An Interview with Fiction Writer Woody Skinner
On Seinfeld, the tonal process, and landscaping his writing
Woody Skinner's fiction has received Mid-American Review's Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award and appeared in Carolina Quarterly, Catamaran, River Styx, Hobart, Booth, Another Chicago Magazine, and other journals. PEN America selected his debut story collection, A Thousand Distant Radios, as a semifinalist for the 2018 Robert W. Bingham Prize. Originally from rural Arkansas, he's spent the last fifteen years living in various Midwestern cities. He holds an M.F.A. from Wichita State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati.
Jacob Swanson (JS): What first inspired you to write? Was there a specific influence in your life that got you interested in writing and literature?
Woody Skinner (WS): Honestly, I think one of the things that really inspired me early on was just being a big consumer of stories. I was a big reader of pulp novels, and my dad had a lot of crime fiction. So, from a pretty early age I was picking those up. I always found those stories more engaging than stories geared toward a younger audience.
I also watched a ton of 90's sitcoms. The TV was always like another friend to me as a kid. I really got a feel for the rhythm of those shows. Seinfeld was a big influence as well as Frazier and, then when I was in high school, Curb Your Enthusiasm. So, I think Larry David was a big influence early on. I really internalized the rhythms of those shows. As for literature, I started like a lot of people with classic literature I encountered in school. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge those stories presented. Then many years later, when I was living in Oxford, Mississippi, I was exposed to contemporary southern writers like Tom Franklin and Barry Hannah.
JS: Do you have any advice for amateur writers?
WS: Most of my advice is cliché. Mainly because I don't think there are shortcuts to becoming a better writer. I do think there are ways to speed up your progress. One piece of advice is to read both deeply and widely. Something I think about a lot is how the books that were big influences on me were also big influences on other people, but we all have a distinctive reading history, in that it's very unlikely another person has read exactly the same combination of books that you have or I have. I think that's where our unique voices emerge from, that specific combination of influences.
JS: What was the process of honing your writing style like? Is a process like that ever completed?
WS: I don't think it's ever completed. I do think that if you practice it enough you do start to find some consistency in what you're doing. So, for me, I noticed pretty quickly that humor was probably going to play a role in most of the things I write. It was next to impossible for me to write an earnest, emotionally engaged line of dialogue. I think each of us has a sensibility, and I tend to associate that sensibility with tone. For me that was the trick, finding what tone felt natural to me. I think figuring out how to influence the tonal trajectory of a story was the process of discovery for me when it came to voice. I think there's always got to be something new in the tonal register. I don't think you should get too comfortable with one tone.
JS: Do you have any advice on how to influence that tonal register?
WS: I think part of it is just being a person who exists in the world and who is sensitive to the world's variety and weirdness. That's part of where you're going to hone what you notice that other people aren't noticing.
JS: What has your biggest obstacle been in your writing career and how did you overcome it?
WS: My biggest obstacle has been and continues to be having too many irons in the fire. I love first drafts and the empty page. The empty page, to me, is something to be filled. I think the challenge is taking a messy and incoherent thing I've written and crafting it into something that is digestible for another human brain. To me, that's what feels like work. I think finding people who will give you deadlines or hold you accountable is a kind of workaround for me.
JS: How do you decide who should be the narrator of your stories? Do you know before you sit down to write? Or is it something that comes to you while writing?
WS: It's different for every story. Sometimes I have a character and I know that character is going to be my protagonist. I may not know the point of view yet, but I know that character will be my protagonist. Sometimes I begin with a story I have in mind or that I know of that has inspired me to sit down, and I won't know who is in charge of the story, but it'll come to me while I'm writing the story. So that's how it works for me; if I'm inspired by something that actually happened, I often won't know who is in charge of the story until I write it.
JS: There are a few stories in your collection A Thousand Distant Radios that seem to be commenting on current issues Americans face. Do you have a specific message you'e trying to communicate to the reader concerning those issues? Or do you hope to get people thinking about these topics and what they mean?
WS: I would say I don't have a specific message. I think it was an old Hollywood producer who said, if you have a message, send it Western Union. I always liked that quote. I think I'm normally trying to track down a feeling, and I don't know what I'm saying exactly. Usually, somewhere in the writing process, I figure out the thematic territory, but I usually try to avoid consciously thinking about that for as long as possible. I think when you know what a story is about, it reduces it a little. It reduces what it might be.
JS: Do you want to talk about what you're currently working on?
WS: Like I said earlier, I have too many irons in the fire, but the single biggest iron is a novel project that explores the history of the American grocery store. So, it's a comedic reimagining of that aspect of American commercial history. It's set in Cincinnati where I lived before. I left for six years, but now I have returned to Cincinnati and I'm excited about the project again.
JS: One of my favorite authors has a quote that goes, "Every writer is either an architect or a gardener." The architect spends a vast amount of time planning and knows everything that will happen in a story before they even sit down to write. The gardener plants a seed, and while they know what kind of plant they are growing, they don't know how it will exactly turn out. Would you say you are an architect or a gardener?
WS: I'm definitely a gardener. Sometimes I can be the architect, but often I really don't know what I've made until I've made it. As that plant reveals its shape, I'll know it needs to be pruned here or maybe a limb is growing over the neighbor's house and it's at risk of causing a disaster, so I better cut that. So, I usually over-draft and then cut back. So maybe I'm not a gardener, maybe I'm more of a landscaper.
Jake Swanson, a senior in the BFA program at Penn State Behrend, interviewed fiction writer Woody Skinner in anticipation of his visit to Behrend next week as part of the Smith Creative Writers Reading Series. Skinner and his wife, the fiction writer Bess Winter, will read from their work on Thursday, Oct. 19, at 6:00 p.m. in the Metzgar building. For more information visit: behrend.psu.edu/readings