An Interview with Gerald R. Stanek

AUTHOR INTERVIEW QUESTIONS

AARON C. YEAGLE: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

GERALD R. STANEK: I never set out to be a writer. I began writing out of boredom, and, in a way, because it was hard to find the kind of books I wanted to read—so I started writing them myself.

AARON: How long does it take you to write a book?

GERALD: That varies. Skirting the Gorge and The Road to Shambhala  each took less than a year. A children’s book can be finished in a few hours. But The Eighth House took almost 10 years, and I spent 4 years on my latest novel, Rosa Mundi.

AARON: What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

GERALD: When I began writing 40 years ago, early morning was always the best time. If the work started well, I could write for several hours. As I’ve gotten older, I tend to put off writing til the afternoon, and usually only work for 3 or 4 hours at the most.

AARON: What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

GERALD: I tend to write with my feet up on my desk and a laptop in my lap. It’s not good for my back, but seems to be good for my writing. When I sit up straight I can’t focus.

AARON: How do books get published?

GERALD: Rosa Mundi is being published by VIZIA, a great new imprint for visionary fiction. My previous works have been self-published. I started writing before self-publishing was so easy, and in the ‘starving artist’ mode, I actually bound some of my early books myself, just for the satisfaction of seeing them in print, and being able to hand someone a ‘real’ book. This was before everyone read on their devices.

AARON: Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

GERALD: Ideas and information are everywhere; the real problem is choosing. If you’re blocked, meditation helps a great deal. Once you open yourself up in a calm space, inspiration will come. It’s in the wind. It’s in the silence. I have often devised entire plots while taking a good long walk. My children’s book The Day the World Fell Away was based on a dream I had. Rosa Mundi was built on decades of interest in the interpretations of transcendental experiences by different spiritual traditions, as well as just wondering, you know…what comes next.

AARON: When did you write your first book and how old were you?

GERALD: I wrote my first book many years ago at the age of 18. It was about the space between lives, and seeing lifetimes as learning experiences, which was a bit much for an 18-year-old to tackle. It will remain unpublished.

AARON: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

GERALD: I play a number of musical instruments—not in a band or anything, just for my own personal enjoyment. I read. It’s important for writers to read good writing.

AARON: What does your family think of your writing?

GERALD: My family has always been supportive, but not necessarily enthusiastic. All art forms can be difficult for personal relationships. Don’t seek approval of your work from family, they know you too well. Get an outsider’s opinion.

AARON: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

GERALD: You learn so much by writing, it can’t be overstated. Each book leads you down another path, into another room of the library, so to speak. I guess the most surprising thing is that in the end, you realize you’re writing for yourself—you have the audience in mind, you hold that out as your motivating factor, but no one learns as much from a book as the author. Writing is a way to teach yourself what you need to learn in that moment, at that point in your life.

AARON: How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?

GERALD: I think I’m up to a dozen or so. Books are like children: you mustn’t admit to loving one more than another, they might overhear you. I suppose the most recent is always the favorite, so Rosa Mundi.

AARON: Do you have any suggestions to help me become a better writer? If so, what are they?

GERALD: Read good writing, and lots of it. Even if you only intend to write in one specific genre, read great literature, as much as you can. Observe people, listen to them; learn how real people react, how they talk and what really motivates them. Compelling characters don’t all have to be murderers and mad geniuses. At the same time, don’t be afraid to invent characters that are nothing like the people in your life. Don’t give in to the pressure to always ramp up the antagonism and conflict in a story. This common advice has been driven into the creative writing curriculum by those who seek only to profit from lowest common denominator sensationalism. Real life has enough of that. Be careful what you create. Every story does not have to be filled with angst to be interesting. Remember, you’re filling your own life and mind with what you create first, before it ever gets out there in the world. Is it beneficial?

AARON: Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

GERALD: I have not heard from a lot of readers.

AARON: What do you think makes a good story?

GERALD: I think realistic characters are far more important than a tight, tense plot. If I can’t believe the people are real, what do I care if they’re involved in a global coup in the end? I also prefer different points of view throughout the book, seeing the story from different perspectives. And we all need happy endings right now.

AARON: What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

GERALD: I don’t know that I’d call them pilgrimages, but I have visited Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi— William Faulkner’s home, and the Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, California. I think reading a great book is a pilgrimage in itself.

AARON: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

GERALD: Just reading. Books always had a powerful effect on me. As a child, how can you not feel the power of “everlasting gobstopper”?

AARON: What period of your life do you find you write about most often? (child, teenager, young adult)

GERALD: I most often write about middle age, so… old adult, I guess. It lasts a heck of a long time and keeps giving me more material.

AARON: If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?

GERALD: Take some writing courses, but not too many. Join a writer’s group.

ABOUT BEING AN AUTHOR:

AARON: Does writing energize or exhaust you?

GERALD: Energizing at the start of a project but exhausting before it’s finished. Ideas come easily but determining which are best requires more work.

