Interview: David Galef, Author

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Administrator of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi, David Galef is a jack of all literary trades. Creative and hard-working, Galef is a pragmatist who understands the inner workings of literature. He takes a mechanical approach with his students, teaching fiction the way music is taught, by learning the small skills and components and building up into larger works. While many creative writing teachers spout abstractions that are sometimes hard to follow and almost always impossible to execute in practice, Galef explains the nuts and bolts of a story.

He has contributed more than a hundred articles, stories, poems, and reviews to outlets as diverse as Newsday, Bicycling!, Amazing Stories, Cosmopolitan, and The New York Times Book Review. He has also published the following efforts that were just too hard to make fit in a regular sentence:

  • Flesh and Turning Japanese, novels
  • Laugh Track, a short story collection
  • The Supporting Cast: A Study of Flat and Minor Characters and Second Thoughts: A Focus on Rereading, literary criticism
  • Even a Stone Buddha Can Talk: The Wit and Wisdom of Japanese Proverbs and Even Monkeys Fall from Trees and Other Japanese Proverbs, translations from Japanese
  • Tracks and The Little Red Bicycle
  • , children’s books

    Galef spoke to us about the need for aspiring authors to read more, about writing in multiple genres, and characteristics of his work, among many other topics.

    Slushpile: Give us a little of your background. What were your earliest literary experiences that you remember?

    Galef I was born in the Bronx but moved to Westchester County when I was two and grew up there, desperate to get out of the suburbs. I went to Japan after college, then came back to go to graduate school in New York, got a job in Mississippi and have been teaching there, with a year off for good behavior, ever since.

    If by literary experience, you mean reading, I’ve always read. I was the alienated kid with books for friends. If you mean writing, that impulse took over when I’d read enough to realize that some of the stuff out there wasn’t any better than what I could do—not a noble impulse, but it propelled me to write. If by literary experience, you mean fine art, that came to me when I read T. S. Eliot in high school: lines I didn’t even always understand but which somehow sang to me.

    Slushpile: What is the first story you wrote where you felt like you “got it” and produced a professional-level piece of fiction?

    Galef: I wrote little stories in grade school, half-drowned in science fiction from junior high on, but only in high school did I finally try writing something that wasn’t for class. It was just an extended joke, but on my third try, I sold a story for $120 to a computing magazine interested in using a little fiction.

    Slushpile: Ray Bradbury wrote that people should write with gusto, with zest. He wrote “How long has it been since you wrote a story where your real love or real hatred somehow got onto the paper?” But all too often, when aspiring authors write about their loves and hatreds and passions, it turns out to be a transparent article, without the strength of a real story. It’s too obvious that the writer really does hate paying taxes and just wants to complain about it or whatever the passion is. How can writers treat subjects which they feel strongly about and yet still remove enough of themselves so the story isn’t just a mouthpiece for their feelings?

    Galef: 1. Don’t start with a theme but rather with a situation or set of characters. 2. Revise the agitprop out of your work after the first draft. If you can’t see your own biases, rely on an outside reader.

    Slushpile: Do you think that, as a rule, aspiring authors read enough? If not, what are your prescriptions for their reading?

    Galef: That’s a sore subject, especially in this era of waning readership. “Read everything” is a bit silly as a directive, but I’ve always done that as much as I was able, and I don’t see how any writer can produce—or get any better—without models and unconscious dialogues with other authors through their works. Be shamelessly eclectic in your reading. The style you find may be your own.

    Slushpile: Let’s say that a writer reaches a point where they produce good, clean, polished prose. They’re doing everything “right” but their stories just aren’t making an impact and grabbing the readers. What should they do differently?

    Galef: Take a hard look at what’s not happening in the stories, usually a slack conflict or over-neat resolutions. See what other readers want by showing drafts to someone you trust. Check out the competition to see what they’re doing differently.

    Slushpile: In the music world, there are session players who are extraordinarily talented musicians but maybe they don’t have the originality or the “spark” to be a solo artist. So they spend their career playing backup to Eric Clapton, Sting, Madonna, or whoever. They are as good a musician as any of the stars, but for whatever reason, they don’t have the ideas that catch people’s attention. Do you think that an equivalent literary talent can build a valid writing career?

    Galef: Sure, though less so nowadays, when midlist is nowhere. Publishers no longer nurture those with merely fine technique and competence; they want blastorama books. But sometimes those authors can eke out something catchy by sheer effort of will and throwing away the first ten tries.

    Slushpile: Do you have a hard time shifting gears from writing literary criticism and scholarship to writing fiction? How do the two disciplines affect each other in your work?

    Galef: Since I write all over the map—fiction, poetry, essays, reviews—I’m continually changing venues, but all that does is help clear my head. The only exception is when I’m putting together a whole book, when I need large blocks of my mind free of anything else. I use my bent for literary criticism to edit.

    Slushpile: What do you think most creative writing students need to do in their own work? Are there some common problems that you see affecting a majority of your students?

    Galef: Lack of imagination and originality, for the most part, which generally means they haven’t read enough. They’re also suckers for kooky situations that would never happen but are attention-grabbers.

    Slushpile: How much do creative writing departments need a Simon Cowell-like voice? Should there be someone who tells students “you may prove me wrong, and I hope you do, but I just don’t think you’re good enough to be a professional writer.”

