Some say he’s “mastered the art of human observation” and has a “talent for detail” who pays “particular attention to sensory details”. And based on the portion of his novel The Alchemy of a Blue Rose that I read, I would agree. Especially with that last comment about sensory details…it was like being in Fergus’ pick-up truck in that first paragraph. I could feel the weather, smell the combination of scents –flowers, sweat, and the air. Incredible.
But what does Joe Wilcox think about writing, his journey into this field, and the rewards and challenges that writing brings? I’m glad you asked because this week, the spotlight is on Joseph David Wilcox.
Q: Why do you write? What’s your primary writing topic and how did it choose you?
A: I enjoy playing with words. They fascinate me. I love to move them around and try on new ones and listen to the sounds they make. I enjoy the challenge of conveying thoughts and feelings into words. Writing also helps me better understand the places and issues and ideas that interest me. It’s really only through writing that I can peel back the skin and get to the meat of something. And when I’m exploring like this, many doors open that take me into many wonderful realms and avenues of new discovery. I enjoy walking these paths and learning new things every day through my writing.
In my essays, I write a lot about my marriage to my Chinese wife and artist, Bovey Lee, and how we meld our distinct cultural backgrounds. Bovey exhibits her work a lot which means we travel often, so I also write about the places we visit and the experiences and the people we encounter. In my fiction, I tend to focus on relationships, familial and romantic. I like exploring family dynamics and also studying how people navigate romantic relationships.
I don’t know how these topics chose me. I’ve always been the type of person who needed to be in a relationship so I suppose I’m continually trying to understand why that is. The only time I really want to be alone is when I write. After I come out of my cave, I need to have someone there for me.
Q: When did you know you wanted to write?
A: I got interested in writing in high school during my sophomore year. My English teacher, Mr. Bonner, was passionate about writing and lavished praise on me and my writing in front of the entire classroom. He made me feel special and, you know writers, we’re a narcissistic lot, so that praise was like an adrenaline shot in the heart. I wanted to write something for him every day just to hear his praise.
Q: Is there anything that gets in the way of your writing? And how do you beat it into submission so that you can continue along your path? What is your favorite time of day or day of the week to write?
A: Life generally gets in the way of writing. I have a full-time job working in the financial industry, so I have to work in my writing around my career, friends, family, and trying to keep my beer belly under control. The way I manage this is to rise early in the morning and put down my words before I get to the office. I usually get up about 4 in the morning and write for a few hours then get in the shower. I like to write in the morning because my mind is fresh and ideas pop into my head more readily at this time of day. There’s nothing like the promise of morning. Also, when I knock out my words before work, I don’t stress all day long about whether or not I will get any writing done that day. And writing first thing frees me to do other things after work like pounding out a few miles on the treadmill. Exercise is important to my writing because when I’m working out my mind relaxes which lets new ideas percolate up from my subconscious. Often ideas pop into my head and I use this time to explore them and to explore new story lines.
Q: Was there ever a time when you felt writing wasn't ¨allowed" or that you weren’t supported in your pursuit of a writing career? How did you handle that?
A: I’ve never felt like there was a time writing wasn’t allowed. Maybe the closest time I didn’t feel supported was right before I graduated college. My professor asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to write. She told me writing would be a tough life. She wasn’t very encouraging and she was one of my favorite professors so that was disappointing. Like many writers, I struggle mightily with confidence. Are my stories good enough? Is my writing good enough? Perhaps this struggle did not allow me to write and I’ve given up many times. But there’s always been this voice in my head telling me to write which takes my hand and leads me backs to the computer.
Q: Some say writing is equal to breathing –do you feel that way? Or is it more of a hobby that you simply balance with your “real” life?
A: I think saying writing is equal to breathing is a little melodramatic. Of course, if I stop breathing I will die but if I don’t write I’m not going to drop dead. A life without writing would be bleak but there are a lot of great things in my life besides writing.
