Author Monte Schulz On The 5 Things You Need To Be A Successful Author or Writer

An Interview With Kristin Marquet

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine

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It’s also valuable to find readers who know and appreciate your work, who will read it carefully, not necessarily to critique, but as a future agent, editor or reader will see it. Some writers enjoy the camaraderie and experience of a workshop, while others of us prefer, perhaps, one or two voices offering support and feedback. Of those, the best I believe comes from an experienced writer who will address your work, not as he or she would have written it, but offering an opinion on how well you are creating what “you” are attempting with your own artistic and storytelling desire and sensibility.

Some writers and authors have a knack for using language that can really move people. Some writers and authors have been able to influence millions with their words alone. What does it take to become an effective and successful author or writer?

In this interview series, called “5 Things You Need To Be A Successful Author or Writer” we are talking to successful authors and writers who can share lessons from their experience.

As part of this series I had the pleasure of interviewing Monte Schulz.

Monte Schulz published his first novel, Down By The River, in 1990, and spent the next two decades writing Crossing Eden, an epic novel of the Jazz Age. He has taught writing and literature in the College of Creative Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, where he earned his M.A. in American Studies. Schulz has been teaching at Santa Barbara’s Writers Conference since 2001 and became the conference’s owner in 2010. He lives in California and Hawaii.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Although I remember trying to write a couple of science fiction stories when I was a teenager, my writing as I know it now actually began with music in my first year at college. Like many songwriters, I began replacing the original lyrics of favorite songs with my own, learning cadence and rhythm. I was drawn to colorful lyrics like Neil Young’s “Blue, blue windows behind the stars/ Yellow moon on the rise/ Big birds flying across skies/ Throwing shadows on our eyes.” Imagery intrigued and inspired me. I discovered I had my own ear for that, and began writing not only song lyrics, but music, too. Consequently, through that songwriting, my father saw I had an ear and a passion for language, and soon enough directed me toward poetry, particularly that of Carl Sandburg (still my favorite writer) and Edgar Lee Masters. And from there to his favorite novelist of beautiful language, Thomas Wolfe. My dad loved scintillating passages and shared them with me. Like Steinbeck’s tortoise crossing the road in The Grapes of Wrath and Joan Didion’s evocation of the Santa Ana winds. So, I began that long road toward long fiction with my heart as much in how a story is told as the story itself. My favorite writers, those literary and artful mentors — Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Ray Bradbury, William Faulkner, James Lee Burke, Raymond Chandler — led me forward into the world of books and artistic writing.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Actually, what I remember most was meeting Joan Didion at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference on a couple of occasions, the second of which was just following the publication of her second book of essays, The White Album. I was sitting on a beach lounger by the pool when I saw her and John Gregory Dunne walking in, presumably on their way to say hello to the conference host, Barnaby Conrad, and my father, cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown. I hoped to say ‘hi’ to her myself but was sort of reluctant because I was still mostly a nobody, just my father’s son, when she came over to me and reintroduced herself with a big smile, flattering me no end. She even remembered my name! And she signed my copies of The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the latter of which she inscribed, “Remember, doing this is fun.”

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a writer? How did you overcome it?

I think what’s most difficult for any writer is to finish projects, whether they’re poems, essays, short stories, or that novel we’ve got in our hearts to write. Finishing something, writing to the last line, putting down that period and declaring it done. Always a challenge. I guess the model of my dad’s constant commitment to a syndicated comic strip that required six dailies and a Sunday strip every week taught me by example to see my writing through its conclusion. And so I did. To complete short poems, then long poems, essays, and my master’s thesis for a graduate degree in American Studies gave me the impetus to complete my first novel, regardless of what I thought of its merits. And, of course, taking on the challenge of improving my writing, both structurally and artistically through reading, reading, reading shoved me forward as a serious and dedicated writer. Incidentally, I learned something else from my Dad when we talked about “writer’s block.” He said, “Only amateurs get writer’s block. Professionals can’t afford it.” Therefore, I’ve accepted that it’s invaluable to write something, anything, and that so-called “writer’s block” is really one of two things: either fear of writing something bad, or simple laziness. I refuse to indulge either.

Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

An oddity of my early days of writing was that I found it incredibly laborious to write by hand with pen and paper. I wrote too slowly to capture the flow of natural dialogue and my hand always cramped. So, I finally bought a small electric typewriter and taught myself to type. Not well, of course, but adequately enough to allow a more efficient and fluid transfer of words to paper, which is what simply needs to happen. Then, once I’d bought my first Apple III, I was able to write even more quickly and edit as I went, which gave me the ability to create, replace, and organize, and push my writing forward to new levels. The point being, writing is difficult enough without feeling sandbagged by tools or opportunity. Is our writing place the most important part of what we do? Or the time of day we write? Or, for me, the tools I use for my work? We’re all different, so it’s critical for each of us to make smooth that creative road ahead.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One thing I learned very early on when printing out a very long manuscript was to NOT print until proofreading was completed. Because more than once I’d be four or five hundred pages into printing out my 1000 page novel on the 1920’s and discover a mistake that affected formatting and be forced to reprint the entire first half of the book. Oh yes, and when I first began using a computer to write on, I learned NOT to accidentally SAVE over what I’d written without checking that I was SAVING, and not deleting fifty pages, which is what I did!

In your opinion, were you a “natural born writer” or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

I do believe I have an ear for language, poetic or lyrical words and cadences. I think reading authors such as Thomas Wolfe and Carson McCullers, Truman Capote or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ray Bradbury, and certain others, reinforced my ear and eye for that. Early on in my writing life, I favored such writers for their language, preferring, for instance, Faulkner to Hemingway, and Corman McCarthy to John Updike. Later on, the more I read, the more I expanded my appreciation of other authorial voices. Growing up in the country, I also preferred rural voices and only later on learned what I could glean from urban writers and therefore expand my language in directions beyond lyrical evocations of rivers and dusty roads and blue, blue skies. I think the style we write in is part of us. So, yes, some of us are born to it, others work and work to find that voice which suits them best. After we recognize our natural voice, we can begin expanding how and what we write. Truman Capote, in paraphrasing Camus, asserted that there are thousands of stories to be told, but it’s that style, that voice which distinguishes one writer from another. And isn’t that true? When we think of writers, at least literary ones, we recognize them by style: Hemingway’s short, exacting sentences; Faulkner’s elaborate constructs; Thomas Wolfe’s soaring rhetoric; Isabel Allende’s lyricism; Joan Didion’s methodical narrative, etc. I have always written in a similar voice. It’s who I am, and always have been.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

As I finished my recent novel, Metropolis, I recognized the necessity and opportunity to write a sequel that is also a companion piece, called, Undercity. I suppose I’m about halfway through it and enjoying the journey. The story is quite a bit different, as is the structure: more varied, lots more stories and characters and events and small histories. Readers will see how it enhances and explain much of what they’ve read in Metropolis while leading them to places unexpected and dramatic. It’s fun to write and, I hope, even more fun to read!

Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Be A Successful Author or Writer”? Please share a story or example for each.

First thing needed to be successful in the art of writing is to be a reader. There’s no escaping that. Read, and read widely, and often. Make it a habit of being. I meet so many beginning writers, and some more experienced, who simply do not read much at all, or if they do, they’re reading the same kind of books, over and over. Reading keeps your eye in the game, as you see what your fellow writers, your competitors, are doing, how they structure stories, what they write about, and how they write. Reading helps us recognize our strengths and gifts, and also our shortcoming and limitations. Reading lets us see where we are as writers. I’m always reading two or three books at once, usually at night, a commercial novel, generally crime or suspense, and a literary work from a variety of authors. I might pair Michael Connolly with Roberto Bolaño, Jodi Piccoult with James Lee Burke, John Grisham with Sandra Cisneros. Reading helps me make sense of what I’m doing.

Next is to develop that ability to write with intention, creating with a deliberate passion or perseverance to work consistently, to choose a story or essay or poem and stick with it, regardless of the ease or difficulty its creation engenders. Schedules are good, whether that means writing for a certain amount of time or writing a certain amount each day. We’re all different in that way. Some of us write early in the morning, others late at night. Some work daily and some rely on inspiration. How, does not matter. What does matter is getting it done. Writing Metropolis was interesting for me because I created a schedule I’d never tried before: I made myself write at least one page each morning before I allowed myself anything to eat or drink. At least one page! And I promise you there were many mornings I had a vision of eggs or sandwiches dancing across my brain as I struggled to reach the end of that page. Afterward, of course, I was free to continue my work on that book during the afternoon where I would invariable write another page or two or three. In the nine months I needed to write those six hundred pages of Metropolis I only missed three mornings and those were when I was out town.

