Tuesday , February 27 2024
"She is patient with me," says Skelton about his Muse, "waiting until she finds a chink in my armor of obstinacy, whereupon she rushes in with some enticing nugget of possibility."

Interview with Dan Skelton, author of Out of Innocence and The Human Element

An adjunct professor at the University of Central Arkansas and Arkansas State University, Dan Skelton is the author of three published works, Out of Innocence, The Human Element, and Boojum. His fourth novel, Renascence, which he just finished writing recently,  blends elements of futurism and religion. Skelton was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions. 

Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?

I'm a native Arkansawyer (yes, yes, Arkansan, too) born in Conway. Educated at St. Joseph School and then at Arkansas State Teachers College; after that I earned an MA+30 in English at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and, ultimately, earned a doctorate in Higher Education from the University of Mississippi, Oxford. I have taught in high schools in Fort Smith, Springdale, and Morrilton with a brief stint with fourth graders at St. Joseph. From 1967 until 2002 I taught at Southern State College, which became Southern Arkansas University, where I worked my way through the ranks to full professor and Chair of the Department of Theater/Mass Communication.

I have one child, a daughter, who makes me endlessly happy and two beautiful, brilliant, and talented grandchildren, a girl and a boy.

When did you decide you wanted to become an author?

Probably at the age of four or five, when I first learned to read, but definitely by the time I got into the Freddy, the Talking Pig, series.

Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?

Voracious. I read everything and had no serious fixation on any one genre.

Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.

My latest effort is still in manuscript. I finished the first draft last night (6-21-08) at around midnight. It is called Renascence and concerns a teenage girl named Skye and her best friend, Bombsie. Both are mall rats and drug heads. They live in a futuristic society in which belief in God is considered a mental illness worthy of a "mind wipe" and the "elderly" are "transitioned" in their mid sixties. Through the efforts of Skye's grandmother, Grandee Purr, the girl's life is transformed.

The other books I have written tend toward the gritty and dark in content and language. I began to think that any positive message was being lost because readers, perhaps, could not see the forest for all the ugly trees, so I decided to write a book that was strong, pure, and straightforward. That I have done.

How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?

I never create an outline. By the time I write, I have given a considerable amount of time to the story — beginning to end. If I know where and how it will end, I can get there. I trust my creative impulse to lead me. Some elements are transformed and rearranged in the writing because, in that mysterious process, forces do supersede the rational mind, always for the better in my estimation.

Did your book require a lot of research?

No, a minimal amount, unless you count a lifetime of experience and observation research.

What was your goal when writing this book?

I wanted readers to appreciate the fact that God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit constantly seek to participate in our lives, that all of us caught in a mundane quotidian have the opportunity to cooperate with the supernatural and bring forth good out of apparently wasted and barren lives. Maybe just to present God's love, God's presence, God's availability, to establish that we humans are the body of Christ: arms, legs, eyes, etc., and that if good is going to be done for those in need, it will come through people cooperating with the spirit of God.

Who is your target audience?

Mostly teenage girls and women from as young as the middle grades, possibly, all the way up to include college students. Actually, I believe more mature women will like it also because the point of view shifts about between the girls and the older women. I'm hoping there will be no age barriers.

What will the reader learn after reading your book?

Who can really say? I hope they will learn that in the words of an old hymn, "there is no other way than to trust and obey," or that, as Whitman would have it, "The keelson of creation is love."

What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?

Certainly I synthesize things out of my experiences and so I suppose that puts me in the Hemingway camp as opposed to someone like Arthur C. Clarke.

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?

Some of my best thinking comes when I am taking walks or doing some task that allows me to function with my mind "out of gear," so to speak. As I automatically walk or drive or work at a chore, my thoughts can range about freely. When they do, they provide me an image, a line, a concept, or they connect up notions I have idly considered before. Next thing you know, hunks and slabs of story line come poking through to the surface.

Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?

So far, she has been generous. I am the one who resists, if I am in a funk over some real or imagined stress or failure in the material world. When that happens, I can block out communication for quite a while. She is patient with me, waiting until she finds a chink in my armor of obstinacy, whereupon she rushes in with some enticing nugget of possibility.

From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?

Eight months to twelve or fourteen months.

Describe your working environment.

Word processor — My! How that invention has freed me — and silence.

