My series of interviews with independent authors of literary fiction continues this week with Steve Bargdill, itinerant writer and writing instructor currently hailing from Knoxville, Ohio. Steve is also an aspiring “PhD wannabe” (his words, not mine) whose knowledge of literature runs from an entrenched understanding of the classics to those works of literary fiction developed by independent authors in more recent times. The latter category, he believes, sadly faces an uphill climb in capturing reader attention due to the fact that the FIRST category was forcefully spoon-fed to those readers at an earlier time, thus developing in their sensibilities an instinct to recoil and avoid.
Steve also believes effective storytelling more than genre captures reader attention. He does consider himself a writer of literary fiction but recognizes the term carries such a weight that it distracts, puts off and generally doesn’t help writers hoping to market their work in that arena.
Here’s Steve Bargdill.
1. What novel (or piece of writing) did you author that inspired you to fill out my survey? Include a link so readers can check it out.
All of them really.
My first novel, Wasteland, loosely based of T.S. Eliot‘s poem of the same name and no surprise there really, is a story cycle—much like Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. I didn’t plan the book as a story cycle; it just kinda happened. I sent the thing out to agents and was told the writing was good, that, “Well, you certainly know what you’re doing, but there’s no market for this. Great story though.” How does that work? At about the same time, I watched online all these authors like Megg Jensen and Hugh Howey garner tons of readers; I read about how series do better on Amazon. So I broke Wasteland into its six parts, purchased cover designs and published it. Scariest decision I ever made.
Then, Banana Sandwich came along, and I thought if legacy publishers weren’t interested in Wasteland, they certainly wouldn’t be interested in Banana Sandwich. A novel that is, well, different. The protagonist knows you are reading the book. I put that online without a second thought.
Gaining readers has been difficult. And there’s a stigma I think, a bias against literary authors who self-publish because they’re posting stuff up on Amazon or hiring printers or print-on-demand or whatever just so they can satisfy some kind of need for vanity. Literary prizes and awards are limited to those who have gone the traditional route. MFAers look at you sideways. But then there are indie literati authors like Nancy Peacock and Tamara Linse who are some of the smartest people I know and not at all ashamed of how they are publishing.
It’s not vanity. We just have stories to tell.
When I stumbled upon your blog, I thought, yeah there’s got to be more of us out there than just me languishing in Amazon algorithms. And to be clear, I don’t think Amazon’s algorithms are really the problem but the perception—that literary fiction is somehow high-brow, unapproachable, snobbery. That literature is somehow difficult to read and understand. Maybe that’s a backlash from reading the Scarlet Letter in high school, being force-fed Macbeth when we really wanted Ender’s Game, It, Blood Meridian—all of which at the time were considered genre and pulp, somehow worthless, but have “transcended” to whatever that means. Good stories are good stories.
So yeah, that’s why I jumped on your bandwagon!
(Note: here is a link to Steve’s Amazon Author page).
2. Was the seed of your story an idea or an image? Are you a visual or a conceptual writer, in other words?
Wasteland definitely came out of a time in my life when I was really lonely and depressed living in a boarding house in Columbus, Ohio working as a day cook at a bar. When I was writing the novel, I was worried my mother would happen upon a copy and read it and think all the drugs, weird sex, torture and all that dark stuff happened, that I actually participated in that kind of lifestyle. Once I got over that, the book was pretty easy to write.
Banana Sandwich, I don’t know, man. Where did that come from? I delivered pizzas for a long time. One of my favorite nights to deliver was Trick or Treat night. I delivered to this one house, and the lady sat outside in a witch’s costume, and I can’t remember our conversation. I do remember though that whatever I had said to her, whatever lame story I pushed on her for an extra bit of a tip, she replied, “That’s banana sandwich.” I never head that phrase before, and I asked her what it meant. About three, four days later I woke in the middle of the night with the protagonist’s voice in my head: “My name is Carol. Christmas Carol Madison,” and she wouldn’t shut up. I’ve heard stories, rumors, legends about authors transcribing voices, autowriting. I always thought it was a myth. Elizabeth Gilbert, in a TedTalk, speaks of her muse, how we have to be open to that part of the universe.
