An eight-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Jéanpaul Ferro’s work has appeared on National Public Radio, Contemporary American Voices, Columbia Review, Emerson Review, Connecticut Review, Sierra Nevada Review and others. He is the author of All the Good Promises (Plowman Press, 1994), Becoming X (BlazeVox Books, 2008), You Know Too Much About Flying Saucers (Thumbscrew Press, 2009), Hemispheres (Maverick Duck Press, 2009), Essendo Morti - Being Dead (Goldfish Press, 2009), nominated for the 2010 Griffin Prize in Poetry; and the recently released Jazz (Honest Publishing, 2011). He is represented by the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency. Website: www.jeanpaulferro.com * E-mail
What motivated you to start writing?
I grew up in a small New England town that has a great history of artists and artistry. It’s home to the Scituate Arts Festivals, one of the biggest and longest running art festivals in the Northeast. The high school in Scituate was very big on music and the arts. They published their own literary journal, and I first starting contributing to this journal when I was 15 years old. I learned that I was a writer, and I haven’t stopped writing ever since.
What is the primary source of inspiration for you?
The greatest inspiration and source of writing for me is the pain and horror of life. You experience so many incredible situations in life, and you witness so many stories day by day as a human being that I find that I want to document these stories and situations. My poetry tends to be very topical, and I’ll write poetry about anything that may be happening in the world that day. For my short fiction and novels, I try to pick subjects that are closer to my heart; part fiction, part reality with a twist of surrealism, humor, and brevity.
Do you write when the muse strikes, or do you follow a writing schedule?
I can actually do both. There are times when I am in what I like to call “writing mode” that I am constantly writing from the time I get up in the morning to the time I go to sleep. I usually have to have a notepad by my side even when I’m relaxing, because new things keep coming to me that I want to use and so I have to write them down. There are days where I experience something or feel something and I simply write that one piece. But in more general terms, when I write poetry I’m usually writing an entire book of poetry. Same thing with short fiction. I usually don’t write just a short story but an entire book of short stories. When I do this I get up early in the morning and just begin to write. On those days I could write up to 16 or 17 hours in one day. I don’t need to eat. I don’t need to sleep. It’s almost as though I’m transformed and all I need is the writing. I’ve also learned that you have to carve out the time to write. For most people, there isn’t going to be a perfect time to write in your life, so you have to make the time. If 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. is all you have to yourself each day then you have to use that time period.
Please describe your process.
With poetry I usually have a theme in my head before I begin to write. I usually pick a title for the piece first. Once I have the title and theme, I simply picture a setting, a time, characters perhaps, and action that will take place. I then just set off to writing, and the poetry just flows and comes out itself. It’s a magical process, and what I write isn’t something I’ve plotted out. Also, I’m always surprised where the poem goes. It is as though someone else’s mind takes over and these pictures and turns of phrase and events happen in the poem, almost as though someone else wrote them.
With short fiction and fiction, I plot out everything in my head first. The characters. The setting. What takes place. The entire story or novel is done in my head first; usually I do this when I am driving into work. Once I know the whole story and all the characters, I write a plot out. I then set about to write the story or novel based loosely on the plot I’ve created and written down. More than that always comes out, but I find stories and novels are much cleaner and action driven if I do all the heavy lifting first. With the poetry, it’s more inspirational and abstract.
What have you done to promote yourself as a writer?
I have spent decades having my individual pieces—poetry, short fiction, photography—published in literary journals, newspapers and magazines. When I have a book published, I always send a note and press release to the publications that have published my work in the past. Ninety percent of them will then post a blurb on their website or on their Facebook page or in their latest issue about your new book. The editors I’ve worked with over the years have been some of my biggest supporters and champions. Same thing for my fellow writers. They will also post something on their websites or blogs about one of my new books. I’ve also tried to write book reviews, blogs and blurbs for other writers, which helps promote their work and your own at the same time. I have also bought ads for various publication newsletters and e-newsletters that go out, promoting my work. I also post links to my works or book reviews of my work on Facebook. I’ve also had some nice newspaper articles done about my writing that has opened a lot of doors. You also have to send press releases about your new books to all media outlets. Most won’t publish a book review, but many will publish a blurb. And some have actually done nice articles about my work; you never know who is going to want to write a piece about you.
