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Interview with Craig Buchner: “I suffer from believing in pure inspiration.”

Craig Buchner is an acclaimed author hailing from the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Having lived in diverse locations such as Idaho, Oregon, Tokyo, and now Charlotte, North Carolina, these varied landscapes have significantly shaped his writing.

Recognized with the AWP Intro Journals Award, Craig’s fiction and poetry are well-regarded and have been featured in notable publications like Tin House, Baltimore Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Cincinnati Review, Hobart, and Puerto del Sol. His debut collection of short stories, Brutal Beasts, received high praise and was named one of the “Best Books of the Year” by Kirkus Reviews in 2022.

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Hi Craig, welcome to Famous Writing Routines! Your bio mentions that you have lived in several different places, including Idaho, Oregon, Tokyo, and Charlotte, North Carolina. How have these diverse locations influenced your work, and do you feel that your sense of place is an important aspect of your writing?

To write about place divorced from plot would be a missed opportunity to develop the complexity and history of a story and its characters. For me, it all begins with place. We are all outputs of the land.

Go to the abandoned rug factories in Amsterdam, New York, or the dense forests of Portland, Oregon, or the horse farms in Dunnellon, Florida, and you’ll see how each place has shaped the culture, the language, the architecture, the food, and clothes. Why would it be any different in fiction? With each book I’ve written I can go back and see how the places I was living at the time had influenced me – how I thought, what I did, when and how I wrote. What land formations were benefits or obstacles in the day to day, what weather patterns I focused on, or how people interacted with one another because of the climate.

Place is as much a character in a story as it is in life.

Your first collection of short stories, Brutal Beasts, was named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the “Best Books of the Year” in 2022. What was it like receiving such recognition, and did it put any pressure on you for your debut novel, Fish Cough?

Unbelievable and unquestionably. To keep writing, decade after decade, I think an author has to block out everything that is not the pure act of writing (meaning, publishing and a work’s reception), and to write, first and foremost, out of the love of writing. To cherish the process and to be satisfied that if it goes no further, then I am still content. This is the only way.

But once a book is published, it’s inevitable that your mind will travel to that darkest corner: “Is the book any good? Will it resonate?” Receiving the news from Kirkus that Brutal Beasts was chosen as one of their books of the year reinforced one stubborn voice in my head, who for years was repeating, “Keep going, keep writing, keep submitting.” In a word, validation. It didn’t help that Fish Cough would be published less than two months later, and I honestly wasn’t prepared for any other press. My bucket was full, and I knew that the high I was on could instantly vanish. How does one prepare for a free fall without a parachute?

For those two months leading up to Fish Cough’s publication date I had to search for that state of mind that had kept me going during the five years it took for me to write the book. “Keep going, keep writing.” But once you experience publishing a book and reading its reviews, I’m not sure that fear really goes away. I can say it’s certainly on my mind, not that I want it to be, as I work on my next project.

Fish Cough is a unique story that explores the idea of whether the objects around you could influence your behavior. What inspired you to write this story, and how did you go about developing this idea into a full-length novel?

It began as an exercise. I worked in Tokyo for a year and devoured all the literature I could. It was freeing; it was exciting. One book I brought home with me was The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide. This quiet, small novel about a couple with a cat. For all the excitement and action and exaggeration that exists in American culture, this book was the polar opposite. I admired that, and I sought out to write something so against the grain of what was considered popular American literature at the time.

I started by breaking down the first 20 pages of The Guest Cat. When Hiraide wrote about the weather, I’d write about the weather. If a character walked into a new room, so did my character. This type of exercise allowed me to start writing and thinking about stories differently. But once I began, I realized I was not mimicking The Guest Cat, I was writing Fish Cough.  

One of the most important aspects to Fish Cough, though, is that I really try to break away from the Western addiction to a traditional narrative arc, with rising action, climax, resolution, all that. Instead, I was inspired by Kishōtenketsu – which is a narrative arc born from Chinese literature but popularized in Japan and Korea. It follows a similar pattern to the Western arc except in its third movement following the development or rising action (‘shō’), a twist (or ‘ten’ occurs), which leads into the conclusion or ‘ketsu.’ The twist is the most important part of the story.

It’s an unexpected turn, and is like the climax of a Western story, meaning it’s what the entire story is building toward. And it often recontextualizes the previous events of the story. Then in the conclusion or ‘ketsu’, the author is wrapping up their story. It’s important to note that in Kishōtenketsu, characters don’t have to show growth, and sometimes barely any action has happened. The goal is to show the reader the aftermath of the twist.

One review of Fish Cough said something like, “it reads less like a story of rising action and more like a slow disintegration.” And I think that’s absolutely accurate. It’s a different reading experience and one that intentionally allows for the story to be stripped down and down and down until only the essentials are left – two people trying to make their lives work together. What’s more important than that?

Fish Cough has been described as a novel that blurs genre. How would you describe your writing style, and do you feel that your poetry background informs your prose writing?

Genre is obsolete. It’s funny to think how long literature has tried to divide itself into lanes. The modern internet has destroyed that notion. With access to all information at once, including types of media, audiences have gotten accustomed to instantly toggling between every known genre in almost all art forms. This type of easy, shifting consumption is normal.