The piece I’m working on now, in its third year because I am a slow, slow writer—that’s about the failing American Dream, and the germ of the story started on a bus ride. I was finishing up my undergrad at the University of Wyoming, taking that one last required foreign languages class to transfer back to the University of Iowa, so I could apply for graduate school. This girl was an English major and had a few classes with my wife, and you know how bus rides are: you’re bored and want to talk. I knew she was graduating soon and she was thinking about grad school as well, so I asked her about her applications. She point blank told me she had changed her mind or rather her father had changed her mind for her. And I thought, how sad, the sins of the parents must befall their children.
3. Keeping with one survey question, you identified a great theme for your literary work. Did that theme exist at the beginning of the writing, or did it emerge only through the telling of your story?
Wasteland I knew I was mirroring Eliot, but Eliot’s poem showcases a world without hope, and I tried to do the opposite.
Banana Sandwich, I had no idea until someone posted a review on Amazon and I thought, yeah, that’s what I wrote; that thing there! About the world’s insanity.
4. Did your perspective on this theme change as you wrote the story? Did you find yourself less in control of your narrative than you expected? Or did you find that you knew all along, based on your convictions, how the story would emerge? Were you, in other words, the “alpha” in the emerging narrative?
The cool thing about writing for me is that I teach writing, so I don’t have the luxury to believe in writer’s block. But I also love what Gilbert says about the Muse. You go to work every day and you write every day and in that way you are in control, but when the Muse asks you to travel down a different path, don’t hesitate. What I tell my students is that a lot of times writing is a way of knowing. I’m pretty confident people are going to die in my current work in progress. I’m pretty confident the story is going to end with the last scene I have planned out in my head, but I could also be so incredibly wrong.
The greater idea of theme though, I don’t know if that necessarily changes for me. When I started out with Wasteland, I knew the theme had to be one of hope in the face of utter despair, and I think I succeeded in that.
Every writing project for me though is different. Even to the physical way I write. Banana Sandwich had to be typed. This thing I’m working on now, huge swaths have been written out long hand with a Uni-Ball 207 Bold black ink pen. I’ve written short stories that had to be done in pencil. And once, I needed colored paper.
So yes. Yes, I am in control as long as I listen.
5. There are as many definitions of “literary fiction” as there are self-identified literary writers. What is your definition of literary fiction?
My Master’s says I majored in English Lit. My thesis is specifically on 20th Century American Lit. I hope to do a PhD in literature. And I am so dang confused. The more I read, the more I just don’t know.
Years ago, I ran an ezine called Today’s Fantasy Fiction. I interviewed George R.R. Martin on the Game of Thrones series, and I thought at the time, what a dumbass—this book will never in a million years take off. Stupidest thing I’ve ever read. Never mind all the other stuff I had been reading—Terry Brook’s Magic Kingdom for Sale, Mairelon The Magician by Patricia Wrede—who was the author who actually encouraged me to go back to school to learn more about writing. I mean, I had close ties to these people. I just thought, all that sex, so much violence—it’ll never make the market. And mind you, Martin is like the nicest, most quiet-spoken person you’ll ever talk to. And he did things like Beauty and The Beast which to this day I do not admit to watching back in the Eighties, but throngs of women followed that show. Then, years later in my late thirties, in grad school, one of my cohorts says she’s going to write an entire thesis about the HBO series and the books, and I thought I got to take another look at this.
I am glad, by the way, that the ezine ran out of money before I could publish Martin’s interview, because I would have looked the utter fool in the long run. Course, now I’m telling the story.
I know genre is easily definable. If you have a dragon, it’s fantasy. If there’s love, romance. Faster than light speed, science fiction. Of course, then there is Pern, but that’s called a crossover, so it’s okay. You can still slap a label on it. But what do you do with something like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children? Is it a family saga? Fantasy? Magic realism? Urban? Political statement?
6. Within the scope of that definition, how did you hope to impress the reader? Did you hope to evoke emotion with a story about some element of life the reader would connect with? Or was your mission to challenge and thereby expand a reader’s perspective on a subject most others would feel is already “known”?
Um, none of that. My goal is always to tell a damn good story.
7. Do you consider yourself a writer of literary fiction? Or a writer of other genre fiction that carries literary elements? Please provide an explanation for your answer.
I would say literary fiction. I mean, I’ve tried writing genre. I love reading dragons and spaceships and all that jazz, but I can’t write it worth a kettle of fish. I mean, I burn the soup.
8. How would you discuss your book in context of its genre? If you consider it literary, why? If your book falls more closely within another genre, what elements would you say make it literary?
