Furthest Right

Interview with David Whitaker

1. David please tell us a little about yourself, you currently live in India. What prompted the move and what is life like there?

I always loved to travel. I found other cultures, fresh landscapes, and new people fascinating. I think this interest in the exotic weakened in me the tether that typically holds people to their home town/state/country. As a result, in the course of my life I’ve lived in five separate countries across three continents, hold six driving licenses, and have claimed an additional citizenship to the one I was born with. While settled in Australia I met the woman who would become my wife, and when her visa expiry called her back to India it simply didn’t seem an obstacle to me; I followed. Her family, who are thankfully not of the traditional or conservative mindset, welcomed me with open arms and hearts. India itself is to me more than anything a country of contrasts. There are beautiful vistas, majestic relics, and stunning sights, yet at the same time unimaginable squalor, poverty, and decay. The culture is vibrant, welcoming, and joyous, but inequality, rape, and corruption run rampant. The economy is one of the largest in the world, yet the convoluted levels of bureaucracy are staggering.

2. Can you talk a little about how you got involved in writing? Were you always interested in writing and were you always interested in fiction?

When I was a child, barely four years old, I knew I wanted to be a writer. There was nothing more magical to me than the ability to create a story, and effectively construct another world. This feeling, this desire to build from a blank canvas, pulls me firmly toward fiction, and in particular to the realms of science fiction and fantasy, where imagination is the only real limit to the story. I still write with other genres in mind, yet I enjoy myself most when ensconced firmly in the speculative or fantastical.

Sadly, as well as possessing a creative mind I was also practical, and toward the end of my teens this led me astray. I pursued education and work opportunities that would support me, not make me happy. It was only a year or so back that I realized I was miserable, and that it was because something was missing from my life, something which no amount of ‘security’ could compensate for; I hadn’t written creatively for almost a decade, and frankly, for the sake of my sanity, I needed to. I dropped everything, abandoning a stable, well-paying career in the tech industry, and picked up a pen. I earn practically nothing now, yet I’m the happiest I’ve been in years.

3. I know you were a journalism major in college, how did studying journalism prepare you to write fiction? And would you recommend journalism over something such as creative writing or English for someone interested in a career in fiction?

I studied Journalism at a period of my life when it felt like the right thing to do. Compared to Creative Writing or English, for example, it seemed a safer choice. In terms of real-world application, I believed Journalism would give me a much wider skillset than the alternatives, and would still help me improve my writing. Looking back, my creative writing skills likely did not get much benefit from my studies. However, given the chance to go back and change my decision, I’d do it all again. Journalism helped me learn how to really communicate (both to an audience and more personally), to research with an unbiased eye, and to put in the hard time and graft required to see a story through to its conclusion, to beat the deadline. You could also argue it looks better on a résumé than the alternative, and helped me land work and put food on my table for a number of years, which was no small feat given that I graduated at the height of the Global Financial Crisis when such opportunities were hard to come by.

Would I recommend others do the same? Perhaps. If you have a burning desire to write, but need an income and feel you can satisfy your creative proclivities in your free time, I’d argue Journalism is a more practical choice than Creative Writing and will still benefit you down the road. One of its greatest advantages is that it’ll pull you into the realm of global affairs, and provide you with a greater knowledge and understanding of the world around you. You can still become a great novelist after a stint in Journalism; Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman were both journalists before they became creatives, to name just a couple of those who have made the transition.

4. Tell me what inspired Mirage. Where do you think ideas come from?

Inspiration can come from anything and everything. The world around you, the news you read, the things you see and hear; anything can be a nudge that sets an idea in motion. It can also be a lifeline.

As a foreigner it took me six months to get my Indian driving license, during the course of which I had to make multiple visits to numerous government offices, many for hours at a time. It was an infuriating process, however it would have been so much worse if I hadn’t viewed it with detached eyes, wondering if I couldn’t at some point turn the whole charade into a story (it’s now shaping into a novella).

Mirage has similar origins. The wealth gap in India is enormous, yet often extremely close, with slums not far from expensive domiciles, and the poor plying their humble trades throughout affluent areas (dhabas (street food vendors) are installed near rich neighbourhoods, dhobis (laundry providers) set up shacks in wealthy suburbs, and sabzi wallas (fruit & vegetable sellers) steer ancient bicycles laden with fresh produce back and forth past manicured lawns). However, their respective wealth does not determine their happiness, personality, or spirit. I’ve seen ‘wealthy’ families, swept up by their own status and standing, be mean with their money and compassion, and effectively alienated from all sides. Conversely, I’ve met ‘poor’ traders who are happy to defer payment, set you up a tab, and even loan money without request.

