Evan Guilford-Blake is an accomplished author who has tried his hand, successfully, at many forms of writing – he’s a successful playwright, has written short story collections, works of fiction and poetry to name a few. His stories have won multiple competitions and he’s won more than 40 playwriting contests.
I recently came across Evan’s work for the first time via American Blues – a short story collection set in America and all centred around the blues – the emotion and the music. You can read my review of the collection here. Evan has quickly become one of my favourite authors and I contacted him to see if he fancied a chat about his work. Luckily for me (and you) he said yes, so without further ado, here is the interview!
At the risk of asking a question I’m sure you’ve been asked many times before – how did you become a writer? Where did it all start and what helped you take the first step towards putting your writing out there for the public?
My mother was a writer. She wrote children’s radio plays — three a week, 26 weeks a year, for several years — as well as short stories and plays. (I spent much of my life in theatre; that was her fault. She wanted me to be an actor, if you can believe that, and I made my debut in one of her radio plays when I was five.) She encouraged me to read (and taught me: I read most of Beatrix Potter on my own when I was three) and to write. It’s become almost epigrammatic now but there’s a story: When I was five, she sent a poem I wrote to a children’s magazine which bought it — for $5.00. I was thrilled. That inspired me to write countless other poems and stories — none of which sold.
I started writing seriously in my twenties: two terrible novels before I was 31, and enough poems to keep a bonfire going for a week, which is all most of them were good for, and some short stories. I sold my first piece of fiction in 1977, but the craft was still more a vocation than career. It wasn’t until the late ’80s that I began to treat writing with the respect it deserved and the commitment I needed to make to it. Mostly, I wrote plays. I’d spent more than twenty years in theatre, most of it as an actor; it was the medium I knew best. I was fortunate to have a fair amount of success: My work was getting produced regularly and I won a bunch of contests. Thus, I kept writing plays, almost exclusively, until roughly 2009. (As you may know, the stories Nighthawks, Tio’s Blues and American Blues all began their lives as plays.)
I forayed into fiction in 2009, adapting my play Noir(ish) into a novel. That was published by Dutton (as an e-book) in 2012. It’s a long story that’s not really relevant, but I asked for and was given a reversion of rights in late 2015.
After that, fiction sort of took over my life. I wrote the stories that comprise American Blues, and a small truckload of others, as well as the novels Animation (a 104,000-word version of the short story in American Blues) and The Bluebird Prince (also adapted from a — TYA — play). I more or less abandoned playwriting — the market was getting tougher and tougher to penetrate, while my fiction was getting attention — and just completed a first draft of a new play, my first in more than three years.
I guess it’s fair to say I became a writer because I could, and I remain one because writing is easier than not writing. As my wife will attest: I am hell to be around when I don’t have time to write. And I send my work out in hope of publication because that’s what writers do. I’d love to make a living doing it (fat chance!), but, I hope, what I write has something to say to and about people, and I want them to experience and understand it.
I have an essay called Striving for Immortality in which I wrote:
“For many years, I said I wrote because I could. Later, my rationale was that, like breathing, it was easier for me to write than it was not to write. Those are both true, but they’re not the truth. That, I’ve come to realize, is — I write because it’s my way to be remembered.”
I’m striving for immortality.
You’re an accomplished writer across multiple platforms – plays, fiction and short stories. What made you decide to explore these different mediums?
Most of that’s answered above. It’s whatever bell rings at a particular moment. My motives are mixed: I want to write about what I care about, and what I can sell. Unless I’m ranting about the political establishment (I do that a lot lately) the specific medium doesn’t really matter to me. I also write essays, other creative non-fiction, children’s stories and poetry. (Haiku is my specialty. I love the form and read it often.)
Do you alter your writing process for the different mediums? Do you have specific rituals to help you focus or ‘get in to’ a certain frame of mind?
Generally, no. I listen to music a lot; it inspires and, usually, relates to what I’m writing. I have, for example, a play that’s based on and designed after Elgar’s Enigma Variations, another that draws heavily on Christmas Carols, and, of course, there are the stories in American Blues, all of which (except Animation) are music-dependent. I do do a lot of research for much of what I write. For example, I read half a dozen books about Van Gogh, two catalogues raisonnés and his complete letters while I was writing my play Ceremonies of Prayer, which is suggested by an incident in his life. I also spent a lot of time staring at his paintings, trying to get inside the artist’s head while he painted.
