Sunday, January 20, 2008

One Writer's Process: T.K. Welsh

T. K. Welsh's imagination is inhabited by ghosts and filled with mysteries.

His first book for young adults, The Unresolved--an "unconventional ghost story" (Horn Book) which the Washington Post named one of the top ten children's books of 2006--retells the sinking of the General Slocum steamship from the point-of-view of a fifteen year old girl who drowns in the 1904 calamity considered one of New York's great (but forgotten) tragedies.

"I do not understand it all," the ghostly Mallory Meer declares from her watery world between life and death. "Nor can I move on to the great beyond until my family and friends have mourned me, until some justice to the guilty has been meted out. It seems that only then will I let go."

Welsh's most recent novel, Resurrection Men, is equally harrowing, a tale that follows a beggar boy named Victor as he risks his life to uncover the murderer responsible for trading in human corpses.

Described as "a haunting tour of London's underclass in the 1830s" (Publishers Weekly), Welsh says that Resurrection Men, was inspired by an 1831 trial of body snatchers in London.

Some reviewers (VOYA) have compared the plot and writing style in Resurrection Men to Dickens, "but far more graphic."

Others reviewers (KLIATT) have noted that "Like M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, this look at sinister events in history makes the era come alive and linger in the memory."

Welsh, who is currently working on another YA novel (Camorra: Princess of the Celts), was kind enough to take a few moments from his current project to share his thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: How do you get into the water each day?

Welsh: First comes the coffee. I’m pretty useless without it. And a good breakfast. I’m also a single, stay-at-home Dad, so getting my daughter washed, fed, dressed and ready for school is a big part of the morning. She’s just turned seven. After seeing her off on the bus, I’m generally at my desk by around 8:00 AM. I’m a morning person. That is, I like the idea of being a morning person, but there are really only two things that get me up early: fishing and writing.

A long time ago, a friend of mine named Robert Nathan told me: A writer is someone who writes. Seems pretty straightforward. When I first start a book, I’ll set a minimum threshold of words for myself – say 500. No matter what happens that day, I have to complete my 500 words. Later, as the book progresses, the threshold might increase to 1,000 or even 1,500 words a day. And on good days, it could be more.

But, to alter my friend Robert’s maxim, it’s really about re-writing. On good days, I may keep nearly everything I’ve written. On bad days, very little remains. I start again. But, before I begin, I re-read the last few pages I’ve already written, to try and pick up the rhythm again. The sound of the language is very important to me.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat?

Welsh: I am a pretty self-disciplined person. This is not due to some inordinate rigor on my part. It’s mostly guilt and anxiety. If I’m not writing, I feel guilty. And writing is far cheaper than therapy. Frankly, when I don’t write, I’m unable to exorcise the demons that plague me.

Generally, all of my books begin with a question. For example, I was living in New York City when 9/11 occurred. I saw the towers fall. It was such a monumental event that I began to ask myself, has anything like this ever happened to this city before? And, if so, how did people--especially young people, teens--cope? Whom did they blame? How did it change the way they looked at tragedy and loss? So I researched the city's history and came across the sinking of the General Slocum steamship, which caught fire in the East River in 1904, resulting in the death of over 1,000 mostly German immigrants on a church outing.

At first I didn't know how to tell the story. I wanted to investigate this tragedy from several viewpoints, and yet I also wanted a strong central character and a single voice. That's how I came up with the idea of Mallory, who dies in the first few pages of the book on the Slocum, and returns as a spirit to see that those responsible for the tragedy are brought to justice. Because Mallory is a spirit, she is able to move into the minds of many of the city's citizens, with all their different points of view. And since she's a Lutheran German immigrant, and the boy blamed for the fire is a Jew, it also enabled me to examine issues of prejudice and religious animosity which, clearly, played a role in the tragedy of 9/11. As a 50-year-old white male, it was a real challenge to put myself in the mind of a teenage, German immigrant girl. Having a young daughter of my own proved to be an unexpected boon in helping me find Mallory's voice.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Welsh: I must admit that I’m lucky when it comes to writer’s block. Even when things are not going well, I still produce. As I mentioned above, I may not keep much of what I’ve written, but I still do my words. That rule is inviolable.

Wordswimmer: What’s the hardest part of swimming?

Welsh: Writing is, by nature, a solitary act. I find that I have to get up and look out the window periodically to make sure the world outside is still spinning.

