Lori A. May: You often find characters with dark, but subtle demeanors. This time, in “Special Forces,” you have a soldier narrator. Can you share a little about how you find or create your characters?
D Ferrara: I don’t think I create my characters – they arrive fully formed in my head, or sometimes show up in front of me, on the street, in my family or among my acquaintances, although sometimes they cross pollinate. All I do is imagine them in different situations. That is the hard part. In “Special Forces,” the main character is based largely on a late friend, with some anecdotes drawn from soldiers I have met over the years. I imagined him in my own cancer treatment.
“Lucille” is based on my own life, although I’ve added events, as my time in France was less eventful than Lucille’s. “Then and Now” was triggered by my husband’s terrible experience on September 11. “Sample Sale” published in American Writers’ Review, sprang from a conversation I overheard between two young women at, you guessed it, a sample sale.
LAM: How do you know when you have the right narrator for the story? For that matter, how do you determine the appropriate POV?
DF: Most times, my stories derive from the character. Without the character, there isn’t a story. In “Special Forces,” that is especially true. Sometimes, however, I find that the story is more interesting from another point of view. My play, “Favor,” for example, started out as a biography of Edith Stein, the nun who was killed at Auschwitz. While that was a great story, it didn’t resonate with me as much as why the Catholic Church had decided to make her – a woman born Jewish – a saint. When I changed the focus to the political intrigue at the Vatican, the story took off.
As for how I determined that: I couldn’t find anything new to say about Edith. Not only could I not say it better, I couldn’t offer anything different. At that point, I could either give up on the idea (wasting years of research) or find a fresh approach. That approach germinated when I read an article by James Carroll, a Catholic writer, who questioned the motivation of the Church in canonizing Edith. I created a character to embody the controversy, gave Edith a voice in it and I was off.
LAM: You publish widely in a variety of literary journals. What strategy do you have for submitting your work?
DF: “Special Forces” seemed perfect for r.kv.r.y. There are stories like that – they just fit. Mostly, I submit to journals that I like, which means I submit a lot. I subscribe to TSP and make note of the publishers of short stories there. Once a quarter, I choose a story and send it to journals which have published my work or which I have enjoyed. I have also used Writers’ Relief to explore new outlets.
LAM: Tell us a bit more about your writing life. How do you balance your writing, submitting, promoting, and community involvement while keeping up with day-to-day life?
DF: Like most writers with a day job and a family, I dream of the perfect retreat with nothing to do but write. I doubt I would write a word there. “Special Forces” happened when I was lying on a gurney, waiting for an MRI, worrying about my family, work, nausea, hair loss, sex, chemo-bloat, chemo-brain, but not, oddly enough, dying. Some of my best stories were born on the 6:25 bus to Manhattan. Stories have to be about something that touches the reader. What about an idyllic retreat is likely to touch most readers?
In short, I don’t so much balance as squeeze. I write on my iPhone, my iPad and a paper notebook, although my handwriting is dreadful. In a pinch, I gabble ideas into the voice recorder on the phone. It isn’t perfect – or even pretty, but I have published fourteen stories in the past two years, as well as a lot of articles for work, so I feel productive.
As for community involvement, I often feel that it gets the shortest end of the stick. If it weren’t for social media, I would have a hard time keeping up with my writers’ group. Still, when I get together with them, I always feel as if I’ve been rejuvenated, injected with new ideas.
LAM: When you think about your future writing plans, what might we hope to see from you in the future? Do you intend to pull together some of your stories for a collection?
DF: I have a collection of twenty-five stories ready to go (any publishers reading this?), from which “Special Forces” is drawn, and am adding to them, although somewhat erratically As every short story writer knows, publishers shy away from collections. Still, it is a wonderful experience to see them published individually. Next up, I have stories in MacGuffin, The Evansville Review, Adana and Diversity Art Project.
LAM: What do you know now as a writer that you didn’t know ten years ago? What advice might you offer to those starting out?
DF: Ten years ago I had given up on short fiction and was working on screenplays and ghostwriting. It paid, but was miserable work. I rarely got credit, and affected a hard boiled pose that was alien to my nature.
Slowly, I returned to my first love, the short story. It will never make me rich, but it makes me happy. Yes, I still write scripts, and collaborate with others on their work, but I don’t need the tough-as-nails posture. My life has been good: I can share that good fortune with others.
As for offering advice – besides the usual, excellent wisdom, “just do it,” I would add, don’t resent other people’s success. Envy is a waste of energy. Put that energy into your work. If you don’t “succeed” at what you are doing, maybe you need to redefine success. Do you need to change your genre? Find a different art form? Choose other outlets? Or revisit rule one – just do it? If you don’t write it, no one can read it.
If your only dream involves sitting on Johnny Carson’s couch, remember – Johnny is dead.
Lori A. May is the author of several books, including The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship & the Writing Life (Bloomsbury, 2015) and Square Feet (Accents, 2014). Her work may also be found in publications such as The Atlantic, Brevity, and Midwestern Gothic. Lori teaches in the nonfiction MFA program at the University of King’s College-Halifax, and in the MA/MFA programs at Wilkes University. Find her online at www.loriamay.com and on twitter @loriamay.