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Sunday, May 1, 2011

#15 Bob Thurber

20 Questions With Mourning Goats
Bob Thurber

Another Mourning Goats interviewee introduced me to Bob Thurber, and I want to thank you, Vincent Louis Carrella, because Mr. Thurber was not only a fantastic interview, but a fantastic writer. Please go pick up his new book, Paperboy, and find his stories online.

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"

A dead shepherd being nuzzled by cold noses.

2.Your first novel ‘Paperboy: A Dysfunctional Novel’ is being published today (May 1st). What can you tell us about it? And why does it say that it's a "dysfunctional novel?"

It’s an odd book. Engaging. And a page turner, I’m told. But definitely odd. In one sense it’s simply a coming-of-age novel narrated from the viewpoint of an anxious 14 year-old boy, Jack Fisher, a paperboy, and one of two children to a single-mother. The story takes place in the summer of 1969, the summer of the moon landing, pretty near the conclusion of that decade’s social and cultural turmoil. So in that sense it is somewhat of a period piece, an attempt at recapturing the general atmosphere and feel of that strange time. 

Being 14, Jack’s immaturity and confusion naturally inhibit his focus, his use of language, and the text plays on that, on his ability or inabilities to tell a ‘proper’ story. Being a child, he’s unable to fully grasp his situation, and is at times childishly inept in communicating his thoughts and observations. But he makes the effort. He is sometimes too candid, too focused. At other times he seems callow and insensitive. So he’s somewhat of an unreliable narrator, though he is never insincere.

The dysfunction part applies not just to the story, its people and their actions –some severe dysfunction there -- but also to the form of the book, its presentation. The novel’s 260 pages are made up of 157 chapters, most of which are exceedingly brief. The longest being only four or five pages; many chapters are only a page. What I tell people is it’s actually an 800 page novel with all the boring parts edited out. And though the narrator is a child, this is strictly an adult book, and its content is not at all suitable for children.

A novel composed of fragments isn’t anything new. I initially chose the design or arrangement for the edginess that it brings, but also for ‘reader relief.’ There’s an uncomfortable jitteriness that mirrors the subject matter, which could possibly overwhelm a reader if not for the breaks, the air in between. Many of the chapters are poignant, powerful. These jagged shards, without the breathing space, would be harder to bear, though there are also parts that are humorous, droll, even absurdly comic. 

I’m not a literary highbrow, but some years ago I labeled this sort of raucous, uneven style of writing as stroboscopic fiction because, in my view, it assaults a reader’s senses, engaging him or her to read onward, but changing as it progresses, intermittently distorting one’s focus much like a strobe light does.

3. On your homepage it says you wrote every day for 20 years before attempting to publish; what made you wait?

I never looked at it like I was waiting for anything. It was rather simple. I worked at writing every day. And I was pretty focused on that, always reading good work along with some book about how to write. Some of the books had exercises, and I’d try my hand at some of them. My ideas about writing weren’t very complicated. I was just trying to learn to work from inside myself. But I wasn’t expecting anything to happen. I sort of just stumbled along day after day.

Basically, I didn’t see any end to my training. I still don’t. I’m still learning. I’ve developed good skills and good habits as a result of writing every day. By making it a priority, never making excuses. I would write when I was dead tired, when I was sick with a fever, barely able to get out of bed. I wrote before weddings, after funerals, on holidays. It was a daily requirement, not forced but self imposed. But I never really had any specific goals. I wasn’t ambitious then and I’m not ambitious now. I still don’t submit very often. I’m better about sending my work out now, but for twenty years or so I didn’t care about publishing at all. 

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Being more or less a closet writer all those years. I mean I did a lot of things besides write. I had remarried, so I had a wife, a house, a family, two children whom we decided to school at home. I ran a business for a about ten years. Overall I was a pretty normal, stable, happy guy. 

Few people even knew that I wrote, and I didn’t talk about it, so I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone. And I rarely shared my work with anyone except my wife. Once in a while she would mention to someone that I was a writer and afterwards I’d say, Please don’t do that. Because it frequently led to questions about what I wrote, had I published, what I was working on, etc, and I’ve always felt awkward talking about my work. Did I mention I find interviews unsettling, almost painful?

4. While, you didn't try to publish for 20 years, it sounds like you've done alright, publishing over 200 stories and receiving over 40 awards and citations since. Did you ever think that it would happen like it has or was this always the plan?

