D. A. Blankinship

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The 2010 Writers Cadre Interview

The 2010 Writers Cadre is a group of authors who have been collaborating in providing stories to the public. This process began as "Shameless Shorts," which was a virtual project among 18 authors that resulted in the publication of the "Shameless Shorts Anthology." This anthology continues to be a top-selling Kindle publication on Amazon. As part of 2010 Writer's Cadre project, the Cadre asked readers to submit interview questions to the authors and each author prepared his or her response to the questions. Blankinship's answers appear below.

What qualities are necessary to make a really great story?

Great stories engage me so thoroughly that I tune-out everything in my surroundings and time stands still. A great story is a mind-journey; it is a vacation from the mundane.

Great stories have many qualities. First, the story begins with something familiar and the author uses the familiar to convey the reader to the strange. The main character must risk something; a threat looms somewhere. If that threat is credible and we feel compelled to read until we know all is well, then it is a great story. Great stories use the fewest words possible to tell the tale, thereby giving the readers the freedom to make the tale personal and meaningful. Great stories must have great writing, they must be coherent. They will flow seamlessly through time and space. They are like musical compositions in which each instrument, played flawlessly, enters and exits at precisely the right moment. Finally, great stories teach something, they have a message, an insight, or an affirmation about life.

How do you get your story ideas?

That depends on the length of the story.

When I write short stories, I begin with a question (i.e., What could a psychic do for a politician? or What would the perfect day be like? or If you could learn anything about life, what would you want to know?). I mull the question over for a while--sometimes for a few minutes, occasionally for a few days--and the story becomes the answer to my question.

For novels, I begin with a person (or group) who has a driving purpose or passion about something and I set that character into motion. I introduce additional characters as they are needed. I never know how a story will end until I arrive at the end; that's when the 'idea' of the story becomes clear.

How do you handle writer's block?

For many people, writer's block means the writer doesn't know what to write next; they view it as a crisis in creativity. That's a misunderstanding of what is really happening. Writer's block means the characters are becoming confusing, the situation is increasingly vague, and the story is losing momentum.

When I get stalled, I re-read the previous paragraphs or pages. I edit the narrative to revitalize the characters and events so that the next part becomes clearer to me (and my readers) and I am convinced it's the most reasonable continuation of the story. If I need to do that two or three times, I will.

This process works; I strongly recommend it to anyone who thinks they are stuck. However, be forewarned: it can lead to 'writer-prolifica,' a term I just made up to describe a condition in which ideas erupt into awareness at a rate that interferes with sleep and conversation with others.

How much time do you spend each week writing?

I typically dedicate eight to ten hours a week to writing fiction.

Which five books have had the greatest influence on you as an author?

"The Sign of the Crooked Arrow" by Franklin W. Dixon, The "Lord of the Rings" by J. R. R. Tolkien, "Dune" by Frank Herbert, "The Client" by John Gresham, and "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card.

How did they affect you?

When I was nine years old, "The Sign of the Crooked Arrow" introduced me to obsession. I started reading it and within the first few pages, I knew I had to know what was going to happen next! I discovered the stunning power of a book that is so good that it creates an overwhelming compulsion to read it, even to the point of taking risks. I kept it under my mattress and at night, I read by the street light that shown into my bedroom. I snatched every moment I could to read a little more. I read when I was supposed to be doing homework, cleaning my room, or pulling weeds. My greatest hope was to get into enough trouble that my parents would send me to my room and I could read that book. If you know "Ralphie" from "A Christmas Story," and how he felt about the Red Rider BB gun, then you know how I obsessed over reading that book. It is still special to me; I still have it on my bookshelf.

The "Lord of the Rings" is the greatest fantasy epic ever written. The story is so internally coherent, that I suspend disbelief completely. Tolkien's fantasy world--Middle Earth--has an ancient past and a vast cast of characters with beliefs that differ, yet are the same. Hobbits, wizards, dwarves, elves, men, trolls, and ring-wraiths interact on this shared stage because they know enough about each other, yet not enough to ruin the unfolding drama. Tolkien made a world that is simultaneously fantastic and credible.

"Dune" is another extraordinary epic; but Herbert's genius is at the level of each character. Herbert was a psychotherapist and a journalist. As a storyteller, he had a clear perspective on people acting within a group. Hubert told "Dune" from the point of view of "How do we communicate with others when we don't trust the words we hear?" Critics frequently describe "Dune" as the "greatest science fiction novel of all time." I agree. "Dune" is the greatest science-fiction novel and "Lord of the Rings" is the greatest fantasy novel of all time.

“Dune” and “Lord of the Rings” span centuries and that type of writing is a significant challenge [see note 1]; however, the other extreme is equally challenging. Telling a story that encompasses only a few days while managing the location and actions of many characters is a test of an author’s ability to keep the story moving forward at the perfect pace. Grisham is a master at this pacing and "The Client" is an excellent example of that skill. In "The Client" a young boy, the bad guys, the good guys, and the attorney move through a story in just days with simultaneous plotting, scheming, and anticipating. It is a great story, told brilliantly.

"Ender's Game" is significant for me at two levels. The principle challenge to reading excellent books is that they are so hard to find. After reading an excellent book, 'pretty good' books will be disappointing. I began reading "Ender's Game" as a work assignment [see note 2]. I read it in two days and marveled that I had been so out of touch with good science fiction. I then had the good fortune to spend time with Scott Card. He is a gifted writer and an articulate speaker. We talked about academic excellence in universities (he is a professor of English), and issues in writing and story-telling. I overviewed a story-idea and he said, "Just write it." Shorty after that conversation, I read Card's, "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy." That book (now a classic) was the final push that led to The Scoloderus Conspiracy (2006 Leathers Publishing/Winfield Productions) and the rest--as they say--is history.