With Mirage, I wanted to look at spirit and wealth; that wealth is a concept, given value by our perception, but richness of spirit is far more valuable and ultimately universal. Water, or fuel, will fluctuate in worth depending on demand, but the value of compassion and kindness is not bound in this manner; they’re always precious.

5. Is it necessary to have just one good idea for a story and grow from there, or is it necessary to have multiple ideas per story before you start writing?

I think it depends on the story, particularly when it comes to length. If writing a novel or novella, I would want to have at least one strong idea, and preferably a number more, before I even set out with the task of putting pen to paper. With a short story on the other hand, or flash fiction, I actually find I have much more freedom. I can start with one good idea, and if it evolves as I progress then great!

For me, the longer a story, the more rigid it becomes. Flash fiction and short stories are nimble. You can effectively amend the entire text when a burst of inspiration hits. With a novella and up, it becomes less wieldy. Any new ideas you have, you have to take into account just how much effort will be required to incorporate and backtrack.

That’s not to say it’s not worth doing. If I’m halfway through a novel and I have an idea which I know will propel the piece to that next level I’ll happily go back and fit it in (I’ll probably complain about it a lot, but I’ll still be smiling on the inside).

6. Your characters in Mirage all have very distinct voices. That’s something that the editors of Uprising Review enjoyed. What makes a great character? And is it hard to create a great character in such a short time?

Short stories really put the pressure on when it comes to character development. With limited words at your disposal you can’t afford to waste many building up backstories. As a result, you’re forced to really hone your dialogue, as well as the limited descriptions you allow yourself, in order to build the characters. That said, I think it’s well worth approaching character development in this manner; it’s much more interesting to be presented with characteristic dialogue, behaviour, and mannerisms than it is to simply read a bio.

As for what makes a great character, I wish I had the answer! The best I can say, from my experience, is to make them clear and definitive. That doesn’t mean have them standout, but rather have their voice be recognisably their voice, separate and identifiable from other characters within the story. In portraying them I’d avoid accents as they rarely come out well, but giving them their own tone, mannerisms, and behavior is effective; what they say, how they say it, what they choose to do, and in what way, all comes together to build their identity. When it comes to personality and motivations, they don’t necessarily have to be likable, but believable is a must. Drawing from people around you, well-known either through relation (friends/family) or simply observation (celebrities/prominent figures), can provide ample material to build a strong and believable character.

7. What do you think is the state of the publishing industry today? People who follow publishing are routinely treated to stories of the imminent collapse of the large publishing houses. Do you think that is in the near future?

I can only speak from my experiences as a writer, but I think it’s getting harder and harder to find success (in whatever shape or form you define it) within the publishing industry. Society isn’t reading as much of the printed word as it used to, and we’re moving a lot to the online domain. Coupled with that, the average attention span is decreasing; people now seem to want fast, consumable content, more than a solid, engrossing read.

For publishers, especially the smaller, less-known outfits, I think this has necessitated changes. Building a digital platform is essential, but profit margins are hazy. The high cost of print may be removed, but the pricing of online content doesn’t exactly bring in great returns. Competition is fierce, and consumers typically want everything on the internet for free. Levels of staffing are reduced industry-wide, editors/readers are subsequently overworked, and ‘mistakes’ are going to be made (good material overlooked, quality reduced). How can you stay afloat in that environment? The only avenues I can see are either making content openly available and relying on ad revenue, or focusing increasingly restrictively on quality content and highly targeted marketing to a select customer base. In this precarious environment taking chances on new writers is especially risky, and it likely feels far safer to depend on a stable of established writers.

For writers, the entire affair means it’s tough to make any headway, and even if you do, the odds are stacked against you that you’ll ever make a sufficient income to establish a ‘career’ from it. There are many online publishers who simply can’t afford to pay for content. Additionally, whilst it used to be the truly dedicated who’d submit their work for review it’s now just the click of a button away, and so I would imagine the slush piles are the largest they’ve ever been; a facet no doubt compounded by the recent years of ‘follow your dream’, ‘you can achieve anything’, mentality that we’ve advertised to ourselves. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad trait of our society, it’s great that we’re no longer telling people they can never hope to achieve anything and to stick with menial labour, but it does mean that the slush pile’s average level of quality has probably sunk.