Not at all. When I was nineteen, the plan was more conventional -- apply for a grant, a loan, somehow get into a local college and study towards a journalism degree. Back then I wanted to write only nonfiction, magazine articles, essays, things of that nature. I really had no interest in writing fiction.

A couple of years later, after my marriage fizzled, I regrouped. I had no money, no car, and no time for college, so I went the self-study route. I made good use of the public libraries. I focused on reading and improving my critical skills, concentrating on the fundamentals, the principles and ideals that support a piece of engaging prose. I began reading more fiction, mostly short stories, and I became intrigued by the whole psychology of fiction, storytelling, its appeal, the dream-like effect on a reader, what I call the mechanisms that operate not on the page but in the mind of a reader.

That’s really what led me to writing fiction, playing at creating simple mechanisms of my own, constructing little tinker toys you wind up and observe, gauge their effect, make adjustments to, then wind up again. But I never considered it anything more than playful exercise. 

Many of the stories that eventually received an award or some praise were written ten or fifteen years prior, during my apprentice period, but they sat around for years because I had no desire to try and publish. I didn’t think most of them were very good. My wife loved a few of them, so for a while I did consider submitting my work under a pseudonym. Testing the waters, so to speak. But I never got around to doing that. I just kept writing, filing the work away. Sometimes I still regret not having used a pseudonym.

5. It seems as though you're almost proud that you've never attended a writing class; what are your thoughts on being taught how to write? Have you thought of teaching?

No, I take no pride whatsoever in my lack of a formal education. But it’s an odd fact, I think. So I mention it on my web site sort of as a disclaimer. I’m practicing without a license. Without any degrees in anything. I’m a self-taught hack.

And I wouldn’t make a very good teacher. I lack the patience. When I helped home school my children, it wasn’t in the role of instructor. More as a concerned guide. A director of their studies.

I think it’s important to point out that I didn’t develop entirely on my own. I received a lot of instruction in writing indirectly, from reading and rereading the works of many good writers, and from digesting a couple hundred books (no joke) on the mechanics, the technique, the necessary components, beginning with sentence structure, word connotation, all that. But how I write and the kind of things I generally write about have been equally influenced by numerous books on psychology, spirituality, and studies of human behavior.

6. I've met your agent Jack Scovil a few times. How do you think having an agent changes things? Do you recommend it?

When I first sent my manuscript to Jack, he read it one night, then called me the next day to say he loved it. Rare breed, that man. They simply don’t make agents like Jack Scovil anymore. I’m very fortunate to have him representing my work.

Seeing as most of the larger publishing houses still require submissions though a literary agent, representation remains a necessary requirement in that regard. But if you don’t have an agent, there are plenty of fine independent houses, big and small, that will work with you directly.

7. Which of your awards do you hold in highest regard?

All of them. And I’m dead serious. I never expected to win a single contest, so every prize, every award, or anytime my name appeared among the list of finalists, it was a very special honor. I’m not being self-effacing, either. I always submitted what I considered to be solid work, but very often when I received notification, my first thought was, ‘well, maybe they made a mistake, or the judge got my name mixed up with someone else’s story.’ I’d express that notion to my wife and she’d say, ‘What the hell is wrong with you.’

8. You are publishing with Casperian Books for your new novel. How was it working with them?

Fine bunch of people. Knowledgeable and helpful every step of the way. Moving through the process was a new experience for me, working from manuscript to galleys. I learned a great deal about a good many things. The one small issue we butted heads on, and only for a short time, was the suggestion I change the subtitle from “A Dysfunctional Novel” to “A Novel of Dysfunction,” which of course is not the same thing. 

Overall, I’m deeply indebted to Casperian for their willingness to publish Paperboy and make the book available to readers. All the ‘big houses’ passed on it. I understand reading is subjective, but I was shocked that not one of them got behind it.

From a selfish angle, a creative perspective, as an unknown writer hoping to reach a wider audience, and also from a hungry but finicky reader’s view -- because this is exactly the kind of book I’d buy and read – from that viewpoint I think it’s a shame that one of the larger publishers didn’t embrace this book. It’s solid work. Honest work. So I hope it does really well and earns Casperian a nice return on their investment.

