It’s such a pleasure to have member Larry Winfield as our first Member Spotlight of 2014. A longtime Book Country member, Larry recently published his novel BANJO STRINGS on Book Country. He stopped by to talk to us about his writing and his wide range of other creative endeavors.
LS: Tell us about your path as a writer: how did you get started, and what’s brought you to where you are now?
LW: Uh, it’s a very twisted path. I wrote a few poems in high school that got published in the campus literary magazine, and in senior year (1974) I was an Associate Editor. And then I didn’t write another thing for 8 years. I moved to Chicago, got into theater, tried to start a band, worked as an illustrator, then in the early 80’s I let the acting, the band and the artwork go and started keeping a journal, and by ’88 I had a small chapbook of poems in a few stores in Hyde Park, Chicago.
In 1990 I discovered the Chicago poetry scene and spent a dozen years as a venue host and sometimes a featured reader, listening to great poets and writing almost every day. In 2002 I moved to the west coast, in part because of 9/11 (a long story), and tried to get into the Los Angeles poetry scene, but it was just too scattered. I hung out in the Santa Monica/Venice scene for a while, but it wasn’t happening with me living downtown. Anyway, by 2005 I’d discovered podcasting and created Sundown Lounge an updated version of my pirate radio show The Rent Party (part of that long story). Around the same time I was thinking of a couple story ideas, and Scott Sigler had recently broken huge with his first podcast novel. So I started putting up audio chapters at Mevio as I went, my own performance piece of a live novel, even though it was a few months between episodes in the middle. By the end, though, I had over 60,000 individual hits and some chapters in the hundreds of downloads. Nice. I ended up revising the novel into a “2013 edition” that I’m working to release as a podiobook, eBook and a printed (or POD) paperback.
LS: Along that route you found Book Country. How did that happen?
While writing and recording the first podcast version, I looked for writers groups to submit chapters and some of my poems to for feedback and review. I stuck with Author Nation and Authonomy mostly, then the Nation went down last year, and I found you guys on a Google search. The first manuscript was done by then so I uploaded the eBook to the Horror section, and it made the spotlight list, so thank you for that.
LS: Congrats on publishing your book BANJO STRINGS on Book Country in November! Tell us about your writing and revision process for the book.
LW: The hardest part of the process is planting myself before the keyboard and just writing. The book in my head is a cloud of details, even though I have a beginning, middle and end. Within that, if I have my characters right, the story writes itself. As far as specific technique, I borrow from the “Snowflake Method” to go from sentence to paragraph, etc., along with the “Scaffolding,” my term for all the other stuff that doesn’t go into the novel, like character studies and a lot of the research.
Revising reminds me that I’m still learning how I write a novel, and partly why this “2013 edition” of the book is a major update. In writing the synopsis, I discovered that the “two beginnings” concept with the ghost story first, then the novel, wasn’t all that clever, so the first 6 or 7 chapters were shuffled and rewritten, to make Henry Smith the clear protagonist and improve the story’s flow. The rest is mainly spelling and character-shaped grammar, and looking for plot holes. Even with the new version complete, I’m still looking, just to be sure.
LS: BANJO STRINGS is an ambitious supernatural tale that combines elements of many genres. In the book’s description you call it an “epic” tale of “antebellum ghosts and supernatural spies.” Tell us why it’s epic–and what it was like to write such an epic story.
LW: Well, to be honest, “epic” just rolls better than “shaggy dog tale.” The Civil War was already part of the story, but the Delta in 2005 and 2006, with the scars from [Hurricane] Katrina still fresh, had to be woven in. The Campus [the secret society in the novel] was just an offhand twist on the familiar trope of a secret organization – how do you operate after you’re outed? Anyway, this was just where the characters went, the choices they made.
The heart of the story refers to something I kept seeing last year – the clumsy and boneheaded episodes of racism, and the half hearted, sometimes defiant refusal to simply acknowledge it beyond one’s own experience. I’m not the only person to imagine that if certain people spent a day in the shoes of the “other” they denigrated, their entire context and attitude would change. So the raw idea was “the ghost of a slave confronts a racist and puts him in the memory of that slave’s bad day on the plantation.” The story grew from that; it went epic shaggy on its own.
LS: You’ve also got a WIP up on Book Country called “Rosedust”–an erotic horror short story. Update us on what’s happening with that work, and what feedback you’ve gotten on it that has been helpful to you as you revise.
LW: “Rosedust” was written in ’99. At first it was just a prose poem I’d perform on stage, but I sent it to the Chicago scene mag Strong Coffee. They published it and nobody hated it. Then, a few months or so later, a pair of very charming black women looked me up and requested I read it to them. Very nice. I posted it up in a few writers groups and online mags and gotten generally positive feedback. And there’s a lot more to the story itself – it has its own little cloud of mythological details on a back burner, until I work out how to write two books at once [kidding…].
LS: You are a poet, a political commentator, and a podcast host. You certainly stay busy! How do your other endeavors influence your fiction writing?
LW: Without the podcast I don’t think I’d have ever written the novel. I mean, I was aware of things like National Novel Writing Month, but I didn’t do NaNoWriMo until after I started the podcast novel.
Sundown Lounge has been a great way to keep in touch somewhat with the poetry folks back in Chicago and all points on the globe, to discover some of the best indie music from around the world in many genres, 90% of which you’ll never hear on corporate radio (Blatant plug: Sundown Lounge 351 is an end-of-year music sampler. It’s almost 2 hours, so go to the iTunes podcast directory for a listen, or listen online here…). The show’s science section “The Map Room” is a gold mine of story ideas and details I come across looking for items to feature. I picked up a few tips on short story writing this route.
The unfettered exercise of free speech on this podcast, and my personal show The Patio, is the thing reclaimed from the pirate radio days and my time on the open mic stage, when you spoke your mind without fear – even among the largest number of cops in a Chicago poetry reading (1996, during the Democratic Convention). I don’t consider myself a political activist – I’m not in the thicket doing hands-on work. But, the show and website did get hacked twice: when I put out an anti-Karl Rove episode the week his book came out, and when Romney lost in 2012, somebody didn’t like my posting up his lying political ads next to the debunk videos. Made me proud.
The other thing I do is look for great writing, but I don’t read as many novels as I did while growing up. I was a library and used book geek in junior high and high school, read a lot of hard and fantasy science fiction, horror and Agatha Christie. Lately, I’ve cut way back on domestic tv shows for dramas from Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand, and a lot of Japanese anime. Shows full of layered characters with some of the craziest plots, but the imaginations behind the writing make it work. And that’s the thing, to make the writing work.
You might also like: Member Spotlight: Meet Horror Writer Nikki Hopeman.