26 September 2007

Author Answers with Thomas Maltman

This week's featured author is Thomas Maltman. Maltman's first novel, "The Night Birds" was chosen as a Book Sense and Midwest Connections book pick earlier this year. Maltman teaches at Silver Lake College.
For more about him, visit his website.

WN: What is "Night Birds" about and how did you get the idea for this book?
MALTMAN: The Night Birds is about the Dakota Conflict of 1862, a lost history long overshadowed by the Civil War. It's about this history and so much more. Recently, I interviewed with a bookseller down in Iowa. "What your novel is really about," she told me, "is family secrets." Now that's a much juicier description. Much of the novel also takes in 1876, fourteen years after the conflict. My narrator grows up, as he puts it, "in the shadow of the Great Sioux War."

I first came across the story of conflict and the hangings in a book written for children and my imagination was captivated. Then I married an ELCA pastor from Minnesota and our first assignment took us to Little House of the Prairie territory, just five miles from where the trouble all started. I felt this history calling to me from out of time and knew that I had to tell it.

WN: What's your writing process like?
MALTMAN: I have a lovely, two year old daughter who governs the household. (Or likes to think she does!) So I rise early in the morning and begin writing at 5:00. I like to write while it's dark outside and the world is hushed and still. In that quiet, my half-asleep mind can dream up surprising things. I write for a few hours, until my daughter wakes up, and I always try to end in mid-sentence, so that I have a beginning place the next day. I write drafts all the way through, then put the story away for awhile, so I can take it out a few months later and look over it with fresh eyes.

WN: You also teach creative writing. As a writer, is it hard to practice what you preach?
MALTMAN: I hope not! I do think my students here at Silver Lake College can learn from my failures just as much as my successes. I've saved everything I've ever written and it's not all pretty. Sometimes, I'll bring samples from my undergraduate work, which includes some comical missteps, and we'll talk about where a poem or story went wrong.

I'm a poet as well as a storyteller and I so want them to learn how to make language sing. Ultimately, the class is about them and the focus is on their individual growth as writers.

WN: Were you a reader as a kid… what turned you on to reading/writing books?
MALTMAN: My grandma was a large woman who had a rich, sonorous reading voice. When she held me in her lap to read to me it was like sinking into a warm, plush cushion. She read to me from Tarzan and the Lost Empire, a book illustrated with lovely paintings. I traced these paintings with my fingers while her voice invoked the action. The scenes were of immense trees with twisting vines, pythons and black panthers, and the orphaned boy mesmerized by his own reflection in a dark pond. My grandma's voice was every bit as important as the visuals. She could imitate animal sounds, change pace and pitch as danger threatened Tarzan, and descend into a low whispery cadence when the hero was alone or dreaming. She made the book come alive.

As an adult reader and writer I still marvel at the power of good fiction to transport us to another time and place. There is nothing else like it. No movie or video game can awaken the imagination the way a good book can.

WN: What is the best/most influential book you have ever read and why did it inspire you?
MALTMAN: I love Dostoevsky's The Brother's Karamazov. I used to smuggle this sprawling Russian epic into my jacket when I went deer hunting with my brothers-in-law and read it after the sun came up. Vivid and charged with incident, the novel still takes on the great question of our existence—why are we here?

WN: What's next for you as a writer?
MALTMAN: My next project is a small town mystery. I think many writers are drawn to small towns, which offer the universe in a microcosm. Good and evil exist everywhere, but in a small town those attributes are much more apparent. The novel will still touch on history and the way history is alive and impacts the present.

1 comment:

Kelly (Lynn) Parra said...

I like to write in the quiet too, only I've been known to write in the evening quiet when everyone is asleep and I'm ready to crash. :) :)

Love the interviews, Bethany!