Another thing that can be helpful is to find a writer whose style or story choices most interest you. It’s pretty common for beginning writers to want to copy someone and it’s really a very good place to start, given that no one can really write like one’s favorite writers, but often gives a great jumping off point. Before writing my first novel, I experimented trying to emulate Thomas Wolfe, a hopeless endeavor. That only led me to bypass story in favor of style, but it did embolden me to reach for a higher poetic goal with my language. Later on, I discovered Carson McCullers whose softer lyricism made more sense to my own voice and really sent me on my way to how I write now. Of course, I had many other writing mentors, my university professors in American Literature were both published authors, each having influenced my work to a great extent by showing what I did well, and what I did not. Now and then I might begin my writing day by reading passages from Truman Capote or Joan Didion and Paul Bowles, to achieve what Capote called, “getting into the saddle.” In that vein, some writers advocate for literally copying down word for word a page or more of one’s favorite writer to see and understand how those words go on the page, how sentences are constructed, how it feels to write that prose.

It’s also valuable to find readers who know and appreciate your work, who will read it carefully, not necessarily to critique, but as a future agent, editor or reader will see it. Some writers enjoy the camaraderie and experience of a workshop, while others of us prefer, perhaps, one or two voices offering support and feedback. Of those, the best I believe comes from an experienced writer who will address your work, not as he or she would have written it, but offering an opinion on how well you are creating what “you” are attempting with your own artistic and storytelling desire and sensibility.

That sort of ties us to the last point, which I do believe is critical. Hemingway once offered the idea that “the essential gift for a good writer is a built in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.” We do need to be able to edit and evaluate our own work, separate from anyone else’s opinion. I am always appalled at friends of mine in writing workshops who seem to find great benefit in what my dad used to call “art by committee.” I accept that some writers find that supremely helpful, but I’m also suspicious of what happens to those writers who, for one reason or another, find themselves on their own with no group to guide their editing. Somehow, each of us needs to discover that critical insight into our own work, discover how to pace a narrative, find that lovely metaphor, explore what makes characters intriguing to readers. Writing is, after all, a solitary endeavor, and we need to be sure that we can row that boat on our own. And how to we learn to do so? By reading.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study). Can you share a story or example?

There are two very clear things that have inspired my work over the years, leading me forward. One, is reading constantly, and widely, fiction and non-fiction. I read literary fiction and poetry, and also quite a lot of commercial fiction. I find the literary works inspiring, driving me to write better and, more interestingly, to tell stories where philosophy and interior exploration serves the literary purpose and expands my understanding of art. Then again, commercial fiction, page-turners of all sorts from Dan Brown and Lee Child, Stephen King and John Grisham, to Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray, constantly reminding me to tell a good and engaging story. They teach me pacing, to get on with it, entertain, be fun to read. The other part of writing that has contributed to my art and work is simple consistency: When writing a book, keep at it, write daily or as often as possible. Don’t quit, don’t get lazy, keep to some sort of schedule, get it done. Realizing most of all that, quite simply, nothing happens without us.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I do have my favorite authors, and always have. Early on, I favored those authors whose language appealing my lyrical sensibility — Carl Sandburg, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Wolfe, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cormac McCarthy, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, James Lee Burke, Alice Hoffmann and Jill McCorkle. Then, later on, in grad school and beyond, I discovered McKinlay Kantor, whose Andersonville is a work of genius. I read Joseph Mitchell’s essays, and Studs Turkel. Also, Larry McMurtry, Larry Brown, Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, James Gould Cozzens and James Jones, John Marquand, William Styron, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Isabel Allende, Paul and Jane Bowles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, John Dos Passos and the Welsh writer, Simon Van Booy. So many others, in many genres of science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, beach reads, thrillers. More recently, I found the late Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean writer whose prose and variety of narratives is incredible. Of course, I’ve also been inspired by sheer bravura storytelling, and for that I read Stephen King and Dean Koontz, John Sandford, Lee Child, Jonathan Kellerman, Michael Connolly, Andy Weir, Preston & Childs, and many, many others whose gift of making us turn the page has invigorated and improved my own writing year after year. I see writing and reading as mutual integral to the process of creating novels. Too many literary authors forget to tell a story where things actually happen beyond the immediate interior lives of their characters. Likewise, too many commercial writers choose to ignore the beauty of language and the artistic wonder of words on a page. I see both as invaluable, and those authors able to create a confluence of language and story hold my attention best of all.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I just think inspiring people to read and enjoy reading would be a movement well-worth pursuing. We never have enough readers in this world. Too many find it a drudge, boring and difficult. They read the wrong books. It’s neither wise nor sufficient to encourage people to read the classics. Instead, send them to books they’ll enjoy immediately. Better to read popular fiction than not read at all. And when literary fiction is called for, send them after books that tell a good story, that are entertaining as well as engaging artistically. Let readers discover the difference book to book as they are drawn into the written word. That’s a movement I’d begin in a second.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I have a couple of websites: www.monteschulzauthor.com

And a very interesting one for my new novel: www.metropolisthebook.com

And I’m also on Facebook with: sbwriters.com

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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