The Language of Writing: An Interview with Kevin Waltman
The office hours start early for Kevin Waltman. He leaves Coker, Alabama at the crack of dawn and arrives on campus in time to enjoy a silent office on the second floor of Morgan Hall. He prepares for his classes and even writes a few more pages in his novel Slump, the second in his Young Adult series. His commute to campus may seem long, but his journey away from his native Indiana was longer and ultimately triggered teaching and writing career. Here at UA, Waltman has had the opportunity to teach a plethora of classes including Creative Writing, English Composition, and American literature. After work, he goes home to enjoy time with his wife, Jessica and daughter, Calla, and their dog, Henry. Kevin Waltman has much to tell of his transition to the South and his work as a writer.
What did you learn within the MFA program that impacted your writing the most?
Within the program, there are not many specific lessons per se. The value lies in being around other writers and having time to write and share your work with those other writers who are also exceptional readers. It is really about honing your craft and the guidance you receive from faculty. The guidance I always received was gentle and allowed me to be aware of what I was doing and why I was making those choices. It is much more intimidating to sit face-to-face with someone reading or listening to your short story than having your piece published. It definitely prepares you for feedback and constructive criticism.
When did you decide you wanted to become an English Instructor?
I do not know if there was a particular moment, but the MFA program does allow you to teach. I think many people in the MFA program see teaching as this task that they must fulfill in order to write. That’s not how I looked at it. When I entered the classroom, it was extremely rewarding in quite a different way than writing—and I found that I enjoyed it. As an MFA, I had the opportunity to teach a bit of First Year Writing, Creative Writing, and some literature as well. Those experiences gave me the working knowledge to become an Instructor here. After surviving your first year of teaching, where every day is a huge question mark, you are able to discover you actually appreciate teaching. Once the doubt goes away, you realize it can be fun.
What is the most rewarding part about being an Instructor here at UA?
I like the class dynamic and those moments of recognition I see in students. Those moments of revelation reveal a connection to others. Such moments might involve seeing meaning in a short story that a student did not like, or finding ways to think about their own writing, or ways to work with a difficult academic text—those moments are so rewarding to me.
When you started teaching, did you recognize any of your previous teachers’ influence in your own teaching?
Oh sure, specifically in terms of First Year Writing. When I came in, there was a crash course on how to build a syllabus and how to manage class time. Creative Writing teachers steal from each other, and we encourage that pedagogical theft. We have all come to an understanding that it is okay to steal, because the material ultimately goes to the students who will take it in a totally different direction than before.
As a reader, what authors do you look to as models for your own writing?
I have never been an intensely focused reader; I always jump around and have stacks of books that I have been meaning to read. There is one exception, which goes way back to my undergraduate days. I took a class called The Legacy of Chekhov, which examined how writers like Raymond Carver updated and Americanized Chekhov’s approach to writing. As a 19 year old, reading Carver’s work, I thought, “This is what I want to do; this is how I want to sound.” I do not write that way at all anymore, or at least I do not think I do, but as a writer, you have to have that moment of revelation, and then to grow past it. When I got to grad school, I had the constant awareness of there being a million ways to write a short story. I quickly found out that Raymond Carver does not own the American short story. Now, inspiration can come from anywhere. It can come from non-fiction or fiction, or through magazines such as The Atlantic, or anything else that is engaging and makes me think about the world in a critical way.
What are some of the difficulties you face during the publishing process?
Mainly, it is the constant rejection. Seriously, it gets to the point where a personalized rejection letter is a positive, because it means someone actually read my piece. I have several manuscripts that never made it and the answer is always, “It’s not for us.” So, the difficulty of publishing is dealing with rejection. On the other hand, some of my pieces have ended up on an editor’s desk without going through blind submission or agents. But I attribute that to good fortune.
How often do you write?
Six days a week, and of course there are some exceptions. I actually end up writing less in the summer, because it is my time to recharge. But fall semester, since I have a Young Adult series going, I write a lot more to meet my December 31st deadline. So on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when I am in my office here in Morgan, I write at least two pages. When I am at home with my daughter, I often write one page while she is napping. Saturday, I do not write at all—those are my days to recover. On Sundays, I get up early to write.
What does your writing process look like?
When I finish writing, I am either in the office at home or my office in Morgan. When I am on campus, sometimes I will start thinking about what I need to prepare for class, or when I am at home, my daughter Calla will wake and I will need to spend time with her. So, I do not necessarily have an untouchable zone. But, when I have been writing for 45 minutes, I get on a roll. So when the time is approaching for me to stop writing, instead of stopping cold, I list three bullet points of what I want to work on when I open the document again. The blank page will never cease to be a problem. At the end of my allotted writing time for that day, if I leave a character’s name and a verb, I will at least have something I can run with when I return to writing the next day.
What does your revising process look like?
