Robert Slentz-Kesler: It didn’t start that way, but as I was putting it all together and wanted Mr. Hillgrand to support Edward’s passion for writing, I realized the pen could help him do this. When his father gives Edward the pen as a gift for his sixteenth birthday, he does so discreetly, away from the rest of the family.
RR: We enjoyed the diverse characters’ voices you’ve developed for Edward and his family members. Do you have a process for capturing voice for different characters in a story?
RSK: A good question! Yes, definitely. I like to place them all in a single room and imagine the piece as a one-act play in a black box theater. When there’s nowhere else to go and characters have to face each other, they tend to reveal themselves in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I’ve long been a fan of the black box format—the limited space, the tight boundaries, just the spare feeling of it all, and the focus it forces onto character dialogue and movement.
RR: Edward’s family believes he based the events of his book off of them. What are your thoughts on drawing inspiration from personal experiences to influence fictional narratives?
RSK: Ooo, this could get out of hand—how much time do we have? We could talk for hours. We’re told fiction is meant to be made-up, but we’re also told “write what you know,” so it sometimes feels like being pulled in both directions. I’ve had people look at my writing and say, “Yes, but did that actually happen?” and then point at another paragraph and say, “And what about this part, did this actually happen?” and so on. It leads to interesting discussions, because some readers are genuinely interested in how a writer weaves personal experience into fiction, but I’m also troubled by the persistent belief that if you haven’t personally experienced something, you have no business putting it into your fiction. In my own writing, I try to use experience to give a bit of fullness and color to characters and scenes without making direct and discourteous connections to reality. In “Waterman Hemisphere,” Edward tells his family that his work is fiction but then admits that his experience with Will Barnes in high school was the impetus for his first novel. If he thinks he successfully disguised his characters, his sister Rose is there to remind him that he failed.
RR: We understand from your bio that you were a public school teacher. How has teaching influenced your writing?
RSK: Middle school students have a huge influence on everyone! As a classroom teacher, I had to keep ahead of all the assignments by reading piles of books, and then as a school librarian I read even more widely so I’d be in a better position to recommend books to students who didn’t know what they might want to read. So much reading. I love reading.
RR: Your bio also mentions that you’re from Durham, North Carolina. Do you have a favorite spot to write in the Raleigh/Durham area?
RSK: Oh yes, I can do short bursts of light work at Bean Traders Coffee in Durham, and longer stretches of focused work at the desk at home.
Robert Slentz-Kesler’s work in Issue 8.1: