Monday, April 6, 2015

Meet the Luminous and Talented Dan Szczesny

Many blessings of the very cool variety resulted from my July 2013 appearance on New Hampshire Chronicle, not the least of which being that my writing career was documented by the big lifestyle TV show and broadcast across the entire state and well past its borders. A filmmaker tuning in hired me to write the screenplay to a feature film that now inches ever closer to release, and I made many excellent friends thanks to my brief time in the spotlight. Among those amazing friends is Dan Szczesny, a talented and committed writer from my old home region in the southern part of New Hampshire who saw the episode and then sought me out.  Dan made the effort to join us and writers' group friends for dinner on a blustery, brisk January Sunday two winters past -- and when his car was unable to scale the snowy hill where our house is located, he simply put the considerable hiking skills to use that once led him all the way up to the base camp on Mount Everest.  He's since become a vital, energetic, and welcome figure among our writers' group and its extended family, and one of my favorite authors.

Dan's new collection of short fiction, Sing, and Other Short Stories, was just released by Hobblebush Books.  It was my pleasure to sit down and speak with Dan about his amazing writing career.

Dan, share with us your literary background.
Believe it or not, my first full time job in writing was building obituaries for a local newspaper in Washington, Pennsylvania. I say building because the way it worked was as more of an assembly line. I'd get a sheet of information from the family -- name, age, work, survivors -- and have to put together the obit out of that. And sometimes the information was so horrible, or boring, that I'd try to dress it up with clearly inappropriate adjectives: John Smith was an ‘excruciatingly detailed’ mathematician, that sort of thing. I didn't last long at that job. But before that, my career started in Buffalo with a degree in English Literature. The first short story I ever had published appeared in 1991 in The Buffalo Spree. I'm proud to say that the story, ‘Blue Lady’ has been reprinted in my newest book, Sing and Other Short Stories. Like all writers, I had to pay the bills, so I started off on a career as a reporter, then editor, then publisher. I've written for newspapers and magazines around the country in Buffalo, Philadelphia, New Jersey and all over New England. Some that your readers might be familiar with include Pennsylvania Magazine, The National Catholic Register, Huffington Post, Good Men Project, Yahoo Parenting, and closer to home, the Union Leader where I was a reporter for two years. Since 2001, I've been Associate Publisher of The Hippo, now New Hampshire's largest newspaper. About three years ago I took a six- month sabbatical from The Hippo to write my first book, The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie. The book details my one-year hiking journey with my foster daughter bonding in the White Mountains. But when the time came to go back, I decided to set off on a life of book writing instead and I haven't looked back!

Please talk about Sing -- share with us the destinations readers will travel to and the people they’ll meet between the story collection’s covers.
I'm so excited about this new book! First, it's my first full-length volume of fiction. My first two books are narrative non-fiction. Second, the ten stories included in the book span my entire career, from 1991 to 2014 so it really gives the reader a peek at the full development of my life and interests as a writer.  Some of the stories were updated slightly for the new collection.  I'm a child of a blue collar family and grew up in a little town just outside Buffalo. My interests then and now have revolved around the choices made by or sometimes for ordinary people and how they respond to what I call their moment of epic choice. If you're affluent or poor, life choices are often givens. But for those of us in the middle, I've been fascinated by the single instance in someone's life where they can excel and better their lives, or fail and destroy it.  Survival after a plane crash. Appearing on national television. Choosing career over relationship. Recommitting to an estranged parent. Taking an incredible risk for love. All these potential outcomes are explored in the ten stories, and the stories themselves take place over time and space -- from 1930s South Dakota to 1980s Manchester to present day Alaska. Readers will meet a rancher desperate to hold back modern life, a plucky teenager given the chance to prove her worth to a national audience, a woman desperate to find her way back to her father's good graces, and a young man so in love with the girl of his dreams that he's willing to risk his life and face his greatest fear.

You not only participate in but also run multiple writing groups. Please talk about that.
What can I say, I'm a glutton for pain and frustration! I've been a member off and on of writing groups my whole life and often times, they can turn into social clubs. Nothing wrong with that, but not for me. I don't care what your ideology is, how old or experienced you are or what you write. All I want out of a writing group is that you produce and that you work hard to publish. Which is why I've been so thrilled by the groups I'm honored to be in now. Or at least in the case of The Berlin Writers’ Group, I love being an honorary member. I'm also a member of an occasional group out of Derry called Spaghetti and Writers. Both groups are filled with prolific creatives that work their butts off to produce, improve and publish and I love that!  I am also the moderator of The Blank Page, the writing group of the Goffstown Public Library. The librarian there asked me to take over after the last couple moderators fell through and I was happy to step in. My role there is basically to keep them focused and writing and set meeting times. But I try to be proactive by setting an example and by being encouraging. And that leads us to the next question!

