Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Interview _ Erik Schmidt

Erik Schmidt lives in Georgia and is a sports editor and a freelance writer.

10 of his short stories appear in the anthology, Cover Stories: A Euphictional Anthology (CreateSpace, 2010).

In this interview, Erik Schmidt talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?

I had to write fictional stories throughout elementary school, but I started taking it seriously — or at least as seriously as any 11-year-old boy can take anything beyond backyard football and baseball cards — in sixth grade.

Our teacher, Mrs. Jacoby, consistently had us write 100-word essays and then read them aloud in class. I remember thinking some of the topics were boring or uninspiring, so I started creating my own themes for my own amusement. They weren’t anything special, but it was important for me to realize that innovation, creative thinking, and stepping outside the expected parameters are huge elements in the writing process.

There was no epiphany or mind-blowing realization in regards to becoming a published writer. When I was a junior in high school, I saw an ad for a sports writer for a twice-weekly newspaper called the Wall Herald in New Jersey. The owner, I think his name was Ed Brown, had his own airport. The Herald ran a regular contest where you had to find a small caricature of Mr. Brown flying a plane somewhere in the paper. If you found him, you won an ice cream sundae. Basically, this wasn’t the New York Times, so I figured, “What the hell?”

I realize this doesn’t paint the most romantic of literary pictures, but I loved sports, I was a decent writer, and this seemed like a better way to earn money than working as a dishwasher or telemarketer. Again, this isn’t a feel good, movie-of-the-week story. I applied for the job, they invited me in for an interview, and I drove down there. I showed them a few clips from my high school paper, the editor looked them over, and then she asked if I had a driver’s license and a car.

I had both.

They hired me.

I subsequently decided to turn this into a career. I majored in journalism at the University of Georgia and ultimately found work as a sports editor at The Oconee Enterprise in Watkinsville, Ga. I’ve had two stints there and along the way I’ve done some freelance work for daily papers, magazines and a website or two.

As for becoming a published writer in the fictional realm, again, there wasn’t any exact “I know what I must be” moment. It was just something I thought I could do and something that would allow a more creative outlet beyond structured sports writing.

I do know several people who absolutely have to write. I’m not one of them. If I write something and someone wants to buy it, that’s great. If not, so be it. I’ll live. Of course, I’ll live better if everyone buys it. I’m certainly not against that scenario.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

Aside from the sports writing that pays my bills, my work can be classified as semi-realistic, humorous fiction. I’ll take a completely believable scenario and let it run a step beyond ordinary. It keeps things in the real world, yet entertains. At least that’s the idea.

I despise the phrase, “target audience.” It confines the human race to three commercially motivated categories: age, gender, and annual income. I don’t write for any of these. I write for people who refuse to take life too seriously. I write for people who aren’t easily offended. I write for people who aren’t afraid to acknowledge that “Corporate America” is nothing more than a two-word excuse that permits the wealthy to abuse the middle and lower classes. Okay, I really don’t write for that third group. But I admire their attitude.

In the writing you are doing, which authors have influenced you the most?

This is always an interesting question, and here I’d like to point out that while I respect the classic writers every kid wades through in high school as well as their modern day contemporaries, I’m not a fan of the traditional style of novel writing. It involves far too much verbiage.

I’ve read books where an author uses three paragraphs to describe a mountain. Honestly, I’m impressed by the vocabulary involved here, but personally, I detest that level of intricacy. It’s not necessary. I know what a mountain looks like. Tell me how high it is and whether or not it’s snow-covered. I can figure out the rest.

As such, I can’t get enough of books from Chuck Klosterman, Dave Barry, and Carl Hiaasen. As journalists, they have a straight-to-the-point style that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. Just as importantly, they share a biting wit and a tremendous sense of humor. In my opinion, these are the most entertaining writers around. Since I write to entertain and not to fill pages with 17 long-winded portraits of the color blue, theirs is a style I can relate to and embrace.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

First and foremost, as a journalist I talk to a lot of people. Ergo, I have a decent handle on realistic verbal communication which helps put believable dialog in my fictional works. Along these lines, my wife complains to me that I have too much profanity in my stories. My response is simple, “People curse a lot.”

Outside of dialog, I’m sure my personal experiences are similar to those of most other writers. You drink with friends, you spend time with family, you get into the occasional scrape with the law, etc. Some things you remember and draw upon for ideas. Others you don’t.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

In regards to the process of writing, sometimes I worry that my central conflict isn’t strong enough. Sometimes I don’t think I’ve fully developed my main characters. Sometimes I think I’m just rewriting someone else’s story. Sometimes I think my conflict, my characters, and the story I’m writing all suck.

I don’t have a set way to deal with any of this and there’s no way to describe how these issues are resolved. Sometimes I scrap the entire story and sometimes I just make a key tweak or two. That’s it.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

I think getting published is the biggest challenge facing any "new" writer. I’ve spoken to authors at signings and seminars and perused countless books on the topic.