Contemporary maybe? That’s the new term for literary, right?
9. Is the literary community a closed community? Or are there inroads for writers of literary fiction to reach readers other than those reading literary fiction now?
I believe, right now, the issue is a matter of safety. You can trust genre. If the cover has a space cowboy riding a robotic steampunk horse, you know without a doubt somewhere in that book there’s a robotic steampunk horse.
I’ve given away so many copies of my books I can’t even count anymore. A lot of the readers come back and say, “I wouldn’t normally read this, but…”
But why wouldn’t you normally read this? And I think the answer goes back to that first question: we’ve been fed a line of malarkey about what literary fiction should be that many of us don’t know what literary fiction in reality is. The stuff we were fed in school was written for a different historical moment. Moby Dick is not the greatest American novel—Melville wrote it for a country that dealt in the horrors of human slavery and a world that ran on whale oil like we run on dinosaur oil today. Of course the book has three hundred gazillion pages on whale anatomy because people wanted to know. We read it today for its greater theme of revenge, but in its day people read it for entertainment, just as Dickens was entertainment, Poe, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Faulkner, Mary Shelley. All entertainment.
We often forget the heritage of self-publishing within the so-called literary world. But then in the same moment, many self-pubbers also like to over-tout that heritage to justify their own hopes and desires, and the hyperbole leaves a bad taste in many people’s mouths—like someone on Twitter constantly shouting, “Buy my book! Buy my book!” Readers tune it out and for good reason.
I just keep giving away books. I don’t have a problem with that. I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it for the sake of art and the audience, and the more people who read my stuff, the more people I’m communicating with; yeah, I’d like to earn a living by writing the stories that matter to me, the stories that I think will matter to others, but for now, one reader at a time.
10. Is it realistic that the Kindle Store will one day feature more independent writers of literary fiction? Or will that category always reflect traditionally published writers with traditional marketing budgets? (This question relates to #9, I suppose.)
Meh. I don’t care. Amazon is a corporation, and as much I love them, they are going to do what they are going to do and I have no control over how they operate their business. Besides, a lot of what they do, what they offer through KDP allows bad-intentioned authors to scam the algorithms, and sure Amazon is doing what it can to hack away at that problem, but it is an imperfect system when the author can decide which categories a book belongs to because you will have how many erotica authors labeling their work as literary?
It is unfair of me to pick on erotica authors. There are some awesome ones out there—Shawn Howen and Michelle Keep for example. And you know, flip the coin. You’re on the verge possibly of creating some kind of self-published literati consortium? Maybe your blog is the same start for the literati that the genre writers had in 2011-2012? What is then to stop a literary self-published author to categorize a book as erotica?
More than worrying about how Amazon will handle their end of stuff, I am so excited about the opportunities presented to us as writers. I remember as a high schooler poring over issues of Writer’s Digest, reading late into the night with a flashlight underneath my blankets reading how-to articles by Nancy Kress, and you know what? Just this past year, we’ve become Facebook friends. We can publish with a push of a button and avoid rejection letters altogether. But we have to put out a consistent quality product—a product that people can trust. And we have to be as real as we can be on whatever platforms we choose to build.
Comment: Questions or observations for Steve Bargdill can be left in the comments section below. If you’re an author who wishes to join the ranks of other writers of literary fiction who have participated in the LitFic survey, click here.
Steve Bargdill hails from the great metropolis New Knoxville, Ohio in the United States, where he regaled his high school English teachers with essays on the lost art of the outhouse. He is a father, a student, a teacher, a PhD wannabe. He is the author of two novels: Wasteland and Banana Sandwich, and working on a third. He met his wife over a strong cup of coffee, will never forget that day, and has lived everywhere–or at least it feels like he has lived everywhere: Dayton, Columbus, Troy, St. Marys, Lincoln, Nebraska, Muncie, Indiana, Laramie, Wyoming, New Hampshire. Where he has not lived, he has seen, traveling U.S. highways delivering frozen TV dinners, apples, chocolate, and T-shirts in the back of a fifty-two foot trailer. He has seen the backsides of many warehouses. He is a self-proclaimed Americanist, regrets not ever hiking the Appalachian Trail, and believes literature weaves through our everyday lives; that stories explain who we are. Currently, he teaches writing at Great Bay Community College and lives in New Hampshire with his Hemingway cat.