‚Äôs store. We learned to do the right thing, and to back independent publishers and independent booksellers.
Ole Miss does not get enough credit for its role in the literary life there. Basically, the university was willing to bankroll literary activities that would enable it to distinguish itself nationally. One of the unsung heroes of Oxford literary life is Ann Abadie, the woman at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture who convinced the administration then that it was a good thing to fly in thirty or forty temperamental and sometimes condescending literary people at once. Even before that, when Greg Schirmer was chair of the English Department, he hired a lot of people with Ivy League degrees, so there began to arrive some really, really good students in the grad program. When my husband was chair, he beefed up the creative writing programs by systematically working with Barry to bring in writers to be in contact with students. This is when John Grisham began funding the Visiting Writer position, and picking up the tab for bringing in folks like Czeslaw Milosz, Robert Pinksy, Charles Simic, and others to give readings. When it became apparent that the Visiting Writers needed a place to live when they came through, John Grisham enabled the university to purchase Sam Lawrence‚Äôs house down the street from Faulkner‚Äôs. The summer writing workshops, the literary magazine, the whole foundation that eventually became the MFA program ‚Äìthat all happened in part because university administrators ten years ago were willing to live dangerously and bankroll literary activity. That is an American story that needs telling: how John Grisham for years shared the ‚Äúdharma assets‚Äù by bankrolling many less well known writers, via Ole Miss and The Oxford American.
Slushpile: Oxford is a town that has seen many great writers and it‚Äôs been home to many wonderful literary events. Is there a particular reading, or event, that really stands out in your mind?
Shearer: Well, now that you mention it, I‚Äôm overcome with nostalgia for the place and the time I was there. Is there any other town in America in which an incumbent Republican can be unseated simply by getting out the rock and roll vote, the professors, and the custodians and groundskeepers from the university? And elect a bookstore owner as mayor? And the bartender at City Grocery is a strong silent type who stays up all night reading Chuck Palahniuk after he goes home?
As for Square Books, I remember it with the same deep-running emotions usually reserved for the houses we grow up in. Many of the Thacker Mountain broadcasts were like deeply religious experiences for me, bluegrass music, so many Oxford people I loved all under the same roof, even babies bundled up and sleeping in Western Flyer red wagons.
My first reading was not there, but at Harvest Caf?© in 1991 or ‚Äô92. This was a vegetarian restaurant that morphed into Old Venice Pizza eventually. I think I read with Sydney Thompson and Trent Booker. I remember Ellen Douglas sitting on the front row beaming at me as I read, tho she‚Äôd never met me, and then I remember meeting Larry for the first time (in his blue jeans and cowboy boots) in the alley after the reading, and his first gesture was to slide his cigarette over to the corner of his mouth and say, ‚ÄúYou gonna make it.‚Äù
When Jim Dees and Jon Miles wrote for The Oxford Eagle, they used to do these funny, subversive things that would crack everybody up. You‚Äôd be sitting at your kitchen table reading The Eagle and see where Miles, an elegant, smart writer even in his pre-Salon pre-GQ days, was assigned to do a short piece on Irritable Bowel Syndrome Week, only he‚Äôd craftily slide something into the piece like, ‚ÄúAs Marcel Proust used to say‚Ä¶.‚Äù
My first conversation with Marc Smirnoff was when he was working at Square Books and he taught me to dump the cream in the cup first, then the coffee, to cut down on the number of dirty spoons they had to contend with. Larry and Marry Annie Brown‚Äôs annual Chicken Stew, (pronounced CHICKunstew), was always a great time, with so many writers, bookstore people, painters, farmers, sculptors, art historians, mechanics, musicians, sheetrockers, convicted felons, and other beloved folk circling around the fire with the various hound-dogs and pound dogs in freeze-ass weather.
Slushpile: Where do you live now?
Shearer: Fort Worth, Texas, a.k.a. Where the West Begins, and Where War is Good for Bidness at Lockheed. And we are raising a vegetarian daughter in the steak capital of the known universe.
Slushpile: How many writing classes did you take?
Shearer: I took Barry‚Äôs workshop twice for credit and sat in on his lectures sometimes when I was faltering with the first novel. I staggered in there sometimes after being up all night, needy as someone coming to AA meetings. Half my first novel came out of short stories I did for him. There were a lot of good people moving through his classes in the time I was there, like Jonny Miles, John Hester, who died too soon, Ty Baldwin who went on to work at The New Yorker. Somebody needs to make a list of all the folks who‚Äôve gone through the various Ole Miss fiction and poetry workshops, and where they ended up. That would be a really long and interesting list.
