Some Things That Matter to Salvatore Buttaci: An Interview
What does your muse look like?
When I was a teen-ager I wrote a short story called “Man with Wheels” that told my version of the literary muse who visits writers and presents them with ideas for poems and stories. He had wheels for legs and feet, and you knew he was there because the spinning sound of his wheels matched the sound of ideas spinning in my head, trying so hard to escape to pen and notebook. He wore a dark-blue sharkskin suit, his eyes were lunar yellow, and in his arms he carried a flower basket filled with words that obediently, at his command, assembled themselves into sentences or lines, then paragraphs or stanzas until…eureka! before the writer’s eyes, without need of editing or revising, lay the finished story or poem. Then the man with wheels would roll out of sight until once more he’d be needed to break through the haze of writer’s block.
Of course, the story was meant to be humorous. To me it was as absurd as Erato, that muse lady in blue gown, from whom writers expect some inspiration. I find the whole idea of a muse hilarious. I rate it up there with the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus.
Sometimes writers find it difficult to admit that the writing craft is a gift, something to be developed and improved over time. They will attribute their work to a sudden burst of inspiration that, once down on paper, becomes sacrosanct and unchangeable. I saw this often when I taught writing on the college level. Students would write a story or nonfiction article, and despite my red-penciled suggestions, my proofreading signs, they would prefer taking the low C than aim for an A by making the work better. It was almost as though they felt guilty about tampering with that inspired first draft.
Ding dong, the muse is dead. She was never born. She does not exist. The blue gown, the diadem in her long blond hair, her svelte beauty…all of it an artist’s rendition of what literary inspiration might look like if personified.
When I think “Muse,” I remember that story of my younger days. The man is out there someplace spinning his wheels. In his arms he balances his word basket and waits for me to raise my hand and beckon him towards my writing space, but I leave him stranded out there, all revved up and nowhere to go.
I believe inspiration comes more easily when one is committed to writing. It is hardly enough to write occasionally. In fact, the more often a person writes, the more easily the writing flows. Daily writing comes highly recommended by those bestselling authors who ply their craft hours a day, including weekends.
While there exists no writer-friendly muse, with or without wheels for feet, there are words locked inside our minds that beg for release. I imagine they are all packed like treasures in huge wooden chests, waiting to be opened, to be set free, to fly from the castle hall in which they have been imprisoned. Freedom via the open window or the heavy wooden castle door is attained by daily writing, the reading of books about the craft of writing, building a vocabulary, and the books of successful writers.
Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? If you write more than one, how do you balance them?
We often gravitate towards what we ourselves enjoy. Writing has always been a passion of mine…fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry, each for different reasons. But brevity has always been my objective. I keep poems to a maximum length of 40 lines. Rarely have I exceeded that length. As for fiction, while it is true that I have written two novels, full-length plays, and short stories between 5,000 and 10,000 words, my favorite kind of writing is fiction under 1,000 words. This is not to say flash fiction is the easiest to write because of its brevity, just as saying as much about the haiku would not be quite true. As I see it, the job of the flasher (pardon me, the flash-story writer) and the haikuist becomes more difficult because their goal is to fit a world of a story or emotion or imagery into a confined space of either 1,000 words or less, or 17 syllables or less. The flash and the haiku demand that certain criteria be achieved. Certain elements that define them must be written into them or they fail within the context of their limited space.
Flash fiction appeals to me because of the challenge it presents. I must tell a story with a hook of a beginning, enough of an enticingly descriptive middle, and a satisfying conclusion. Editing becomes paramount as the writer strives to reach the final draft. All unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs need to be given the literary boot because what does not add to the flash detracts from it. A flash is not simply words no longer than 1,000. It is a story with the same requirements as its taller brother, the short story, and giant brother, the novel. The flash is the iceball packed solid and hard. The short story and the novel are snowballs, but none of the three can fall apart once the thrower sets it sailing.
In my collection of 164 short-short stories, Flashing My Shorts, I tried hard to vary the stories so that readers would encounter different characters with different motives, different situations and settings, within different genres. My intent was to be true to myself and provide precisely the kind of book I love reading, one filled with humor, horror, crime, love, science fiction, time travel, alternate history, post-cataclysmic. I wanted them to run the gamut so each flash would stand apart from the next one.
The same holds true for my poetry. When I wrote A Dusting of Star Fall: Love Poems India: Cyber-wit Publications, 2006), I included those poems I felt that readers could and would relate to. Over the years of our marriage, I’ve written and given Sharon a small book of my love poems to commemorate her birthday, St. Valentine’s Day, and our wedding anniversary. One day I asked if she’d mind if I shared the best of those poems in a book others as well could read. She said yes and so did Cyber-wit Publications.
