Patricia Nell Warren
interview by Douglas Eby
Writer Patricia Nell Warren has published four books of poetry, written many articles and essays, plus six novels including "The Front Runner" (which made The New York Times' best-seller list in 1974) and its sequel, "Harlan's Race." She is also an advisor for a new online youth publication, The YouthArts Project.
One topic that concerns her is the widespread drug treatment of teens and children. "I got into this a little bit in 'Billy's Boy'" she notes. "He's a hyperactive, really energetic kid and the school wants to put him on Ritalin and his mother resists the idea, and has a big fight with the school. I'm not the only one saying this, but we have become such a drug culture.
"There are so many advertisements for drugs on television, all different kinds. How on earth do we expect young people to be raised in a drugged state all their life, and then when they encounter other drugs in high school, to all of a sudden magically know the difference between legal and illegal drugs?
"I find this whole trend to be really quite frightening, and people are becoming more and more drug dependent. Generally, from things that I've been learning and feeling from young people, I find this whole drug thing to be omnipresent. I think it's very interesting that now that we're at the anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School, and one of the news networks said the bottom line that has come out of the last year of thinking, is that we can't blame guns, but that the root is youth rage."
Asked if she gets inspired to develop a story based on her concerns for large social issues like teen violence, or out of an interest in a particular character, Warren says she "can't separate the two. I think a really good story sends a message of some kind. And, to my way of thinking, you can't send the message effectively without the story.
"There's something about a story that engages people and gets them wanting to open the door into the world you're opening the door into with your book, or article or film or whatever it is. And if the story is powerful and well-told, the message will be heard."
She says there is always an element of story in her work, "whether it's fiction or nonfiction. Often, you will find some narrative structure in an essay of mine, or some anecdote that leads off and kind of embodies what I'm writing about. Even in my poems, there was always a narrative element. A novel is a longer, more complex story, but it's still a story. And I grew up in a family that was very fond of story telling.
"Without intellectualizing it overly, I think the point was made to me as a kid that stories are a very powerful way of transmitting messages and information over generations. Whether they are what some people would call 'folk tales,' which are really encapsulated history, or whether they're family history. Family history was very valuable in my family, and there are lots of stories I know about my great grandparents, for example, that came down to me. I never knew my great grandfather because he was dead by the time I was born, but I heard stories about him that I really cherish.
"So over and over the point has come in to me that stories are really, really important. I wrote my first story when I was ten years old. My parents encouraged me, and I wrote stuff all the way through high school. I won a fiction competition when I was in college, sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly, and thought I had the world by the tail when I'd done that. Very exciting, at the age of seventeen, and I was paid money, so this was very professional and very exciting."
Warren has also worked as a Reader's Digest editor, and notes she was "always writing short fiction and poetry and novels" on the side. Editing is about the craft, whether it's helping other people tell their story, or whether it's editing your own work, which I learned how to do because I worked with so many other people. At the Reader's Digest I would be handed, for example, a novel and I would be told, 'We can give this one a hundred and fifty pages in the Condensed Book Club, and I would have to bring it down from maybe four hundred, without majorly damaging it.
"And it's amazing what you can take out. Some people write with a lot of 'fat and gristle' and when you take it, it really isn't much different. It's kind of like making somebody go on a diet to lose seventy five pounds. When you get done, you have the same person, only they're lighter.
"Some books are like that. I remember being asked to cut William Manchester's 'American Caesar' which was a humongous biography about Douglas MacArthur that we were interested in doing. What the author had done was to enrich the story with so many anecdotes, and give you six or eight to make a point.
"All we had to do was pick a couple. By taking two anecdotes instead of six, I brought that book down by almost fifty percent, the first time around. And yet, I preserved all of his structure, all of his intent, everything he would have wanted to be there. There were very few authors that were unhappy with what we did, because there wasn't a set formula; you looked at the book, you looked at the length you wanted to do, and then it was your job to figure out how to tell that story in way fewer pages, what you could take out and still make it work.
"It was quite a challenge, and sometimes it took two or three different editors: we had someone who did the first cut, then someone who did the second cut, then final edit, then someone who went in who was called the 'fresh eye' who hadn't read it before. They might find thread ends, or things that didn't make sense, that they could see because they were fresh to the material."