Slushpile: Take us through your progression of stories. What is the worst story you wrote? Then, what story did you feel like was your first truly professional effort?
Shearer: I leave it to others to decide what my worst work is. The worst experience was the first workshop story, Radioland. Oddly enough, that turned out to be the first publication I had, in The Missouri Review. The other students were nice about it, but Barry did me the courtesy of being brutally honest about how bitchy and brittle the original female character was, and I rewrote it within an hour of leaving his class. He returned it to me with ‚Äúbetter‚Äù on it. And I had a stiff drink before the next story was critiqued. That second one was Flight Patterns, which became The Wonder Book of the Air eventually. I‚Äôm told that Dan Frank saw it in The Oxford American and said to the agency where I was then that if it ever became a novel, he wanted to see it.
Slushpile: Explain to us the relationship of working with an agent. How often do you talk to your agent? Does your agent submit short stories to magazines or would you do that? How much revision does your agent suggest on a project before it‚Äôs submitted to publishers?
Shearer: I try to be as low-maintenance as possible, and don‚Äôt bother them unless I have something to put in their hands that is my best effort. The better agents simply try to keep you encouraged and to make you feel free to pursue your own vision. What‚Äôs important to understand about agents is that they are busy, high-octane achievers who have more interesting things to do in New York City than clean up your manuscripts. They may tell you something needs more work, but the revision part you have to figure out for yourself. They deeply value and appreciate self-sufficiency in writers, because too much neediness on your part costs them time and money.
Slushpile: The Celestial Jukebox has several different plotlines, woven together and meeting at a small town, a jukebox, and a steel guitar. Give us an idea of how you developed these various plotlines. Did you have all of them at least somewhat mapped out before you began writing? Or did plotlines appear as you were writing the book?
Shearer: Originally the book was 13 linked short stories. Then I revised the stories as a novel, like cutting a deck of cards and shuffling it several times. Do not attempt this at home! At one point, I holed up alone at Mary Hood‚Äôs house and garden in Woodstock, Georgia, and transformed 20-page chapters into 10-page chapters, to make it move faster. I had my computer on her dining room table, and big white sheets taped to the walls, and all the different plot lines were color coded so I could feel a little less suicidal about it all.
Slushpile: As a follow-up to the question above, if a writer thinks of a new plotline while writing a story, how can they tell if it‚Äôs strong enough and valuable enough to include or if it‚Äôs something they should discard because it‚Äôs not crucial to the story?
Shearer: That, my friend, is known only to the gods of order and chaos who transmit it to your eventual editor and publisher, if you have a good one. Jane Vandenburgh, a smart, smart fiction writer (Failure to ZigZag, The Physics of Sunset) who did the heavy lifting on my manuscript for Shoemaker and Hoard, said of one character, ‚ÄúThis guy is like a refugee from your next novel.‚Äù Very helpful and liberating comment. You need that other highly intuitive reader to rescue you from yourself.
Slushpile: The area described in The Celestial Jukebox features a surprisingly diverse population. Africans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, and other groups all make appearances. Have any critics or readers expressed any surprise or disbelief at this diverse population of characters?
Shearer: Those demographics do exist in the Delta today. I was all braced for someone to tell me, ‚ÄúPeople can‚Äôt be this nice,‚Äù but so far, no one‚Äôs said that. I‚Äôm not trying to do reportage. I‚Äôve come to suspect that the notion of ‚Äúhard-boiled‚Äù realism possibly is a bankrupt mental construct, like Enron stock or Scientology. ‚ÄúHard-boiled‚Äù simply means nobody gets to be happy or at peace, not even the poor reader. No happiness allowed. It means all happy or noble folk will be censored out, dispatched on the invisible boxcars, down to the cutting room floor.
Slushpile: The Celestial Jukebox doesn‚Äôt feature dialogue in quotes. Instead, you present dialogue with a dash, italics, and indented. How did you decide to present the dialogue in this manner?
Shearer: I fell into the italics habit with my first novel, probably as some kind of nerdy affectation, thinking it distinguished my style. Now it‚Äôs just easier; my fingers do it automatically. My fingers tangle up and my tongue hangs out if I try to do the quotation mark thing, and I feel very spastic.
