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Firewords 8 – Contributor Q&As


Greg Michaelson

Author of 'The Barber of Mars Base 1'

What kind of characters do you prefer to write about?

I like characters who feel real to me. I don't need to like them, and they certainly don't need to be anything like me, but I need to have some sense what it's like to be them, so they need to feel internally consistent to me. I try not to think to much about them and just follow where they lead me.

What’s your writing process and how long does it normally take you to complete a piece?

I come up with an initial idea, often in the shower, mull it for a bit and start writing.. When I think I'm done, I show the story to friends who usually say "so what?" or "what happens next?": the initial idea is a good gag but lacks resolution. I feel despondent, put the story away and do something else. Then, when what happens next comes to me, often in the shower, I complete the story.

Jacqueline Jules

Author of 'Monkey Mind'


What do you do if you’re feeling uninspired?

I take a long walk in my neighborhood or in nature. While I don't write a great deal of "nature poetry," moving my body seems to make my brain move forward, too.

How much are your characters taken from real life?

I strive to capture emotional truth rather than literal truth. Even in personal poems, I will change the actual details of my own experience to share something that a reader will more easily connect with.

What does literary success mean to you?

Readers are the basis of literary success. Writers spend hours playing with words in order to communicate. Having an audience for those words is very gratifying.

Sarah David

Author of 'Homeless in Hawai'i'


What do you do if you’re feeling uninspired?

I tend to feel uninspired when I'm stressed out. I'll try a few different things, like going for a walk or reading a book. If all else fails, I drink a lot of coffee. Well, actually, I do that regardless.

From where did you get your inspiration?

I tend to be inspired by both nature and people watching. I especially find inspiration in daily adventures with my young son. Looking at the world through a child's eyes allows me to experience sights, sounds, emotions, etc. more deeply, and I hope to convey those ideas into words.

Tell us about one hobby/interest outside of writing and why you do it.

One of my hobbies is camping. It's something my husband and I have been doing for years, and now we take our son along. We enjoy the bonfires, hiking, slower pace, and sitting under the stars. Drinking a beer around a campfire is infinitely relaxing.

Carole Ellis

Author of 'Hope'

What are your ambitions (general or writing based)?

To grow old disgracefully! To drink good gin and go the beach more often. I've come to a point in life where there seems more behind me than ahead and I want to keep opening up possibilities and new horizons. Hence my decision to write what I want rather than what sells. If other people like what I do, then that's great but my ambition is to keep enjoying the process and go wherever that leads.

What kind of characters do you prefer to write about?

My characters are often troubled; pushed to extremes. I can start from a point of 'what would happen if...?' or 'if someone was doing this, how could they have arrived at that point?' Many of my stories have darker undertones with characters who are deeply flawed or have made mistakes. Sometimes they misread the signs or lose their way. No one is all good or bad, we are shades of light and dark and how we deal with what life hands us is where the stories lie.

Tell us about one hobby/interest outside of writing and why you do it.

Gardening is my biggest hobby. Incredibly good for the health - mental and physical - it can allow time to dream and percolate ideas. Deadheading is the best form of meditation. I love roses and cottage plants and recently discovered veggie growing. Now I find that the most exciting moment of the year is digging up the potatoes. That hidden treasure just waiting to be cooked - definitely a wow moment. And after all the work, you get a beautiful place to enjoy that gin and tonic.

Elizabeth Lovatt

Author of 'Mr Hilbert's Grand Hotel


Other than Firewords, what other literary magazines do you like and why?

Some of my current favourites are Popshot Magazine which always features beautiful illustrations and words, Granta (of course!) for the quality of the writing, and Zoetrope All Story and The White Review, who both meld art and words in a really interesting way. My friend has also just launched a new literary magazine Salomé which features exclusively women writers and I was lucky enough to be a part of their first issue, so I’m excited to see how the magazine grows and develops over the next year.

From where did you get your inspiration?

All sorts of places! I try to read a lot and widely, often around subjects that don't directly relate to my literary interests. For example the inspiration for my short story 'Mr Hilbert's Grand Hotel' came from reading a book on Fermat’s Last Theorem and mathematical paradoxes. I frequently visit museums and galleries, art which explores issues of gender and identity are a source of interest for me at the moment. And of course I get inspiration from being out in the world, living in London you see and meet a vast array of people – I’ll take sneaky notes on my phone if I see or overhear something that I think I could use!

What’s your writing process and how long does it normally take you to complete a piece?

I have a full-time job so my writing has to work around that. I set myself a minimum of writing three times a week for 15-minutes at a time. I find writing in short bursts keeps things manageable during the week. At a weekend I might spend up to an hour, especially if I’m editing. Once I have an early draft I’ll do any major restructuring until it’s roughly the shape I want it. At this point I’ll take my story to my writing group, we meet once a month to workshop our writing. Having a group of writers read my work and give feedback has become an invaluable part of my writing process. I’ll then begin editing more seriously, responding to the feedback I’ve had as well as stripping out any unnecessary passages, sentences and words. A piece will usually go through 10-20 drafts over the course of 2-4 months (depending on the length of the story) until I’m happy with it.