But, for me, writing is writing. I’m grateful that I can sit down, take an idea and run with it. They don’t all pan out, but enough do that I don’t worry about what’s unfinished: Life’s unfinished. You complete those parts of it you can.
Your creative work crosses many genres, where does your inspiration come from? Everywhere. Music is huge source. So is visual art. What’s going on in the world, the social issues in contemporary society. I carry a notebook with me at all times and jot down ideas as they come to me. I keep it on my bedside table at night and drive my poor wife nuts because I’m wont to flick on my lamp to write something down at two in the morning. Most of those notes will never go anywhere — I have dozens of those little notebooks that are filled with them — but now and then one does and, besides, if I don’t write something down I’ll lose it and, since I’m obsessive about keeping my ideas available, it’s better for my mental health.
Do you have a favourite outlet for your creativity? Do you prefer writing plays or stories?
Makes no difference, really, though I suspect if I could sell them, I’d write mostly haiku.
Similarly, do you have a favourite aspect of the human condition that you like to write about?
I try to write plays that deal with social dilemmas: women’s issues and racial/ethnic/LGBTQ prejudice; and works about artists and their relationships with society. My fiction deals with much of the same, although to this point much of it has been about men and their interactions with the social order. Still, artists and their art — whether it’s music, visual art, writing — play an important part in my fiction. I also have, lately, been writing a lot about our desire to touch one another, emotionally. I think we’re painfully separated. There’s a passage from A.D. Hopes’ The Planctus which, I think, says it well:
“Who will remember our city in its grace?
Only ourselves, survivors, each inside
A separate ark, lost on the endless flood,
Posting each other at random on the wide
American Blues takes its readers to some very dark places and leaves them there – was there one story that struck you as particular haunting to write or explore? Or did they all have the same effect on you?
The hardest one for me to write was Sonny’s Blues, since Sonny Curtis is a surrogate for Sonny Criss, who has meant more to me musically than any other player since I discovered his music some forty years ago. Criss was, perhaps arguably, the greatest Blues altoist who ever lived, and I still get chills and tears when I hear him play — and I still feel resentment against the American music establishment that overlooked him. I don’t think anyone wants to explore the dark sides of someone you feel is iconic, but writing is about trying to understand. I don’t know whether I do, yet. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written, and I may try to turn it into a novel so I can try again. If there’s one thing I hope the book will do, it’s introduce Criss and his music to the so-many who have no idea of who he was.
Like most authors, a lot of the characters I’ve gotten to know over the years are dislikable: Amanda excepted, the people in The Easy-Lovin’ Blues, for example. I love them all, but I don’t like them, and it’s always hard to write about people you actively dislike. But they are as insistent on having their stories told as the rest, and refuse to be ignored. I’ve spent many a sleepless night arguing with them. They always win.
I can tell you’re the kind of writer who is always working on something – what can your readers expect form you next?
I have a short story collection — it’s literary fiction, called Love and Loss and Love — making the rounds, as well as a revised version of my novel Noir(ish) which is so different from anything else I’ve written — literary pulp fiction and, I hope a lot of fun. I hope to have a final draft of my new play finished in early fall, and I have two novels and a collection creative nonfiction — animal stories, all very gentle — in progress. I tend to work on multiple things at once. That way, when I get stuck on something I have something else I can turn to.
Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to your readers, or to future readers of yours?
Of course I hope they’ll read more of my work. I’ll plug it simply by saying I have 26 books I’ve written or contributed to listed on my Amazon page. But, I hope people will also read books by other authors they don’t yet know, especially from small presses. (Holland House, for example, has a wonderful author list.) And if they like them, tell others! And give them as gifts! There are so many terrific new books out there. Reading one unknown author a month will enhance your perspective on literature and challenge both your intellect and your emotions.
I would like to take this opportunity to extend my deepest thanks to Evan Guilford-Blake for all of the writing he has gifted to the world (which I can not wait to devour as he has instantly become one of my all-time favourite authors) and for agreeing to do this interview with me. I feel honoured and will treasure the experiences of both Evan’s writing and his incredible kindness.
I’d also like to sincerely and deeply thank Robert Peett of Holland House for giving me the oportuity to not only experience Evan’s wrting for the first time, but for introducing me to Evan and being the reason any of this could have happened in the first place.