9. You've had a lot of work published in e-zines. Was this on purpose, or are you more comfortable with a digital format? What do you think of e-publishing these days?

A friend of mine, who also happens to be my nephew, really likes the idea that selections of my work will be floating around on internet servers, available long after I’m gone. He’s a lot younger than me, and more in tune with the digital revolution. When he expressed his thoughts to me I understood the endurance of the digital format. The staying power. But beyond that I’ve never had any preference about how my work is shared. I still prefer ink and paper, the feel of pages, and the weight of a physical book in my hands. But I do an equal amount of reading online these days, so...

10. You've had a lot of luck with flash fiction, what was it like moving on to write a novel?

I like working in tight spaces, composing within certain word limits. Conciseness is generally a good thing, and in my reading I’ve always been drawn to minimalist writing. Of course minimalism and conciseness alone won’t cut it; you still need to present a story, some meaningful consequence, create adequate emotional intensity that’ll have a lasting effect upon the reader, or at least allude to one.

When I was working on Paperboy, I didn’t assign myself actual word limits, but I tried to keep each chapter, and each section as short and focused as possible, always trying to heap as much emotional weight upon the text as it could bear.

11. You have a daily notebook that you write in. How does it influence your other writing, and when did you start doing that? Why?

I started keeping a regular notebook when I was about fourteen. I did it merely to help clear my head. I scribbled a lot of junk, doodled, wrote song lyrics, did all that teenage angst stuff. But I didn’t get serious about writing in it, making daily entries until I was eighteen or so. I think everyone should keep a journal or a daily diary. Personally, I found it highly therapeutic making notes to myself, composing letters that I didn’t have to send. Excellent exercise, all of that. For a few years the notebook was my only requirement as a writer. It’s still my sketch pad, where I start, where I work things out, loosen up my mind, etc. I’ve never actually sat down to write a story. I more or less discover them in my notebook, often by degree. Then I’ll pull that section of text out. Often, I find I’m simply connecting two or three entries. After I’ve extracted them into a new file, I try to develop them, bringing in new entries, reworking it all to function together. So the notebook remains my primary tool of composition.

12. Did you save the 20 years of prose you wrote in a drawer somewhere? What do you think will happen in the future with it? Do you want to eventually re-work it and get it out there, or keep it hidden?

I used to work on a typewriter, a monstrous Olivetti, which I used to feed with a roll of paper, a continuous sheet. I set up a spool behind the machine so I wouldn’t have to stop every time I completed a page. So over the years I’ve accumulated ribbons of typed pages, along with single sheets, which are all stored in bins and boxes, along with my handwritten notebooks from those years. But I’d say most of that writing is worthless. Once I switched to a computer the storage problem became a lot easier. But to answer your question: no, I seldom ever go back and review any of that old stuff, and I’ve never had any desire to try and rework any of it.

13. I love how you said that when entering literary contests you were "gambling on your work." Do you think that a lot of people gamble too early, and lose too much to hit the casinos again?

Some years ago my wife and I went on a cruise through the lower parts of Alaska. The ship had a small casino. That was the first time I played blackjack for money. I had trained and practiced quite a bit on a computer blackjack game so I knew what I was doing. And I did pretty good. I came out ahead. But what struck me afterwards was how nonchalant I was about wagering twenty or thirty, sometimes more on a single hand. After the cruise I decided I should bet on my work, enter more contests. The fees were less than a single wager at blackjack. The logic was just so simple, I couldn’t refute it. So that’s what I did for a couple of years: gamble on the stories I had written and filed away.

14. Another Mourning Goats interviewee told me about your work, Vincent Louis Carrella; how did you two get connected?

That’s a wonderfully odd relationship in the sense I feel that I’ve grown rather close to Vincent, though I’ve never met him in person. I’m looking forward to the day we actually sit down together. He’s a fine man, a generous man, and a richly talented writer. There’s a purity and a sincerity about him and his work that is rather rare. He’s written many stories that I admire, and a few that I absolutely adore, along with an excellent novel. (Mourning Goats interview with Vincent) He and I connected through a mutual friend, Andrew Wilson, who is a brilliant man. Both gentleman have given me a tremendous amount of help and support over the years. I’m indebted to them both.
Vincent at: http://www.serpentbox.com/

15. Paperboy is being published on May 1st, and you're already close to handing in your next novel. Can you tell us anything about it?