What type of scenes give you the most trouble to write?

Scenes of passion. It is so easy to overwrite. Francis Irby Gwaltney, Arkansas novelist and one of my early mentors, cautioned me about always trying to "rip your reader's guts out." I understood his point but realize that I am often still guilty of that error.

Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?

I do edit as I go along; however, there remains a great deal to do in that department even after the first draft has been completed.

They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?

I've had some negative comments from "strangers," though nothing that was too scathing. Truthfully, it hurts, but I try to keep a level head; I pray about it, and, ultimately, try to learn from it. If that sounds "saintly," it really isn't. There's agony enough in the process, believe me.

As a writer, what scares you the most?

Hmmm! Nothing really, although I have been given moments of pause upon considering the possibility of giving scandal or leading some infirm mind and will astray.

When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?

Love, duty, hope, responsibility. I think the culture we live in has neglected those, cultivating instead Lust, a sense of separation, despair, and irresponsibility.

Are you a disciplined writer?

I think so. At this point, I have three published novels and four yet to be published manuscripts so, if I'm not disciplined, I am productive.

How do you divide your time between taking care of a home and children, and writing? Do you plan your writing sessions in advance?

I don't plan my writing sessions in advance other than anticipating a weekend or a holiday period as a great opportunity. I function as a soccer grandpa; I help clean the house and work on the lawn, mind the kids as needed and run the usual assortment of errands. My writing, of necessity, comes after those needs are seen to, which means some late night work and snatched times on weekends.

When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?

Night owl, unless I have to teach the next day.

Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?

Yes. My agent is Mindy Phillips Lawrence of MPL Creative Resources; she is also my publicist.

My experience in searching for an agent parallels that of searching for a publisher–in a word, frustrating.

Do you have any unusual writing quirks?

Yes. I constantly punctuate by inserting three periods of ellipses, which vexes Mindy somewhat. Other than that, I'm sure I am a model of writing purity and saintliness.

What is your opinion about critique groups? What words of advice would you offer a novice writer who is joining one? Do you think the wrong critique group can ‘crush’ a fledgling writer?

My opinion is use them if you must. Some people need instant feedback, but, of course, what they want is instant praise. If that bolsters one, fine. If the comments grow snide or biting, check out of that place immediately.

As a young fellow, I rushed with writing hot in hand to teacher, parents, librarians, etc, asking "What do you think?" Mostly they were kind and helpful but, at some point, I came to realize that there was no ultimate arbitration, merely opinions and I lost the need to have myself validated. Now, I do what I do; if you like it, fine; if you don't, well, this is what I do.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?

Yes, but almost always because I have allowed a case of Poor Little Old Me to overcome my industry. "Oh, I'm not good. I'll never amount to anything. No one's ever going to publish me." Etc,etc. What normally unleashes me is reading or going back to work again.
Sometimes, it is possible that a writer simply needs a small vacation in order for the internal computer to reset.

Technically speaking, what do you have to struggle the most when writing? How do you tackle it?

Keeping the dialogue believable, interesting and yet moving the scene along.

How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?

Vexation! Frustration! Hair Tearing! Try to tell yourself it's not personal and keep on plugging away.

What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?

I don't know this for a fact but I'm betting if you sell yourself well, your books will move off the shelves quicker.

Who are your favorite authors? Why?

Oh, so many . . . Norman and Norris Mailer, Donna Tartt, Robert McCammon, Preston & Childs, Koontz, Anne Easter Smith, the fellow who wrote SARUM (Edward Rutherfurd), Thomas Wolfe, Tom Wolfe, Faulkner, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price, etc.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Find your own voice; stop trying to be Wolfe or Faulkner or anyone else.

Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?

Yes. About all you have to do is Google Dr. Dan Skelton.

Do you have another book in the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?

Having just finished Renascence, except for edits, I am in a free wheeling state for the moment. I have a strong interest in the horror/supernatural and have been toying with dealing with Chupacabra or some other crypto-zoological creature.

As an author, what is your greatest reward?

Well, it's certainly not money. Probably having someone who is a total stranger find a way to tell me that what I wrote deeply affected them.

Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?

Only that I remain hard at work and hope that those of you who recognize my name from this source will give me a look-see the next time opportunity arises.

Thanks for stopping by! It was a pleasure to have you here!

About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.

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