While enrolled in Chapman University’s dual MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing program, Ruben Guzman wrote The Fountain in Forsyth Park, the tale of a single, middle-aged gay man searching for meaning and mystical connections in the moments of conventional life. Guzman and I were peers in the program until his graduation last year. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview him about the MFA program from his perspective, his debut novel, and his experience with self-publishing. What follows is the second half of my interview with Guzman. (The first half was published on March 25.) The full interview will be posted in the Original Work category in the sidebar to the right and will also be included among the links at the top of the Archetype home page soon.
Arch: You and I have talked about the creative stall (most often referred to as “writer’s block,” a term I think sounds more ominously permanent); was there ever a time while writing Fountain when you felt unsure about how the story or the protagonist, Remy, was developing?
Guzman: Before starting my MFA, I was in a graduate program in screenwriting. So I think part of that formulaic way of storytelling rubbed off, which is odd because that’s the reason I abandoned screenwriting. When I was told that certain plot points had to happen by page 30 or 45, I felt I wasn’t embracing a fully creative and organic storytelling process.
After writing a couple of chapters of Fountain nonlinearly, I discovered that I was able to formulate the outline of the whole story in my head. What I did find useful was generally planning out what happens through the story early on. I deduced that if I knew something would take place later on and this is what happens, I would have a target to shoot for. My advice is to write nonlinearly. I found that I wanted to write about a drag show at a Savannah nightclub way before my story ever got there. For me, nonlinear writing worked well in this case because I had to get the story and characters to that drag show. It also prevented me from veering off on tangents and losing focus.
Arch: I’m writing my thesis nonlinearly, as well, and couldn’t agree more. It really does help you keep the characters and story moving towards pivotal events or targets, as you referred to them. You once mentioned a breakthrough point at which the narrative began to practically pour out of you. How far along were you in the project when you reached that moment, and to what do you attribute the breakthrough? Once there, how was the pace of your writing impacted?
Guzman: I reached that point when I read James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science during the winter break before my final thesis class. I was simply channel surfing one night and came across a program on chaos theory on cable. It piqued my interest since much of it seemed to make sense as metaphor for Fountain. By the time the program mentioned fractals, I was already online buying Gleick’s book. Fountain really explores the balance between the scientific and metaphysical aspects of life.
In reflecting back on that moment of discovery, I believe that keeping an open mind throughout a project is worth the risk. Passion for the story can emerge at a least expected time. When I started watching that show, I was asking myself how I could possibly apply chaos theory to my story. It sounded really odd at first, but something was telling me to give it a chance. Getting to a point of inspiration and letting the writing happen, with no expectations, was a big and cool discovery for me. It made me a believer in trusting impulse – trusting in my Jinn so to speak.
Arch: I’m a fan of Gleick’s book, too, and applied his theories of chaos and Lorenz’s butterfly effect to the works of Virginia Woolf recently, so I know what you mean about those seemingly unlikely connections. Defense of the thesis is one of the final components of the MFA program. Were you confident about Fountain when you submitted it? Assuming you had been working with your defense committee members prior to submitting the narrative as your final thesis, was there any aspect of the process that surprised you?
Guzman: From the first day of writing Fountain, I’d made a commitment to write something that I wanted to read. My focus wasn’t on something that made sense, was moralistic, was commercially viable, or otherwise. I made my vow and stuck to it. I was fortunate that my faculty advisor, James Blaylock, is a science fiction writer with numerous novels. He was able to give me support when I doubted myself in some of the risks I was taking. He got what I was trying to do and helped me to sharpen my story.
Fortunately, my thesis committee responded favorably to my final product. They praised me for the risks and were unanimous in stating that they hadn’t read anything like it before. When they then asked what I planned to do with it, I told them that I’d reached my goal of writing what I wanted to read. That’s when they urged me to seek publication. Needless to say, I was floating after my thesis defense.
Arch: Last year I attended a writing conference with several other MFA candidates, and we discussed the advantages and value of a literary peer group. After graduation, MFA students lose that inherent forum for critical feedback. Are you concerned about that now that you have completed the program?
Guzman: It will be tough to retain a reliable network of others like one would have in a workshop or thesis setting. Not having a thesis committee to sign off on future projects is a little sad. Like other writers, I do tend to be a loner when writing. But I know a few other writers and peers I can look to for workshopping new projects. I can also do the same for them in their writing projects. I’m also considering finding writing groups with which to share ideas and work. They’re a little tough to find, but they’re out there.
Arch: After finishing The Fountain in Forsyth Park, you decided to self-publish it. What led you to that decision, and what was the process like? Can you offer any suggestions or insights to others who are considering self-publishing?
Guzman: Self-publishing has expanded into a viable way of getting exposure and is at a point where it’s quickly gaining respectability. I wanted to experiment with self-publishing for the sake of getting immediate feedback from others outside of academia. Landing a publisher is incredibly difficult; it could take years or not happen at all. I didn’t want to wait. Much like the writing process, I pursued an unconventional way of publishing. Self-publishing was attractive and was timely and cost-effective for me.
The down side is the reality that I am the marketing department. So connecting with websites, reviews, contests, and blogs like yours are marketing strategies. As a writer, I’ve also had to put myself in a marketing frame of mind with my product.
Arch: What’s next for you? Is there another project in progress?
Guzman: Yes, I’ve got a few projects going. While my priority is marketing Fountain for more readers, I’m also writing a collection of short stories that all revolve around childhood fears. I’m also playing with other forms of narrative such as audio narrative and episodic writing for podcasting to see where they may lead. My focus is to further any one of these projects on a day-to-day basis – and there’s never enough time, that’s for sure.