Nathan Beck was a winner of the 2016 St. Louis Writer’s Guild Short Story contest. He holds a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and has the super power of quoting entire monologues from movies no one else can or cares to remember. Professionally, he has worked in drug and alcohol recovery, clinical studies for medical oncology, and pretzel twisting (not in that order). He has a wife, 2 sons, 1 pitbull, and a gladiatorial 17 lb. dog, Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of The Armies of The North etc. etc.
1.Why storytelling? What made you yearn to tell a good story, and how long was this story within you before it came out?
I can remember being nine years old playing with G.I. Joe action figures in my room. There was a lot of fighting in my house and just as much in the neighborhood I grew up in and I felt small a lot of the time. I was scared a lot. Alone in that room, I could pretend the figures in my hands were characters so powerful that no one had ever hurt them or made them feel lesser. I acted out these grand adventures for them. Their victories, despite being my own fictional creations, helped me not to feel so small.
When I got older, I found that same escape in the mountains of books I read and the embarrassing ones I wrote as a teenager. In time, it wasn’t characters having power that helped me. It was what they did with their gifts. Choosing grace over revenge. Kindness over selfishness. That’s how I came to realize I didn’t want super-strength so I could crush the antagonists in my life, I wanted words that could help them not to be so angry.
Reading became part of who I was and eventually writing did too. In my undergrad it was what kept me from going insane working 50 hours a week and taking 19-21 credit hours. When I worked in drug and alcohol recovery for three years post-graduation, storytelling was what gave me hope that others, no matter how broken they are, can find redemption. Now, working in oncology research, it is what gives me peace seeing so many people die of a disease they have no control over. Storytelling is one of the few things that all people from every culture and society in history has celebrated and shared as part of our human experience. I think storytelling is the only real magic left.
2.What is it about your genre that speaks to you?
In my reading I like to jump genres – I’ll read anything from literary fiction to fantasy to YA. But I always write fantasy and part of that is because it’s a place where creation doesn’t have limits outside what the world you’re building allows. For me, it’s a form of therapy because of that freedom. I have demons and ghosts like most people and in normal life we try to hide or suppress those things. But while writing fantasy I get to find those monsters. I get to give them names, backstories, motives, and powers. Then I get to find a ways to beat them.
My favorite thing about this book is the historical elements I got to weave into it. The story takes place mostly in 16th century Ireland so there was an unbelievable amount of research I had to put into it. But that left me with a whole lot of material to work with that was actually true.
Things like Silken Thomas. He was the son of an Irish Deputy who was always getting in trouble with the King of England. So one day after a battle this deputy gets called up to go to England and speak with the king. Right after he gets there word comes back to Ireland that the king had the deputy killed. So Thomas goes all Braveheart and starts a rebellion and he’s amazing at it. He’s rallying other clans, other throwing English occupied towns, and he gets really close to conquering all of Ireland. Until one day he finds out that in the battle before his dad went to England, he’d been shot. The wound got infected on the ship and the English had done everything they could to save the deputy but he died of sepsis. And when Silken Thomas finds out he just ends the whole war and is like, “My bad, guys.”
Those stories are so fantastically entertaining to me and full of tiny wisdoms I knew I had to find ways to fit them in. So there’s a certain Irish lord in the book named Manus (also an actually figure from history) who is always pulling lessons out of his country’s history and my favorite thing is that every crazy-sounding story he tells is true.
4.What character from your book fills you with hope?
I draw home from a witch names Turin whose main form of magic is the power to hear and understand the world around her. She’s a character who suffers as much as anyone else in the book. She loses so much and she gets wounded deeply. And in a book full of bloody revenge and toxic hatred she chooses to love and forgive the people who wrong her. She doesn’t have any delusions about the world and she isn’t without her own feelings of rage or desires for retribution. She’s fully human and broken but she chooses not to give in to bitterness and hate. She chooses healing and because she goes through that she is later able to tame monsters. And that’s what I find hope in.
5.What character from your work frightens you, makes you feel dirty to write?
Oh, more than one. I have a handful of villains that I spent a lot of time fleshing out and getting to know. I think it’s important for the monsters in books to be human. To have motives we can understand and relate to on at least some level. It’s never been compelling to me to read about bad guys who do bad things because they like it. That sort of thing always seemed one-dimensional. Like they only exists to give the hero someone to fight. So when I was building my antagonists I worked out why they are as broken and cruel as they become and made cases for them. I tried to understand them and in doing so I was able to see myself in them. And given the sort of villains I use on my story that is a scary thought.