Q: How long does it usually take you to complete a writing project?
A: I guess it depends on the project. Rowman & Littlefield published my two primers and each of those took about a year. One primer dealt with the history of the Middle East and the other dealt with the history of China. I have a blog where I publish essays and it usually takes me a week or two to finish an essay. As far as novels, I’ve started more than I can remember and never finished one. But I’m very excited about my current novel, Alchemy of a Blue Rose. I started it three years ago and am on my third attempt to write it. I’ve probably written about 200,000 words but I believe all that time I was figuring out the story and who the characters are. I’m finally locked in and I hope to finish it by the end of the summer.
Q: Describe your favorite place to write?
A: My favorite place to write is my office at home. I close the door and draw the blinds and hide in there surrounded by all my books. It’s my sanctuary.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge/reward in being a writer?
A: Writing a novel has definitely been my biggest challenge. It’s so much harder than I thought it would be. Writing always came easy to me and when my novels languished I got very frustrated and quit. But I’ve made peace with what it takes to write a novel. I know I have the wherewithal and the talent to do it. I’m very determined to get to the end this time. Plus, I’m in love with the story I’m writing and the characters I’m creating. I owe it to them to get their story down.
As far as the biggest reward, that goes back to the whole narcissistic thing for me. I love praise. It’s like crack. It drives me like nothing else. I love to hear people tell me my writing moved them or made them feel something. It’s so powerful and emboldens me.
Q: You're newest book Alchemy of a Blue Rose is coming along nicely –where did the idea for this book come from? Do you relate to a particular character in it?
A: I live in Pittsburgh and there are a lot of street corners where you see guys selling flowers. It’s such an odd juxtaposition to see these tough guys living in this blue collar, working-class town battling the rain, snow, wind and the heat to sell a flower. I thought about what kind of person would it take to do that? What kind of life might a flower guy have? Then I started researching the flower industry. I read Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential and I read Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel, The Language of Flowers. I discovered this whole new world I never knew existed. It intrigued me. So I started pulling together this story that weaved all these different elements, strong men who deal in this delicate world, the business of flowers, the poetry and the feelings and ideas flowers communicate.
I would say I relate most to Fergus. We’re both educated and easy going. We’re also driven and motivated to do something great with our lives. We’re both idealistic and hopeless romantics not huge on planning, preferring to push forward and let fate guide the way. Unfortunately, relying on fate makes for a messy life, leading to a lot of mistakes and learning from those lessons.
What words of wisdom would you give to a young person who dreams of being a writer/author?
As far as words of wisdom I'd give to a writer is to believe in yourself and never give up. For me, the biggest thing I struggled with as a young writer was doubt. Believing I wasn't good enough. And also not understanding how hard the writing life can be. You have to believe in yourself because there will be many days when writing steps on your neck and tries to choke you. Will you be able to get back up from an ass kicking like this? The only way is to believe in yourself, to persevere.
If you believe in yourself and you work hard every day to become a better writer, you can achieve your dreams of a writing life. In my own experience, writing a novel is certainly the hardest thing I've ever tried. I've written drawers full of words but nothing ever saw the light of day. My current novel, Alchemy of a Blue Rose, I'm in my third year writing it and on my third attempt. I've completely scrapped two manuscripts, numerous characters and story lines just to get to where I feel good about where the novel is going.
I just bought The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin and in it she talks about her 8-year journey to write this wonderful book, her first novel. To achieve the writing life, are you willing to work this hard?
Is the writing life everything you ever thought it would be? If so, what contributes to that? If not, why not?
For myself, I won't believe I have achieved the so-called writing life until I'm doing it full-time. I've published two books and my blog limps along and I'm excited about my novel, but it doesn't feel like the writing life. I get up at four in the morning and write for a few hours and then I'm forced to put it all aside and go to work. The writing life will happen for me when I reach a point where, if I wanted to, I could sit around all day in my underwear. And just write.