AARON: What are common traps for aspiring writers?

GERALD: Starting a novel without knowing the ending. Focusing on plot and action to the exclusion of character development. Focusing too much on the aphorism ‘write what you know’. Don’t be afraid to step out of your own story.

AARON: Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

GERALD: I think it probably helps. To quote Steinbeck, “The writer must believe what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.” But chances are if you have a big ego when you start writing, you won’t by the time you’re finished.

AARON: Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

GERALD: Of course, as long as they can tell when other people are feeling emotions. In the long run, observing is more important than personal experience. If you can imagine what it feels like, and describe it, you don’t have to live through that yourself, although if you write it well, you’ll be experiencing it to a certain extent while you write.

AARON: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

GERALD: Develop a thick skin and get more people to read your work. Learn from the reactions of readers, don’t take it personally. No one will ever spend as much time with a book as the author; you can’t expect readers to know it as you do.

AARON: How do you select the names of your characters?

GERALD: Sometimes on a whim, sometimes painstakingly. I usually take into consideration the ethnic, cultural, and social background of the character, then spend an inordinate amount of time checking the meanings of the names that come to mind, as if any of the readers will ever know. But I think it helps me connect to the character, and what they’re there to represent.

AARON: Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

GERALD: I view it as the result of a spiritual practice. Whether you pray, meditate, or simply take a walk in the woods, the process is one of clearing, receiving, then distributing what has been received. The Spirit comes in, and as we write we are doing our best to disseminate it. But first you have to make space for the Spirit to enter. That’s the spiritual practice.

AARON: Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

GERALD: Each book stands on its own. The connection between the books is their common themes: expansion of consciousness, transcending the material world, shifting identity from the ego to the soul.

AARON: What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?

GERALD: Just feeling authorized to do so. If I, as a man, write a female character that strikes a given reader as more macho or more girlish; more or less empowered than the women that particular reader knows, does that make the character invalid? The truth is people of any gender are not black and white, and if you write a character that seems ‘feminine’ when he should be ‘masculine’ or vise versa, that reflects the readers prejudices more than the writer’s. The key is to allow your characters to have the depth of real people. People are so much more than their gender, their religion, their skin tone.

AARON: How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

GERALD: There’s several unillustrated children’s books floating around old flash drives, two unfinished novels (but only about 40 pages each) in my desk drawer, and the only copy of one completed book in a landfill in Tucson.

AARON: Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

GERALD: Not intentionally, but I am aware when I toss certain things into the mix that maybe no one will ever pick up on them. That doesn’t bother me, though, because it’s going to seep into the subconscious regardless.

AARON: What was your hardest scene to write?

GERALD: I frequently write scenes that take place in the astral or etheric worlds. These are always difficult because there’s so little to stand on. But without question the hardest scene for me to write was a love scene in Skirting the Gorge. I was taking a novel mentorship course at the time. I did it very briefly, a few hints, exit stage right. My mentor insisted I rewrite it, less tentatively. I struggled with it, was just about ready to quit the course. Finally, I thought I had conquered it. When I submitted it for her review, she said “No, you were right, I like it better the way you had it before.” Trust your gut. If it feels awkward to write it, maybe it doesn’t need to be written that way.

AARON: Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

GERALD: Not lately, but many of my favorite books have turned my head inside out: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor, Joyce’s Ulysses.

ABOUT THE BUSINESS OF WRITING:

AARON: Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

GERALD: Yes, and I very much regret not having done so to begin with. I don’t think my name lends itself to ‘branding’.

AARON: Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

GERALD: I think most authors end up writing the books they themselves would want to read. I have no idea what other readers want. I can only go by what I like to read myself. I almost exclusively read fiction, but I still expect to learn something from every book I pick up. If there’s nothing original in it, what’s the point?

AARON: What does literary success look like to you?

GERALD: If you can reach one reader, help one person to a new perspective or one aha moment, you’ve done your job.

AARON: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

GERALD: I’m researching all the time, for books I haven’t even thought of writing yet. When I’m interested enough in the connections I’m making between new ideas coming my way, it will gel into a story idea. Then for specifics, I research as I go, sometimes spending ¾ of my day researching for one paragraph.

AARON: What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?

GERALD: I believe I’ve already given my sanity, so…maybe my vanity?

AARON: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

GERALD: Balancing the different facets of writing itself: invention, organization, editing. To me these are completely different skills and difficult to do well simultaneously. If you consider the ramifications while inventing the story, it stops the flow. If you open to the flow and hammer out 40 pages, the editing will be that much more involved. Not many have the stomach to toss out entire scenes or chapters after they’ve been born.

AARON: How long on average does it take you to write a book?

GERALD: It varies widely. A children’s book can take an hour or two, a short story a day. I completed The Road to Shambhala in 9 months, but it took 9 years for The Eighth House. And any book can be revised for as long as you can stand to.