Monday, 8 October 2012

Author Interview: Stephen Gallup

What is the name of your latest book, and if you had to summarise it what would you say?
What About the Boy? A Father’s Pledge to His Disabled Son is a memoir. Here’s my elevator speech: What would you do if you had a little child, a baby, who cried all the time and who was obviously in distress? And what would you do if time passed and that child not only didn’t improve but also began missing the usual developmental milestones, such as learning to crawl? You’d be taking that kid to the doctor, of course! But what if the doctors didn’t seem to know what was going on, and weren’t even trying to help? WATB dramatizes how my family responded to that situation.

What made you decide to write that genre of book?
I’ve always been a writer of one sort or another. All my adult life I’ve written scientific and engineering material for my employers, and occasionally for fun I wrote short fiction and newspaper features on the side. But until this I’d never attempted to write a book. Actually, the task sounds pretty daunting. I kind of backed into writing this, in that these words started out simply as journal entries and other personal jottings. At the time, I had no thought of ever seeing this story in print. Writing was simply my way of trying to make sense of a very confusing situation.

Years passed, I was still writing to explore my thoughts about what had happened, and occasionally going back to burnish what I’d written previously. Eventually, it began to look like a book. Seeing how my perspective had changed over time, I realized that I had the makings of a memoir. So at that point I began educating myself on memoirs in general—and found that a lot of memoirs out there make very good reading. I joined critique groups with other writers to get feedback on my effort. I entered the manuscript in a writing contest and won. So suddenly I found myself with a publishable book, without ever having consciously set out to write one!

Do you choose a title first, or write the book then choose the title?
There were some forgettable interim titles along the way, but when What About the Boy? occurred to me, I knew that was a keeper. It’s lifted from a song in Tommy, the rock opera by The Who, and it tries to draw attention to the fact that ultimately all this is not about me, or my wife, or anybody other than the little boy I’m trying to write about. That point needs to be made, because it’s impossible to escape the adult perspective: the efforts we make on his behalf, the emotional highs and lows we experience. And yet he is the one who has to live all his life with the consequences of whatever happens.

Have you ever suffered from a "writer's block"? What did you do to get past the "block"?
Well, I mentioned being daunted by the idea of setting out to write something as ambitious as a book. Not only this book but a lot of my shorter efforts, even some blog posts, have begun life as random thoughts and impressions that I jotted down on whatever scrap of paper was handy. That flash of inspiration is the part of the process that’s least easily controlled. I mean, if it’s going to occur at all, it tends to be on its own timetable. I guess if I tried to force it, I would experience writer’s block. Instead, I just try to be alert to catch it when it comes along.

I feel more control over the synthesis of these bits into something coherent, and developing the idea and crafting the sentences. That’s where my strength as a writer lies.

Is there a certain author that influenced you in writing?
It may be that everything we read affects the way we write, to some extent. At the time I was starting to put WATB together, I found myself imitating Tom Wolfe, because I’d recently read The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In later drafts, that voice no longer felt right and I toned it down. The objective for me is always to convey ideas and emotions to the reader as directly as possible. I don’t particularly want readers stopping to admire the words.

What are you currently reading? Are you enjoying it? What format is it?(ebook, hardback or paperback)
Mostly, I read contemporary authors, but right now I’m starting a musty old paperback with a copyright of 1948: Raintree County, by a long-forgotten author named Ross Lockridge, Jr. I saw it mentioned in a blog post that commented on the so-called “three great postwar American novelists,” Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer. The writer of that post argued that those guys were overrated and that they’d stolen the thunder of others who were much better, including Lockridge.
I found a copy because that happens to be a sore subject with me. There’re been some phenomenal bestsellers in the last few years that turned out to be absolute garbage, and likewise I could name gifted writers who deserve a lot more recognition than they’re getting. Tell you what, since this is a British website I’ll offer the names of two London writers who ought to be the toast of the town: Matthew J. Dick and Lexi Revellian. Don’t wait for the gatekeepers! Check them out.

Do you think ebooks will ever totally replace printed books?
I read once where somebody compared the advent of ebooks with that of canned foods. Yes, canned foods are here to stay, but after all these years they haven’t replaced fresh produce in the markets. I think it will be the same with ebooks.

What piece of advice would you give to a new writer?
Even though I have a graduate degree in English, and thought I knew a lot about writing, I found it very eye-opening to join critique groups. I highly recommend sitting down with a bunch of other writers to go over a piece of somebody’s manuscript and then discuss the parts of it that work and don’t work. If you do this on a regular basis, with different people’s material, you can develop a new sense of how readers are likely to respond to something. I learned, for example, to assume less. One thing a writer doesn’t need is a confused reader. If you assume that your readers already understand something that hasn’t been made clear, or already share an opinion of yours when in fact they don’t, that’s going to break their momentum. Next thing you know, they’re putting down your book and maybe will never open it again.

Listen to several readers pointing out the things that trip them up, and not only in your own work. Maybe one of them hates passive voice. Another one spots awkward sentences or clumsy dialog or characters who don’t feel real. I think participating in discussions like that makes you more sensitive to all these pitfalls so you can avoid them.___________________________________________________________________
Stephen Gallup grew up in North Carolina and Virginia. He studied at NC State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in the life sciences, and then at the University of Virginia, where he received a master’s in English.

Steve’s life changed drastically with the birth of his son Joseph in 1985. Upon learning that there was a problem, he applied his energies to a pursuit of answers that he felt certain must exist. After a year of consulting with physicians to no effect, he located other resources. For the next four years, he and his wife Judy implemented an intensive two-pronged treatment campaign that resulted in dramatic improvements in Joseph’s condition.
His memoir What About the Boy? shows what the family did, and what happened next. The book has twice won “Best Memoir” in the San Diego Book Awards competitions, once in the Unpublished category (2007) and again following publication in 2011.

You can purchase What About the Boy? Father's Pledge to his Disabled Son on Amazon

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