If you haven’t heard of our new project, the On Fire anthology, this interview series will showcase our authors and their writing lives beyond their ignited tales. In J. Lee Strickland’s “Fire Night,” a widow finds solace in another world and childhood friends.
Who are your favorite authors and why?
John Crowley, Anne Patchett, Ursula LeGuin, George Saunders, Lucia Berlin. This list could go on and on, but these are a few of the standouts. Crowley and Patchett are masters of the craft of novel writing. LeGuin’s characters are unforgettable, and Saunders and Berlin are unsurpassed in the short story category. I learn every time I read these people.
What is the first book or story that made you cry?
The first book that made me cry was the first real book I read: Whitefoot the Wood Mouse by Thornton Burgess. Many years later, I still remember being amazed at the power of words.
How do you achieve balance between writing, marketing, family, and any other work you do?
That’s the struggle, and the short answer is, I don’t. For the past six months or so, working on my novel, I’ve been writing at night. It’s not ideal, I’m often tired, my forces at low ebb, but it’s the one part of the day I can claim as mine, and it’s been working.
What audience are your stories intended for?
I write for adults, although my stories would not be off-limits for the YA crowd.
How long does it usually take you to write a story?
I’ve written stories in a single sitting. That feels good. I’ve spent eight, maybe ten years on a story—that’s painful, but the reward of finishing a successful story after that time is indescribable.
What interesting thing did you learn while writing your last story?
I learned that platyhelminthes, or flatworms, when cut to pieces, can regenerate new flatworms from those pieces (pieces as small as 1/271 of the original worm) The new worms are identical to the original even down to the flatworm equivalent of memory. It’s pretty mind-blowing.
How do you choose your characters’ personalities and names?
Ideas for stories typically come to me in the form of actions of characters and their consequences. I don’t so much choose personalities. I allow the personalities to reveal themselves to me through the behavior of the characters. Naming is frequently a more conscious act as I search for the name that fits the personality. My story “Fire Night” is a good example. The main character is a simple, humble woman living in a one-room shack in the midst of a forest. For her name, I chose an inconspicuous woodland flower, Tiarella. It grows only a few inches tall. The blooms are tiny and easily overlooked, yet those blooms, if observed closely, reveal the shape of a tiara from which the flower gets its name. This speaks to another aspect of Tiarella’s character, masked by her humble demeanor—the reverence and affection that other dwellers of the forest feel for her.
Do you use beta readers, and if so, roughly how many?
I have four beta readers whom I depend on for primary feedback. I also belong to a writers group where I can bring work for intensive group discussion.
What are you doing to market yourself?
I’m embarrassed to answer this question because I feel my marketing efforts are pretty lame. I have two principal means of communicating with the outside world: Facebook, where I maintain a personal page and an author page, and my email list, which I use for updates on my publications as they become available. I have an Amazon profile and a presence on Goodreads, but these are mostly passive. My Twitter account is neglected, and my author website/blog is perpetually under construction. There’s room for me to do more, but I’m often strapped for writing time, and I’d have to sacrifice some of that precious writing time for marketing.
What advice do you have for beginning authors?
Write as much as you can, as often as you can. The more you write, the better you will become as a writer. Meet other writers. Join a group. Expose your writing to criticism and act on the feedback. Grow a thick skin, and remember that pleasing yourself is easy; pleasing others is hard. Make writing the thing you do in spite of everything else.
J. Lee Strickland is a freelance writer living in upstate New York. In addition to fiction, he has written on the subjects of rural living, modern homesteading, and voluntary simplicity. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sixfold, Atticus Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Workers Write!, Pure Slush, Mad Scientist Journal, Newfound Journal, Jenny, and others. He is a member of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild and served as a judge for the 2015 and 2016 storySouth Million Writers Awards. He is at work on a collection of connected short stories vaguely similar in format to the long-defunct American television series Naked City but without the salacious title.