I am so grateful Ray Blackston, author of the hilarious new novel Par for the Course, took time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions. Sit back, relax, and get to know Ray Blackston…
CeeCee: Why set your book at a golf course in Charleston, South Carolina during the presidential election?
Ray B: Hey, what could be more appropriate in '08 than customers getting the opportunity to whack golf balls at the political caricature of their choice! It's great stress relief! In fact, I should open "Whack a Conservative" and "Whack a Liberal" golf ranges all over the United States! Funny thing is, a friend of mine called me last month from Florida and said someone had done just that: installed giant cardboard cutouts of the Presidential candidates on a driving range so as to allow people to hit golf balls at them. Such advertising has gotta be great for business. Just grab a couple friends, a few 5-irons, buy a bucket of balls, and flail away till you've whopped your political enemy. Talk about energizing the electorate!
CeeCee: How important is it for unpublished authors to write about what they know?
Ray B: I would say quite important, unless they are just very, very good with research. There have been so many books published — and the knowledge base in reader land continues to grow — that if you don't know your subject matter well, the agents and the editors are going to rush your manuscript to "File 13." (the rejection pile).
CeeCee: Additionally, is it wise to get story ideas from current events?
Ray B: Not necessarily. Taking into consideration that it takes months and even years to craft a book, if you write "towards" news making events, when your book finally comes out it will be behind the present current events. Keyword phrase here is lag time. Same is true for trying to "write what is currently popular in bookstores." Just think how many would-be authors tried to write stories centered around the apocalypse shortly after Left Behind took off in popularity. All those unnecessary and hastily written manuscripts are now, you guessed it, in File 13! (That's a big big file … probably Grand Canyon-esque in breadth and width).
CeeCee: Your secondary characters tend to be quirky, off-the-wall types who add dimension to the main character and to the story. Chris may have owned the golf center but it was his wacky employee Cack (I love Cack!) who gave the center its edge. Even the gangsters and the bikers, who are easily stereotyped and shunned, added "that special something" to the golfing center. Was it intentional on your part to show that even the least likely people can enrich our lives?
Ray B: Yep, it was intentional, but it was also to show how different and fun a golf range can be from the staid and "old money" country clubs. I mean, when dealing with the public, an entrepreneur has to be ready for anything. And Cack, well, he and his bullhorn can handle most anyone… especially the politicians!
CeeCee: I laughed out loud while reading Par for the Course. How important is having a sense of humor? What makes you laugh?
Ray B: Forrest Gump makes me laugh, as do most movies with Owen Wilson. I find the travel writer Bill Bryson keeps me in stitches. Sometimes Dave Barry makes me laugh, and of course the sports writer Rick Reilly is quite good with the similes and metaphors. For me, having a sense of humor keeps me sane when things aren't going well. Humor is often the "lens" through which I view our topsy-turvy world. But not always…
CeeCee: Unpublished authors want to know: what was it like to get the call?
Ray B: Well, when I got "the call" I was in the middle of a summer nap. So I was awakened from slumber in more ways than one! To get that call is both a thrill and a realization that you had better polish your work to the nth degree, because soon it will be a real book and you'll be receiving real, professional critiques! Was it a long, hard road to publication? I can honestly say it was not. In early 2000 I took the only thirty pages I'd ever written to the Blue Ridge Christian Writers Conference. I called the story "Flabbergasted," and it got first place in the fiction contest. The judges encouraged me to keep going with the story and turn it into a full-length novel. So I did. Two years later, after four or five rejections, Baker Book House called, said the first half of the novel made them laugh and would I please send the second half. I told them I was in the process of changing the second half from present tense to past tense, but they said "send it on and we can fix that later." Total time from when I began writing that book and when I received a contract was two years and eight months. But understand that I was a maniac during that time, spending hours on just one paragraph if I felt I needed to. I would even rank every chapter on a scale of 1 to 10, then I'd identify the weakest chapter, fix that one, then identify the next weakest, fix that one, and so forth. I did this over and over, back to front, front to back, and sideways. I was very motivated to try and see if I could write something publishable, and do it with the most vivid story idea that's ever orbited inside my head. I give God all the credit for opening doors and pairing me with the perfect editor, Jeanette Thomason, to make that book the best it could be.
CeeCee: How long did it take to write Par for the Course?
Ray B: I wrote the book in six months, then spent two months editing after receiving feedback from my editor. So, a total of eight months.
CeeCee: Is it more of a challenge to write the book or revise the book?
Ray B: Actually I think the writing is tougher. Once you have words on the page (or screen), it tends to spur creative thinking as to what can be done to improve the story. It's kinda like Playdough that needs to be molded, stretched, or paired with a different color Playdough. But when I'm starting a novel, nothing is more intimidating than a blank screen!
CeeCee: How do you remain sane during the writing process? Any fun vices like candy bars, potato chips, or Starbucks coffee you have to have to put you in the right framework to write?
Ray B: Oh yes. Since I do almost all my creative writing in the morning, I tend to start quite early, around 6:30 or so, and always with a bowl of "mixed cereal," like Quaker Oat Squares and Spoon-size Shredded Wheat, plus a mug of coffee with either Irish Creme flavoring (in spring and summer) or Pumpkin Spice flavoring (fall and winter).
CeeCee: How about weird or unusual rituals like sharpening pencils, circling your writing desk 5 times before settling in, or having your favorite music playing, etc.?
Ray B: Ya know, I tried writing to music once, and it just didn't work at all. So, other than a prayer for focus and concentration, the only other habit I have (besides the cereal and coffee) is to walk out on the back deck and put a handful of sunflower seeds out for the cardinals who live in my backyard. Sort of adopted pets, without any vet bills.
CeeCee: I recently read an article that stated a writer should stop reading other people's work when he is actually writing, some stating that you should completely go cold turkey by not reading anything at all because reading drowns out the writer's own words. Do you believe that? Do you read other people's work while you write?
Ray B: Well, I can tell you that I don't read much fiction at all while writing a novel. But when I do, it is in the same voice, i.e., if I'm writing in first person then I'll read first person, and likewise for third person. It's like a golfer practicing in hilly terrain if a tournament will be held in hilly terrain, or practicing on flat terrain, etc.
CeeCee: Can you tell readers what you are working on next?
Ray B: Gladly. I'm finishing a novel that I've titled Last Mango in Texas. It centers on the life of young Kyle Mango, a Texas Tech student who, in his senior year, discovers that he has been left some productive oil wells. Problem is, the girl he is after has just gone to Alaska to clean off oil birds after an oil spill. She hates the stuff! So, it's a romantic comedy with a "green earth" backdrop, and plenty of international travel. And, I must admit, it's a lot of fun. Last Mango in Texas will release in Feb. '09.
CeeCee: Any final words?
Ray B: Sure. People tend to think that after an author pens several novels, the writing of the next one gets easier. Well, I can tell you this: the fact that you have completed prior novels does not impress your laptop!
CeeCee: Thank you again for taking the time for this interview. I look forward to reading the Last Mango in Texas next year.