I think the one that unsettles me most is actually in the novel I am writing now that should come out sometime in 2018. She’s an amalgamation of the Celtic deity, The Morrigan, and a story I heard while I was in Haiti. They told us about this witch who visits children who then get sick and if they die people claim to see the children walking with the witch at night like her zombie soldiers. That story rattled me at the time and I sort of hated myself for thinking of the idea to put it in my book. But like I said before, part of fantasy is facing the things that frighten you.
6.When you are writing, tell me about the emotions that are running through you and what it takes to work alongside them.
Geez, that’s a Costco sized bag of loaded questions. I think most artists of any craft spend a lot of time in their own head and that can make a lot of painters or musicians seem odd. Writers are especially strange because we spend a lot of time in our friends’ heads. Ideally, in the course of writing a novel you are going to feel a full spectrum of emotions because you have to know what your characters are going through. Someone once said, “No tears for the writer no tears for the reader.” And that may not be entirely true but it’s not wholly false either.
You can tell when a writer sort of skips out on feeling. Some books have under-developed supporting characters that are just there to make the hero look better or to set up some of the punch lines. And that feels cheap because it is. Good writing takes work and time. Really powerfully written scenes are ones that the author could narrate from any POV. They could explain the situation from the hero’s perspective just as well as the villains, the comedic relief’s, the love interest’s, and the lady who was just walking by to get her plates renewed. They don’t just know how the gun sounded when he pulled the trigger they know what the gunman had for breakfast, what traffic was like on the way over, what his shirt smelled like, and if he had run out of eggs the day before. Good writing is about living in other people’s shoes and that means feeling what they feel.
So for me when I’m writing I try my best not to feel what Nathan Beck is feeling. I try to feel and think the way the people from the story I am telling are.
7.How did you find the time to write this book with your busy life? What ideas do you have on how others can make time in their lives?
It’s always a struggle to balance the time between writing, my family, my social commitments, and this weird practice called, “sleep” that I try to do semi-regularly. So for me I see the struggle as being balancing the time not so much finding the time. Because if you love it you’ll find time for it. The danger for me is also being a good dad and a husband and eating meals.
Where newer writers get stuck I think is staying motivated when the writing isn’t fun. Really good writing is hard to do. Really bad writing is usually kind of fun. And the difference between first and final drafts is a whole bunch of work that isn’t fun. You have to fact check and logically think through things, you have to question character choices (would this person really do/say this or does the author just need to advance the plot) and then you have to get around to the prose and grammar of it all. You have to do beta reads and let people tell you your work sucks and listen to why it sucks and then work more to make it suck less. And when you’ve worked 55+ hours and the kids just went down and you have the option of working on that third draft or binging Netflix, that’s when you have to decide if you really think this is worth pouring yourself into or if it’s more of a hobby. And it is completely ok to write as a hobby. Then you don’t really have to find time for it, you can just do it whenever it’s convenient and re-watch Breaking Bad when it’s not.
If someone were struggling to find time to write I would encourage them to focus on pre-writing. When you’re in a waiting room, on a bus, or somewhere you can allow yourself to unplug, write the story in your head. Have conversations with your characters to get to know them better. Think through the plot and why it’s interesting. The more you pre-write the more you’re going to find yourself itching to get something typed up. And again, when you’re really wanting to do it, you will find the time.
8.Everyone has at least one specific challenge that holds them back. What is that challenge in your work and how do you overcome it?
I have a really hard time summarizing my work. I write fantasy, which lends to being longer books with intricate plots and complex characters. And I have two main narratives and villains I am fascinated with and all these plot twists and Irish History strung in. So when I write I feel like I can be concise and paint word pictures really well. And in most of my normal life I am fairly articulate and compelling. But for some reason when I talk about my writing I become a bumbling weirdo. I can write a blurb no problem. But people ask me in person what The Orchard is about and I normally say something like, “Oh it’s just like words and stuff.”
9.If you could change any one thing about your work, what would it be?
I mean, if there was something I wanted to change I would just change it. I don’t have regrets about anything I have done in the book. There are times I wish the book didn’t have to be so dark or as long as it is. And that’s purely just from a business standpoint. You can reach a wider audience if it’s more pleasant reading and a shorter word count. A lot of readers want quick stories that make them feel good, not so much full reads that question our emotional responses to things, explore trauma and grief, and remind us what being human means. So I know The Orchard is exactly what it needs to be and it’s what I wanted it to be, but there have been times I wished it could have been lighter for the sake of appeal. But I never tried to water it down for that reason. It would have felt disingenuous.
