This time we dive into the worlds of poetry, fiction, and . . . technical writing?
Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?
My name is Paul Keenan, and I write a lot of things. I’ve written somewhere north of 300 poems, a dozen or so short stories, a novel, a stage play…. Lately, I’ve been doing some technical writing for a couple of financial technology web journals, Lending Times and Blockchain Times.
Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.
I wrote a novel last year. I’d made four previous attempts, but this was the first that I actually finished. Coincidentally, it’s also the first I wrote since getting sober in July of 2013. It’s called The Situation with Phillip, and it’s a work of fiction loosely inspired by the thought that the soul weighs 21 grams. Jeffrey is a serial killer who has come to the conclusion that it isn’t the soul that weighs 21 grams, but that the stress and hardship of life, which account for the loss of weight the body experiences upon death. To prove this, he is kidnapping people from five offsetting sets of character types (faithful/doubtful…), stressing them for a calendar month, and then killing them to see how much weight has been lost. There are indications that he isn’t completely at ease with the loss of life, but he feels he’s doing God’s work and accepts the loss for the good he thinks it will do in the future.
Phillip is also a man who thinks he is doing God’s work in his life, and it is his faith in God that he tries to maintain focus on during his month as Jeffrey’s prisoner. Having found that he really has little chance of escape—Jeffrey’s elaborate containment set-up includes remote control handcuffs and shock collar—Phillip is in constant communication with God, in prayer that, when the time comes, God will provide him with the words he needs to lead Jeffrey to see the error of his ways.(There’s a synopsis of the novel, plus a good number of posts about the progress of the drafting process on my blog at paulelmo.com).
In light of all the poetry you’ve written over the years, what is it that kept bringing you back to trying to write novels?
I chose novels because that’s what I grew up reading, and I read authors who had made a lot of money doing it. Sadly, most of my writing life has been financially driven. Now that I’m beginning to make a little money writing, I see how incorrectly I’ve gone about the process. Live and learn, I guess.
I come back to novels because I want to sell a novel. I queried The Situation with Phillip to an agent last year. I got a great rejection, 112 words. In it, the agent suggested some things that would make me more marketable as a novelist. I began following his advice; the social media and publications are part of that. I plan to get in touch with him again in September, which will mark a year from the first Q.
In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?
Across the breadth of my writing life, I’ve written more poetry and verse than anything else. I’ve done so for a number of reasons. I think the iambic foot merges well with the human rhythm. Plus, I’ve always seemed so busy, a the shortness of poetry has always appealed to me. I edit as I go, but when I’m done, I’m pretty much done. It’s a very Bukowski way of writing. What’s more, I think my life is good subject matter, and poetry always fits that well.
Given the broad sweep of your writing, how much does one area of it impact others? Does your poetry influence your technical writing (or vice versa!)?
I don’t know how much my technical work has affected my creative work, but poetic lines influence everything I write. There’s a focus in poetry that is helpful in framing any type of writing. You focus on the line, the cadence, the rhythm. Poetry also helps a writer practice omitting needless words.
Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.
No matter what the genre, I learned in school to just get it on the page and then go back and fix it. I know that contradicts what I just said about writing verse, but with verse it’s still pretty much the same; I just don’t do much of the going back and fixing it. Still, while I put more thought into the actual crafting of work while I’m writing poetry—you really have to—I still pretty much adhere to the school of thought that says to just get it on the page. Then you can see what you’ve got and what needs to be done with it.
Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?
I’ve had a few, but right now my favorite is Phillip from The Situation with Phillip. Like all of my other favorite characters before him, I like Phillip because he’s a philosopher, and most of his philosophy comes from lessons learned the hard way. Being an problem drinker in recovery, and being a problem drinker in need of recovery before that, I’ve created a strong personal philosophy that helps others at times. That’s the part of me that gets channeled into these characters like Phillip, and it’s what endears them to me.
What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?
