Friday, March 27, 2015

Alfred DePew talks about A Wedding Song for Poorer People, creativity and commerce, taking risks, and so much more

I met Alfred DePew at the Virginia Festival of Books and we got to talking after my reading. When I found out that he was also a writer, I snagged him for my blog. He's been a bookseller,  theater press agent, social worker, and advertising copywriter, a short story writer and a coach, and he's taught in France, Spain, England, Estonia, and Russia, as well as at the universities of Vermont, New Hampshire, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, and the Maine College of Art. Now he leads writing, creativity and leadership workshops throughout Maine and the United States. His first book won a Flannery O'Connor Award, and his second book, A Wedding Song for Poorer People (great title) is all about the longing that exists in all of us.

Alfred and I had a hours long conversation by phone. I typed out notes! I wrote them by hand! We were both laughing and engaged!

And I lost the notes. 

But there is always something that remains, and here it is. And I'm absolutely thrilled to have Alfred here!

For most writers I know, every book presents a new challenge. The writing process is almost never the same. How did that process differ for you in writing A Wedding Song for Poorer People?

After my first book was published in 1992, I thought I should know a thing or two about writing a story. I thought I could probably write the kind of story (what the hell does that mean?) that gets accepted by The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly. So I set about to write new stories, and everything felt flat. Never before when I wrote had a given publication a thought, much less a particular magazine. I wrote to find out what my characters would do next. Period. So I was stuck. Everything I wrote felt flat because I was writing for the wrong reason. There was no joy, no discovery, no messing around. I was trying to be competent. Deadly. So I signed up for an oil painting class Thursday evenings, and I was in heaven. I didn’t know the hell I was doing. Everything was a risk and a mystery. I was learning again, discovering again, and that experience helped me back into writing.

I’d been given a fellowship at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico for 1995, and I’d made 3 trips to Russia (1990, 91 & 93) which had given me an idea for what I thought might be a novel, and which turned out to be the title novella, A Wedding Song for Poorer People. So I was working in a different form which changed everything really—the number of characters, time, pacing, context, scope, the shape of the thing. Because I didn’t know what I was doing, I was happy again, messing around, free to take big risks.

Your stories are full of longing, a painter who can’t paint, a man who is tormented by his wife’s friendship with her gay hairdresser, and so many who do “what they need to do stay alive.”  But all do, and what impressed me so much is that no matter how dire the situation, your characters always find that thin line of hope. Could you talk about that please?

I guess my characters always find that thin line of hope because I believe it is there.

I want to ask you, why short stories or novellas and not a novel? 

I wish this were more of a conscious decision, but even when I think I’m heading into writing a novel and type pages and pages and think I have a really BIG thing with lots of moving parts, it always gets compressed down into a shorter form.

You also teach--how does that impact your own work?

The risks my students took almost always inspired my own. I miss that. I left college teaching in 2003. Sometimes I run small writing workshops in my office, and I still like coaching writers through long projects like a novel.

I have to say I was fascinated by your bio. Not only are you a Flannery O’Connor Award-winner, but you also have a private consulting practice in dream work and spiritual direction. I’d love to hear more about that, and I’d also like to know how that informs your writing.

In many ways, I feel I’ve kept my various professional lives separate from my writing life, but we both know that’s pretty much impossible. They knock up against each other, compete with each other, feed each other in ways I don’t recognize until much later. I wrote about a massage therapist before I became one myself. I wrote about Roger’s religious crisis a good six years before I joined the Catholic Church. I don’t think of myself as an autobiographical writer, but in some ways, my fiction prefigures parts of my life, as if I were trying out various roles through my characters.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Contemplative prayer. Why? I guess that’s for a longer conversation.

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