Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday Feature: Journeys Toward Publication and Beyond: Robert Guthrie

Welcome to a very special Friday Feature.  The Tour de Writing is continuing in the background :), but for your reading pleasure, here is an interview with the awesome Robert Guthrie.  I am so pleased to interview him today--he is my writing partner, and an amazing person.  He is honest and grounded, insightful and funny, and always true to himself.  He is a gifted writer, deliberate with his words and adds spark to anything and everything that he sets out to do.    He writes, and lives, thoughtfully.  And yet, he sees the humor in himself and others.  He is truly a gift in my life, and to all the others he knows.  Go, check out his thought-inducing blog, aptly named, Kinda going with the flow, and see what I mean.  Then come back and make sure to leave him a question or comment here, in the comments--he'll be stopping by!  

Here is a bio of sorts, in his own words.

Points of origin: childhood outside Boston, college in Chicago, taught English in Japan, the rest of my 20’s were soul-enriching jobs helping Vietnamese and Ethiopian refugees in Philadelphia and Boston. Then I did communications for Perkins School for the Blind, the alma mater of Helen Keller.

Two years ago I left Perkins to write full-time and begin Our Spirit, a non-profit that helps gay/lesbian youth.

In January I moved north of Seattle where my partner since college became the lead pastor at a liberal Congregational church. Bellingham is a university town with views of the San Juan islands and snow-capped mountains. Every morning I look outside and say, “Wow.”

You do live in an amazing part of the country! It must lend itself to inspiration. Thanks so much for being here with us today, Robert! What are you currently working on?

I’m supposed to be querying my first novel fit for publication. Romeo, Romeo is a love-triangle of three high school guys. I say “supposed to” because it’s much more fun to work on my next two novels then to think about agents.

As I do Romeo, Romeo business, I’m chugging along on another YA book, completing a high-concept middle grade novel and producing films for Our Spirit.

You always have so many irons in fire, Robert.  I'm very excited for you to start querying! So, when was it that you started to write seriously?

At Northwestern University I was a creative writing major, but it wasn’t until after graduation, Japan and stopping as a counselor for refugees that I had enough brain and emotional space to write seriously. But working at Perkins full-time, I got frustrated that it would take decades to finish a novel, so I started screenplays where the pages flew by.

I took screenwriting classes in Boston and got into a mentorship program in New York. Oddly, that brought me back to fiction. I wrote Romeo, Romeo as a screenplay, but thought it would make a good novel, so I spent a week on a lake in Maine and scratched out the rough draft. I’m not afraid of wretched first drafts. They’re just throwing clay on the table. Then I was ready to get to work.

And of course that whole time I’d been working on a quasi-autobiographical novel; may it rest in peace.

Ah, screenplays.  No wonder your written dialogue is excellent. What stage are you at, currently, in your journey toward publication? And--how is that going for you?  Has anything surprised you about this stage?

Right now I’m writing the query letter and researching agents who will be psyched to take a gay YA novel.

Robert, tell us about Our Spirit, what it is, and where it's going?

Our Spirit is a resource to help LGBTQ youth deal with the homophobic messages of the religious right. We launched the website this summer. Youth can find stories, links, and information like “Most Common Same-sex Confusion in the Bible.” One short film shows on the homepage. Five episodes of The Romeo Files, a gay high school soap opera, will launch this fall and we’re planning to shoot Finding Juliet this October. At Our Spirit we want all youth to know that they’re loved.

Love... that’s the whole story.

If you had to pick one favorite blog, what would it be?

Jon Arntson puts me in a good mood. Tina Lee’s Practice Room is class in a portable MFA program. Nathan Bransford and YOU, Heather Kelly, make me smarter. I was a terrible math student, but that seems to be more than one.

I'm blushing!  Jeesh.  Robert, what is a favorite blog post that you have written?

Maybe Swiss Cheese because I’ve found that approach so helpful.

I think lots of people agree, that your Swiss Cheese post was extremely helpful!  Especially this mom of three. What online resource have you found most helpful?

Nathan Bransford.

What has been your biggest trial in writing?

Time. I love writing. It’s easy for me to write. Not that it’s always good, but all I have to do is sit down.

Ah, time. That's a tough trial to overcome.  Thank goodness we have your swiss cheese method! What tricks have you acquired to make you write or create when you don’t feel up to writing?

Just do it. Those well-paid Nike marketers came up with the best slogan. For me, I just have to write SOMETHING. Later I can change it. Even if I scrap the whole thing, I’ll be at a different place and who knows what happens there?

Tell us about a book that has impacted your writing life.

Bold, adventurous, emotional and determined Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund made me want to think big.

Excellent--I'll have to check it out. Robert, what is your practical goal with your writing?  Do you have a reach-for-the-stars goal that you would like to share?

My niece brought the first third of Romeo, Romeo to her high school’s gay-straight alliance. Feedback was great, my favorite, “Tell your uncle that his novel ROCKS!” I want to write novels that open people’s hearts. How to gage that? Maybe it’s hearing that someone thinks it rocks.

So far, what has been the best part of your writing experience?

