Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Urban Waite: Pressure Rising

Former contributor Urban Waite is on a hot streak. His story, "Don't Look Away," which appeared in HFR #42, is now appearing in the anthology Best of the West 2009. On top of that, he recently sold two novels at auction to publisher Little Brown. More recently, the rights for both books have been sold in England, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and France. We tracked him down to find out what all of this success feels like.

Hayden's Ferry Review: You’re having a great year. Congratulations! Let’s talk about it. You’ve recently had two of your books purchased at auction. What was that process like? Is there anything you would do differently next time? How does it feel now that you know the books are going to be published? Has is affected your workday or how you see your writing?

Urban Waite: The whole process took just under a year. In the fall of 2008 I was awarded a writing grant from the Saint Botolph Club Foundation in Boston. During that same time I received a fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center. The way it worked out I was able to go on hiatus from my job in Boston and with the grant from the Saint Botolph Foundation pay my mortgage, while the fellowship from the VSC gave me the space and time to write.

I had already been talking to my agent, Nat Sobel, about what I wanted to write. It was just a matter of finding the time. For the month I was there I felt I was very much attuned to the plot and characters. I had to be. I spent nearly twelve hours a day in a small studio and wrote almost the whole time. Making little diagrams, sketching out ideas, pacing back and forth down the hallway outside.

I felt extremely lucky to be there, I’d never had so much time for myself. By the time I finished the month I had the book. Ten pages a day for thirty days. Of course for the next nine months I worked almost exclusively on the manuscript, calling in sick, taking vacation time, but really just chaining myself to the desk.

When that nine months was up, after reading the thing through about fifty times and working on it through revision after revision, the book went to auction. I was so nervous about it. I didn’t even tell my wife. I told no one. Nat was extremely nice about it, extremely supportive, but still my nerves were all over the place. My wife who is in medical school kept giving me practice physicals and we watched my blood pressure rise through the week.

“What’s going on?” She kept asking.

I’m not sure what I said, something stupid about eating foraged mushrooms or watching too much television or not getting enough exercise. I came up with any story I could for an answer.

It was a hard week for me; because of course the publishers that don’t want it get back to you right away, after reading the first fifty pages or so. I was keeping a list of the ten or so publishers and in the end I couldn’t be happier. Little, Brown took both books at auction and my editor, Judy Clain, is an extremely smart and supportive person. I really think I have been lucky in all aspects of this process. From the start two years ago when Nat found one of my stories in Meridian and then contacted me to see if I had any interest in writing novels, to the present working with everybody at Hayden’s Ferry Review, Marginalia, and ASU for this interview.

HFR: Your story for Hayden’s Ferry Review #42 , “Don’t Look Away” was recently anthologized in The Best of the West 2009. What do you think of anthologies as venues for your writing as opposed to literary journals or collections? This particular one is a regional anthology. How has region informed your work?

UW: I’m happy anytime I’m given the privilege to see my work in print. Shortly after returning from Bread Loaf I was contacted about “Don’t Look Away” by Seth Horton, one of the editors of The Best of the West. The story was currently out in Hayden’s Ferry Review. There were so many good pieces in that issue. Seth ended up taking two stories from that particular Hayden’s Ferry Review, The New Yorker being the only other magazine to have two.

I’m excited to be part of The Best of the West. I lived for a long time on the east coast and often tried to write about it. I never felt I did it justice. My heart has always been in the west and I think that’s why my stories reflect that. I couldn’t write a story without a good setting, and I couldn’t have a good setting without understanding the smells, tastes, sights, and feel of what I was writing about. I love the east coast but I’m a western writer, I just understand it better, and hopefully someday I’ll find the words to do the east justice as well.

HFR: You’re enjoying payoffs of your hard work. Is there anything you would like to say to writers that are still working to be where you are? Is there any advice you would give to yourself if you could go back in time?

UW: Do the work. I can’t say this enough. I get up at seven every morning and I treat writing like a job. It is a job. I’ve always taken employment that allows me to write eight hours during the day and then work at night. I was the overnight room service guy at the Hotel Commonwealth in Boston for a long time. I read mostly. I worked as a waiter for an even longer period of time. I just work better in the mornings and I know that.

I never saw my wife. I can’t believe I did that. She worked days and I worked nights. There was a point at the end of my time in Boston that I just quit. I gave up my job as a waiter and I just wanted to spend time with my wife. I would write during the day and then around three I would start prepping a meal and we would have dinner at five when she got home. I was poor. Poorer than I’ve ever been. I never let anyone know this. Sometimes it was hard, mostly though I was happy. And of course I took odd shifts here and there when I could, but it was the best time I spent in Boston.

Doing the work is one thing, but having someone to test it out on is another thing altogether. I had a very tight group of writer friends from my time at Emerson and luckily they were always supportive and ready to help. A friend of mine, James Scott, and I would get together and exchange stories once a week. We did this every week over lunch, give or take a week, for two years and keep doing it now. A lot of those stories went on to be published, James has one of his most recent stories in Memorious right now and other past stories have appeared in American Short Fiction and One Story as well as elsewhere.

Another friend of mine, Chip Cheek, was always ready to go out for a drink and we would sit around talking fiction for hours. We blew off a lot of steam together. Chip is extremely intelligent. To this day I don’t think I’ve met someone more attuned to the subtle inflections of a story than him. While I always took notes (especially after a few beers), he kept going strong, discussing plot points, character development, setting, all in great detail. And of course he has gone on to do some great things as well, appearing in many journals and getting the coveted scholarship to the Tin House Summer Writing Workshop.

I wouldn’t go back and change any of it. I can’t say it enough, I feel extremely lucky, extremely fortunate. I’ve met some great people along the way and I plan on keeping it up. I plan on getting up at seven. I plan on sitting down to the computer and I plan on doing the work.

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