How does your writing style reflect what you learned from those books?

Collectively, these books taught me that great fictional stories must be coherent to be engaging. All of the parts must fit together seamlessly. The stories must incorporate every person, event, action, and detail without regard to its significance to the main story. Every word must contribute to the work; no words can be missing.

I write about imaginary people and places and they will become real for the people who read the story. A story must have parts that are familiar or everyday, these parts ground the story for the reader; a writer must ground the reader so he or she will feel the acceleration.

Books are the second greatest power in the universe. Books are the ideas we choose to preserve. When we tell stories or read stories, we pass through all the defenses we erect to avoid new ideas. Speculative fiction explores life’s possibilities, through it we discover our potential and soar to the heights of a civilized society, no matter how primitive it is in reality.


Note 1: Early in his working career, James Michener taught at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC). UNC’s Library is named in honor of this distinguished, prolific, and generous writer. When Michener wrote “Centennial” he conducted extensive research on the area, prepared hundreds of pages of notes, and a timeline of pages that stretched for about twenty feet. When I worked at UNC, I studied Michener’s materials (on display at the library). I also had the profound privilege to work in the “Michener Room.” I sat in the chair he used, at the desk where he typed the original "Centennial" manuscript. The old upright manual typewriter stood on a corner of that desk. What a great experience. return

Note 2: I was serving as dean of university extended education at California State University, Stanislaus. We held annual freshman convocations at the university and assigned a book for all incoming freshman to read prior to the convocation. The book's author would present at the convocation, answer questions from the audience, then spend the evening at a reception and dinner on campus. Scott Card's "Ender's Game" was the featured book, I was Card's host for the day, and I have a personalized, signed copy of "Ender's Game." It was a very good day. return

What is the most memorable interview question you have ever been asked or wanted to have asked of you, how did you answer it?

This honor goes to Ellen M. George. In a November 2008 interview for Author's Den, Ellen asked me, "Would you like the book [the Scoloderus Conspiracy] made into a movie or mini-series?"

My answer: No. Books are profoundly personal experiences. A well-written story invites the reader to co-construct the experience with the author. When I tell my readers about a man or a woman, I intentionally use very few details. That character becomes an image, a voice, and a personality from that reader’s life experience. The reader and I co-create the characters; we co-design the rooms, the landscapes, and even the food that will be served at a meal. If I do it right, the reader will have vivid recollections of the story that I didn’t write. A reader once told me she started to tell a story from the book as if it was something that had happened to a friend; but she stopped herself when she remembered it wasn’t real. I was so flattered. Scoloderus is a different experience for each person who reads it because the drama is also his or her drama. Another reader called my home one evening and said she couldn’t sleep until she knew if some of the characters were going to be all right. I want people to be engrossed in my stories and that can only happen with reading. Reading nurtures our imagination and opens possibilities for us to explore. Reading engages us in asking questions; movies present the answers. I would like to add quickly that Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” stands as an exception to this and if Jackson approached me on adapting Scoloderus to the screen and he had a few hundred million dollars, I might reconsider my position on this issue.

Why was it memorable?

This question provided the opportunity to talk about the importance of reading. Reading is one of life's greatest experiences.

Reading is intimate. When we read, we make private connections with ideas, feelings, places, and people. Each step away from reading takes us further from the many rewards of this personal encounter.

Books are passports into worlds of boundless possibilities. Movies, television, and--to a slightly lesser extent--audio books, are similar to visiting a country as part of a tour group. You get on the bus, you get off the bus, you listen to the tour guide, take a few pictures, and get back on the bus. Someone else has decided what you will do and see, and they have decided when you will arrive and when you will depart. Reading is a sports car on a winding road in wine country at twilight. Reading is sitting on an outcropping 11,000 feet above sea level in the Colorado Rockies, watching the sunrise as the Aspen trees leaves quake and quiver in the cold morning breeze. Reading plays out the drama on the landscape of your mind with your most private images.

A friend of mine once told me that in one scene in Scoloderus, as the balloon was rising, she saw a brilliant red sky, then she stopped, looked at me and said, "I think I just made that up, didn't I?" I told her, "You have no idea how happy that makes me."

Author's Disclaimer

I do not object to movies, television, or audio books. I do not object to fast food, Wonderbread, or wine sold in boxes. I do enjoy homemade pizza, baking my own French bread, a good chardonnay or seyval, and roasting my own coffee. I do object to frozen pizza and instant coffee.

What is the most interesting insight you have had while working on one of your books, short stories, or poems?

I have worked in a variety of settings. I have worked for state governments, the US Army, and the federal government. In my experience, senior people in very important positions, routinely lied about programs and services. Deceit was everywhere; research did not shape policy-making, policies determined what the researchers were allowed/required to report. Flattery overruled honesty throughout government and career-tending was the status-quo. (At least, that was the case in the eighties and nineties.)

I left government work for higher education only to discover that the 'Ivory Towers' were even more treacherous. As one dean told me, "In higher education, the politics are so dirty because the stakes are so low."

As I was finishing the edits of the Scoloderus Conspiracy, I realized the one principle that accounts for these problems in government and higher education. It remains my greatest insight into the workings of life in bureaucracies. I made it the opening words in the book and I credited my famous scientist, Andrea Baica, with the observation:

Ambitious people understand intelligent people far better than intelligent people understand ambitious people; therefore, ambition will always triumph over intelligence. Once you appreciate this reality, civilization becomes clearer and unfortunately, more distressing.