I’d like to welcome Clark Zlotchew today to discuss his book Once Upon A Decade: Tales of the Fifties. This book is a short-story collection and was a FINALIST for NEXT GENERATION INDIE BOOK AWARDS, 2011.
Welcome Mr. Zlotchew Please tell us a little bit about the book you wrote.
The narratives in this collection paint a picture of the 1950s. A man with a tortured psyche keeps a pink teddy bear on his food tray as he watches the Olympics on TV. A waitress in New Jersey puts a curse on a sailor; his behavior becomes increasingly irrational. Two shipmates –one white, one black– learn firsthand about segregation in 1950s Savannah. A sailor who wants no more complications in his life falls in love with a young prostitute in Havana on the eve of the Castro Revolution. A timid adolescent boy suffers the pangs of unrequited love. A young high school teacher attempts to withstand a female student’s powers of seduction. An academic meets Jorge Luis Borges and uncovers the mystery of an American writer with three different names. A high official in a banana republic uses a military man to help overthrow the President, but his plan takes an unexpected turn. These are the premises of just some of the 17 stories in this collection. Almost all of the narratives take place against the background of the 1950s, a very different culture from that of the present.
The narratives in this collection paint a picture of the 1950s. Many of the elements of this culture will repel: racism, sexism and homophobia, for example. Yet this was an era in which neither the threat of terrorism nor the scourge of AIDS existed for the average American. These stories deal with love and death, triumphs and defeats, adolescent angst and the tension between ethnicity and assimilation. Some present adventure on the high seas as well as a glimpse of Havana night life on the eve of the Castro Revolution.
How did you begin your writing career?
First of all, I love reading from childhood. I’ve been writing off and on from the time I was in my mid-twenties. I’ve had 17 books published, including fiction and non-fiction. For this interview I’d like to focus on my fiction.
My fiction writing stems from my life experiences as well as from my imagination, which people tell me is very vivid. When I say “life experiences,” I don’t mean they’re true stories; after all, they’re fiction. But every writer has some kernel of his/her life in his/her fiction. Sometimes it’s the slightest shred of experience (a feeling, an emotion, an event) and sometimes it’s a large part of the story.
Who is your book published through?
It was originally published in 2010 by the small press, Comfort Publishing. At the end of this year (2013) I now hold all the rights of publication. I’m thinking of republishing it as a physical book and as an e-book.
Where can we find your book?
It can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and all the on-line book sellers sites, as well as in libraries, both public and university, and the book shelves of people who enjoy reading fiction for pleasure. Oh, yes, and of course on the night tables of European royalty and heads of state.
Do characters invade your head the moment you stumble on a new writing idea? If so, how long did you fear that you’d gone insane before realizing this is the norm for writers?
Actually, I wondered if I had gone sane. Writing, after all, is a form of psychotherapy, I’d say. You let out your demons when you write fiction. So, I wondered if I’d gone sane. In addition, you become the creator of a new world and people them with memorable characters. (Or, perhaps they create you.) What usually happens is, a character slips into my mind, and I start to write about him or her. After setting down the character and his surroundings, he or she begins to tell me his/her story. The character tells me what he’s done and what he’s going to do. At least, that’s the way it feels. Sometimes they surprise me by their actions and thoughts.
What is your day job?
I’m a professor of Spanish. I teach the language but more primarily the literature of Spain and Latin America, as well as creative writing in Spanish.
Did you conduct any kind of research in order to write this book (visit certain locales, etc.)?
Not really, not for this book. My experiences in just living life automatically, unconsciously, provided the background for my stories. These experiences took place in different eras and in different places, from New Jersey to Havana, from Buenos Aires to Savannah. (Well, what d’ya know: it rhymes!) I’ve traveled to many parts of the world, with the Navy in my younger days, and on my own later in life. My experience on Shore Patrol in a Havana bar/brothel on the eve of the Castro Revolution was a fascinating experience (and allowed me to practice my Spanish). My experience with the Navy in Savannah in 1956 forcefully brought home to the reality of racial segregation in the Deep South in the 1950s. My interviewing Jorge Luis Borges and seven other writers in Buenos Aires taught me a great deal about life in the Argentine capital as well as the way these authors wrote. All these experiences might be termed “research,” except the experience came as a bonus. It could be termed “accidental research,” but that’s really stretching it. Short answer, no, no research as such was performed.
Tell me about the publishing process. Was it easier or more difficult than you thought it would be?
Trying to publishing fiction, especially short stories, is frustrating torture. I have the impression that there are more people writing than reading. But even harder than finding a publisher or an agent is having the public find out about your book. Non-fiction books that provide the reader with practical advice or instruction are much more likely to find a publisher than fiction, especially short stories. (I have had my books on Spanish instruction published with big name publishers.) But if you want to become an instant best-seller, first make sure you’re a celebrity. Whether you’re a Hollywood star, a well-known politician, a well-known T.V. personality or an athlete, or even a convicted murderer, your book –whatever the subject matter, but especially autobiography—will ensure you’ll be an instant best seller. Lacking celebrity status, I’m beginning to think you have to know, on a personal basis, a widely-read and respected book reviewer who writes for a prestigious newspaper or magazine for more than a handful of people to notice your book.
How did you come up with the title for your latest book?
I began to realize that my stories were dated, and that certain actions, reactions and thoughts would seem strange to readers in the 21st Century. After all, in the 1950s a man could expect nothing more than a good night kiss (theoretically) only after the momentous Third Date. In the 21st Century, if I’m to believe what I see in movies and on T.V., the Third Date is now set aside for sexual relations. Another great difference: Today, again judging from TV and film, a woman feels greatly honored if a man invites her to move in with him. In the 1950s a woman would be deeply offended by such an offer without benefit of marriage. At first I thought it would be impossible to publish those stories because the behavior wouldn’t be understood by the young reader. Then I decided to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat; I would use that drawback as the central feature that would unite all the stories by calling the collection, Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties.
Readers love following their favorite authors, which social networking sites can fans find you? Please provide links. http://www.clarkzlotchew.com
Author in the 50s.