The only piece I am working on these days is my Young Adult series, and it entails some heavy revision work. I have previously mentioned my December 31st deadline, but realistically, it will get back to the press around January 15th. I will end up writing feverishly until Thanksgiving break, leaving myself about 20 more pages to fill until the end of the novel. Then, I will redline what I have so far, and after that, I can get to those last 20 pages. The press I am working with understands that when I submit my piece, it will not be perfectly polished. But I also understand that they might not just be fixing typos—they might make some significant revisions, and this process leads to more re-writing for me. I do not write much new stuff in the spring semester because of all the re-writing. At the end of this whole process, there is the final manuscript, which will not go public until next October.
What inspires you to write Young Adult fiction?
I started writing Young Adult fiction after meeting David Levithan, a renowned YA author, and now the editor of the PUSH imprint. I met him at a wedding and sent him a short story, and it actually turned into my first YA book. I never had a plan to write YA; I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Several months later, one of my manuscripts landed at Cinco Puntos Press, and they loved my idea and picked it up. I was always fortunate in these types of situations. So really, writing YA was more of a job for me. Someone wanted a book written that I knew I could write.
Does it get easier to continue producing fiction?
It gets easier to write those two pages in my weekly routine, but other than that, every story or book is fraught with its own problems. You also cannot diagnose those problems until you are almost done with the first draft. With each of my books in the YA series, I have had a really clear idea of what would happen and have mapped out the plot trajectory in advance, but each book has always ended up somewhere I did not perceive. Every book in the series has its own challenge because I constantly have to reinvent the wheel with my reoccurring characters.
What tips would you impart to aspiring short fiction writers or novelists?
The most basic one: write and read and read and write—especially reading, even reading things you do not like. But do not just read the short stories in big magazines or the most popular books; you should also look at what your peers or other people are doing in smaller literary magazines or books written through lesser known publishers. For example, Junot Diaz is the most recent writer in the Norton Anthology, but he did not arrive their magically. It was an incredibly arduous process. Reading great works in anthologies risks making you blind to the steps in between, so also take a look at writers who are not famous. Examine current trends and constantly attack that blank page. Sometimes, you may even succeed in producing a great piece with a story that began as a failure. I wrote a short story in grad school that was not well received at the time, but I returned to it later, and it got published. But the only part that stayed the same was the title. Sometimes you have to come back to previous pieces and learn from your mistakes and tackle your work from a new perspective. Time allows you to gain a better notion of how to execute your original idea.
What are you passionate about?
The series I am working on now is focused around high school basketball in Indiana, which stems from growing up with a dad who coached basketball and being immersed in that world. Sports and sports fiction come pretty easily to me. That said, I am not as interested in it now; I do not even watch basketball like I did when I was younger. The whole “write what you know” mantra does make sense, but it is really about writing the language you know. I could not watch another basketball game for ten years, but I still know its language. Sure, some slang evolves and changes, but it would be easy to adapt to and understand. That is the greatest benefit of writing what you know. The fact that I know how a flex offense works does not actually help me write fiction, but using the term “flex offense” with authority definitely helps my ethos as a writer. But, you can also be intrigued enough that you dive into a new subject. You get to learn about your subject, and what you are really mining is the language of it. So once you have steeped yourself in a particular subject, you can walk away knowing its language.
Has it gotten more difficult to write after having a child?
The obvious answer is yes, because there is so much more to do. But, on some other level, no, because that process of prioritization becomes so much clearer when you have a child. Now your child is at the top of the list. All the things I do now are loaded with much more meaning than before. In terms of time management, of course it is more difficult to write and balance work. But in terms of deciding what is meaningful, in some ways having a child crystallizes what is most important. When I had bad days with my daughter, I realized it was because I felt pressure from work, pressure to respond to emails, and the burden of grading papers. So, I would be typing with one hand and patting my daughter on the back with the other. Finally, I realized that I could not do this half-hearted multi-tasking anymore; I just need to be with Calla. When she naps, then I can work, or when my wife comes home, I can let her spend time with Calla while I work on other pressing issues. So when both my wife and I have the opportunity to spend time with Calla, we are mommy and daddy in that moment.
Do you feel that Young Adult novels should be taught in colleges?
Yes. The Creative Writing course I am teaching next semester is realism in young adult fiction, so that genre is beginning to appear in the curriculum. Sure, there is also this underlying belief and acceptance that academia has moved beyond genre, but on the other hand, we still try to validate science fiction or young adult fiction as worthy for the academic world. There will always be a little resistance sometimes, but I think any genre can be worth studying if it’s handled well in the classroom. Literature and genres, with which students are already familiar, can be exceptionally valuable. But at the same time, some of the newer genres would proabbaly work best as special topics courses. I certainly don’t advocate replacing the Norton Anthology used in regular literature courses with popular genres like Sci-Fi, Fantasy, or YA literature.