Monday, October 10, 2011

His Story: Joseph Monninger

I had the good fortune to meet Joseph Monninger at a book event this fall. In a room full of writers and book people, he kept everyone enthralled with a story from his youth, of an incident that really allowed him to get to know his father. That's when I knew this man was a consummate storyteller. With sixteen books to his credit and a career as a professor of writing, yeah, you'd think so! Clever, gracious, self-effacing, and thoughtful, every writer could learn a thing or two from Joseph Monninger. His latest novel, The World As We Know It, goes on sale October 11th.

How did you come to writing? Did you start writing shortly after emerging from the womb or did you come to it later in life?

I stared writing in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer.  I was an indifferent student in high school and college.  I was an athlete. I never took a writing course.  I always say now that if I knew how hard it was all going to be, I might not have started.  But the Peace Corps sent you to your posting with a box of books.  Without electricity or running water, with no radio or tv, you can imagine how important books became.  I read many 19th Century novels….big, fat juicy novels.  The longer the better.  I remember reading Middlemarch and loving it.  It’s hard to say if I could read it today with all the distractions around me.  Africa allowed me to concentrate.

So I wrote letters.  And a few people seemed to like the letters and eventually I tried a short story or two.  When I returned home to the U.S., I sent in a short story to the Redbook Short Story contest.  This was in 1978. I won third prize for a story called A Slice of It.  That got me an agent and really hooked me.  I’ve been writing ever since.  I try to write 1,000 words a day and I’ve been doing that for more than 30 years.

Were you influenced to begin writing by any writers/books in particular?

Not by one book, or one writer, but the glamour of the whole Hemingway myth was certainly in circulation.  I was living in Africa.  I travelled to Paris.  I expected to be an ex-pat.  I went back to Africa, to Mali, when I finished my tour in the Peace Corps.  I also ended up living in Vienna.  I liked the idea of being outside the U.S.  So while I wasn’t trying to write like anyone, I sort of had the notion of being footloose and seeing the world.
I will say that there are writers I try to avoid, because I find their style bleeds into mine.  Faulkner was one.  I found myself writing ridiculous sentences after reading him.  Hemingway, too.  I also loved, and love, Marjorie Rawlings.  There was a writer, too, that people don’t seem to read much anymore: J.P. Donleavy.  He is great, tremendously funny, and he was in vogue when I started out.  I love the story telling of Roberston Davies, the Deptford trilogy.  If you haven’t read it, I really recommend it.

Whose works do you most enjoy reading?

I just mentioned some of them.  I love John Marquand, a writer from the 40’s and 50’s.  His novels read like old black and white movies.  And in high school the Lord of the Rings was a profound experience for me.  Maybe the most remarkable experience I’ve ever had with a book.  We all say we don’t want a good book to end, but I didn’t want that entire world to end. 

What I really enjoy reading, though, are books of consummate skill.  I don’t mean that to sound snobby, but I appreciate the work that goes into a fine novel.  If I made wine all my life, I assume I wouldn’t necessarily want to drink swill.  Writers know good writing.  You can see it small scenes, in dialogue, in characterization.  A good writer often has several threads weaving through a scene, where a less skilled writer may only have one.  You know pretty quickly when you pick up a book if the author has drunk sufficient ink. 

Tell us about your latest book.

The World As We Know It as a loss of Eden story.  They say every child must be expelled from Eden, from childhood, and face entry into the harsher world.  In my story, three young people meet in childhood and they grow up together.  One boy and one girl fall in love.  Beyond that, I start to give away the story if I say much more.  They try to stay in Eden, but fate won’t permit that.  Can they return to Eden? 

It’s a love story in its DNA.  I’ve always been fascinated by these couples who say they met in high school and have been together two thousand years.  This is probably my attempt to understand those couples.

How the heck did you come up with the central idea/plot?

Well, every writer is always looking for a plot, an idea that can carry them forward.  One of the benefits of age as a writer is the ability to see the wood scattered on the ground and know, merely from looking, what size house you might propose.  You get better at taking the measure of the story.  For me, the plot is secondary.  I am always after good characters.  If the characters speak to me – and they do – then the story follows as night the day, as a pretty good writer once said.

At what point in the writing process did you think you might give up on it? Were you most inspired? What kept you going through the long dark nights?

I wrestle like crazy to get started on a novel, but once I do I am dedicated to it.  Trollope famously said, It’s dogged as does it.  Stay at it.  Keep coming back to it.  It’s a little like exercising.  If you don’t feel like exercising on a certain day, at least make yourself put on your sneakers.  Once you have your sneakers on, you might say, well, hell, I have them on, I might as well go for a run.  I make myself wake early and go out to a little writing shed in our back meadow and I try to write.  I put on my writing sneakers, so to speak.

What have you read lately that you love and think everyone on the planet should read?

Oh, that’s a tall order.  I will say I re-read Watership Down this summer and was completely drawn into it.  I read it as a kid, so I wasn’t sure how it would hold up, but I’m happy to report that it did.  If you haven’t read it, you might like it.  Great story of animals surviving a hardship….kind of the Odyssey with rabbits.  But I believe people should be quick to put a book down if they don’t like it.  There are a million books waiting. 

As far as contemporary novels….I read The Paris Wife this summer and thoroughly enjoyed it.   

What have you read that, surprisingly, didn’t grab you?

I don’t knock other books because I know how hard it is to write one.  That said, we all have had that experience of picking up a highly touted novel or nonfiction work and finding, at least for us, that it doesn’t speak to us.  That’s okay.  Sometimes you can see why a book was marketed in a big way….it had certain commercial chords that the publisher could count on.  But books are so much a part of my life, I can’t worry about a book that didn’t speak to me.  I’m all about the books that did speak to me. 

Do you have a “path to publication” story that you’d like to share? Funny agent/editor encounter? Publishing etiquette you didn’t know until you entered the business? Tip for newly published or aspiring writers? 

Not really.  I guess if I had one tip to give, it would be that politeness counts.  Write thanks yous.  Appreciate the time people are investing in you.  In other words, your mother was right when she told you how to behave.  Publishers and agents and editors all love books.  That’s why they’re in the business.  You may not always agree with how your book is handled, but it’s probably not the end of the world one way or the other.  Keep things in perspective.  Also, write your shelf.  Write the books you can and do each book as well as you can.  A novelist friend said the number one obstacle writers face is the cheat of believing their next book will be better.  We all do that.  We all say, inwardly or outwardly, well, you might not like this one so much, but wait until you see what’s next.  Don’t let yourself do that.  Stand up and admit this is the best you can do for the moment. 

What is the most surprisingly thing you’ve learned about yourself since getting published? The most unexpected?

As important as publishing was to me in my early career, now the writing is much more important.  Journey vs. destination.  I don’t mean to sound all surfer dude, but its true.  I like writing; I like stories; I like inventing.  The rest, the ambition, the wanting-to-be-famous, all slips away.  Words count.  Sentences count.  Good scenes count.  

Joseph Monninger has published nine novels, three young adult works ,and three non-fiction books.  His work has appeared in American Heritage, Scientific American, Readers Digest, Glamour, Playboy, Story, Fiction, Sports Illustrated, the Boston Globe and Ellery Queen, among other publications.  He has twice received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and has also received a fellowship from the New Hampshire Council for the Arts.  His young adult novel, Baby, was named one of the top ten novels of 2008 by Yalsa.  He has appeared on the Today Show and has written columns for several New Hampshire newspapers. He has been a licensed New Hampshire Fishing Guide and his family ran a sled dog team for several years in the New England Sled Dog Club.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the interview, Alma and Joseph. My favorite piece of advice, "Write your shelf."