Friday, October 18, 2013

Interview Friday with Award-winning Writing Instructor Scott Driscoll

Scott Driscoll, an award-winning writing instructor at UW, Continuing and Professional Education, took several years to finish Better You Go Home (October 2013, Coffeetown Press), a novel that grew out of the exploration of the Czech side of his family in the 1990s after Eastern Europe was liberated. Driscoll keeps busy freelancing stories to airline magazines.

VS: Scott, I want to thank you for being my guest here on The Writing Mama today. What do you do to help balance your writing life with your family life?

Scott: I have to sheepishly admit, it helps to have a spouse who works full-time with benefits.  I do most of the child shuttling.  That leaves me free to write during the day.  I teach (mostly night classes at the UW) so for years and years I have been gone two nights a week and my wife has had to cover that (and it also means much of my time during the day is consumed with prepping for classes or reading student material). Any way you do it, the key is to have consistent time that is inviolable, that is your writing work time and time that your family is not allowed to disturb. I work out of an office in our basement.  I am not tempted by the laundry.  It helps to like solitude. This undisturbed time is precious. It took me ten years from research and early attempts at chapters to having a contract for my book. Much of that time was devoted to writing other things and of course to teaching and child-rearing, but increasingly as I got into final drafts of my novel I found that I absolutely needed hours each day to make any real progress, and if that meant not returning phone calls or not checking email before leaving to pick up my son, well that’s how it was.  

VS: How long have you been writing?  

Scott: In my mid to late twenties, I wrote a 200-page novel imitating Alain Robbe-Grillet’s method of only observing surfaces and reporting actions.  It was unbearable to read, but showed some promise as an experiment. I shopped it to maybe ten agents.  The polite response: way too experimental for a regular press; try university presses.  I knew nothing about presses.  One agent called me and said, look, I see you have some talent and ambition, but clearly, you have no idea what readers will tolerate.  Write short stories.  Get a few published.  Find out what you can get away with.  Then write a novel. I took that advice to heart. Around 30, I published my first short story in a literary journal.  I’d say I’ve been pretty serious about it since then.

VS: What inspired you to write your book?

Scott: A chance remark overheard at a funeral in Iowa.  “Now that she has died (referring to my aunt), there is no one left who can translate the letters written in Czech.” What letters? My curiosity led me to discover an entire side to my family that no one ever talked about (or to). This led me on an odyssey to the Czech Republic to track down the village and what I discovered about my relative’s bad behavior led me to want to write about the confluence between family and the pressure of 20th Century events and how those issues play out in the progeny of the survivors.

VS: What is a typical writing day like for you?

Scott: Right now, they are not typical because of the work of promoting the novel, such as doing interviews.  Interviews are a good thing.  Writers learn from other writers. But when I am on a project, which will be the case soon, I get busy with it in the morning after taking my son to his school bus.  If at all possible, I put off returning emails and calls until mid to late afternoon.  If I have to do class prep, I do that first thing after lunch, or, if there is no time, I do it at night after my son goes to bed. When I am writing articles, I get busy with the phone calls and research right away and that usually makes it impossible to get any fiction done, aside from editing.

VS: Is your family supportive of your writing?

Scott: Mostly yes. They like that I do it. They like that it draws attention. But they resent it if my teaching or writing obligations detract from family time.  We go through a lot of negotiations.

VS: If this isn’t your first publication, what was the first thing you ever had published?

Scott: Short stories in literary magazines. Eventually, creative nonfiction essays and lots of feature writing for magazines. And now finally a novel, the thing I started with.

VS: Can you share with us a little about your current book?

Scott: I will include the press release.  It details what the current novel, Better You Go Home (my debut novel) is about:

Life often obscures more than it reveals. Writing well is about knowing how a story is built,   and then pouring the raw material of life into it. One must find material he or she cares about and stiffen it with the scaffolding of voice, character and premise―until a story emerges.

Nov. 13th – Third Place Bookstore – 7:00 pm
Nov. 15th – University Bookstore – 7:00 pm

Better You Go Home
A Life-Altering Journey to the Czech Republic Inspired by a True Story

(Seattle, WA.)— A married man’s unexpected departure from Czechoslovakia― with the neighbor woman and her children―is at the heart of a mysterious trail of true events that has inspired University of Washington writing instructor Scott Driscoll to write his first novel, Better You Go Home. “At a family funeral in the early 90s, I learned about a cache of letters written in Czech to my aunt. I had them translated and learned that a male relative had left his wife and three children in a remote farm village in Bohemia prior to World War One.” Driscoll continues, “I learned my relative and the neighbor woman married bigamously in Iowa. The other fact revealed was the presence of a child named Anezka―who seems to have simply disappeared. I suspect she was their illicit child.”

Not long after, Driscoll visited his relative’s village and began to speculate. “What had become of the unidentified child? What if my life had deployed on her side of the Iron Curtain? Once that question lodged in my psyche, like a small wound that wouldn’t heal, I knew I had to write this story.” The work of literary fiction that trip inspired is Better You Go Home. The novel traces the story of Seattle attorney Chico Lenoch, who is diabetic, nearing kidney failure and needs a donor organ.  He travels to the Czech Republic in search of his half-sister who may be able to help save his life. What Chico does not count on is unearthing long-buried family secrets.

It begins when he searches through his father’s attic after the Velvet Revolution and discovers letters dated four decades earlier revealing the existence of a half-sister. That sets him on a quest to see if he can find her. Once in the Czech Republic, Chico meets Milada, a beautiful doctor who helps him navigate the obstacles. While Chico idealizes his father’s homeland, Milada feels trapped. Is she really attracted to him, or is he a means of escape to the United States? Chico confronts a moral dilemma as well. If he approaches his sister about his need for a kidney, does he become complicit with his father and the power brokers of that generation who’ve already robbed her of so much?