The title is April Fish, and it’s about a young fool who marries a nice girl, but the wrong girl. There’s a lot more to it, of course. That manuscript is almost ready to hand off. So I could go on and on. But I’ve learned that it’s generally a bad idea to talk about a work in progress, story or novel. Hopefully “April Fish” finds a publisher, then you can invite me back, and I’ll talk your ear off.

16. I remember hearing about MicroFiction.net years ago, can you tell us about your involvement, and what happened?

MicroFiction was my idea, my brainchild – a paying market for concise fictions, published online with a yearly print anthology -- and I still think it was a solid idea. I contacted some good people, and put together a small group of professionals whose sensibilities I respected. I put up the money, which was a lump sum of cash I’d accumulated from winning a few contests. 

We considered small fictions, works of 800 words or less. So we were a rather high paying market, offering $25 per story, which works out to be about 15 cents a word. I managed the site, redirected submissions. Paid the writers we published. Our editorial board consisted of a small group of talented individuals (writers, teachers, other professionals) who, for various reasons, preferred to remain anonymous. At least for the early stages. Some people didn’t like that about us. I was informed about various discussions in workshops and forums, mean spirited remarks about who was behind MicroFiction.net, why the mystery, all that. My name was listed on the masthead, but no one else’s. In time we received a few seriously nasty notes from writers demanding answers. It was weird, like we were some kind of covert operation out to undermine the literary world. Some people made statements along the lines of “I don’t submit to magazines with undisclosed editorial boards.” Silly. Total nonsense, really. I was willing to ignore the flack. But a few key members of the board sort of took offense at the backlash. They were all busy people, volunteering their time, so they resigned and went back to their own busy lives. The few that remained felt abandoned and so we decided to disperse. I still consider it a terrible shame. I thought it was an excellent idea. But I couldn’t keep going all by myself.

17. You said that you had three novels started before Paperboy, do you think you'll go back to them? Can you tell us anything about them?

Prior to Paperboy, I made three attempts at writing a novel but they all lost steam. None reached a state close to completion. At that time I had the wrong ideas about what a novel should and shouldn’t be. So in that sense all those early efforts were misdirected and somewhat insincere. With Paperboy, I took a simpler, more direct approach. Once I had a complete draft, I simply broke it down then rewrote fanatically. There’s no fat on the book. The thing is pretty lean.

18. I feel like you wrote for 20 years, saved it all, and are now taking the knowledge that you've gained over the years to edit the stories in to publishable material. Is that's what's happening, or are you writing a lot of new shorts?

Though all of my short fictions and novel chapters originate in my notebook, they get pulled out rather early, as soon as I’ve spotted something genuine. So I’m always pulling out something new, storing it away. But the majority of the entries remain in the notebook, and that’s really the end of them. I seldom go fishing through old notebooks looking for anything.

19. What advice do you have for all of the writers out there? Write every day for 20 years?

Yes. Every day. Absolutely. Without excuses, for as many years as it takes. Keep a notebook, and every day ‘Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart’ as Longfellow advised. Don’t wait for inspiration. Just write, then rewrite. I’m not a good example for anyone to follow. I had to write well over a million words before I felt confident in my own voice.

20. What are you working on now, that you'd like to share with the readers?

Well, as I said, I have to complete April Fish, which is essentially done, though not ready to hand off. I still need to edit, let it rest a while, then reedit. Then I have a couple of other projects lined up, also novels. But I’m constantly distracting myself, spending hours developing short pieces I find in my notebook. So from day to day I’m focused on one project or another. Some weeks are more productive than others, but often I’m just revising, putting one thing away then taking out another. Henry Miller once said, ‘When you can’t create, you can nail down.’ Something like that. So there’s always something to nail down, flush out, revise or edit. Years ago I wrote a poem that begins “There is the work so you go back to it.” And that’s pretty much what I do, what I keep doing. Picture a bumble bee in a huge meadow, jumping from one blossom to another. That’s how I feel some days.

In closing, I want to thank you, sir. I deeply appreciate your taking time to do this interview and help spread the word about Paperboy.

Thank you!



  1. Great interview. Great author. Great book. Bravo Goat and way to go Bob. Good luck and God speed.

  2. Bob Thurber is a great, great man. Every writer should read this interview.