Having recently read and reviewed a new, memorable, coming-of-age novel, Heart With Joy, I am thrilled to now present an interview with the author, Steve Cushman.
1) Welcome, Steve! Please tell us a bit about your background, and the main inspiration for your latest book, Heart With Joy.
SC: I was born in Massachusetts but grew up in Florida and moved to Greensboro, North Carolina in 2000 to attend the MFA writing program at UNC-Greensboro and have lived here ever since. I've been an X-ray tech for about 17 years and writing for about 15 years.
My first novel, Portisville, was published in 2004. In 2008, I published a short story collection, Fracture City. Heart With Joy is my second published novel. The main inspiration for this novel was basically me thinking about what happens when a mother leaves her husband and son. I knew this father and son did not get along very well and I knew that I had to somehow bring them together. It took me about six years to figure out to do this. All my fiction starts with characters in a situation and then I do my best to figure things out from there.
2) Heart With Joy is a character-driven novel. Julian, his parents, and other characters come to life in your book. Are your characters based on people you know or knew, from your imagination, or both?
SC: I usually don't base my characters on people I know, but in this case the Mrs. Peters' character is certainly modeled after my neighbor, Barbara Hughes. Barbara is not in her nineties and has never run over someone's leg, but she is a big bird watcher and the two of us have spent a good amount of time talking about birds. While none of the characters are based on me per se, there are instances where my thoughts come out through the story. For example, many of the things Julian says or thinks about cooking are things that I have thought.
3) As a multi-genre writer, which of your three works did you find the most fulfilling to write, Portisville, a literary thriller, Fracture City, a collection of short fiction, or Heart With Joy, a novel for young adults?
SC: Each book is special to me for various reasons--Portisville because it was the first one. To hold your own book in your hand or walk in to a bookstore and see it on a shelf is a pretty big deal for a writer. Fracture City basically represents the span of my writing life. Some stories were written twelve years ago and others were written two weeks before the book was accepted for publication, so it was very cool to have this collection of my writing. Heart With Joy is special to me because it is a novel that I always believed in and because it allowed me to write about so many things that were important to me: cooking, bird watching, and writing.
4) I am intrigued by the writing spaces of authors (and perhaps a bit nosy!). Would you please share a photo and a few words about your writing or computer desk?
SC: My writing desk is nothing fancy, just a large table with my computer and printer. You can see that the monitor doesn't match and that's because I've gone through a couple monitors during the seven years I've had the computer. The desk is located upstairs in our extra bedroom. This is fine except for when we have company and I can't get to my desk. I'm thinking about getting a laptop for two reasons--one is that I simply need a new computer as this one is terribly slow and the other is the portability a laptop would offer. I write on the computer as opposed to pen and paper and if I have a laptop I can set it up anywhere and write away. We'll see. The room and desk are special to me in that I've spent so many hours there over the years and I've gotten some good news as well as not so good news sitting there.
Steve's writing space looks comfortable and very organized.
You can catch a glimpse of Lucky, his cat, in the photo.
(Steve said that all of his pets make it into his writing.)
5) How did you pay your "writing dues"? What is the best writing advice you have ever received? What additional advice would you share with aspiring authors?
SC: I think to pay your dues you have to sit your butt in your chair and write. Also, you have to read, a bunch. I did attend two creative writing graduate schools: Hollins University and UNC-Greensboro. While I think writing programs do a great job of giving you a foundation on what makes good writing the real test is afterward when you are out there on your own and you don't have a piece of writing due and you have to do it because you want or need to.
As for advice given, I met Larry Brown (a favorite writer of mine who died in 2004) back in 2002 and I told him I was a huge fan of his and that I too was a writer and he said to me "just keep working and good things will come." Simple advice but true and helpful and that is the same advice I would give to aspiring writers: just work and read and try to figure out why you like certain books and keep writing and eventually good things will come. I've known many people who were much better writers than me who stopped writing for a variety of reasons. I believe if you want to do something, then you do it no matter what.
6) Which books or authors did you enjoy most growing up?
SC: I didn't read much growing up, no more than what was assigned in school. But when I was in my late teens and early twenties I was working at a record store in Orlando, Florida. The manager of the store, Jim Boylston, would come in every day with stacks of books. He was in his thirties and owned a record store, so I thought he was pretty darn cool. I asked what he was reading and he told me about Larry Brown and Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Carver, so I started reading them. It was through reading these writers that I got interested in writing. I thought hey if they can do it why can't I. So of course I wrote a ton of bad stuff for a few years but by then it was too late. I was hooked on writing and eventually I did get better.
As for now, I read all sorts of stuff but do lean toward literary fiction. In the last month I have read two books that I thought were simply amazing: Sherman Alexie's The Half-True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (this is actually considered young adult) and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Vergehese. Both novels blew me away for different reasons. Next, I plan on reading John Hart's The Last Child and Labor Day by Joyce Maynard.
(Steve, like good actors, good writers make the craft look effortless and natural. It's only when you sit down and attempt to write that the reality hits you--it's a lot more difficult than it seems!)
7) How does living in North Carolina influence your work as a writer?
SC: I don't know that it does. I've been here ten years. Heart With Joy is set in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Hale's house and yard and neighborhood described in the book are essentially my home and neighborhood and the park at the end of my street. Most of my stories have been located in Florida because that is where I spent about 30 years of my life. So I don't know. I will say that Greensboro is a nice town--not too big, not too small.
8) What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
CS: I'm working on some short stories and poems as I've been pretty busy promoting Heart With Joy. After the first of the year, I plan on working on a another YA novel that I wrote the first draft of back over the summer. I'm looking forward to that.
9) Last but not least, please tell us something surprising or offbeat about your work or yourself.
CS: I played bass in a band back in the late eighties that opened for the Flaming Lips in Orlando, Florida. And yes, I had a mullet and wore it proudly.
Thanks for having me.
Steve, thanks very much for doing this interview. I wish you much continued success.
Your comments are welcomed. Have I forgotten to ask Steve anything? If you have a question for the author, please feel free to leave it in the comments. Thanks for reading.