Twice last year I had the opportunity to interview a writer whose story was analyzed as part of my "Dissecting the Short Story" series. It was a good experience both times and when D. Thomas Minton reached out to say that he had been pleased to see that I'd included his "Observations on a Clock" as an entry in the series, it looked like a great opportunity for another such conversation.
Michael Haynes: In the author notes for "Observations on a Clock" on your website you talked about the origin of the story. I sort of read into your comments that perhaps this story took a while to develop. Was that the case?
D. Thomas Minton: "Observations on a Clock" didn't take longer to develop than most of my other stories. This story came out of a brainstorming session with my writing group, Hopefull Monsters. It happened to be one of two ideas that I thought were worth pursuing, and I chose to focus on the other idea first, so "Observations on a Clock" got to stew in my head for a bit while I worked the first idea into a story called "Hoodoo" (which will appear in Dagan Books's forthcoming anthology IN SITU). This frequently happens: ideas get backlogged in my head while I'm working on other projects.
MH: Was your experience writing this story typical of your short story writing process? If it wasn't, can you talk about how it was atypical?
DTM: For the most part, "Observations on a Clock" followed my usual writing process. The only difference was that the first draft "felt" more complete than is usually the case. My first drafts are generally rough and lacking full development in one or more areas -- usually about 50% or more of that first draft will be entirely changed in the first revision. After the first revision, things are generally close to how they will appear in the final story. For "Observations on a Clock" my first draft was very close to what was published. I knew I had one of those "special" stories with the first draft.
MH: One of the things I focused on in my analysis was the names of the three characters. Was the type of reaction I had to those names something you were hoping to evoke in readers?
DTM: Names are very powerful, and I try to find the right names for all of my characters. I believe that a character's name should either provide the reader with a clue about the identity of the character, or it should try to evoke a specific emotion or tone. The names of all three characters in "Observations on a Clock" were chosen primarily because they "felt" right. "Observations on a Clock" is a cold, dark story, and the atmosphere I wanted to create was that of a remote, medieval monastery -- imagine a big stone building in the Shetland Islands in the middle of winter, if you will. The character names all had an old European feel to me. Chevalier also had the connection to religious knights, as you point out, which was fitting for his character, and Don Cristobal felt like a good monk's name ("Don/Dom" is actually an honorific used in some monastic orders).
MH: Speaking of the names, I've got to ask -- Maria Tessauda -- was that supposed to make someone think of Marie Tussaud?
DTM: Maria Tessauda was not intended to evoke any specific historical person or to have any specific meaning. I actually hadn't even thought about the similarity with Marie Tussaud, of the waxwork fame. Like the other character names in "Observations on a Clock," I wanted to evoke an "old Europe" feeling with Tessauda. I also wanted something that sounded harsh, because she's not a warm character; she's manipulative, all sharp edges. She was intended to stand in contrast to Don Cristobal who is warmer and rounded (yet, at the same time she resembles him through the eyes).
MH: Were there some things about this story which you thought were especially interesting that I didn't call out and you'd like to draw attention to?
DTM: When I first sent "Observations on a Clock" to my writing group, I asked for feedback on whether I had enough background information. I felt this story was very sparse on backstory, and I was concerned readers would get lost. I had intentionally written it that way because I wanted to create a feeling of isolation, similar to that Chevalier experiences in the story. My writing group liked that everything wasn't explained, so I left it that way. I know some readers haven't liked this approach -- "Observations on a Clock" has generated more questions and comments than any story I've published to date (although getting a wide readership accounts for that also). Readers seemed to either like the story or not; there hasn't been a great deal of middle ground.
MH: You're at an exciting point in your career, having just recently been accepted to the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Congratulations on that!
DTM: Thank you. This last year has been exciting for me as a writer. Since I first entertained the idea of writing science fiction as a teenager, I've wanted to join the SFWA. [As have I! -MH] It's taken a long time, but I've finally gotten there. Now the real work begins, because I feel I need to prove that I belong there.
MH: From looking at your list of fiction on your website, it looks like you've had stories published over the last several years. What things have you learned along the way to this point, either about the craft or business of writing, which you'd like to pass along to other writers working towards that milestone?
DTM: The most important thing I've learned to this point is to believe in your writing and not to give up (also, to write, write, write, and then write some more). I first tried to publish some stories in the 1990s and had no success. I got discouraged and gave up after a year or so. While I still wrote, I didn’t finish many things, and I didn't submit anything. In 2008, I wanted to try publishing again, and I decided that this time I wouldn’t give up so easily. I sold a story fairly quickly ("Two Drawers Down from the Butchers Block") and that was important because it showed me that I could actually do this. After that, I set writing goals and started writing every day, finishing nearly every story I started, and submitting regularly, over and over and over. I am confident that every story I write has a market somewhere, I just need to find it.
MH: Short fiction is something which is very dear to me, but the number of people who make a living solely by writing short fiction today seems to be incredibly small. You talk on your blog about aiming to have speculative fiction writing someday be your day job. Are you looking at, or have you already started, branching out into writing novel-length fiction?
DTM: I wish it were possible to make a living writing short fiction, but as you point out, that's very difficult to do. I love the short form, which is funny because I'd never been a big reader of short stories until I started to write them. My appreciation of the craft that goes into short fiction continues to grow almost daily -- I still have a lot to learn. That said, I know if I want to earn a living writing fiction, I'll need to write and publish novels. I've always known this, and I actually started off writing novels: I wrote my first in sixth grade, my second in high school, my third in college, my fourth a few years ago, and my fifth I just finished in December. Of course, most of those are lousy, and I won't ever allow anyone to read them. I think the last two, however, have potential, and I intend to revise and submit both of them in the not-to-distant future.
MH: Beyond some of the more obvious differences between novels and short-stories, are there any differences you've noticed between writing in the two forms that surprised you?
DTM: I started out writing at novel length and didn't write short fiction until I was in graduate school. I made a conscious choice to write short fiction in order to improve my craft. It took me a long time to figure out how to write short stories, and in the process I've become a much better fiction writer. I was surprised how difficult it was to distill scenes and sentences into the fewest possible words, while maintaining content, voice and mood. Prior to writing short stories, my writing was loose and wordy. Short stories forced me to make every word count. I see that as the primary difference between short story writing and novel writing. One thing I really I like about novel writing in that I have the space to develop complex ideas and characters, but to be honest, I now find novel writing mentally tiring. Novel writing is a marathon as opposed to a sprint, and I'm not in marathon shape right now.
MH: This is the point in the interview where I turn it over to the interviewee for the final word... Is there anything else you'd like to share with my readers?
DTM: I think we've covered a great deal of ground, so thank you for the opportunity to talk about my story and the craft and business of writing. I wish you and your readers the best with your own writing.
MH: Thank you for that. Thank you, as well, for your time and for sharing your thoughts on writing. Best of luck to you as well!
Mr. Minton has extended the offer to my readers to stop back and answer follow-up question which you might have, so if there's something you'd like to ask him, please feel free to put your question in as a comment on this post.