The Penmen Profile: Versatile Writer Peter Grandbois

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

peter grandbois smPeter Grandbois is an author that does it all. From writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry and plays, Grandbois has two novels, one book of short stories, a memoir and a collection of three novellas published.

His Etruscan Press novel, “Nahoonkara,” was a finalist in the 2011 Foreword Review Book of the Year Award. His most recent work, “The Girl on the Swing and At Night in Crumbling Voices,” was a 2015 finalist for the same award. This novella is the third of his novella collection and includes two science fiction stories.

His plays have been performed in St. Louis, Columbus and New York. Grandbois is a Professor of Creative Writing at Denison University as he continues to write.

Have you always written?
No. I wrote a few stories and poems in high school and as an undergraduate, but quickly decided I had no talent and pursued other interests: fencing, literature, science. It wasn’t until many years later that I felt called to write. Almost immediately after the birth of my first child, I felt a strong sense that my life needed to change. I was working in business at the time. I knew I needed to follow my bliss, as Joseph Campbell said. I knew I’d always wanted to write, to be a writer, but had been afraid to commit. So, I began waking up at 5 am and writing for a couple hours in the morning before work. That was 17 years ago, and I’ve been writing ever since… though not waking up at 5 am!

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
The process is different for each book. In general, though, I do very little to develop my storyline and characters. I’m an intuitive writer who prefers to follow whatever image or dramatic question has propelled me into the piece. I find that if I try to plot out the storyline ahead of time it kills whatever interest I have in telling the story. I write to discover what the story is, to figure out why this is happening to my characters. I want to be surprised, and if I’m not surprised how can my reader be surprised?

That said, in both my novels and a third never published novel, I spent significant amounts of time researching the world of the novels. All three novels were set in the past. I took copious notes, remarking on historical details I hoped to use in the books. I also wrote down any thoughts I had on what the story might actually be…usually these were vague thoughts about what might happen and usually I didn’t use those thoughts in the actual writing, but it was good to know they were there.

I also did a “life story” for each of the characters that would appear in the novel. This life story took the form of a page or two on describing all the significant events in that character’s life. Again, most of this didn’t make it in the novel, but helped me feel like I understood the characters better. If it’s a short story, I might jot down a couple brief notes about character or story idea, but mainly I’m interested in figuring out whatever the initial impulse was that informed the story…sometimes that impulse is a dream I had, other times it might be an image. My most recent story started as an exploration of an image of a man who had a lump in his back. I wanted to know why that lump was there. It turned out he had a rat living in his back, at least in my story.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
I would guess that I face the same challenges most other writers face, i.e. the terror of the blank page and the nagging doubts each morning about whether I’ve lost the ability to write. No matter how much success I’ve had, those doubts are still there every time I sit down to write.

Sometimes it takes a long time to dispel them. What has helped is practice. It sounds simple, but the truth is that simply practicing sitting down to write even when-no especially when-you have the doubts is crucial. You have to face the fear and work through it. The more practice you get doing this, the more faith you have that you’ll be able to get through it the next time. With each passing year, the doubts have stayed the same, but my faith in my ability to move through them has grown stronger.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
Publication is always difficult, but for me it has become more difficult over time. When I first started, I was simply trying to write a novel. I wasn’t thinking about what kind of novel I wanted to write or what kind of writer I wanted to be. I simply wrote. That novel was picked up for publication relatively quickly and remains my biggest commercial success.

But the more I read and the more I wrote, the more I realized I didn’t just want to write any book, or worse, write a book with the plan of making it commercially successful. I wanted to write a book that reflected my vision of the world, no matter how dark or disturbing or different, or at odds with the commercial publishing houses that vision might be. As a result, with each successive book I’ve felt more and more personal gratification in the work I’m doing but had less and less commercial success. It’s also taken longer to get a publisher for the later books.

How do you market your work?Girl_cover sm
I may not be the best person to ask about this as I do very little to market my work. I want to write. My time is precious. I have a lot of responsibilities. So, if I have any free time I would much rather spend it writing than trying to come up with a business plan for my book.

That said, I know many writers who spend as much or more time marketing their book than they did on writing the book. These writers are often more “successful” in terms of book sales, though not always. I don’t think their books are any better for it.

The publishing industry is completely different from what it was 40 years ago. If you want to sell books now, you need to do the marketing. You need to create an email list of friends and acquaintances and let them know when your book is released. You need to set up your own reading tour and then use every social media outlet you can to try and drive people to the event. You need to visit independent bookstores personally and hand-sell your book. If your book is published with a smaller press, you need to be the one sending out your own book to review agencies in hopes of getting reviewed. That’s probably just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you should do. But as I said, I’ve never been particularly concerned with the marketing side.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
It’s not a race. It’s not a competition. Each writer writes at his or her own pace. Some writers write a lot of books. Some write one or two. Some write commercial books. Some write small press books. Both kinds of writers play an equal part in the literary conversation. And it is a conversation. As writers, we are in conversation with the writers of the past, with Faulkner and Woolf, Calvino and Borges. But we are also in conversation with each other and with writers to come. It is the knowledge that no matter who you are as long as you are writing you are part of that great conversation that I wish I knew when I first started writing. It would have freed me to be myself sooner and freed me to relax a little and not worry so much about getting my voice heard. It’s not about being heard. It’s about being part of the conversation—and sometimes that means simply listening.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
Steven Millhauser for the way he blends the marvelous and the real, and for the way he challenges our notions of how a story should behave.

Gabriel García Márquez for the sheer exuberance of his storytelling and language and for the way that exuberance makes it feel as if anything is possible in your own writing.

Fernando Pessoa for the way he lays the self out on the page with all its contradictions, complexities and attendant schisms.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
How can I stop at three? That’s impossible! But since you ask for only three, these are the first three to come to mind. There are certainly many others I will regret not mentioning here!

D. M. Thomas’ “The White Hotel” because in his refusal to play by the rules he gives us an utterly original and deeply moving meditation on the nature of human suffering.

Kobo Abe’s “Woman in the Dunes” because like Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” (Do you like how I snuck in another book I love here!) Abe found a way to let his central metaphor speak what cannot be spoken.

Juan Rulfo’s “Pedro Paramo” because no other book has stayed with me and haunted me in quite the same way as this one.

Okay, I can’t help but cheat. Here is one more!

José Saramago’s “Blindness” because writing is about more than a beautiful sentence. It’s about seeing into the human experience and few writers saw as clearly and completely as Saramago.