So, it makes sense to me to write in all styles. Literary fiction, pop fiction, romance, sci-fi. Each creates a new layer, so rather than picking a lane, I choose all of them. I don’t think audiences were ready or open in the past. But deconstructing the boundaries within my work captures this modern reality. 

As for poetry, I always admired artists who worked across various media. A mentor, Ron Rash, writes novels, short stories, and poetry. When I was starting out, I wanted to have that same range – to move where the inspiration took me. But life, too, has contributed to what I write. If I have more time in the day, I might be able to focus on a longer piece, like working on a novel or a story, but with less time I might only have the attention to develop a poem or a piece of flash fiction.

It was within these concentrated forms, though, that I really developed my style. You’ll find in my longer prose that most chapters intentionally read like self-contained pieces. And I owe this to my early passion for flash fiction and prose poetry.

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San Francisco Book Review gave Fish Cough 5 out of 5 stars, and LoveReading has chosen it as an “Indie Books We Love.” What has been the response to your book so far, and how have you been feeling about its reception?

A few months before Fish Cough was published, I had a slight loss of faith. I was burned out from editing because I worked on back-to-back books. Brutal Beasts was published in May 2022 and Fish Cough came out in February 2023. I was tired and annoyed, and I had a fleeting thought that I wanted to just pull the plug on Fish Cough. I wasn’t afraid that it wouldn’t be received well, but I just didn’t know if I liked it anymore. I’d put a lot of pressure on myself because it was my debut novel.

What changed all that was when I heard the first few chapters of the audio book read by Matthew Anderson. Hearing the words through someone else’s voice gave me some distance from the work. I was able to hear it differently, maybe more purely, and that is how I fell back in love with the story and the characters. The early accolades, too, are good reminders to not give up. I didn’t realize how emotional the journey is to publication. But I’m proud of Fish Cough, even without the stars.

Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?

I suffer from believing in pure inspiration. For the first decade of my writing career, I only wrote when I was inspired. Luckily, I had a good amount of free time and few responsibilities, and I could drop whatever I was doing to write. I was—and still am—at my most productive in the early morning. Maybe that’s when my writing voice is at its clearest, without any influence from the day: social media, the news, other art or people.

But as my responsibilities in life increased with family and work, I no longer had the luxury (or felt comfortable) with following the excited moments of artistic ecstasy wherever they would take me. It’s only more recently, the last few years, that I have to pre-plan time to write. It’s like how married couples schedule a ‘date night’ to ensure any degree of intimacy. I laughed at that when I was young, as I did with writers who said they woke up at five a.m. to write before their day jobs. At the time, it made their art seem forced. But now I realize the importance of that schedule; now I’m them. And simply put – if it’s not planned, it’s not going to happen.

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

Denis Johnson. He somehow mastered every single form. Short stories. Poetry. Novels. Nonfiction. 

But equally as interesting to me, I’d want to talk to writers in 2060 or 3060 and ask them about their routines and processes. What does it look like to create in a world with even more access to information and artificial intelligence and shortened attention spans? I don’t know how they’ll do it, but I’m hopeful. I want to be hopeful.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?

Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, Amy Long’s Codependence, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Ron Rash’s Poems. I wish I was one of those people who could read 20 or more books a year, but I’m on the opposite end of that. I might read six or seven. Some of this has to do with lack of time and prioritizing writing over reading and some has to do with influence, or fear of being influenced.

I know how tempting it can be to try to write like Raymond Carver or Cormac McCarthy so I’ll often over distribute my time to writing and not reading to help establish my own writing voice. This is literally the opposite advice of what I’d been given in my MFA – on the essential nature of reading a lot – but it’s what works for me. 

One of my favorite recent reads is George Saunders’s collection of stories, Liberation Day. I think of him like I think of artists like Radiohead or David Bowie. With each publication Saunders is single-handedly reshaping how we think about that type of literature. I can’t name another writer who is doing this with such regularity.

You are also the recipient of the AWP Intro Journals Award, and your fiction and poetry have appeared in several literary magazines. How has your writing process evolved over the years, and what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

“Cut the piano in half with a chainsaw,” is my advice. This is what a mentor said to me during a writing workshop a decade ago. Those words changed how I write and look at stories. But what did my mentor mean? She meant that I needed to write something that was genuinely interesting to the reader.

An attention-grabbing moment (maybe a scene or a line of poetry) is the foundation of every work, and mastering that is one of the most effective ways to hook a reader – even if that reader is only yourself.

In the “piano” story I had researched how to meticulously disassemble a piano in order to get it out of a house. I had written, what I thought, was this beautiful instructional in the story I was workshopping, but my professor wasn’t buying it. Instead, she said, “What would happen in the story if you cut the piano in half with a chainsaw?” In the moment, I wondered why she hadn’t picked up on the precision of my prose, but then I realized that by juxtaposing that violent moment within the quiet scene, the trajectory for the characters involved would be shaken up in such a way that it would bring out aspects of them that would immediately create tension and interest. So, what did I do? I revved up the chainsaw. That advice is tattooed in my memory, and I look at it every time I sit down to write.

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