Better You Go Home is about a son seeking his father’s secrets, but in a larger sense, it’s about the progeny of exiles. Says Driscoll, “Much has been written about the survivors of WWII and its aftermath; I want to draw attention to the lives of their children.”

VS: What did you find to be the most challenging part of writing your book?

Scott: Getting over the research and then telling a story that departed from my own family’s experience. Also, in the early going, I wanted to include everything, to digress, to write about my protagonists’ journey to discover his lost sister and uncover family secrets and meanwhile to have my say about the pressure cooker of Eastern bloc history.  While writing the book, I also found myself fascinated with the question of torture. How do people endure it?  How does it change them?  What brand of social justice might one expect? What is the appropriate response from the progeny of those who suffered exile and torture?  At some point, I had to scale it back, find the main story, and hone in.  That required making some very tough decisions and throwing out a lot of material. 

VS: What part of your book do you feel really stands out to you personally?

Scott: My wife would disagree on this.  But here was my dilemma.  I had fashioned a protagonist whose journey led him to uncover family members warped by harsh experience while he was sailing through unscathed.  He had to be scathed. One of the hardest chapters I had to write dramatized his mistreatment (I won’t go into details) at the prison. This was a tipping point for me.  This forced me to stop protecting my character. I am not saying it’s my best chapter.  I only mean I learned something by having written it.

VS: This is a work of fiction and many writers tend to put friends, family and even themselves into characters. What character is most like you?

Scott: The narrator, though only to a point.  A friend from the past who hasn’t seen me in over thirty years read an early review copy (she writes reviews) and wrote back alarmed, certain that I was suffering end-stage kidney disease and diabetes. (Partly based on the photo in the book.  I sent that photo because I thought it captured a “tortured” look.)  This is not the case. My health is outstanding. In the photo, I was trying on a look of being heavily consternated if not actually besieged.

VS: Do you have any other works in progress? Can you share a little about them?

Scott: A Baltic story is next.  Latvia.  Song Festival.  An American born Latvian composer goes back to his homeland to pursue success that eludes him in America but he finds that he must work with an entrenched apparatchik from the former regime implicated in deportations and torture that affected his family and he has a brother in Riga who has inherited the remnants of the Popular Front, now with no mission left but to seek redress from those former Soviet toadies. It all boils down to a conversation in a rowboat on a river.

VS: What tips can you give writing parents with children at home to help them see publication?

Scott: Good question. Take advantage of the time when your children are at daycare or school to write. There are no end of distractions with setting up after-school activities, planning vacations, going to PTA meetings, carpooling, appointments, etc. These distractions will take over your life.  You have to push back.  You have to set aside time you devote only to writing, even if you don’t’ get any writing done on a given day.  You sit with your laptop or at your desk, or wherever you have to be, and you daydream or noodle on a notepad. This is your time. Everything else is scheduled around it, short of emergencies. Don’t let your spouse guilt-trip you into sacrificing this time.  It is as important to you as breathing.  Make that clear. If you have little ones at home and no daycare, it’s harder.  Set up a laptop and do what you can while the kids are busy or napping.  Devote a certain amount of time in the evening to your writing while your spouse does the kid duty. Have a notepad nearby to jot down ideas.

VS: What is required for a character to be believable? How do you create yours?  

Scott: To be believable, a character has to seem consistent with “kinds” of people you have known, though exaggerated. Details matter. So do gestures. To be interesting and believable, a character should be fraught with internal conflict and should have an evident conscious desire that is causing the character to quest toward a goal. This character should represent one indelible “value” and should be capable of surprising the reader while at the same time feeling inevitable. It’s a tall order. James Wood would claim that all that is needed is a very particular gesture or impression, the “whiff of palpability” that in a moment captures the “thisness” of a particular character without requiring an elaborate dossier. Frankly, most readers need more. We want our character’s history, some anyway, and we want to root around in our character’s free indirect discourse (that internal voice that reacts to stimuli from the surface situation). We lose interest in inert or passive characters.  We do not believe in characters whose looks and gestures are too clich├ęd.

VS: What do you feel as parents we need to do to help our children see success?

Scott: First, talk to them.  Talk “to” them, not “at” them. Talk a lot.  Talk talk talk.  Who cares if they don’t understand you.  They are listening even if you think they are not. Challenge them verbally. Your children first learn language from you.  Then of course read to them.  Have books around.  Let them see you reading books. Talk about what you are reading.  Let them know that what you are reading is part of your life, it’s not just something you do for distraction. Do NOT let them see you endlessly distracted by your electronic devices. Think of the message that is sending your kids.

VS: Have you received any awards for your writing?

Scott: I won the Milliman Award for Fiction when I was in the MFA program at the University of Washington. I have since won eight Society of Professional Journalist awards for my nonfiction writing. There have been a couple other minor awards along the way. Advice to writers trying to break in: enter contests. If you don’t win the award, often it will lead to publication or other opportunities, and the acceptance rates for contests are often higher than at most literary journals. Writing conferences often sponsor contests.  Enter them.  It is a good way to win an award and get attention from an agent.

VS: Where can the readers of The Writing Mama find out more about and your writing?

You can find out more about me, my book and World of Ink Author/Book Tour at

VS: Is there anything else you would like to share with us about being a “Writing Mama or Dad”?

Scott: Don’t be afraid to use your own kids for material. Some of my best stories early on involved my daughter.  Once she was old enough to figure this out, she was a little resentful, but now she understands. My son was flattered that I used his expression “baguette” ponytail to describe one of my minor characters.  Now he wants to collaborate with me on a book. In other words, include your kids as much as you can.  Make this part of your life. Make them part of your life. There isn’t any better material for life.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent information here. Thanks for the great interview!