On the other end of the spectrum self-publishing and so-called vanity publishing seem to be on the rise. Vanity publishers can be a sordid breed, promising things they have no intention of delivering (marketing, etc.) though that is not to say the problem is universal or the path not worth treading (as long as you are aware of what you want to achieve and the publisher is transparent and upstanding). As for self-publishing, there have been a number of triumphs and it clearly has merit, however I think writers who have the best chance of success with this option are those well-versed in social media and self-promotion (a skill which not all authors possess).

So, in my eyes, are we rapidly approaching the end of publishing? Probably not.

Are we approaching the end of publishing as we know it? Without question.

8. What is the state of writers looking for outlets for ideas that do not necessarily conform to the standard perspective of the industry? Do you know people who’ve experienced discrimination because of their political or religious beliefs? Have you?

When it comes to discrimination, in everyday life I think it would be hard to find someone who hasn’t experienced it in one form or another.

As for discrimination within the publishing industry, I’d say it’s difficult to tell. Rarely would I think a piece is ever returned to an author with feedback detailed enough to pinpoint political or religious discrimination; far more likely would be the ‘boiler-plate’ response that ‘the work was not right for us at this time’. I think the only time discrimination would become visible in this context is from existing and established relationships; writers finding their work no longer appreciated by their publisher, their calls unanswered, their emails bouncing back.

I would sincerely hope this would be the minority, particularly because I strongly believe that writing should foster discussion. Stories are a way for us to present ideas and encourage debate. To shut them down without allowing them to be read removes a path for us to initiate dialogue. This is especially important considering that creative fiction allows us as writers to brainstorm ideas that we may not even agree with! However, we put the thoughts down on the page because they’re interesting, because we can build a story around it, and because we can help others see them for what they are. It helps us explain why people who do believe the ideas we’ve presented think in the way they do, and aids us in better understanding one another; it gives us a chance to cut out discrimination at the root.

Blind submissions help in this regard, and I consider it a valuable tool in a publisher’s arsenal.

When it comes to myself, and personal discrimination within the publishing industry, I’m actually more affected by the flip-side of the coin. I don’t belong to a minority; I’m a Caucasian, heterosexual male, happily married, from a middle-class background, with no strong religious or political beliefs one way or the other (from my perspective, each side has points on which I can agree/disagree). As such, the only publications that make clear they do not wish to receive my work are those that state outright their aim to support purely the work of minorities. In such instances, I am happy they are giving a voice to those that others may refuse to listen to, though I confess a small part of me would like to ask that they consider my work regardless as I do not believe you have to have directly experienced something in order to be able to compellingly write about it (were that the case, books set in any period of the past for example would become severely restricted to the last few decades). Beyond this, to my knowledge, I have never been rejected based on the content of my stories or my personal background, though as mentioned above I think the chance of my becoming aware of this would be slim without an existing relationship.

9. Do you think there is much value in things like an MFA in creative writing? Do people put too much emphasis on education and not enough on just writing?

I think to a large extent it depends on genre and editorial preference. For example, when I first read advice and suggestions on scripting of cover letters, I recall an editor of a science fiction journal recommending that if writing about time travel, it would be useful for authors to mention if they had a degree in quantum physics. I can certainly see how this would be beneficial, but as knowledgeable as a theoretical physicist is, there’s no guarantee they have any idea how to tell a compelling story. Conversely, I recall another editor suggesting that Creative Writing degrees were worthless, and even mentioning you had one in a cover letter instantly caused their eyes to glaze.

From a personal standpoint, I think your education matters little when it comes to writing. How you apply it, and yourself, carries far more weight. Actually sitting down and writing, working on honing your craft, is far more effective. Ignoring whether or not you should truly value the opinion of an editor who puts more stock in your cover letter than your submission, if you can’t re-grab their attention within the first page, paragraph, and ideally sentence, then you have only yourself to blame. A Creative Writing degree may give you a good foundation to work from, but you can’t expect it to do any more than that.

10. What inspires you?

I’ve touched on this earlier, but to me inspiration comes from all around. You never know what experiences in your life you can reshape into a story, and likewise the world around you. They say that the best writing is done when you write what you know, so keep your eyes and ears open, and know as much as you can. As for me, I like considering where we’re going technologically, culturally, and politically, so any interesting advances or events in these areas will always draw my attention.

David is the writer of the short story Mirage published on the Uprising Review. He can be found online at Words by David

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