10.If you could change any one thing about the writing industry, what would it be?
Oh, that’s tough. I don’t think I really have a solution for any of it. I think the market in a lot of ways is oversaturated. You know in a world where videos and passive entertainment is everywhere and the number of readers is going down, the number of writers is growing at an unprecedented rate. Ten years ago there were a million e-books on Amazon and today there’s over 4 million. There’s not enough market space for all those books to sell and so it ends up being a lot of white noise. Agents are overwhelmed with the number of queries they get every week and they can’t give support to writers trying to get their work where it needs to be.
I think that’s where the industry is really lacking in its ability to equip newer writer’s to produce compelling and original books. I would never say there are too many writer’s – if there’s one thing the world can never have too much of it’s stories. But I think we need more support for people who want to write.
I’m lucky in that I have a network of beta readers and editors who tell me when my stuff is derivative junk. The Orchard is good not because I’m a prodigy but because I spent six years writing and re-writing it. It’s good because it used to be bad and I sat down with dozens of people to find out what was wrong with it and how to fix it. I listened to hours and hours of collegiate lectures online from creative writing courses, my Audible library is full or grammar books and prose lessons. I am a huge nerd for this stuff and I’m patient. I take my time with what I’m working on, I beg people for criticism, and I learn as I go.
But not everyone has that kind of support. So if you’re getting shot down by the people in New York and you don’t have an indie army at your back, what do you do? If you browse the e-books on Amazon you’ll find out a lot of people just say, “Eh, it’s good enough” and hit that tempting publish button. I wish there were more communities for newer writer’s not just to sell books but to work on our craft together and learn from each other without having to pay thousands of dollars to get a MFA in creative writing.
11.You’re going to go back and visit yourself when you first started writing, at whatever age it was, and you can give yourself one piece of advice. What would it be?
This might end up being more of a personal response than one that is helpful to other writers. But I would tell myself, it’s ok to love it. In high school I wrote for fun when I had time and it wasn’t anything I was committed to. And in college I really developed a passion for it. But at the time I was planning on going into full-time ministry and I had these twisted ideas about my desires being self-serving and sinful. I wasn’t ever told by anyone in any church that writing was bad, don’t hear me blame an institution. I am perfectly capable of developing self-defeating guilt on my own. And that’s basically what I did. I convinced myself it was selfish and so I limited how much of myself I put into it. It was years later that I realized writing is part of who I am and it is my art. And if I am going to seek out the God who made me I had better be doing the things He made me to do. It’s ok to do what you love. It’s ok to have passions. It is ok to find life wherever you can.
12.Describe your workplace.
I’m a mobile writer during revisions; I’ll write at the kitchen table, coffee shops, trains, in-law’s house, bed, wherever. But for first drafts I do have a writing place in the basement I finished and it kind of looks like a serial killer’s lair. It’s a dark corner and the walls are covered in lists of adverbs, pronouns, adjectives, and synonyms for overused words. I have highlighted and underlined tips, quotes that inspire me but require explanation as to why, and the first award I ever won for writing. And that’s there to help remind me that I’m not as awful at this as my inner monologue says.
It’s easy during first drafts to think “I suck and this is pointless.” That award isn’t there to puff up my ego. It’s there to remind me that if you stick with it, if you keep working and allow yourself to be bad for a while, eventually this garbage 1st draft could one day be something close to good. And I need that. I have demons that whisper, “You’re not good enough,” to which I say, “Probably not. How did you get assigned to me?” And they answer, “I’m just doing this until I get done with college. Trying to get on the political circuit eventually.” And I encourage them, “Stick with it. You got talent.”
Then I look at my walls and say, “All right, loser. Now write something.”
13.What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
My son’s eyes. Before Judah was born I had this gnawing fear that I wasn’t going to love him. My depression often makes me numb to things that seem important to other people and I was terrified that was how I’d feel about my kids – so much so that I never wanted to have children until my wife convinced me. And I was a nervous wreck her whole pregnancy thinking I was going to give this poor kid an awful life with a cold unfeeling dad. Then when he was born and he opened his eyes I was the first thing he looked at. And I knew, right then, I had never loved anyone that much. It was like that scene where the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes. Part of my fear of being unloving had a lot to do with my childhood and that day I learned your past doesn’t have to dictate your future. You aren’t trapped by what’s happened and you can find life beyond your feelings.