You were one of my 2014 National Novel Writing Month buddies, and I had the pleasure of joining you for a write-in at our local library. What was that experience like for you, and do you plan to repeat it in November of 2015?
That was my first shot at NaNo and I'm proud to say I won! Haha! I finished a 50,000-word mystery novel called The Ballad of the Lost River Hog. To be honest, I have always dismissed NaNo as little more than a publicity stunt, but I wanted to use the challenge as a way to inspire my Blank Page comrades, to show them that it's possible to write every day. And I surprised myself by getting it done. Further, the challenge jump-started my own writing and pushed me to a new level.  Look, that whole myth about getting up every day and writing that the good people at NaNo push is, to go blue on you for a moment, bullshit. No other industry demands and pushes the idea of working EVERY SINGLE DAY! That's nonsense. Doctors don't perform surgery every day. Garbage men don't collect garbage every day. Where the heck has this idea come from that in order to be successful writers we have to force words out of our brain seven days a week? So screw that. That said, some writers enjoy that sort of schedule. I would go insane. But NaNo showed me that I can produce at a higher level then I had thought possible and that's been so important ever since! And I loved doing the write-in with you. In fact, I was so inspired, I took it to my Blank Page group and we had two write-ins at Goffstown. Then I sat down with my foster daughter for a write-in at our house. I love the idea of just sitting across from another writer and shutting out the world and getting down to the business of writing together. So, you bet I'll give it another go this November!

Can you talk about the course you’ll be teaching in June?
So, this workshop I have in mind is not scheduled yet. I'll let you know when it is. But basically, I want to call it “It's not magic, it's a job.”  Have you ever heard these things about writers; they hear voices in their heads, they are flighty and everything is a story, a muse speaks to them, they wake up in the middle of the night with ideas that must be written down. None of this happens to me. Ever, literally, ever. I don't sit at my computer and wait for my muse to alight on my shoulder and whisper the proper plot twist into my ear. Writing to me is a brutal grind, a sort of deep psychic punishment that involves slow, meticulous effort and practice and dedication. It's a job. It's a job that has been crafted and molded in my brain over the course of two decades. When an idea comes to me, it doesn't arrive via winged messenger. It arrives because I've been doing this all my life and I know what plot structure, and dialogue, and red herrings, and character development actually means. And I don't say that to brag, but rather as an illustration of the fact that writers draw on education and learning and experience, just like any crafts-person would. Listen, I don't mean to crush any romantic images -- oh, heck, yes I do. Wait for the muse at your own peril. Instead, sit down and fucking write.  And another thing, writers as a collective community suffer badly from a problem of image and perception. Stop reading this right now and Google ‘writer.’ Go ahead I'll wait. Now look at the images. Typewriter, ink well, pad of paper, another typewriter, typewriter key, picture of some 16th Century fop day-dreaming with his quill. Now Google ‘doctor.’ Yeah, see the difference? No pictures of 18th Century medicine men about to apply leeches are there?  Our profession is stopped in time, someplace about 1950. In order to be taken seriously, in order for people to understand what we do in terms of a professional industry, we need to break out of the mythology of the romantic writer, holed up in earthy writing room, banging away at a typewriter, drinking bourbon. Because you know what else goes along with those archaic images? Being poor. Do you think any of those doctors you just looked up are going to work for free, or for a positive Tweet? Nope. And either should we. But to do that, we need to at least pretend to stop acting like starving artists. Then maybe the compensation will follow.

(Dan's snapshot that inspired "Little Warrior", the collection's
opening short story)
What adventures in literature and in life are next for you?
So much! First, I've been tapped by Plaidswede Books as the editor of their newest short story collection, Murder in the New England Newsroom. That will be a crime noir collection of fiction revolving around the theme of the newsroom. The deadline for stories is June 1 and anyone looking for more information can email me. Second, I've gotten a couple agent bites to look at Ballad of the Lost River Hog. I'm developing that as a series and I'm currently editing furiously to get it ready for agencies.  Third, I've been given the green light on a new book, tentatively titled Pass the Corn Pudding, which will be a non-fiction narrative history of the Northern New England Pot Luck. Finally, I'm touring all this year in support of all three of my books. You can find a full schedule of where I'll be at my website.   All that said, the greatest adventure, by far, of my life began on December 30, 2014 when my baby girl, Uma, was born. And her presence in my life has driven me to nearly obsessive heights of inspiration and determination in my craft. I write now always with her in my mind. I have found ways to streamline my day-to-day writing process, to be more efficient with time and resources. There are so many books I want to read to her. There are so many books I want to write for her. I won't have time for them all, but I'm going to try!

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