What motivates the kind of book I’ve written has been, “What would I enjoy reading?” I can’t even conceive of writing a book I myself would not bother to read.
You ask how I balance writing poetry and writing fiction, my two main kinds of writing. That’s a good question. I think each involves a different mode of thinking. With fiction I first imagine in my head…set the scene, so to speak…of what the story is about. I see the characters, the problem to be resolved, the time and place of the action, some dialogue, and finally the resolution in what might be something you’d see in a minute YouTube video. Next, I dream up the strongest hook I can to start the flash ball rolling. Then in a conservation of words, I tell the story with an equal balance of narration, description, exposition, and dialogue. Lastly, I dream up the strongest possible ending.
With poetry it’s entirely different. I sit at the computer keyboard and screen and type out the first line or two that pop into my head from wherever the poem stuff is stored! For example, I’ll type, “four fingertips gripped the eaves/she held on for not-so-dear life.”
And then I continue to type until the first draft is done. I have no clue where I am heading. It’s like a train ride into dark night. I won’t know where I am going until I get there. Sometimes I am not happy with what I find and I highlight, then delete, the entire poem. Sometimes I save the best line or more. And there are those times when the poem’s first draft satisfies me enough that I don’t mess with it.
Usually I write two or three poems daily, as well as one or two flash stories. I carry a pocket notepad where I jot down any ideas that come to me or new vocabulary I read or dialogue I hear. In this way I keep myself stocked with the raw materials to write more and more poems and stories.
How long have you been writing?
My wife tells me, “Please don’t tell them again how you started writing! I’m dreaming it in my sleep!” But the truth shall set us free, so here goes. I was nine and it was a day before Mother’s Day. I had no money to buy my mother a gift. I had money, but I’d spent it on green grapes and a strawberry malted, all of which cost me back in 1950 only about 40 cents. If I hadn’t been so selfish, I could have bought her a napkin holder from Schramm’s Hardware for 30 cents and had enough left over to buy another malted.
I took a sheet of school loose-leaf paper, folded it like a greeting card, drew a heart on the front and wrote HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, MA. On the inside left page I wrote a quick poem called “To My Mother.” On the right side, I wrote, “Love, your son Sal.”
Of course, my sisters gave me the evil eye because, unlike them, I had no gift, only a greeting card, one I didn’t even buy. But when Mama opened my card and read my poem, she started to cry.
“Ma, what’s wrong?” one of us kids asked.
“The card?” asked Joanie, hardly believing Mama would love it more than the kerchief she bought her.
“This poem your brother wrote.”
Then Joanie and Anna read it, but it didn’t impress them much. Anna was in the 8th grade and read so much better in school. Joanie was in the first grade where “Roses are red, violets are blue” type poems probably outshone my attempt at poetry.
When Papa heard Mama crying, he came into the kitchen, wanting to know “What’s going on?”
“It’s beautiful!” my mother repeated, then handed the poem to him.
Papa read it aloud. Honestly, the poem was, pardon the oxymoron, “pure crap.” But he had tears in his eyes too. What gives? I wondered.
My father, who had studied in the seminary back in Sicily, was well versed in the works of Dante in their original tongue. He held the poem high in the air and waved it like a flag. “This is better than Dante!” he said. “Your poem is beautiful.” I thought to myself, one more beautiful and I will eat my poem and throw up. “Would you write a Father’s Day poem for me?”
I smiled. “Pa, we got a whole month.”
“Go write it now,” he said. “I can’t wait that long.”
My parents encouraged my writing from that day on. If they caught me doing nothing, they’d ask, “You did all your homework? You studied for that test?” And when I said yes to both, one or the other would say, “Then go write a poem or a story. We want to hear it.”
There were times I would rather have relinquished my title back to Dante, but they kept after me. “Got a poem? Got a story?” They never said, “I’m too busy to read or hear what you wrote. Ask me later.” My parents would actually stop what they were doing, sit down and either read my work or ask me to read it to them.
Because of their praise and belief in me, I tried to learn more and more about good writing. On Saturdays I’d go to the library and read books of poetry or how-to-write books. I’d keep a notebook of what writing tips I’d find and incorporate them into my own writing. I’d keep a special notebook where I would jot down new words and their definitions. I’d arrange them in alphabetical order. Then I’d memorize them and use them in my story.
In high school I wrote for the school newspaper and was elected editor-in-chief of the yearbook. At 16 I got my first essay published in the Sunday New York News. That same year a very short poem called “Charlatan” was published in Bardic Echoes. It went like this:
You promised to mend my broken heart.