Slushpile: There are times in The Celestial Jukebox when characters lament the changes associated with our modern society. For example, when Dean is working in the fields ‚Äúit was hilarious, he thought, whipping the tractor around sharply in the turnrow. White boys who‚Äôd never gone hungry a day in their lives, hollering about the pain of it all. For money! He could probably make more money on the radio, hollering about the pain of farming, than by actual farming‚Ä¶ You could earn a living faster in America by hollering about your troubles for one audience or another, rather than doing anything about it.‚Äù Another example is when Raine complains about the angry music her son listens to, or the video game where he assumed ‚Äúthe persona of a hoodlum who could bludgeon street-corner prostitutes to death.‚Äù
In my own writing, readers have said that my own comments like these are too obviously my own opinions and not the characters. They said that I was preaching too much. How did you balance making these observations about society, without being too obvious, too heavy-handed, or too preachy?
Shearer: The comment I get the most is ‚Äúhow did you know that‚Äù from male readers who think I know too many of their secrets. The trick is to teach yourself to slip inside and inhabit compassionately the mind of a character, be it the Pope or a serial killer. You have to be able to escape your own head and represent multiple, opposing points of view at the same time. The characters have to be all completely right and all completely wrong, simultaneously. It‚Äôs called possessing the ‚Äúnegative capability.‚Äù Once you can do that, you‚Äôve got a tenuous credibility, when the reader sees that it‚Äôs the character who is on a soapbox, not the writer. Unless, of course, the reader knows you well enough to spot you, in which case you can run, but you can‚Äôt hide.
Slushpile: My favorite parts of the book focused on Angus, Dean, and Aubrey; three old men who have grown up and grown old together in their small little corner of the world. The new African immigrant, Boubacar, and the Hispanic worker Consuela enter this world so their stories are obviously related. But the plotline about Raine‚Äôs family in Memphis is a little more removed, more distant to the three men. Why did you include the suburban angst of Raine‚Äôs family? How did you tie it into the larger plot?
Shearer: I‚Äôve always been a sucker for impressionism, where the dots are placed side by side and the artist lets the viewer‚Äôs eye make whatever connection he sees fit. I guess I saw it as a kind of ‚Äúwhen worlds collide‚Äù thing, but I was more interested in how they stop just short of colliding, without touching. I was intrigued with how rich white boys continue to write hate-driven music about unbearable pain, even into manhood (I‚Äôm thinking Trent Reznor and Kurt Cobain) as if pain is the only truly marketable commodity, and how African boys who‚Äôve seen real pain, real hardship write these amazing transcendent songs that are meant to soothe and reassure others. I remember reading the cover story that Time did on Cobain, seeing that frail-looking guy who had suddenly found himself held responsible for the material well-being of corporate moguls. Their fortunes depended upon his willingness to continue to believe there was no end to his pharmaceutically-enhanced suffering. I remember thinking, God help this poor dude. Not long after that, he was dead. Pointlessly, needlessly.
In The Celestial Jukebox, I wanted the Memphis suburban lifestyle to show how the religion of consumerism and the abuse of demographic knowledge by marketers propel many families towards dissolution. The father of modern American advertising was Freud‚Äôs nephew, if that tells you anything. Eddie Whatsisname, his name was.
Slushpile: Angus, Dean, and Aubrey are all largely womanless. They‚Äôve either been widowed or abandoned (at least for most of the book). What was your intention in portraying these three bachelors?
Shearer: I never noticed that before. I guess they needed to be relatively wifeless so there could be the possibility of romantic tension with the women characters they encountered.
Slushpile: The three men have a sort of dignity and honor, a John Wayne sense of going about things the Right Way. Even when they make mistakes, there remains this sense of honor and dignity. How did you build this into their characters?
Shearer: They are all based on some farmers I know, including some I grew up around. When I was a teenager, I worked as a waitress in a diner on Highway 82 in Georgia, and used to eavesdrop on their conversations. Some of the most Tantric thinkers I‚Äôve ever encountered have been farmers who understood the basic connectedness of things. In our time, it has become a form of ‚Äúcorrectness‚Äù in fiction to have your characters be total shits, or you risk being called ‚Äúunrealistic.‚Äù We live in an epoch when the commonly accepted correctnesses of ‚Äúavant garde‚Äù fiction and film often parallel the aesthetic correctnesses of snuff films. Lots of death and destruction out there on television. Literature needs to be better than TV. ‚ÄúRealism‚Äù is the boring dude in front of his television, popping the top to his beer, while his neighbor is out tending his bonsai trees. What law of ‚Äúrealism‚Äù says you have to show only the beer-drinker, and to censor out the dude with the bonsai trees, that you have to kill him off rather than let him live to a ripe old age with many handsome and charming offspring?
So the only way to ‚Äúpush the envelope‚Äù and truly ‚Äúexperiment‚Äù in these post-Fellini, post-Tarantino days when snuff films are a kind of visual Muzak that surrounds us, is to offer characters capable of honor and dignity in a credible way. Even so, you run the risk of being misread by these new totalitarian-state mindset readers who think art is not honest unless it‚Äôs ugly. I saw a reviewer totally misread a Tony Early novel one time because of this phenomenon. He totally did not get the book he was charged with the task of reviewing. Like Wendell Berry, Tony has always been way ahead of the rest of us, philosophically speaking. It takes reviewers a while to catch up sometimes.
Slushpile: Boubacar is a Muslim immigrant to the Delta. How much research did you do to learn about the Muslim culture and how he would assimilate, or not, into Delta society? How much research did you do into the Asian culture for the character of Angus Chien and his family?
Shearer: The main ‚Äúresearch‚Äù was studying Sufi books, visiting casinos, hanging out at the Abyssinia Ethiopian restaurant in Memphis, and listening to a lot of African music. Boubacar “occurred‚Äù as a character after I had a conversation with an immigration judge from Memphis in 1999 about what was happening in the Delta. Angus goes all the way back to 1992, when Barry Hannah made this assignment: ‚ÄúDo a four-page story. The winner gets a six pack of beer.‚Äù The others in the class awarded me the six-pack, and I handed it over to them, since I don‚Äôt drink beer much. I had had a Chinese student at Ole Miss whose name was Angus, given to him by missionaries. And I‚Äôd seen some great old Chinese groceries in Rosedale.
Slushpile: Some writers may be nervous to present other cultures and ethnic groups. Particularly in times like these when people are very sensitive to the portrayal of these groups. Did you have any fears about how your depiction of Muslim and Asian characters would be received by readers?
Shearer: I think I write better when I‚Äôm a little nervous and scared to show people where I‚Äôm headed with it. I like to push the limits of their expectations and their patience, which I suppose costs you some readers inevitably. I stopped work on The Celestial Jukebox for six months after Sept. 11, 2001. It took a long time for me to believe anyone in this country would ever again publish a book with ‚Äúgood‚Äù Muslims in it, and I had to get back in the place in my mind where I had faith in good Muslims. I was nervous that African-Americans would be bothered by my ‚Äúappropriation‚Äù of black characters, but when they read it, they understand immediately how much I love the Southern black culture I‚Äôm writing about, and how homesick I am for it.
Slushpile: Your first novel, The Wonder Book of Air was published by Pantheon (a division of Random House) in 1996. The Celestial Jukebox was published by Shoemaker & Hoard (an imprint of Avalon Publishing) in 2005. Did you spend all that time working on the novel? Or were there publishing delays that factored into the timeframe?
Shearer: The delays were strictly of my own making, including the six-year stint I work at the Faulkner home in Oxford, trying to raise funds for the place. Then there was the auto accident in 1999 that set me back some. I have not been the best example of writerly productivity. A lot of people think Jack Shoemaker was my editor when he was at Pantheon, but it was Dan Frank, the guy who edits Charles Baxter and who masterminded their graphics novel initiative. I became aware of Jack first as the co-editor of a zen book I like a lot, The Roaring Stream, then as the guy who edited a book of short stories that is a landmark to a lot of women writers, Gina Berriault‚Äôs Women in their Beds. I had some conversations with him when he was through Oxford, and had this wistful reaction, like, Geez, I wish this guy were my editor. So in my case I think I was aspiring to be mentored as well as published.