A website is a great place to showcase a writer's material, she finds. Her own site sells her books internationally. "I have my editorial archives, information about my company, and we're going to develop a more complete way of being able to give people press kit type materials, instead of mailing," she adds. The site also includes an invitation for people to contact her be email, and Warren excaims, "Believe me, they do. We get a lot of really interesting letters."
She finds that letters sometimes even contribute, directly or indirectly, to story ideas. "I got a fan email from a gay veterinarian in Scotland, and as it happens I was finishing a novel that had a character of a veterinarian in it,"she recalls. "So I asked if he'd be interested in reading the manuscript for accuracy, and he was very happy to do that.
"Some comments that he made, things about his own life and experience, were so interesting that I actually wove a few of them back into the book, fictitiously of course. And he was quite tickled. So real life and fiction do interface, all the time. This is true for many people, not just myself."
Many people call her a 'gay writer' but she says, "I really like to think of myself as a writer on a lot of different things. A book is a very organic process, and comes out of a particular time in your life. Sometimes it's a relatively short time, and sometimes it's many years. The book that the gay veterinarian is in has actually been happening in my life off and on ever since the late sixties. If I had been out enough and honest enough and confident enough to tell this story then, it would already have been published.
"But I was really not in a place to write it and make it work at that time. So I put it away. And, lo and behold, it woke up again. Now and then I would think about the book and the characters and what had prompted the whole thing.
"It came out of many of the religious questionings in my life; the time I spent in Spain; Catholicism; the whole idea of state religion (because at the time I lived in Spain, there was a Fascist government there), and the conflict between the individual's desires for sexual freedom and spiritual freedom, versus the demands of the Fascist state, and that included Catholicism being the state religion. So, these have been issues with me for a long time.
"But there was the crux of the particular time and place that a certain story, certain characters began to come together, but then they needed me to be more mature, as a human being and an artist, to tell the story."
She talks about one of the most common issues for artists: "What many people translate as 'writer's block' I really think is your being telling you, 'There is a problem here.' Sometimes the obstacle is not a very simple thing, but whenever I run up against something like that, I know there's a problem I need to work out.
"It's not working for me, it's not happening, maybe it's just a little thing: something that will make a scene work; something that will carry a story thread through part of the book where it suddenly got lost. It's really important to carry those threads through. And so I sometimes will put a book aside for a few days, or I will go work on another chapter where I feel full of inspiration.
"I don't have any rules about starting with chapter one, and you plod steadily forward until you finish it. It just doesn't work that way. I hop and skip around. And maybe a couple of weeks later, my imagination will suddenly say, 'Oh, that's what I have to do. Oh, I've solved the problem.'
"There's a part of your mind and imagination that works underground, even without you keeping conscious attention on it. This is a very wonderful thing about the mind, and the imagination, that things go on percolating underground, like roots growing. You don't see the roots growing; you see the tree getting taller.
"In 1994, I had come to sort of an impasse on 'Harlan's Race' and I was very tired, and it had been a hard book to write, and I had just come to a screeching halt with it, and it wasn't happening, and I was sort of deeply disgusted with my inability to hammer it forward. So I've learned to just back off, and suddenly this other book that had been sleeping like Rip Van Winkel in my bottom drawer for twenty five years, woke up and said, 'Yoo hoo.'
"I put 'Harlan's Race' aside, I sat down and rolled out the new version of this book ['The Wild Man'] and it was exciting, it was there. The characters were basically the same people, but they had matured and they knew what they wanted to do and who they wanted to be, and how to drive the story, because they're all part of me. It will be published sometime in the next year, it will be my new novel."
In terms of encouraging creative talent for young people, and people new to creative expression at any age, Warren think "the most important thing to do is constructively criticize your own work, because that helps you know when things are not working. So, for example, when you hit the writer's block thing, some people go into a complete panic and funk, and don't know what to do.
"Well, it's just your being saying, 'Hello. Pay attention.' And to trust that, and to let it be a positive thing. It's really telling you what the problem is and how to resolve it.
"Without the ability to constructively criticize, it's very hard, and you become dependent on other people to do it for you. It's very important for artists to guard and hold as much power over their creative process and their creative world as they can."
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site of Patricia Nell Warren: Wildcat Press
new novel by Patricia Nell Warren: The Wild Man
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related Talent Development Resources pages:
more interviews | resumé of Douglas Eby
Creativity and Women..columns / interviews
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