Instead, I was treated and released.
So writing became part of me. I wrote to please my parents and my teachers, and to assuage whatever sorrows came in my life. When my father died in 1987, I filled three notebooks with memories of him. I suppose it was weird of me to think somehow I could keep him alive that way, but published stories of him do bring him back to me and I get to share him with readers who never had the pleasure of his company. [For example, see “Papa’s Gold Coin” in Cup of Comfort for Fathers, published in April 2010.]
How long have I been writing? Sixty wonderful years!
What projects are you working on at the present?
I’ve nearly completed the editing of my follow-up collection of short-short stories, which I will submit to Deb Harris for consideration. I have a feeling she is going to love this one too!
Next I will be editing two novels, one of them called Carmelu the Sicilian; the other is called Denver-under-Dome. The first tells the story of a Sicilian-born American movie actor and the other is an alternate-history time travel scifi.
What are some day jobs that you have held? If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.
In 2007, I retired from nearly 30 years teaching on all levels of education. Prior to that, I was a marketing exec for a New York City mailing list company. In my younger days I worked in an airplane factory as a power, sensitive, and radial driller of aeronautical pistons. I was also a questioned document examiner for a time, and part owner of a janitorial maintenance firm.
They have all impacted on my writing because I have found material in my workplace experiences to fill several books!
Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
As a boy I read the poems of Rosa Zagnoni Marinoni, poet laureate of Arkansas, back in the 1950s. She more than any poet hooked me into writing poetry. Later in life, in addition to a myriad list of international poets, I favored Leonard Cohen of Canada, Caesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Salvatore Quasimodo, and the old bard from Strafford-on-Avon!
As for novelists, I favored Hemingway, Dos Passos, Goldman, and Mickey Spillane. Now some interviewers wonder why Spillane. I tell them few could write with the ease of Spillane who told a story as though I were his only reader. I also like Follett and Folsom.
What’s the last thing you think of before you fall asleep at night? First thing in the morning?
After kissing my love goodnight, I say my night prayers, asking God to make me a better person in the morning and to heal all those in need of His mercy. The first thing that comes to mind in the morning is a quickly fading dream I quickly jot down in my notepad by the bed.
Who’s your best/worst critic?
My wife Sharon is my best critic. She can hear me recite a poem or story and know exactly what’s either missing or needs to go the way of the garbage bag. My worst critic is myself because sometimes I can’t let go of the story or poem and say to myself, “Enough already! The damn thing’s done!”
List, in one sentence, the three questions you’d ask your favorite author over lunch. In one sentence, answer them.
I’d ask him how much of the book was his own writing, not the editor, did having an agent help him to become successful, and how much of what you write comes from his own life.
The book had several more characters and one or two other subplots, which the editor found too cumbersome and deleted them.
After two of my books started earning money, I hired an agent to save myself the grief of promoting my work, which gave me more time to write.
Quite a bit of what I write is based on personal experiences, and that’s why I advise writers to be observant, to notice everything, record them and internalize them into their writings.
What’s your most memorable (not necessarily your favorite) childhood memory?
It was the day my father asked us if we knew how much he loved our mother. “I’d give up my right arm for her,” he said to us. The image of Papa with one bloody arm shook us up a little, but then he added, “because that mother of yours would give both her arms for me!”
Or now here is a really weird, but fun one…what trash item did you see that inspired you to write a story. In one of my stories I found a whole character when I saw a manikin head on a dumpster.
In my childhood the little girl next door passed away from pneumonia. One night shortly after I saw her mother come out to the garbage can, lift the lid, and toss into it two or three dolls. I didn’t write the story until recently and put it into my upcoming flash collection about a woman of the streets who never has time to buy her little daughter a doll. She spends all her money on expensive perfume. When the child develops pneumonia, she leaves the doctor with her child, and runs out to buy her that doll. She brings it home but her daughter dies in the interim.
Are you a full-time or part-time writer? How does that affect your writing?
Now that I am retired, I write about four hours in the morning and two at night.
I’d write more hours, but I love my wife and need to spend time with her. If I lock myself up at the computer, she’ll forget who I am and I’ll spend the rest of my days alone.
Salvatore Buttaci can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can check out his blog: http://salbuttaci.blogspot.com or http://salvatorebuttaci.wordpress.com
or you can go to amazon.com, click on BOOKS and type in “Flashing My Shorts” and read the reviews.
Visit Buttaci’s Publisher at http://allthingsthatmatterpress.com