Virginia Boudreau

Author of 'And I Want To Be


What do you do if you’re feeling uninspired?

When inspiration does not come easily, I revert to one of two strategies shared with me by a writer friend.

  1. I go to my electronic raw materials file and choose a piece to develop further. This file is composed of random thoughts and memories generated by the daily writing prompts I complete first thing every morning. (I find it helpful to do this before too much " life debris" enters my consciousness). I use a numbered list and follow them in consecutive order, no exceptions, which not only saves time, but forces me to delve more deeply. This practice helps build writing fluency as well as a supply of inspirational ideas I can go to any time I feel "stuck".

  2. I open a novel by a favorite author to a random page. From that page only, I choose a sentence, quote, piece of dialogue, description, or even a single word to expand upon on in some way. I'm usually surprised by the connections I make, and often find they'll stem from a memory or impression I'd buried long ago. I will either take that particular piece to completion in the form that suits it best, or I'll highlight the phrase(s) that particularly resonate with me and use that to create new work.

How much are your characters taken from real life?

My characters are always inspired by real life and I think its impossible for this not to be the case. I would never model an entire character after someone I know, but certainly, I use elements of known personalities to shape or breathe life into those I create, if only to make them more believable on the page. The possibilities are infinite.

As humans, we are comprised of an enormously complex mixture of unique qualities, emotions and motivations that make us who we are. Though different from each other in myriad ways, its the universal range of shared commonalities that I believe all authors aspire to have their readers connect with.

From where do you get your inspiration?

Much of my inspiration is derived from nature. The natural world continually offers up an endless source of possibility. It creates a sense of wonder and sometimes, horror, both of which evoke strong personal reactions from me. I've also come to realize the actual and inner landscapes of childhood feature very predominantly in my writing, and perhaps this is simply an attempt to create a broader context for it all. Certainly, they influence my response to the ordinary occurrences of daily life.

Luke Larkin

Author of 'An Accident on a Dirt Road


What do you do if you’re feeling uninspired?

Most of the time I just sleep. It's my go-to for most things. That, and listen to music. Sometimes, if I'm feeling dangerous, I'll do both at the same time.

What are your ambitions (general or writing based)?

The goal right now is to get a novel published, but to be honest I haven't the slightest clue on how to go about doing that. So if anyone wants to publish a book written by a college freshman, let me know.

From where do you get your inspiration?

Ray Bradbury. He's the kind of author you read and can't help but think, "Man, I wish I wrote this." It's a healthy mix of envy and admiration.

Carolyne Topdjian

Author of 'The Wasp and the Willow


What do you do if you’re feeling uninspired?

I once read somewhere that writer’s block is a myth—a great philosophy to live by! For those moments when my ideas dry up, I turn to other storytellers: wordsmiths like Toni Morrison, Neil Gaiman, or Anthony Doerr. I’m also a big fan of playlists; music has offered me inspiration on countless occasions when the page would’ve remained otherwise blank. Finally, I reference art. American photographer, Beth Moon, for example, has arresting images of ancient trees. Her art likely triggered something in my subconscious while I wrote the Wasp and the Willow.

Do you try to be original or deliver what the reader wants? Why?

Ideally, these aren’t mutually exclusive categories: readers want originality, so I like to aim for both. And since it’s never a good idea to write in a vacuum, I think of an audience when I develop a story. Namely, I write to myself and one other person, like a close friend. Toni Morrison said it best: “If there's a book you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” That way, an author’s originality and a reader’s needs are aligned for great storytelling.

What kind of characters do you prefer to write about?

I definitely have a soft spot for underdogs, outcasts, and wallflowers. It’s fun to delve into a character who’s a bit off-centre or who flows beneath the radar. Then I get to experience the adventure of peeling back the character’s layers and discovering the core of humanity that links us to these strangest of misfits.

P. D. Walter

Author of 'Big Life'


What kind of research do you do? Are you a planner?

I definitely plan – you have to with big projects – and there’s usually research involved. I lived in Japan for three years, and learned the language up to a pretty good level, so that I could write about Japan. I’ve written a miniseries inspired by two of Shakespeare’s tragedies (‘Titus Andronicus’ and ‘Othello’) so that required a good deal of research about the geographical locales (Egypt, Malta, Venice) and historical eras I wanted to send the characters to. I want to do more ‘live’ research, interviewing people who have intimate knowledge of the things I want to write about. That’s really exciting.

What is the hardest thing you’ve ever written?

