Q&A With Stephen P. Kiernan
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Q&A With Stephen P. Kiernan
My latest Q&A is with journalist and author Stephen P. Kiernan. Stephen is the author of Universe of Two, The Bakers Secret, The Hummingbird, The Curiosity, which are historical fiction novels. Stephen’s non-fiction novels are Last Rights, & Authentic Patriotism. Coming June 20th of this year is The Glass Chateau.
Q: Stephen, would you kindly talk a little bit about your new novel The Glass Chateau, coming out on June 20th?
A: Happily. The setting is a damaged country, whose people are divided economically, culturally and politically. A former president behaves as if he’s still in power, holding rallies etc. Yet somehow these people are supposed to join hands and rebuild their country together.
No, it’s not about present times. It’s set in France, starting one month after the end of World War II. The Glass Chateau is a rebuilding story, an uplifting tale concentrating on a place that has made glass for more than 400 years. Now the men living there, all of them damaged by the war, are working to repair and replace the stained glass windows in bombed out cathedrals. As their work helps them begin to heal (aided by a torrid love affair for one of the men), they offer a path forward for any divided people.
Q: What fascinates you about writing historical fiction and non-fiction?
A: I love the research. I enjoy seeing how parts of human nature – our good qualities and our bad ones – remain constant through time. Most of all, sometimes history offers stories that can be helpful to challenges we face today.
Q: When did you know that being an author and a journalist was your calling in life?
A: I have been a storyteller since I was a child. It has taken many forms over the years. First I was a boy who loved to read, and was always full of blarney. I remember feeling that writing was a pleasure as early as grade school. My working years have all been about telling stories of one kind or another – whether the daily rough draft of history that I participated in over decades in news, or in spinning larger yarns in novels.
I suspect it can be annoying: In conversation, I often interrupt the flow of dialogue to tell a story. Friends are patient about this, I’m glad to say, but my sons sometimes have opinions about dad getting to the point.
Q: What is your advice to those who want to write great historical fiction and non-fiction? Do you prefer to write historical fiction more, or non-fiction?
A: I don’t think preference is the right way to express the difference for me. I’d say it’s more about what is the best way to tell a story. There were many hundreds of news stories about the 1930s Dust Bowl, but there is also The Grapes of Wrath. Both methods have their merits. For some ideas the facts prevail, while for others it’s the truth within a story that is paramount.
Years ago our state had a very boring lieutenant governor. If he held a news conference, or made a speech or statement, we had to cover it. But the stories were always dull. In a novel about that same place and time, he would never appear. That narrative power is appealing to me.
My advice to people who want to write great things is to dispense with the word great, and instead make writing the center of their lives – their profession if possible, their emotional touchstone. If greatness results it could be due to talent, or luck, or simply stumbling across a great story no one has told yet. Writing is a profession with a long apprenticeship. Better to find fulfillment in the process of putting words on paper every day than to aspire to something that very few people attain.
Q: I always find it impressive when authors multi-task whether it’s doing podcasts, having a journalism career on top of being an author. What is your advice for anyone wanting to pursue a journalism career? How do you juggle being a journalist and an author?
A: The novelist and essayist Alan Gurganus, I believe it was, gave a talk at the Iowa Writers Workshop when I was there years ago, about what he called “Writing in the Dark.” He said it takes an average of ten years for a person to be writing at an adult and proficient level, before that writer begins to receive notice. Ten years. Of course there are people who strike gold early, but that’s not a thing to wish for because those people’s careers are generally abbreviated. There are also people who labor a long time before they find their traction (I was one of them, 4 million news words in print before my first book came out, when I was 47). But everyone should plan on ten or so years in which the only person who reads and likes their work is their sweetheart and a handful of friends.
That means all writers need to make a living, and write on the side, for a while – and for most, for their entire working life. It requires commitment, and making choices about how to spend their time, and finding a sort of work that will suppress their writing passion the least.
Your question said you are impressed, but I might suggest instead that you pity the writer – who is trying to live a full and rewarding life, while also finding those slim opportunities to do the kind of work their heart truly desires.
Q: If you were to write in another genre that wasn’t historical fiction or non-fiction, which genre would it be and why?
A: It would be musical composition, which is in fact a central part of my life. I have been a musician since I was ten years old. Even now practice every day before I begin writing, and often when I take a break from the laptop, the first thing I do is reach for an instrument.
(I’ve recorded 3 CDs of my work and one of them – Man of Glass — is now on Spotify.)
Q: If you’re writing a new novel right now, can you reveal what it’s about?
A: Soon I’ll be wrapping up the 3rd draft of a new novel (title undecided). I hope to deliver it to my editor on the day The Glass Chateau comes out. It’s about three men whose plane crashes in winter wilderness, and their story of attempting to survive. Along the way they make an accidental discovery (no spoilers here) that increases their danger.
This novel contains perhaps my favorite character that I’ve ever written, a completely peculiar woman who happens to be one of the world’s greatest trackers, and who sets out to find these men before they freeze to death.
Q: How do you deal with writers block if you deal with it at all?
A: I have been writing for a living since January 1 of 1988. Every day I come to the desk. Some days the work is easy, and the words are artful. Other days my mind is clumsy, and the prose feels like I’m jogging with snowshoes on.
It’s all work, good days and bad days. You show up, and you do the work. There is no block. There is always just the work.
The great advantage of fiction – as opposed to journalism, and nearly every other art form – is that it depends upon, requires, and encourages revision. I spend longer rewriting my books than I do writing them. The second and third drafts are my favorite part of the process. Every day I am grateful for the opportunity to take yesterday’s junk (call it writer’s block if you wish) and turn it into something that works, and resonates with the rest of the story, and above all, makes people feel.
Q: For your historical fiction novels, do you travel and speak to people who survived and lived the events that happened in World War II?
A: Yes. It’s a method I learned in my news years – always go to the source, the place, and the documents.
For novels, I start by reading heavily early in the research. But then I go to the location where the history happened. If there are survivors of that time, I interview them. Increasingly there are oral archives that can illuminate a time or event for me too.
This commitment to learning has brought me to incredible places: the beaches of Normandy, the plateau of Los Alamos, the inside of a cathedral organ factory, glass blowing and stained glass studios, rural eastern France, a Red Sox game, the basement archives of local historical societies, on and on.
I will never forget interviewing a man who was in the third wave of the assault on D-Day. He was blasé about it – “we had a job to do, and we did it.” – but I came out of that conversation feeling about one inch tall.
Q: Does Hollywood have the rights to any of your novels? Hollywood is long overdue for creativity.
A: I believe Hollywood has tired of the superhero story, and now new kinds of movies are being made, and they’re making money, and that widens the opportunities for novels to become films. Look at this year’s winner for best picture – Everything, Everywhere, All at Once — one of the most brilliant, frenetic and oddball films maybe ever. It gives me hope.
To answer your question, my novel The Curiosity has been under one form of production option or another for 11 years. Who knows what it will take to get it made?