Feedback from the guy in the previous question.

Sweet! If you could create the perfect place for you to write in, what would it look like?

A big, comfortable room with a view of the ocean.

I have to say, that surprised me.  I thought you would say a cafe with a comfy chair.  It still boggles my mind that you can write in busy place. If you could be a character in a book, and live within their world, what character would you be?

Huck Finn. He set his own agenda. I believe Twain once planned to write a sequel where Huck went west. But I wouldn’t want to hang out with arrogant Tom Sawyer. We’d ditch him.

Oh, we'd totally ditch him! What other distractions are in your life?

I like people too much. I wish I could be more of a hermit… But there are so many great people in my life.

Robert--you do surround yourself with some wonderful people!  And, just because I’m curious--coffee or tea?

Tea. Not a simple question. I LOVE tea. All kinds, especially white and funky greens. Loose leaf. No tea bags. Never flavored. Oh, and lapsang souchong, which I think of as a tea-drinker’s espresso. I make gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free scones (hockey pucks, they’re just vehicles for jelly) and I’ll bliss out with a good old-fashioned quality black tea. My first published essay was called “A Simple Cup of Tea.” Yup, tea, it’s a life. Coffee… I’m too high energy for it.

Robert, you're right--there is nothing simple about how you do tea!!  

Thanks so much for the insightful interview.  Everyone, please make sure to visit Robert's zen-like blog, and to leave him a question or comment here, since he'll stop by to answer them when his West Coast, Swiss Cheese schedule permits!  


  1. Robert--Welcome and thanks again for being here today! I love that you quit your job to follow your dreams! How do you schedule writing into your day? How do you break up your time between projects? (I seem to remember that there are color coded calendar entries, and awesome organization going on...)

    Oh, and how do you survive living so far from your awesome writing partner? Because she is seriously still going through withdrawals...

  2. Hi Robert! So glad to meet you! I can see from the Apple in that picture that you and I would get along very well indeed... :)

    So, when will you be sending me a copy of Romeo, Romeo? Because I could really go for an awesome story right now and Romeo, Romeo sounds like it fits the bill!

    Considering how intriguing Romeo, Romeo sounds, I want to know more about your other YA that's in the works, and the middle grade novel you've got cooking.

    And I have to tell you that the Swiss Cheese method made my morning. As a cheese monger, I'm obligated to obsessively explore anything involving the word 'cheese' and I was tickled to find that the swiss cheese method is pretty much what I live by writing wise. I drag my notebook around (I write longhand for first drafts) everywhere because you never know when you might get five minutes to jot something down.

    Good luck with your querying! I find that I send out a round and then forget about them and focus on whatever I'm working on. Then, even if I have responses from all the queries, I take my time sending out another round, waiting until I'm in the right mindset to tackle 'business' matters.

  3. I would love a writing room overlooking the ocean too. I wonder how many ocean scenes I would have?

    And I think screenwriting would help every writer. What a great background! Good luck with all your projects.

  4. THANK YOU, Heather! Wow. So much fun being on your blog! Thank you for being so warm, so inviting, so you!

    A.Grey, thanks for asking about the other novels I'm working on. The YA is about a high schooler who makes all the wrong choices and gets deeper and deeper into trouble; the two 5th graders the middle grade novel find themselves in an alternative world, and, of course, saving this one.

    Laura - I'll always be grateful for those screenwriting years and valuable lessons on dialogue and pacing.

    Gulls are squawking and the sun is up, but it's 5:30AM on the Pacific, so I'm going back to sleep for a while.

    Thank you, again, Heather!

  5. Wow--excellent job beating the sun this am Robert--thanks for stopping by so early to answer questions. We'll see you later, after your nap!!

    I am heading to the beach and a cool experience called 5Wits, Tomb, with my kids, so please, everyone, be sure to leave Robert fun questions. I'll catch up with you again in the afternoon. (Okay, I realize I just left you all with way too much information).

    And Robert--don't forget to answer my how-do-you-schedule-your-writing-time question!

  6. Robert! Thank you for the shout out! I am so honored to be on your list.
    Not only do I love your blog so much for its tone and reasonability (I like what H said about it's zen qualities) but I also love seeing your comments out and about. I find them funny, quirky and super smart. I have aspirations to grow up and be just like you (although I suspect I am older)!

    Great, great interviews you both.

    As for questions: I want to know how writing subsequent novels is for you now that you have a completed first one. Are you approaching these new novels in different ways?

  7. Robert and Heather -- thanks for the great and inspiring interview this morning. I'm in awe of the work that Robert is doing--so important to make sure all teens are safe and validated. I love the sound of Romeo, Romeo--I wish you the best of luck in finding a home for it!

    No real question...just kudos and good luck sent your way.

    And I also love Ahab's Wife!!

  8. Robert, you're at the querying stage? I had no idea... :P

    Thanks for the sweet shout out. Your back story is always fun to hear about, but as usual we disagree on something, this time it's Tom Sawyer.

  9. great, great interview! thanks for all the insight and best of luck with all you do!!