    Galef: Should I recite the famous comment that Flannery O’Connor made when asked if creative writing programs discouraged too many writers? “Not enough.” On the other hand, there’s no need to be gratuitously nasty, and it’s sometimes hard to tell how a young writer’s going to develop. I’m always delighted at an unexpected growth of talent.

    Slushpile: How do you balance the need to write scholarly articles and also write short stories? With teaching classes, administering the creative writing department, and spending time with your family, how do you decide what type of writing gets done?

    Galef: I should be more systematic about this, but I take what free time I have to write and work on what interests me most. This makes for a sloppy mélange of genres and lengths, but it keeps me happy, and I do get published a lot.

    Slushpile: Similar to the question I just asked, what are your own work habits? Are you someone that sticks to a regular writing schedule or do you write on an irregular basis when you have time?

    Galef: I used to be more regular before I had a family; now it’s more catch-as-catch-can. I just try for a certain number of hours a week. But when I’m working on a book, I need more structure and continuity, so I sentence myself to a daily regimen of about 500 words.

    Slushpile: It is imperative that aspiring authors be able to realistically and objectively evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their own work. But often, when reading the various journals and magazines, it seems like the work being published there really isn’t that Earth-shatteringly good either. So how can a student evaluate how good their work is?

    Galef: Those are two different questions. Beginning writers slowly learn to edit and improve their own work through a lot of feedback and practice. As for all the B+ work published, many editors don’t have such a good eye, and they’re also not drawing upon a major pool of talent. The world is full of mediocrity, and you can see it in all professions, not just in writing.

    Slushpile: You have published in international magazines such as Canada’s Prism International, the old British magazine Punch, and even in a Czech publication called Prague Revue. Besides just following their submission guidelines, what does a writer need to do to find success in international magazines? Do you approach it any differently than you do a domestic magazine?

    Galef: Well, in the old days, you approached them with IRCs (International Reply Coupons redeemable for return postage) and a healthy dose of humility, but nowadays I suppose you can just zip them an e-mail attachment. Really, the basics are the same: try to get a handle on what the magazine is looking for, and it wouldn’t kill you to buy a sample issue.

    Slushpile: You have published two children’s books, The Little Red Bicycle and Tracks, in addition to your fiction and scholarly work. Aside from the obvious aspects of tailoring plot, subject matter, and language to young readers, how do you approach writing for children as opposed to writing for adults? Is your mindset different when you sit down to write a children’s book?

    Galef: My fantasy side, which is never really dormant, comes out a lot. Much more “What if—?,” which is how I used to write science fiction.

    Slushpile: It is often said that poets have a certain focus on language and economy with words that many prose writers don’t. You have also published two books of Japanese translations. How do you think your experience as a translator affects your fiction writing?

    Galef: Translation made me much more careful with word choice and nuances of meaning, sometimes to the point of utter distraction.

    Slushpile: How is work progressing on your third novel, How to Cope with Suburban Stress, which deals with a disintegrating suburban marriage and a pedophile?

    Galef: It’s done and should be out in the fall of 2006. But it took me a lot of cutting and revising to emphasize the essential two storylines.

    Slushpile: Your story Portrait of Duff is only 382 words and the story Going Nowhere is only 327 words. What tips do you have for writing such a short piece is that developed and fully-contained?

    Galef: Those are held together only by sheer bravado. Short-shorts are generally either prose poems or twist stories, but I’m trying for something in between, with situations and characters and language that all border on the near-absurd but hold together long enough for a short haul.

    Slushpile: Similarly, it seems that the goal of many short-shorts of flash fiction is that leave the reader wanting to know more. But if that’s the case, then why not write a more fully developed and longer story?

    Galef: Wanting to know more can mean craving another chapter or just intrigued by the set-up, and good short-shorts produce that second feeling.

    Slushpile: Your story Mississippi Breakdown comes perilously close to trading on clichés and stereotypical situations. The plot revolves around a group of touring Jewish people broken down in a remote area of Mississippi, “a region known for not welcoming Jews.” When the bus driver goes to look for help, he worries “who the hell knew what crazy bigots lived around here.” How did you proceed with this story and plot while making sure that you didn’t just repeat the old stereotypes and Deliverance jokes?

    Galef: I did worry about that but hoped I could put a slightly different spin on them—that’s all I tried for—while also creating an odd miracle story. Bear in mind, though, that the Northern protagonist thinks most of those lines, and he’s proved wrong.

    Slushpile: Your book Supporting Cast: A Study of Flat and Minor Characters makes the point that supporting cast members can be very useful for writers. Even flat characters can help hold a story together. What advice would you offer to aspiring authors about using minor and supporting characters in their work?

    Galef: Invest as much as you can in them. They often carry the story, bear the symbolic weight, interpret the theme—all the grunt work of fiction. Turn them into mere cartoons at your own peril.

    Slushpile: Your plots and settings tend to be all over the place. You’ve remarked that the stories in the collection Laugh Track don’t really have a common thread, except for the weird premises. But what is something that you think is a characteristic of all your work? Is there something that you try to achieve in all your stories and novels?

    Galef: A texture of light fantasy, from events that would never happen to a slight implausibility that hovers over even my most realistic works.

    Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?

    Galef: Write. Then write some more. It sounds weird to insist on such a basic requirement, but too many people I’ve come across want to publish without having written, or want to write well without having written much. Even naturals need practice to get better.

    Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?

    Galef: Send it out, and then go back to writing, so you can send out some more. The odds against any one piece getting published may be daunting, but you can double your chances by producing two stories instead of one.

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