Since I’m not that social, I often have to force myself to get out of the house and mix with people. Having a 7-year-old daughter helps a great deal. I have to take her to her equestrian classes, to play dates, etc. If she weren’t in my life, I might never leave the house. I’d end up with a Gollum-like pallor and lose a lot of weight.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Welsh: Most of the problems I face are corrected by my characters. That is, there is a time in the development of every book when one of my characters refuses to follow the outline I’ve painstakingly developed. I tell them: Hey, you have to go over here and do this...and they say, no way; I’m not doing that. While that may be a problem, on some level, it also bodes well for the book. It means that the characters have progressed enough to think for themselves. I never win those arguments, nor should I. In some ways, I’m just the instrument that the novel and the characters use to liberate themselves.

Wordswimmer: What’s the part of swimming that you love the most?

Welsh: I must admit that I don’t particularly care for most of what I’ve written. When I re-read my work, I constantly re-edit. I say to myself: My God, what were you thinking here? This is pure drivel! But, once in a while, I come across a phrase or sentence that is absolutely true. Perhaps this comes from my legacy as a poet. (That’s how I started as a writer, and why the sound of my work is so important to me.) When that happens--when I read a passage and think: Yes, that’s it; that gets to the heart of that character’s true nature--I find myself soaring. Strangely, I don’t feel much pride in discovering these passages. It’s almost as if the words were written by someone else, some higher power, and I just happened to have channeled them to the page. But it still fills me with a kind of bliss that is unavailable through any other endeavor I’ve experienced.

For more information about T.K. Welsh, visit his website: http://www.tkwelsh.com

And to read a handful of reviews of his work, visit:
http://kidslitinformation.blogspot.com/2007/06/review-resurrection-men.html
http://theyayayas.wordpress.com/2007/08/31/under-the-radar-resurrection-men-by-t-k-welsh/
http://wakecounty.wordpress.com/2007/10/03/book-of-the-day-the-unresolved-by-tk-welsh/
http://www.bookslut.com/bookslut_in_training/2007_10_011785.php

_________


A Special Note:

Thanks to Jon Bard and Laura Backes, the folks at write4kids.com, who were kind enough to review Wordswimmer a few weeks ago.

They wrote that Wordswimmer: "...offers a literary and thoughtful look deep inside the writing process. Since so much of the internet is devoted to a frenetic dissemination of bits of info, it's remarkably soothing to come across a site that takes such a calm and measured approach."

Anyone seeking a rich resource of information about writing and publishing can visit the site: http://write4kids.com/

There's a fee to sign up for a monthly newsletter, but you can still find lots of free articles on writing (such as here: http://www.write4kids.com/craft.html) to help you learn the craft.

6 comments:

Kelly said...

Fascinating interview with a fascinating writer! T.K. I'm not surprised you're so disciplined. It shows in your writing!

Bruce: Love the review of your blog. Truer words were never written.

Bruce said...

Kelly

Glad you enjoyed the interview.

Welsh impressed me, too, as an extremely disciplined writer, so much so that I'm thinking of setting a daily goal for my work. Since the start of the year I've found myself too easily drawn away from my desk by distractions!

As always, thanks for the kind words.

Jack said...

I like his routine of re-reading the last few pages at the beginning of each session, to get back into the rhythm of a piece; also, the complete readiness to toss a day's work that hasn't been just right. Perhaps too often I'll spend a lot of senseless time trying to make sense of something that would be better abandoned. Here's to an embrace of that "Gollum pallor" in search of better writing.

Bruce said...

Jack,

Getting into the rhythm can be one of the keys, as you point out, to continuing the work day after day.

There are days when I'll re-read the previous day's writing. But it can be such a painful process!

Sure, re-reading can help you find the rhythm again... but there's a catch: you always have to be ready to toss a day's work.

That takes a certain kind of courage... knowing you must give it up for the sake of the work... while at the same time knowing with certainty that more will come to replace it.

It's a balancing act, this business of writing and re-reading... and writing more.

Each day we climb up onto the high-wire and try to find our balance again... and again... and again.

"The secret of life, though," writes Paulo Coelho in his intro to his book, The Alchemist, "is to fall seven times and to get up eight times."

Something that I'll try to remember the next time I have to toss a day's work.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

T.K. Welsh said...

Thank you one and all for your kind comments. I thought I'd share with you the latest review of RESURRECTION MEN, which just came out this month (February 2008) at School Library Journal:

"Part historical fiction and part adventure story, the novel brings excitement to Victorian England through an elaborate plot of body snatching, greed, and street life...Readers will be on the edge of their seats as they follow Victor from Italy to England as he seeks to solve mysteries and combat the rampant malevolence of the period.”

Bruce said...

Congrats on the review! Glad to hear that readers are enjoying your work.