What's left to do?
Well, there is a lot left to do. I recently signed with the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency, which has a great stable of authors they represent. They will be representing me on what will be called my debut novel, Torchlight Parade, even though it is actually the 20th novel that I’ve written. Finding a good home for this novel with a good publishing trade house is key. I’ve just completed writing a film script for one of my other novels, and I’ve also just completed writing two new collections of short fiction, so I’m at work right now placing this script and all 17 of these new stories. After 25 years of spinning my wheels, my work is suddenly surging forward like it’s on a big wave. I’ve never had as much fun writing as I’m having right now.
When did you discover your unique voice? How long did the process take?
My voice in my writing was there from day one. It is very different, and I go out of my way to not to be like everyone else. I think writers who are taught by professors all end up writing and sounding the same. I’ve tried to learn my craft from the writing greats of the last century—the Hemingways, Nerudas, Whitmans and Lovecrafts. I’ve spent years studying the greats and how they did things and what works and what doesn’t work, and I completely stay out of any conventional schools of writing. This has worked for me, and it’s nourished that voice that’s inside of me, that comes out on the page all the time.
What do you consider your greatest achievement as a writer?
I always think my latest poem or my latest story is my best, but at the moment I haven’t even come close to what I think can be my greatest achievement. Having my collection of poetry, Essendo Morti - Being Dead, nominated for the Griffin Prize in Poetry is a great honor. And having been nominated for eight Pushcart Prizes is extremely rewarding, and each nomination has come as a surprise.
Right now my new novel, Torchlight Parade, which my agent will be moving forward with, is my greatest achievement. I was offered representation by five different literary agencies, one agency calling the novel “special” and another stating that it was “an incredibly beautiful and entertaining novel.” So writing a full-length novel that moved five agents to want to represent me is probably my greatest achievement to date. I spent six months planning the novel out. It only took 14 days to write it. And now it’s on the verge of getting published. And the greatest thing in my mind is that Torchlight Parade is exactly the novel I set out to write. So having executed the book I wanted to create is probably the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.
What's the most recent book you read?
I’ve just read Our Former Lives in Art: Storiesby Jennifer S. Davis, a great, great short fiction author. Also, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves.
Who are the writers you admire most?
I admire so many writers for so many different reasons that it’s hard to list them all. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald and fellow Rhode Islander, H.P. Lovecraft, simply because they had the “gift” as a writer the same way Rembrandt had the God given gift as a painter. Writing for them is sublime. And you can learn so much from their craft. Two other fellow Rhode Islanders that I admire are Cormac McCarthy and Jhumpa Lahiri. Both are very different from one another, but both weave an incredible tapestry through their stories that is very rare. I also love Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, John Fante, Chuck Palahniuk, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Truman Capote.
On the poetry side, I drift toward Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Galway Kinnell, Corrine De Winter, Walt Whitman, and also Bob Dylan is a big influence of mine.
What's your best piece of advice for novice writers?
Read. Read. Read! Read every great writer you can. Read the classic novelists, poets and short fiction authors and get to know what is being published now. Read the top-tier magazines and journals to see what is being published. Also, networking is key. Get to know the editors and publishers who publish your work. And get to know the editors who you want to publish your work. Help other writers also, no matter what position you find yourself in the literary world. Additionally, don’t get offended when an editor tells you what’s wrong with your story or poem. Listen intently and change those things next time around. Be humble. And write poetry and stories that matter.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
The thing that has left the biggest impression on me in the publishing business is how much others have helped me. I think as writers and human beings we need to help each other out more than we do. We need to be more supportive of each other. We need to put our egos aside and not base everything simply on money. Take that extra moment or two it takes to help someone else and help them. It makes for a better world and a better life. And at the end of the day write something great. Don’t worry about publication or fame. Just write the best you can and let the chips fall where they may.