Christopher Meeks is the author of the short story collections The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and the more recent Months and Seasons. He has been a journalist, critic, playwright, and screenwriter. Currently he divides his time between writing and teaching at five different colleges. He's the editor of the ecclectic news magazine, The Maplewoods Mirror. In this in-depth interview, Meeks talks about his books, life, writing and publishing, as well as getting an agent and book promotion.
Thanks for being here today, Christopher. Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?
I started as a freelance journalist and critic, writing for over twenty publications. One of my specialties was interviewing authors, which included top authors such as Colleen McCullough, Chaim Potok, Thomas Thompson and playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. When I found I was getting published faster than the checks were coming in — magazines owed me money — I looked for a full-time job and found a heavenly one. I became the Institute Writer at CalArts, an arts college in Valenica, California.
There, I edited an arts magazine, and then a quarterly where I interviewed artists of all sorts — dancers, filmmakers, theatre directors, musicians and composers, painters, graphic artists and more. I wrote about them as well as events happening at CalArts. Some of my favorite interviews include film directors Tim Burton, Werner Herzog, and Alexander Mackendrick, Pixar’s John Lasseter, theatre director Peter Sellars, actors Don Cheadle and Ed Harris, and bassist Charlie Haden.
While I worked there, I wrote plays that were produced and screenplays that were optioned. Between my bigger projects, I wrote short stories. Fiction to me felt dangerous. I didn’t have any producers or actors to help me polish my work, so what I wrote felt so naked. I kept those stories to myself until I finally started submitting them to literary magazines in the late nineties and getting them published.
After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which closed CalArts’ main building, and classes were taught in rented buildings all over town, I took a chance and asked a dean if I might teach a class in creative writing. He thought it was a great idea.
Watch what you wish for. I’d been a writer because I didn’t have to be in front of people. With my plays, the actors were on stage, not me. Suddenly, I found twenty pairs of eyes looking at me, saying “I dare you to teach me.” That brought more fear in me than writing had ever done. Still, I persevered. I left being the Institute Writer to teach creative writing and English. I’m proud of my teaching, especially when I see I inspire great writing. I mostly teach now in USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program.
I’m best known for my two books of short fiction, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and the recent Months and Seasons.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
As I’ve read the histories of literary blogsters on such sites as yours, I see I wasn’t as avid a reader compared to others (and probably you.) My parents didn’t want my brothers and I up reading after bedtime, but I’d sneak under my blanket to read by flashlight in fourth and fifth grade. Frankly, my English teachers pounded out of me the joy of reading.
It was only when I was in Denmark in my junior year of college studying abroad that I found myself so utterly alone that I devoured books again. At that time, I’d planned on living with my Danish girlfriend, who’d I’d met in Minnesota, but by the time I had all my studies arranged and got over there, I learned she was living with another man. She didn’t tell me until I landed. She arranged it so that I could live with her parents. Life’s odd, yes? (That loosely became the basis of an upcoming novel, The Laughter and Sadness of Sex.)
The local Danish library did not have a lot of English-language books, and the ones they had were well-known ones. I tackled Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage right away because it looked wonderfully thick. I needed escape. I then fell into Hemingway and Fitzgerald and found their stories fabulous. How had my English teachers made it seem only they could properly understand these books?
I came to make some Danish friends, and at one of their parties, I found books by Kurt Vonnegut in a bathroom, and the host let me borrow them. I became a Vonnegut fan because his stories were so different than Fitzgerald, Hemingway’s, and Maugham’s. He was having fun. Vonnegut was probably the first author who showed me that serious stories could have humor.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, Months and Seasons, and what inspired you to write such a collection.
I love writing short stories, but my first agent made it clear he wouldn’t represent a collection of short fiction because they didn’t make money. I started writing novels. I had already put together The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, however, and so I had it published independently from my agent. The book didn’t make money. However, it received some great reviews, including a mention in Entertainment Weekly and a big review in the Los Angeles Times. The agent called me to say congratulations.
Anyway, I was not going to do another collection of short stories, but someone approached me from the Beverly Hills Public Library. She wanted to present my short fiction in a special evening using actors, but the stories couldn’t be from an older book but from a new one. If I said yes, she couldn’t fit me in for three years, so I went ahead and wrote a batch of new stories at that time, which became Months and Seasons. It’s crazy to do a book just for one night of glory, but I only needed an excuse to write another collection.
The title story, “Months and Seasons,” is about a guy who will only date women whose first name is a month or season, such as April or Summer. It’s his weird notion of finding true love. I used the title of the story for the collection, though, because I realized the ages of the major characters ranged from seven to seventy-eight. The stories cover different seasons of people’s lives.
As readers will find out, the stories often have humor in them, but they are, at heart, stories of real crises in people’s lives.
Sam Sattler, one of the early reviewers of the book at his website Book Chase, compared the stories to tracks on a CD—each track solid. No filler. He and others have found the stories compelling.
Who is your target audience?
Not everyone reads short story collections. In fact, only a small percent of fiction readers do. Then again, when people receive such books as gifts, they find the short story form perfect for their busy lives. You can read a story in a short time and have a full experience. While my stories are layered so that the close reader can find much in them, the average reader, too, will find the stories involving, even fun, and relate to them. These are stories of ordinary people having the kinds of deep problems we’re all faced with.
Good stories help us reflect about our own lives, make us see things we might not normally consider. Philosopher Martin Heidegger basically said most people live life on autopilot, and it’s only when we’re “thrown” are we forced to think. I write stories about people who are thrown, letting the absurdities of our world filter in.
What type of writer are you — the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?
I’m both types of people. My first stories tended to be autobiographical, as is typical of most writers. Once you burn through those, what will you write about? I’m writing a mystery novel now, something I never thought I’d do. I can’t tell you how it’ll come out because it’s already becoming a quirky thing. My sensibilities are seeping in, but I’ve laid out the whole plot on paper. I’ve learned that’s what mystery writers do, and J.K. Rowling did the same thing for her Harry Potter books.
My early writing had no planned structure, but the more I've written, the more I’ve seen how one can have fun and be creative in writing an outline. It has let me “what if” to a larger degree than I would have without an outline.
Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?
I’ve learned my ideas tend to pop out in one of three places: driving, just falling asleep, or taking a shower. Those are times when one daydreams and is under no pressure to create. Your mind free-associates. I’ve learned to keep a notebook next to my bed and in the car to write down good ideas. That’s because of the times I’ve thought, “This idea is so good, so amazing, I won’t forget it.” The shower is short-term enough that I can write things down when I’m dry.
By the way, not all the ideas are always great. In the morning, I might look at my note and think, man, that’s silly. Most ideas have to make it through several hurdles.
Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?
With novels and short stories, I write all the way through. This world has too many half-completed books because the writer wanted to get everything perfect until the end — and the book gets stalled. I took Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to heart, and I allow myself to write a shitty first draft. When you give yourself permission to be mediocre and just write write write, genius sometimes slips in.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
Getting reviewed is harder to take than I had expected, which is funny for me to say because after college, I was a book reviewer, and then a theatre critic for seven years with Daily Variety. My goal as a critic was to celebrate great writing when it came around, and to encourage other writers even if something didn’t work entirely. I would express what was weak, but I never wanted to deplete the will of a writer. I’ve since learned, it’s far easier to be a reviewer than a reviewee.
Months and Seasons has received almost all great reviews so far, which is pleasing. Tony O’Brien, a critic in New Zealand, said mostly great things, but he didn’t like all my similes and metaphors, some of which he found far out. I happen to think my comparisons can be funny — not as out there as Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) can be but along the lines of what Lorrie Moore can do. It’s hard seeing someone not “get” what I’m doing.
Then again, in a recent graduate class of mine, someone brought up The Great Gatsby, which is as near to perfection as a novel can be. Many of the students loved the book, and two hated it. If we can’t agree on The Great Gatsby, who am I to expect every critic to love my stories? Still, I get anxiety knowing reviews are in front of the public.
As a writer, what scares you the most?
That’s a good question. Plenty of writers get scared, which is why there’s writer’s block. I allow myself to write a quick fun first draft. I suppose what scares me is what I’ve seen with some other writers. Their ego gets so big, they’re not able to see what they’re publishing is weak. That’s why I have a good editor, who I hire. She’s able to keep egg off my face.
I worry that as I age, I might not have the stamina to keep up the pace I’m doing, which is writing a book a year while I’m teaching a lot. I teach creative writing among five colleges — not all at once, certainly. My hope is that as my writing brings in more money, I can teach less and write more. My fear is that might not happen.
Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?
My agent is Jim McCarthy at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management in New York. I found him with the textbook approach: I wrote a novel, polished it as best I could, hired an editor, and went through the book a few more times. Once I thought it was worthy of showing, I wrote, polished, and obsessed over a cover letter. I sent that and the first fifty pages of my novel to ten agents, asking if I might send my whole novel for consideration.
I hoped for one positive response and received three. Some agents don’t write back, and three called or e-mailed saying they’d like to read the whole thing.
All three turned me down after reading the whole manuscript.
I sent another ten queries out, and received two more positive responses. Both read and liked the novel. I went to New York to meet them, and I really liked Jim. He pulled out a contract, and I signed.
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
Book promotion is one subject not talked about or glossed over in many writing programs. I happen to teach in USC’s graduate Master of Professional Writing program, which offers a class called “The Business of the Business.” That at least gets students thinking about what they’re actually going to do after they graduate. The best thing I recommend is learning how to write a fabulous one-page query or cover letter. My letters have opened more doors than anything. A good letter is your calling card.
But that’s only the start as I’m still learning with my two books of short stories. There’s so much one can do in marketing. I highly recommend the book The Frugal Book Promoter by Carolyn Howard-Johnson. It gives one specifics.
The biggest challenge is in getting reviewed. There are over 200,000 books that make it into Books in Print each year, and yet even major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times only review maybe twenty books a week. That’s just over a thousand books a year. Now that literary websites have popped up, new opportunities have arisen, but how much can a single critic read and write about each year? Eighty? That’s a lot. To give perspective to college freshmen, that’s like writing eighty literary essays a year (if it’s done right).
So if you’re a writer, ask yourself how much are you willing to put yourself out there in terms of promotion? I have a publicist for Months and Seasons, a person who’s lovely and means well, but she’s made only four placements in six months. Actually, that’s probably an amazing thing, considering I have a book of short stories. My own efforts at marketing have inspired another eight reviews so far.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Write in the same spot at the same time each day. The late author Thomas Thompson told me that. He was a best-selling author before he died. He’s best remembered for his nonfiction books Blood and Money and Serpentine and the novel Celebrity.
For a while right out of college, my specialty was interviewing authors and getting my interviews published. Tommy Thompson was my first, and the interview appeared as a cover story in Writer’s Digest. He gave me the advice, and it’s worked.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
My website is www.chrismeeks.com and there’s another at here. I also write a monthly newsletter about life and writing called “The Maplewoods Mirror.” For a free subscription, fill in the form on my first website — just your name and e-mail address is all I need.
Thank you for your questions.
Thanks for your thoughtful answers, Christopher. Best of luck with your books!