Sample Interview Q&A
Q: What motivated you to write Ivy is a Weed?
A: I had a 35-year career in higher education as a public information officer. This brought me in contact with a broad variety of faculty members and administrators. I had gravitated to universities after journalism school, thinking that the values by which they operated would be more in tune with my own than I might find in the corporate world. Also, in journalism school I had specialized in writing about science because of my undergraduate background – I went to MIT.
I enjoyed my career in higher education. My colleagues who worked in corporate public relations were often trying to promote things that were really not newsworthy. I mean, their job was often to promote stuff, like allegedly “improved” products, that fundamentally weren’t new. While I could talk about actual new discoveries and inventions fresh from the laboratory. I could honestly promote what was going on at universities as genuinely new and of service to the public. In my office we felt like we were in the news business much more than in public relations.
So that was fun. But there is another side to universities, largely focused on how they are run and how they make decisions.
Universities are the temples of logical thought in our society. Its acolytes worship a process that’s a lot like Socratic dialogue. Ideas are proposed and vigorously debated. Through the debate and discussion, they arrive at truth. I think it’s a good process for generating greater understanding.
But when these same faculty members become administrators, some strange changes occur. You see, few academics ever took a course, even a short course, in how to lead effectively and how to make decisions when there are competing interests. I think it’s fair to say that they regard leadership as a set of tools that they can learn how to use fairly quickly and without the study they would give to something they regarded as a serious discipline.
The result is that, as leaders, they often make decisions that have poor foundations in fact and are seldom subjected to the same rigor that would be required of a laboratory experiment. Yet, given their deep faith in their institutional religion, they will stubbornly defend their decisions as being completely logical and consistent. That’s inherently funny, at least to me.
So when I thought about writing a novel, I naturally thought of writing something funny. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so let me say that there are some persistent themes, some hot-button issues in academic life that seem ripe for lampooning.
Q: You chose to write a funny mystery. Why?
A: I think I survived more than 30 years in a bureaucracy because I found many things funny. So when I began thinking of writing a novel, it was clear to me that if I set it on a university campus it would have humor as a major element. The actual connection between the humor and a mystery was based on a New Yorker cartoon I saw decades ago that always stuck with me.
Q: Can you elaborate a little more on the nature of the satire in your book?
A: I think that Ivy is a Weed is a gentle satire. It’s not intended as trenchant criticism of higher education as an institution. For me, the humor is meant to point out that, at their core, the inhabitants of the academic temples are really just normal people
True, they have advanced degrees and often pursue arcane and highly specialized fields of study. And they bring considerable skill and brainpower to those pursuits. But when they step out of those settings they behave pretty much like people everywhere.
They can be vain, selfish, emotional, impulsive, self-aggrandizing, power-hungry and petty. In other words, a lot like everyone else in the world. But they try to cover their absolutely normal behavior with a false patina of logic, as if they had actually thought through their idea soberly and dispassionately. That’s the source of some of the humor.
Q: Is your book based on actual experiences?
A: Authors always get asked how much of their work is autobiographical. Writers write about what they know. The stories come from the world that they inhabit. So to that extent, Ivy is a Weed is based on my experiences working for more than 35 years in higher education.
But the people in the story are my creation. Naturally, they will have traits similar to people I have met, in some cases. But none of these characters in my book are real. Although the story’s protagonist is the head of public relations at a university, he is not me. The university I write about is not the place where I worked.
Even if I had set out to write a totally true and accurate account of my experiences, I simply wouldn’t have been able to do that. I don’t have that good a memory.
Q: When you finished the first draft of Ivy is a Weed you were about 67 years old. Talk about being an older writer and writing as a second career.
A: Looking back, I took great joy from writing since I was ten years old. But I was a Sputnik baby and was also fascinated by science. So I never seriously considered a career as a fiction writer. I went to college expecting to become an engineer. But I was sidetracked by the times (it was the 60s) and my own flagging interest in the subjects that had brought me to MIT.
I did attempt writing a novel when I was just out of college. It was a childish work by a different person. It will remain on the shelf. I channeled my interest in writing into journalism and eventually public information/public relations.
But as I approached my retirement I had this persistent idea, this ambition, to try my hand at fiction again. I had no idea if I could stay the course for an entire book. I thought about all the training I would have had if I had pursued a degree in creative writing. But there was little point in thinking about what might have been.
I sat down to write with this one idea for a story in my head. I figured I would write until I ran out of plot and things to say. I had no idea if I had enough material for a novel. I thought about writing an outline but it quickly became obvious to me that when I was sitting in my office chair writing I couldn’t force my characters to go through the steps in an outline. They took on a life of their own. That turned out to be one of my greatest pleasures in writing fiction.
There were days when I’d finish and I had a pretty good idea of what came next. There were other days when I had no clue. I tried to stop while I still had something in the tank, but that didn’t always happen. After a few weeks and discovering to my surprise and delight that there might be a novel there, I committed myself to producing 1,000 words a day. This proved to be not hard most of the time.
Eight months later I had a first draft. As one person later pointed out to me, I had done the hard part. I had surprised myself.
Q: So it was that easy?
A: Yes and no. The good news was I didn’t get stuck. I didn’t ever experience “writer’s block.” I would simply write through any dry spell, recognizing that in those cases the majority of what I wrote would likely be thrown out. But those forced marches got me over to the other side where the story could continue. Later, I would go back and fix those troublesome sections.
Rereading that first draft was at times painful. I would stare at the page wondering what the hell my intention was and how I was going to fix this. I knew it needed to be much better before I was willing to show it to someone else. It was slow going, and without any recent prior experience with writing a story at length, I sometimes felt a distinct loss of confidence. I wondered if maybe turning the story into something that someone else would want to read was beyond my capabilities.
I remember a song I heard sung by Pete Seeger. “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” I figured I was in too far to stop now. What would I tell all my friends who I had informed I was writing a novel? How would I make peace with myself? I might as well complete the process, as best I could, and see what happened.
So I persevered.
Q: How long did you work over the draft?
A: I don’t recall exactly, but it was a while. Many months. I read it through once quickly and was ambivalent. There were things I liked but a lot I didn’t. Then I combed through each chapter, sentence by sentence, fixing things that just didn’t sound right. I write a lot by ear. I’d think about the characters’ motivations to see if the story line made sense. Some sections underwent many revisions. Some I look at now and wish I had revised. At some point you just say, enough.
A: Then I showed it to my good friend Nancy who is an excellent editor. She gave me pages of comments, suggestions and specific edits, as well as a modicum of praise. I was encouraged by her praise, took her suggestions seriously for the most part, and produced another version.
Q: Talk about finding a publisher.
A: Near the end of finishing my first draft I contacted a person I had met in my day job who was a part owner of a small press here in Seattle. I told him what I had written, a mystery-satire, and asked whether his press might be interested in looking at my book. He said yes so that was my first stop.
I sent it off and didn’t hear from them for several months. But when I did, they told me they liked it a lot and listed a handful of things that they thought needed fixing. I was elated. I worked hard at addressing their concerns and sent the revisions back to them.
Ultimately, however, we reached a parting of the ways. We simply didn’t share the notion of what the novel should be.
There was also a second potential publisher, but for very different reasons that didn’t work out. Book publishing is a precarious business, for editors and for writers.
Ultimately, I decided to publish this on my own. I could hear my internal clock ticking.