My most recent novel, ‘Twilight of the Adults’, which took 8 years to write. I didn’t realize when I started that with 4 protagonists, all from different families, it meant I had 4 careers, 4 sets of parents and siblings, and possibly 4 romantic partners to deal with. So my first draft was about 1,200 pages. I’ve gotten that down to 585. The solution was to kill off half the parents and make half of the 4 protagonists only children. It was a struggle, but I’m very proud of it, and hope to be able to announce its publication soon.

From where did you get your inspiration?

‘Big Life’ had three inspirations: a tiny book I bought in Japan (1” x 1.5” with 100 blank pages) in which I wanted to write the world’s physically smallest short story; then an anecdote I heard in Japan about a young woman who tried to overcome her fear of cockroaches by posting one on her wall in a Ziploc baggie; and a comment Mark Kingwell made at a journal launch 10 years ago, about a young woman who wanted a “big life” and what she might have meant by that. The phrase stuck; what he said about it, I don’t recall.


Luisa Rivera

Cover artist for Firewords 8


From where do you get your inspiration?

Nature is a big source of inspiration. Normally people think that nature is only the flora and the fauna, but it's also us, human beings, and how we relate to that natural world. This is easily perceived in storytelling and folk culture, so I am always researching that. I am also inspired by the work of others, especially visual artists, activists, musicians, and writers.

Tell us about one hobby/interest outside of art and why you do it.

I also draw during my leisure time, so work and life are always mixed! Also, I love reading, playing the ukulele, jogging, and taking long walks in nature. I do all of these activities because they have the same effect as taking a deep breath: it reboots your systems, and gives a fresh start, which is really important in a creative career.

What’s your process and how long does it normally take you to complete a piece?

First, I think about the idea, but normally envision it on paper with quick thumbnails. Once I have those doodles, I pick my favourite directions and develop larger sketches, which I then present to the art director. For personal work, it's similar, but there's less sketching involved, because it's only me picking the idea.

Guillermo Ortego

Artist for 'An Accident on a Dirt Road


What does artistic success mean to you?

As much as it's really hard to pin down, I would define artistic success on two grounds: On the one hand, the ability to make a decent living in today's economy from making said art and on the other, the vague self-perception of continually pushing to become and effectively becoming a better artist, of knowing that the work you're doing now is somehow better than the one you did a year ago.

What kind of brief do you prefer? Strict or open?

From my experience, I think both ends of the spectrum can be equally as problematic. If too strict, there are big chances the client will never be fully satisfied, as it will be very hard to nail that abstract image they have in their minds; and if completely open you risk endless rounds of layouts until they realise what it is exactly that they're after, as it's always easier to identify what one doesn't want than the opposite. Generally, a point in between tends to work out the best, where the initial vision of the AD combines with that of the illustrator to create a larger and better image than either would have done on their own.

What’s your process and how long does it normally take you to complete a piece?

I would say my process is pretty tedious in the sense that it takes a long time for me to settle on an idea, generally spending up to two days fiddling around with different possible layouts and colour combinations. I read as much as I can on whatever the theme of the illustration is and do random google searches looking for possible visual cues. I also try and make sure that every decision is taken on this early stage, when things are less fixed are you're still not emotionally attached to the drawing. This makes the rest of the process easier, as much as it also tends to last forever, between another two to four days depending on the complexity of the image.

Wenting Li

Artist for 'The Wasp and the Willow'


What do you do if you’re feeling uninspired?

Sometimes it's helpful for me to push through and draw until I solve the problem. But it can also be good to change tracks for awhile and wash the dishes, watching carefully for what floats to the surface.

How do you try and keep your artwork fresh and original?

When I have the time, I try to construct every illustration in a slightly new way. Experimenting with colour and on paper always keeps things interesting too. I don't want to keep drawing the same thing in the same way (except sometimes, when I do).

Tell us about one hobby/interest outside of art and why you do it.

I can't help but say my second love is reading, particularly short stories. Stories for me are windows, endlessly mysterious glimpses. I think a lot of my ideas originate in the ways I read, and see.

Luis Mendo

Artist for 'Escaping Mrs. Pruitt


What do you do if you’re feeling uninspired?

Let go. When you don't have inspiration the best policy is to wait, do something else, concentrate in doing the dishes or call a friend for coffee. It will come back, inspiration is a battery which occasionally needs charging.

How do you try and keep your artwork fresh and original?

It's not the artwork that has to be kept fresh but your interests and views on the world. If you concentrate too much on the work only, you don't progress as much as when you listen to others' stories, go wander in unknown streets or take the time to really observe things (could be a art book but also a bird's fly or a flower)

From where did you get your inspiration?

I actually thought a lot about my father's death. I was in Helsinki when it happened and couldn't be by his side when he passed away in Spain. The story made me think about me not being there, having let my mum and sister carry all the weight of losing him etc... All these negative feelings actually worked as an inspiration for the drawing and the mood of the illustration. At the end I added a bit warmer colors to make it less heavy, can't help being optimistic after all.