24 July 2006

Author Answers with Brendan Halpin

Note: Word Nerd knows it's not Tuesday yet, but her day job requires her to be around airplanes all day tomorrow so she's posting this now.

This week's author is somebody who has nothing to do with airplanes (refreshing, Word Nerd knows for her Oshkosh readers), novelist and memoir-writer Brendan Halpin.

Halpin wrote the memoir, It Takes A Worried Man, about the first six months of treatment for his late wife's breast cancer. He's also the author of the memoir, Losing My Faculties, about teaching high school English. Additionally, he writes things that are made up in the novels Donorboy and Long Way Back.

To visit his website, click here.

Word Nerd: Place you do most of your writing:
Halpin: I do some writing at home, but I do most of my writing at two coffee shops in my neighborhood. I could make coffee at home, but I like to be able to see other humans during my work day.

WN: What’s your writing process like from when you get an idea to when it gets published?
Halpin: I usually have an idea percolating in my brain while I'm working on something else. After the idea cooks for a few months, I'll start to write. I often don't have a clear idea of where I'm going to end up when I start writing. I usually send chapters to friends of mine and get feedback, and once I'm done with a first draft, I'll set it aside for a week or two and then take the feedback I've gotten and write a second draft.

WN: Why did you decide to become a writer? How long did you have to work to get published and what made you keep working at it until your name was on the cover of a book?
Halpin: These two kind of lend themselves to one answer. I wrote a bunch of terrible short stories when I was first out of college, and they all got rejected. When I started teaching, I found that it was taking up most of my creative energy, and eventually I filed writing professionally away under "youthful dreams that are never going to happen." Then, when my late wife, Kirsten, was diagnosed with breast cancer, she suggested that I write about what I was thinking and feeling. I sent these little chapters to friends of mine, largely because it was easier than telling the same story on the phone five times. One of my friends is friends with a literary agent; they showed my first 80 pages to him, and a week later, I had a publishing contract.
I would have felt guilty about how easy it was for me if not for the fact that the whole thing arose out of the worst time of my life up to that point.

WN: You’ve written two memoirs and two novels: what’s different about writing in the two genres? Is one harder or more fun than the other?
Halpin: Well, it was somewhat easier for me to write memoirs, because I never really had to figure out what was going to happen next or where the story was going. Having said that, it's much, much easier to live with the consequences of publishing a novel. I hurt a lot of people's feelings with my memoirs, and with the novels, I'm not writing about real people, so I don't have to worry about what they're going to think of the book. Also, I tend to be more generous and forgiving with my characters than I am with real people. Maybe I should work on that.

WN: What is the best/most influential book you have ever read and why did it inspire you?
Halpin: Well, I really admire Connie Willis' Doomsday Book for many reasons, but in terms of its impact on my work, she balances light and dark tones in that book with incredible skill, and I usually strive for that same kind of balance. Nick Hornby's High Fidelity was the book that most made me think I could be a writer. There's this passage in that book about people who shop in used record stores, and reading that and identifying with it so closely was the first time I felt like somebody like me could be a writer, that writers weren't necessarily a different kind of person than I am.

WN: If you had to live the life of one of your characters, who would you pick and why?
Halpin: I guess I'd pick Francis from Long Way Back, since he winds up a rock star.

WN: What piece of advice helped you out the most as a writer?
Halpin: I don't know where this came from -- possibly Peter Elbow -- but I used to tell my students when I was an English teacher that they had to be fearless about writing junk. It's much easier to tinker with a full page of writing than to fill up an empty page, so if you can just turn off your internal editor and dump words on to the page, you can turn the editor back on and hopefully make something good out of what you've written. But if you've got your internal editor constantly peeking over your shoulder telling you what you're writing is no good, that's when you get stuck.

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