I think it‚Äôs important, when you think you are ready to publish a novel, to pay attention to whatever spirit or taste drives different ‚Äúliterary‚Äù houses, and then extrapolate where your work might fit. (Agents are wonderfully, brutally honest at judging these things.) Fiction from William Morrow does edgy and dark but in a different way from Grove-Atlantic‚Äôs type of edgy and dark. Many beginning writers assume that all ‚Äúgood‚Äù houses are pretty much alike, and they send stuff out that does not fit the particular spirit or style of that house. Know what and whom the publisher publishes before you inquire. Buy and read the books. I heard Gary Fisketjon (Knopf) say somewhere once that a good strategy is to find out who edits the fiction you most admire, and find out who agents it, and work from there. I always quote that advice to my students.
Slushpile: What is the difference in working with these two publishers? From your first novel to this one, what has it been like working with these companies?
Shearer: At the big conglomerates, literary writers can find themselves waiting in line behind entities that are not necessarily human, like Batman, or Shrek, or Howard Stern. And there is a lot of Darwinian struggle that goes on inside the big conglomerates when they allocate resources for promotion, which means your carefully crafted and lovingly edited little rowboat can also get swamped by the swells created when they break the champagne bottles over the bows of the newest Cormac or Salman down the hall.
Slushpile: In an email last fall, Jack Shoemaker of Shoemaker & Hoard said the publisher had too much of a backlog of fiction and was not accepting new submissions. This is often the case among smaller publishers and many large publishing companies are not accepting unsolicited manuscripts any more. Many aspiring authors feel like they have no where to turn. What is your advice to young writers in regards to finding a publisher?
Shearer: I do not claim any expertise on this subject, but it seems to me if you‚Äôve been told ‚Äúno thanks‚Äù a lot, you should just quit concentrating on publishers for a while, and concentrate on the question of why your work was not appealing to them, and then deal with it accordingly. Aspire to work with an agent, but many writers don‚Äôt have agents. Or seek out someone who specializes in newbie novelists, such as Greg Michalson and Fred Ramey of Unbridled Books. They first published Steve Yarbrough, William Gay, and Patricia Henley when they were at MacMurray and Beck. It‚Äôs not the end of the world if any certain publisher doesn‚Äôt take your stuff. The worse scenario is if they publish you half-heartedly. When a publisher says ‚ÄúThis is not for us,‚Äù give yourself about five seconds of self-flagellation, “Oh, god, I must be some kind of worthless hunk of hackneyed junk,” and then get over it. The publisher is not necessarily saying you are worthless, the publisher is saying your work does not fit at that house.
If your submission bears a postmark from the American South, you will have to write twice as well to be taken half as seriously as literary writers from postmarks. Same goes with submissions from a woman postmarked anywhere. If you are a Southern woman, well, do the math.
You can get a good agent if you can place a couple of pieces in reputable journals. If your work‚Äôs good enough to get into just a few of these, the publishers will find you, through the agents who will be phoning you because they read these journals. How to find these journals? Look at the lists of literary outlets in the back of any year‚Äôs Best American Short Stories; these are the places you‚Äôll get noticed. It‚Äôs sort of the literary equivalent of hanging out at whatever that L.A. drugstore was in the 1930‚Äôs on the corner of Hollywood & Vine. Even then, these journals do not hold the monopoly on who is good. With the internet, you have the option to simply start your own magazine at very little cost.
I have this total fantasy sometimes of starting an online magazine just for first-time publications, called Debut, wherein the willing can lose their literary virginity. Maybe someone who speaks HTML out there in radioland will take that idea and use it.
Okay. Now comes my standard pep-rally rap & rant for beginners. Re-invent yourself every time you write anything. Work for the good of all writers.
If you are a young man and want to be a writer, avoid Deacon Rum, John Barleycorn, Sister Cocaine, even old harmless Aunt Mary Jane, and all their drooling idiot offspring. That dysfunctional family can detain you for decades with their little soap-operas. Enjoy a glass of good wine in the evenings and commune with your loved ones and your best antagonists, whether present or absent or living or dead, and then go in there and write as if it truly matters, because it does.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can‚Äôt-live-without writing tip for aspiring authors?
Shearer: Don‚Äôt rule out film school.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can‚Äôt-live-without publishing tip for aspiring authors struggling to break into print?
Shearer: Don‚Äôt stalk publishers; stalk magic. Figure out which of the traveling magic and medicine shows of the mind you wish to run off with, and go. To quote Michael Stipe, ‚ÄúJump the barricades. . .belong.‚Äù And study closely the short stories of Tony Earley. I did.
Buy The Celestial Jukebox here.