  10. Heather - on scheduling my writing time... I begin the day what I like best - writing or editing the main project. That's at least an hour and makes me feel good about the rest of the day - I started that while working at Perkins. And now I've been tying to finish the day with an hour editing the middle grade novel. In the middle I look for 3 hour blocks of time. After 3 hours I tend to zone out. It's mixed up with the other things in life - walks, the gym, meditating, dinners w/friends...

    Tina - it's easy for me to switch novels. After working on one, I just need a break. Like eating too much meat at dinner; soon it's time for salad.

    Kris - thank you!

    Jon - So you like Tom? Like in our Holden Caufield disagreement, I mean the character, not the book. Great book, annoying character...

  11. Robert, thanks for sharing. Your life sounds like it's been fascinating. You've been so many places. I bet it'll give you lots of ideas for future stories.

    Good luck with querying. I'm like you. It's more fun not to think about it and just write another book.

  12. Thank you, Natalie! I look forward to your blog. :) Yup, Heather worked on me for months before I started...

    I do feel lucky to have been to some great places. I never know when they'll pop up in my writing. I think of parenting the same way - what a landscape it gives! (I only know that through uncle- and godfather-hood.) Parenthood is a final frontier I haven't made it to.

  13. Woo-hoo, great questions, and comments, everyone. Robert--I just wanted to clarify Tina's question (if I may, T)--I think she was wondering if what you learned writing and revising a novel to the query stage changed how you start and revise novels now. Did you learn things that changed your writing process, or has it remained static over your years of writing?

    I think it's an excellent question, one I'm interested in knowing the answer to as well.

    Like, how to incorporate what we learn about the writing process itself.

    Oh--question two (or seven--i'm not sure what I'm up to...) You've tried collaboration with another writer at an earlier time in your writing career. Can you speak to ways that this didn't work, and ways in which you think it could work? What would make a collaboration a success, do you think?

  14. Thinking about querying has helped me be more direct. At first, I'd left a huge surprise for the end of what I thought of as Act One. But then, realizing I have to get readers in the first few pages, I changed my approach. There's still a big surprise 50 pages in... but I've not withheld key character information.

    The idea of querying has helped me keep the action going. Every step of the way, what is the reader learning?

    Was that closer to the question?

    What have I learned about the writing process? Always be on the lookout for making our WIP better. And the writer doesn't have all the answers.

    Oh yeah, the collaboration. It was a novel of two parallel stories. I think it didn't work, despite my years of "we're going to making this effing work!" because my cowriter and I were at fundamentally different places. I believed in the project, found it easy to write and liked feedback. He didn't.

    I've collaborated successfully on films where director, cinematographer and writer give and receive specific and big-picture feedback. It's got to work in writing, too. Mutual respect, enthusiasm and openness to feedback might be key.

    Heather, thank you again!

  15. Sorry to come late to the party! Been out of town and catching up.

    1. What a cool life you've led so far!

    2. Ditto on how the query can reshape your book. Condensing everything down to two to three paragraphs exposes every weakness. If you can't do it, you may not know what your book is about. I know that sounds stupid but I've lived it and seen it happen to loads of other people. Finish the WiP, start trying to force a query letter, and you can't do it because of too much backstory or too many subplots or not enough main plot or whatever.

  16. I second Heather's seventh question.

  17. I should also add that those who have read Robert's book are itching to see it queried because, we ahem, they know nothing is wrong with it and that the book itself is an excellent example of a YA novel with a fresh voice.


  18. As I've said elsewhere about Jon, the best thing a writer can hope for is to be read by Jon Arnston! Thank you for your "Romeo, Romeo" enthusiasm.

    Did I get to Heather's 7th question? From my experience, collaboration seems to work best when there's mutual respect, enthusiasm and openness to feedback.

  19. Robert--Yes, I loved your answer to my collaboration question. Collaboration is becoming a kind of buzz word in this neck of the blogosphere. And, you better start querying, just to appease J!!

  20. Robert -- Romeo, Romeo sounds like such a great story. I just completed a final project for school - "Romeo and Julian." I hope you find the perfect home for it :]

    Wonderful interview!

  21. Lia - "Romeo and Julian", I love it! Is it a story, a play, something else?

  22. How did I not know Heather and Robert were writing partners? What a great match!

    Robert, I can hardly wait to see where ROMEO, ROMEO goes. And I would love for someone to tell me that my novel rocks--good for you!

  23. Anita - Thanks. And yes, Heather is the greatest!

  24. Anita, I'll tell you your novel rocks.

  25. Wow! I must've been kayaking when this interview went up. It was fun to learn a little more about Robert. And I agree about Tina's blog. Her writing insights always leave me thinking about new things.

    ps. I start my day with a big strong mug lapsang souchong. Love that tea!!

  26. Okay, this is too funny - you make gluten free sugar free scones as vehicles for the jelly? So do they really need to be sugar free?!

    Romeo, Romeo sounds like something I would like to read. I'm totally jealous that you're in Bellingham. I always thought I would end up in the Pacific NW.

  27. I found your blog through Robert's. Nice place - best title ever!

    Great interview.


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