A Talk with Neal

You, the Author

Why do you write?

I’m not sure there’s one reason. I’ve created and written stories as long as I can remember, and I’ve always enjoyed it (I remember writing spoofs of my teachers in elementary school). I seem to have intuitively grasped English grammar (my last English class was in high school), so I don’t have to go back and check my work for spelling or punctuation or noun-verb agreement or anything like that, which makes it easier to focus on content. I guess I write to educate, to provoke, and to amuse, and if I can do all three at the same time, then I’ve really succeeded.

What do you write?

At least years ago, my professional career centered on sex, drugs, and violence—that is, AIDS prevention, drug education, and violence prevention. Since then, I’ve written books and programs about different facets of youth and adolescence. I’ve also written a lot of political essays (see my website, www.nealstarkman.com). As for fiction, much of my early work was stories—and games and plays and interactive activities—for young people as parts of the health education programs I helped to develop. And of course I’ve written two novels. I’m a 60s guy, I guess, and I like to write things that help people as individuals, or People as a group—either one will do.

Who are your influences?

I’ve thought about this, of course, and I honestly don’t know. I don’t think I have any particular influences.

What are your three favorite books/authors and why?

George Lakoff’s political framing books (e.g., Moral Politics) make a lot of sense to me, Douglas Hofstadter’s books on words and thought (e.g., Gödel, Escher, Bach) are extremely entertaining, and Emo Philips is always funny.
What is the experience of writing a novel for you? How was it different from your other endeavors, such as obtaining your Ph.D. or owning your company?

I’ve written two novels, and because they’re entirely different, the two experiences were entirely different. Nonetheless, I guess what sets writing a novel apart—for me—is the continual surprise. I knew what I needed to do in order to obtain my Ph.D., and I knew what I needed to do in order to own my company. But when I write a novel, although I have a general idea of what’s going to happen, sometimes I’m as surprised as I hope the reader is. The muse takes over and leads me to places I hadn’t previously thought of. So writing a novel is more spontaneous than other endeavors. Plus, despite the muse, I have total control over it. It’s a nice combination.


The Mechanics

What prompted you to write this book?

Part of it, of course, was experiences that jolted me into a desire to articulate the dynamics of such experiences. But another part of it was my general interest in expressing the idea of individuality—individuality amidst powerful influences to toe various lines. That’s always interested me—even my dissertation touched on it. It seemed that a novel, a big story based on what I knew firsthand and what I could surmise, would be a good way to do that.

Describe your writing process for us. How long did it take you to write this book? When/where/how did you go through the process?

I went away to write Dervishes. I live in Seattle (western Washington), and I traveled to Wenatchee (central Washington) and stayed in a motel room for several days to write the first draft. I did something similar for my dissertation. It gave me the separation and the privacy to concentrate.

 What do you do when you get stuck on a problem that blocks the writing process?

I generally don’t get stuck.

Do you envision the entire story at once and just fill in as you go, or do you just see where the writing takes you and troubleshoot as necessary?

The latter: I have a general idea, but a lot of it comes fairly spontaneously.

What do you have the most fun with during the creative process?

Oh, I think the most fun is probably running into surprises—characters that do something that significantly furthers the plot while reflecting something that happened earlier in the story. It’s as if you planned it, but you didn’t—well, not consciously, anyway.

Do you have any special rituals or superstitious behaviors you must follow while writing?


This Particular Story: Dervishes

Who do you most identify with in this work?

I don’t want to duck the question, but I probably identify with both Carolyn and Philip: Carolyn because of my continual need to think critically and speak my own voice; and Philip because of my occasional alienation from what passes as the norm. I can probably most identify with Philip’s reaction to the mall; I’ve felt that way before (and as a result avoid malls when I can).

Why this story?

I think I wanted to explore individuality, specifically from the point of view of a woman undergoing a change from the heterosexual world to the homosexual world. I know something about that (secondhand, of course), and I also know something about the academic world. So it made sense to portray an academic making the transition and coping with the attendant pressures.

Who do you think would be most affected by or touched by this work?

I’m guessing that women in Carolyn’s situation would be most affected or touched—women who are trying to find their true voice in order to make important decisions about their lives. Of course, I’d hope that men as well—and not just gay men—would be positively affected. And people from St. Cloud, Minnesota—they’d be affected, too; after all, how many novels feature characters from St. Cloud?

What is a profound memory from this title’s writing process?

I think there was a time early on when I realized that Dervishes had to be written from Carolyn’s point of view, as opposed to an omniscient narrator. More than anything, this story is about Carolyn’s inner life, and it was absolutely essential for the reader to get inside that life as much as possible.

I also had rather an odd encounter doing some research after the book was almost done. Since I knew next to nothing about superfluid helium—who knows why I chose that as Carolyn’s field of work—I read as much as I could find about it. Nonetheless, I still had a few technical questions about it, and I wanted to be sure that what I’d written was accurate. So I asked around the University of Washington to see if any physicists there knew anything about superfluid helium. Indeed, there was someone, and I went in to see him. From his standpoint, it must have been a really strange experience: Clearly, I knew all about superfluid helium, and we had this rather esoteric discussion about the most minute details of Carolyn’s experiments; I was glad to see that what I’d written was correct. But anytime he veered off track a little into plain old physics, I had no idea what he was talking about. Uh, pressure? Momentum? Gravity? I must have come across as kind of an idiot savant—or maybe just an idiot.

You are a man writing from a woman’s perspective, and you do so remarkably well. How did you tap into your character’s mind as a woman? Did you find the experience difficult? Rewarding?

Why, thank you. Actually, it was more difficult writing from a physicist’s perspective; after all, I know some women. I’m not sure how to answer the question of tapping into Carolyn’s mind. I mean, that’s what writers do—tap into characters’ minds. Although Carolyn is a woman, some characteristics, some thinking processes, aren’t bound by sex. I recall creating a biography for Carolyn before even beginning the book, so that I could rely on reasonable rationales for some of her attitudes and behaviors. After that, it’s just, well, becoming Carolyn while writing the book. I don’t think the experience was any more difficult than that of merging with any other character. In fact, it may have been easier, because it’s her voice that carries the reader—and the writer—throughout the book (except for one chapter), and once you find that voice, it becomes natural to maintain it. As for rewarding, yes, I enjoyed it a lot.

 Dervishes takes place in the late 70s and early 80s. Did you write, or begin to write, the book at that time or was it a recent endeavor?

I wrote almost all of it in the late 70s and early 80s.