Bridging Writers – An Interview with Rich Marcello
Rich Marcello is a poet, musician, and creative writing teacher, and is the author of three critically acclaimed novels. The first, The Color of Home, was published in 2013 by Langdon Street Press, and melds together honest generative dialogue, poetic sensory detail, and “unforgettable characters who seem to know the complete song catalog of Lennon or Cohen.” The second, The Big Wide Calm, was published in 2014, also by Langdon Street Press. The US Review of Books stated, “Marcello’s novel has a lot going for it. Well-written, thought-provoking, and filled with flawed characters, it meets all of the basic requirements of best-of-show in the literary fiction category.” The third, The Beauty of the Fall, will be published in 2016. Faulkner Award Winner Mark Spencer commented, “Few novels are as intelligent and relevant as The Beauty of the Fall. Almost none is as eloquent, compelling, heartbreaking, and ultimately, uplifting.”
You came to writing after a career in high-tech. Can you tell us a little about becoming a working writer? What inspired the transition? And how did you approach learning the craft?
In a way, I’ve always been a writer. I’ve written songs for over thirty years and poetry, as well. When I was in college, I was writing short stories and even had the resident novelist at Notre Dame offer to mentor me. But I was broke and in debt at the time, so I made a decision to go into hi-tech.
About five years ago, after a lot of soul-searching, I realized I’d accomplished what I wanted to in hi-tech and decided to come back to writing. For the first couple of years, I took as many classes as I could to help perfect my craft. I also was fortunate to be mentored by Mark Spencer, who won the Faulkner Award a number of years ago. I’ve probably learned the most about writing a novel through my interactions with him.
You are a musician as well as a novelist. Do the two creative impulses come from the same place? In what ways do composing and playing music compliment your work as a storyteller? How conscious are you of sound on the page?
I do think the creative impulses come from the same place though they manifest themselves in different ways. For me, music is more of a short-form medium. Creativity in a song is about the riff, the verse, the chorus, the bridge, the clever lyric. The novel is more of a long-form medium. There, creativity is about the story, the character, the plot turn, and the voice of the POV character or the narrator.
In general, I believe the best fiction is sensual, so I’m aware of sound on the page in addition to all of the other senses. I try to work as many senses as I can into any given scene.
Your second novel, The Big Wide Calm, is a coming of age story about a young musician searching for both the music within and her place in the world. What were some of your formative experiences as an artist, and how did you draw on them in creating your protagonist and her story?
When I was younger, I put out a number of albums and wrote about fifty songs. Mostly, what carried through to TBWC was the process of creating a song. When the protagonist, Paige Plant, writes a song in the book, she uses a process similar to the one I used when I wrote my songs.
Most writers begin as avid readers. Which authors particularly inspire you? Are there writers you consider teachers? Who are you currently reading?
I love to read and am constantly doing so. When I was younger, I was particularly drawn to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Don Delillo, Milan Kundera, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, and Walker Percy. I consider all of them teachers. More recently, I’ve loved novels by Lauren Groff, Jonathan Franzen, Alexandra Kleeman, Jessamyn Hope, Elena Ferrante, Jenni Fagan, Jennifer Offill, and Peter Heller.
Could you describe your typical writing day?
I write for five or six hours in the morning. I get up around five and go right to work. I’m one of those writers who believes in the idea of a fictive dream, so in a way I like to go immediately from one kind of dreaming (during sleep) to another (writing fiction in the morning). I also believe that it’s important to write every day, so for the most part, I write seven days a week.
You have two published novels, The Color of Home, and The Big Wide Calm, and a third novel is on the way. How do you compare the experience of writing your third novel with writing your first? Are there things that come more easily? Does your approach change with the material?
In general, things comes easier now. I find that my first draft of any given scene is much closer to the final product than when I started writing years ago. With that said, my third novel, The Beauty of the Fall, is longer than the first two, and it incorporates some dense technology into the narrative, so it has its own challenges. It seems that the more I learn my craft, the more I take on bigger and more difficult topics in my books. That way, each new book is a challenge in its own right.
How do you handle research?
I either travel to the location, or I research on the Internet. For example, my fourth novel, The Latecomers, is set in Sweden and Santa Fe. I’m planning trips to both locations to help me properly place the novel.
You write poetry as well as novels. Do the skills of a poet help in writing prose? How does writing narrative inspire you as a poet?
Writing poetry helps in two ways. First, it helps me write concise sentences that do a lot of work. Second, sometimes I’ll spend an hour on a sentence to make sure it’s poetic enough. I find that placing a poetic sentence here and there in the narrative significantly enhances the reading experience.
Writing narrative inspires me as poet mostly from the perspectives of ideas and stories. I ask myself what idea I want to get across or what story I want to tell in the poem. When I’m done with a piece, I check what I produced against what I intended to produce. I’ve found that using this process hones the emotional content of the poems down to its essence.
You teach fiction workshops and classes. How do you approach teaching creative writing? How does teaching novel or short story writing support your own work?
I like to combine short lectures with workshops on student’s individual pieces. I find that combination works best. The lectures are important because they give the students the necessary tools to create good fiction. The workshops are important because so much of writing is about rewriting a piece to show a more sensual and detailed picture of what happened.
What was the best advice you ever received about writing?
To write the first pass of any scene quickly with the goal of capturing all of the critical emotions, then to rewrite the scene over and over again until you get it right.
Writing is solitary. How do you feed your creative work? What role, if any, does community play in sustaining and nurturing you as an artist?
Yes, it is solitary. I feed my work by connecting with other writers, by teaching, and by spending time with loved ones, including my two Newfoundlands, Ani and Shaman. One of the things I would recommend to every writer is to get a dog or two. They really help with being alone all the time.
Overall, community is very important to me. In fact, the main theme of The Beauty of the Fall is how to create and sustain community in our world. There are many ways to connect in a given community, but I’m mostly trying to connect through the arts these days.
Can you talk a little about any upcoming projects?
I hope to have The Beauty of the Fall out in 2016. I’ve also started work on my fourth novel, The Latecomers. If all goes well, that will be out in 2018.
What encouragement or direction would you give aspiring writers?
First, to learn their craft fully. Many writers I work with have good ideas, but they haven’t put in the time to learn how to write a novel well. Second, to be patient. It takes years to learn how to write a good story. Third, to define success not by financial gain, but by creating a piece of art that makes a difference to at least one other person in the world.