Essentially, if you don’t know someone, the whole process appears to be a crap shoot. I know that may sound bitter or harsh, but let’s face it. Just like you can go to a dive bar and see a random band that sounds just as good as Seether or Nickelback or whoever, there are unpublished writers out there who have written a novel that’s just as good as something you might find on the shelf at Borders or Barnes & Noble. Maybe the published author wrote a better query letter or maybe the agent who read the unpublished author’s query was hung over that day. In my mind, it’s that random. I could be wrong, but that’s my feeling.

Thankfully, the self-publishing world has the capability to dent this norm. Sure, there are self-published works out there that are absolute garbage, but at least self-publishing gives writers the opportunity to find an audience who can label their work as garbage. And I mean that in an incredibly positive sense.

Agents and publishers aren’t the only people on the planet who can read and form an opinion. Just about anyone with a high school diploma has that capacity. Self-publishing allows for the opportunity, at the very least, to succeed or fail without a middle-man censor.

Do you write every day?

I’m not one of these people who designates two, three, or four hours of free time a day to write.

If I feel like writing (aside from my actual sports writing job where knocking out a 12-15-inch story is something I can do in my sleep), I write. If I don’t feel like it, I don’t write.

Obviously, if I was a paid novelist and my livelihood was dependent on the written word, I would change this habit ASAP. However, at this point it’s not necessary to do so.

That being said, I don’t have a process or schedule when I write. If I have an idea for a chapter or a screenplay scene, I write it. If I have another idea, I keep writing. If I’m out of ideas, I stop.

I’ve found that I can’t force quality creativity. Again, if it meant the difference between having the air conditioning on and the power turned off, I would certainly reconsider this thought process. Whether or not I’d succeed is another question.

How many books have you written so far?

I’ve written one novel called Hair Ball that I’m currently in the process of marketing. The log line is as follows: When two fallen rock stars from the days of Guns n Roses attempt to blackmail a Florida politician to finance their career resurrection, they inadvertently intertwine the lives of a Norwegian assassin with a foul-mouthed parrot, a smug attorney suffering from hair envy, and a pop metal tribute band single-handedly keeping the spandex and hair spray industries afloat.

I’ve also written five screenplays, although none of them have sold.

In addition to that, I contributed 10 short stories to a compilation entitled, Cover Stories that was released on June 21, 2010. The material encompasses a wide range of territory, from horror to romance to comedy to stuff I don’t wish to describe for fear of misinterpreting another author’s meaning.

Christian Dumais organized the entire process and centered it around something called euphiction. Chris and some of the other writers busted their tails coming up with a definition for this and there’s actually a Wikipedia entry for it.

Here’s a quick explanation: Euphiction is a writing genre where writers do literary “cover versions” of specific songs, a marriage of musical inspiration with the written word, or a story that works like a three-minute single.

Basically, we all picked an album and wrote stories inspired by the titles of 10 songs from that album. I chose Sugartooth’s self-titled debut, which is really an incredible body of music. However, because I was unable to obtain permission to use the titles, I had to change my story titles at the last minute to avoid any post-publication complications.

Of course, I don’t blame Sugartooth for any of this. They broke up over 10 years ago. My issue is with the corporate stranglehold on such issues and I’ll hold this grudge until the day they pry the Miller Lite bottle from my cold, dead hands.

How long did it take you to come up with the material that appears in Cover Stories?

From start to finish, I think it took about a year. I wasn’t really paying attention.

We went the self-publishing route, and I believe that was the thinking from Day 1. Simply put, it was more practical.

The down side, of course, is that we have to market the book ourselves. Thankfully, we have several authors on board who are incredibly accomplished at this. They love virtual cafes, blogs, etc. Their passion has proven to be a tremendous boon.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Choosing which album to base the stories on was by far the most difficult task — unless you count the current marketing process. I have a rich CD collection and depending on the day, any one of them could be in my top 10.

Honestly, I ended up choosing Sugartooth because a friend and I had just been discussing little-known bands that deserved to make it big. A day or two later, Derrek Carriveau, one of the other writers and a close friend of Chris’s, sent me an email asking if I’d be interested in participating in this project. It made my decision a lot easier.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

I liked the challenge of the word limit. Christian set a strict cap of 1,000 words per story. As I mentioned earlier in the interview, I’m not a fan of unnecessary verbiage. However, to create a protagonist, plot, crisis, and resolution all within 1,000 words still proved difficult at times. Fortunately, I think the most I ever had to cut was about 100 words.

Also, as a music lover, the idea of assisting in the pioneering of what will hopefully become an accepted genre in euphiction was very appealing.

What sets your contribution to Cover Stories apart from other things you've written?

Working as part of a collaborative effort was unique. Also, I only knew two of the writers, Derrek and Chris, going into this, so reading thoughts from “strangers” was a new experience.

However, with one or two exceptions, the content of my stories is similar to what I usually write about. I didn’t branch out too much. It’s not that I feel my style is unchangeable. I just happen to like it.

What will your next book be about?

I’m currently writing a yet-to-be-titled novel about a Jewish Little League team subjected to a roster overhaul. It’s kind of South Park meets The Bad News Bears.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Well, I’ve won several awards as a sports writer from the Georgia Press Association, but honestly, just completing Hair Ball was my biggest achievement. Even if I never make a dime off that book, I’m extremely proud of the finished product. I busted my ass on it, and seeing it through to an actual ending was very rewarding.

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