As a matter of fact, it’s the stuff I’m working on right now with my technical writing job, fintech, financial technology. A large part of my present focus is on cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. Bitcoin. Ethereum. It’s so far out of what was previously my wheelhouse, but I’ve taken to it and become really interested in it. It’s something that I would have gotten to soon enough, just because I think its massive scale is going to make us all interested in it down the line, but I never would have ever thought I’d be writing about it.
What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?
Don’t swing for the fences. I grew up reading novels by best-selling novelists, so I thought the only way to make it was as a best-selling novelist. The hard truth of that was the drinking life doesn’t much lend itself to the strength of thought and discipline required to write novels. I have four good, lengthy novel starts, and, while I imagine they’ll all be finished in time, I spent of years chasing the pipe dreams within them when I should have been focusing on more practical projects. Also, you have to write every day, even if it’s only for a half an hour or so. There’s a quote by Lawrence Kasdan, the filmmaker, that I like. He said, “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.” It took me a while to get it, but I focus on that, and I haven’t missed a day in about a year, nor barring tragedy or illness or something like that, I can’t imagine any way that I will.
If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?
I don’t know how much it would change my actual writing, other than I’d be able to write for myself and not for someone else, like the group of magazines I write for. It would change my writing that I wouldn’t have to work at a non-writing job to make money, and it would give me more time to devote to my blog and going back and finishing the novels and other long-form projects that I’ve started but never finished. Still, I’m interested in what I write about in my blog (music, the hilarity and oddness of life at times, music, and my Christian faith are all regular topics), and I’m interested in the fintech and blockchain stuff, so I wouldn’t much change what I write, I’d just have more time to devote to it.
What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?
Lately all of my time reading time has been spent on financial theory analysis, and I don’t tend to read a lot of new novelists. I re-read books I’ve liked in the past. I like structuralism and authors who have fun with their craft. Within the past year, I’ve re-read Tom Robbins’s Still Life with Woodpecker and Italo Calvino’s …if on a Winter’s night a traveler…, which are two of my favorites. The last book by a new author I read was The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman, and, while I didn’t agree with it, as a man of faith I found it interesting enough. Still, I wouldn’t recommend it for a doubtful person; too much food for thought, I think.
Since you mentioned recovery a few times, do you find it difficult to write about characters who are going through similar issues, or is it cathartic to work it through with them?
It’s totally cathartic to write about recovery and characters at all stages of addiction and recovery. The basis of sobriety is a good program, and, for me at least, a good program is based on a good philosophy. Most times, writing about abuse and recovery just gives me good reminders of what I already know and think; occasionally, however, I realize something new or I realize I believe something I didn’t know I believed. It all helps to strengthen the philosophy and the program. Beyond that, it’s great advice for us to write what we know. Being not only a former problem drinker, I’m also a bartender, which means that booze and bars are great fodder for me.
What do you think you’re next project will be?
Well, now that I’m working a full-time job and my writing is a rather large part-time job, I’m not sure. If I had that million dollars (which happens to be a nice round number that I like, by the way), and prior to securing the tech writing job, my plan was to go back and finish the four novels and the screenplay that I’ve started but not completed. I’d also like to see if there are any agents out there who’d like to see what progress I could make on a couple of music related books I’d like to see written. One is the search for faith in a higher power in the lyrics of Chris Cornell, the late singer who fronted both Soundgarden and Audioslave. Also, I’d like to do a comprehensive study of the impression that the five members of The Traveling Wilburys made on the music world—that one might have to be a series.
I don’t worry too much about it though. Ideas have never been a problem for me, and now that I’ve gotten sober and have the discipline, I figure God will put me where He wants me to be when He wants me to be there. It’s like this fintech deal; I had no idea that was in store for me. Still, it has only been four months, I’m the lead feature analysis writer for a new online magazine, Blockchain Times, and the field has become something that will shape me and my writing, as well as the lives of my sons—ten and six—going forward. You try to think about what you’re going to do next, and then something like that happens, and you realize once again that we’re not as much in charge as we think we are. No matter what comes next, I’m going to be where God puts me, and I’m going to do what He wills me to do. Knowing that, I don’t have to worry too much about it.
Learn more about Paul at his blog.