Interview: A. Victoria Mixon

Every month I will be spotlighting a person for Friday Follow (#FF on Twitter) in the form of an interview here on the blog. Please welcome A. Victoria Mixon as this month’s Friday Follow guest! She is an independent editor and has been a writer and editor in fiction and nonfiction for over thirty years. She’s the co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, Prentice Hall, 1996, and author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual, La Favorita Press, 2010.

You may stalk Victoria at any of the following places:

A. Victoria Mixon, Editor: http://victoriamixon.com
Editing Services: http://victoriamixon.com/editing-services/
Victoria’s Advice Column: http://victoriamixon.com/advice/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/VictoriaMixon

How long did it take you to piece together The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual, and what (in your opinion) is the single most valuable piece of advice within? Furthermore, in what way will this advice aid a person stranded on an island?

About thirty-one years. Six months writing, two months wondering how the heck to organize it, four months editing, and thirty years out there in the field. And now I have a sequel waiting for me to get around to publishing it, the material in my online magazine. I’ve wanted to write a book like this for probably fifteen years.

The most valuable advice is the piece that gets the most room in the index: life, have one. There are probably twenty references to it, and that’s on purpose. If you don’t pay attention to having a life, you’ll have no interesting details to put into your stories. And I don’t care whether you’re a writer or a carpenter or a gas station attendant, this is the only life you’re going to get. Make it good.

This advice, of course, is also the single most important thing you could tell someone stranded on an island. As Janis Joplin said in her marvelous gravelly voice, “Live for today, man, because tomorrow may never come.”

What helps inspire you for your insightful blog posts on the craft of writing? How often do you follow your own advice, and what is the single most difficult thing concerning this subject that you find yourself struggling with?

The zen practice of keeping an open mind. Sometime around Sunday evening every week I wonder what’s happened recently that would make good fodder for drawing links between two disparate real things, one of those things being fiction. By Monday morning I’m ready to blither. It helped a lot when I started writing in lists—I had to identify my premise and jot down points to make.

As I hope you’ve noticed, these are exactly the same ways I recommend approaching fiction: pay attention to your life, draw links between disparate real things to discover the meaning inherent to both, and write toward your premise, already knowing the structural points to hit along your way. When you use imaginary characters to do this work, it’s called fiction.

I do take my all own advice—everything I’m teaching is stuff I’ve sweated blood to learn over the decades—but because of my editing work I very rarely have time to use it these days. I sorted the papers on my desk recently and found copious notes on no less than four working novels, some of them dating back years.

The hardest thing is concentration. I run up against a fog—where am I going with this character?—and it takes a time and heart and concentration to forge into the depths and discover what’s lurking there. I work at home with a work-at-home husband and homeschooled teen so, although we have lots of heart, extra time and the quiet to concentrate are not things you just find lying around out in the open.

I’m patient. In a few years my son will be grown, and I’ll have more leisure. I’ve been at this work for a veeeeeery long time—it’s not going anywhere.

What is your favorite genre to read in, and how many favorite books do you have? Are there enough to stuff into a purse and create a relatively dangerous bludgeoning weapon? Who would you like to hit with said Purse-of-Doom?

Vintage mystery. Boy, howdy. I was a closet mystery addict for decades— ‘I don’t know why I love these things, I’m just sorry they’re not serious literature’—before I became an independent editor and finally learned how to write them in case I had to teach anyone. I discovered in short order a) I love them because they’re brain food, they engage the reader in solving a puzzle through storytelling, and b) compared to what passes for serious literature in today’s market, many vintage mysteries—pulp fiction, the shabby chic of literature—most certainly are polished, nuanced, and wonderfully-written. Not just Raymond Chandler either.

How many do I have? You know that picture of my desk on my blog? That wall goes all the way to the peak of our roof, another four feet of bookshelves above the window, completely filled with dimestore novels of the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. And I came home from Powell’s in Portland last week lugging three more bags, for which I have no shelves. That’s sixteen running feet of ¼-inch spines plus another, say, eight or ten feet in bags. I’d do the math, but just thinking about it makes me feel faint.

You could only stuff them into a purse if you had a purse the size of my office wall. I don’t have one of those.

Whom would I nail if I did? Every one of the cynical salesdroid-type writers making a fortune bastardizing this craft I love, capitalizing with sloppy, cliché writing upon the lowest common denominators in human nature—p*rn, gore, narcissism—to make a quick buck off the gullible out shopping for cheap crap in Walmart.

I deplore what’s happened in publishing in the last thirty years. I’m very hopeful about the changes POD and ebooks can bring about. We are standing right this minute on the threshold of literary revolution.

And that revolution will not be televised.

You’re headed to a duel: sword or pistol, and why? Also, what on Earth did you do to make things boil down to a DUEL, woman?

Neither. I would duel with words. You must know the pen is mightier than the sword. And although I know how to fire a gun, I would not consider myself a safe gambit out in public with one. Besides which, I’m a pacifist.

I try very hard not to incite duels, but that does not mean I never walked the mean streets in my younger days. (Mean largely because I was walking down them.) My best friend and I were drinking in the waterfront bars on Skid Row in Seattle when I was eighteen, so we got quick-witted and tough very fast. We had to. Those were the only places I could get into underage without ID. And we certainly weren’t going to stop drinking.

I’ve probably incited plenty of duel-level situations in my time, but I wouldn’t have remembered what they were in the morning.

Most important of all: pirates vs. ninjas. Who would win and why? Is there any advice in your book that would give either side a winning advantage?

I’d have to say pirates, Rachel, because I was already too old when ninjas appeared in mainstream American culture, so I don’t even know what they are. They look like turtles. How could we pit pirates against turtles?

But I can tell you a good pirate story:

When my father retired he became a sailor and ship’s carpenter on historic sailing ships based out of Seattle, and he was working on the Lady Washington when he was invited to join the crew sailing it to the Caribbean “for some Johnny Depp movie.” He wanted to know if his kids thought he should go.

Well, are you kidding me? A chance to fake a peg leg and swagger in front of the camera playing Talk-Like-A-Pirate-Day? With Johnny Depp? Of course I said yes! And then was bitterly annoyed when he passed on the opportunity. He didn’t really have a reason—I guess it just seemed like too much trouble.

That movie, as we all now know, turned out to be the first of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. And, no, it did not make me feel any better when Depp went on record saying the sailors who’d sailed the Lady Washington from Seattle to the Caribbean were the real stars.

But amazingly enough—yes, there is advice in my book for just such a situation: life, have one.

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12 Comments

  1. Followed on Twitter. I love your tweets. ‘Sometimes I can’t believe the beauty that comes out of people on the Internet’ Now this I gotta follow. 😉 GREAT questions and answers you two!

  2. Rachel! Thank you for reincarnating this interview. I loved your questions!

    However, I have been to Powell’s several times since then, so the stacks of books in my office are reaching maximum density. Can you please send me some bookshelves?

    1. Victoria said: “I’d do the math, but just thinking about it makes me feel faint.”

      Since I love both math AND writing, here, let me do the calculations.

      16′ shelving + 10′ in bags = 26′ total
      1/4″ spines = 48 books per foot
      26′ x 48 books/foot = 1,248 books total

      Now, 1/4″ width seems a little slight to me. Let’s run the numbers for some variance:
      – If the books are each 1/2″ wide, we’re looking at a total of 628.
      – If I was estimating, I’d split the difference and call them an avg of 3/8″ each. That would take the total # of Victoria’s dimestore novels stored on shelves & in bags to 936.

      That was fun! And I don’t feel the slightest bit faint.

      Great interview, Rachel.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Victoria.

      ~Lucas
      @gypsyroots
      #TwitWits

      1. Holy cow, Lucas, thank you!

        I have more books that I thought. And that doesn’t count the facing wall, which is all books except the doorway.

        It’s like a museum in here.

      2. Who needs coffee tables, chairs? Sit your bum & glasses of wine directly on the books. A bed? Phffffh! A nice mattress on a platform of novels is just as comfy.

  3. I used to sleep with books in my bed with me. Until I met my husband, who—although he is also a writer, just not quite as crazy—very diplomatically suggested we stack them nearby.

    Now I only occasionally sleep with one under my pillow. (I’ve got to say, them hardbacks are really not very comfortable.)

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