Ian Pisarcik, author of Shallow Water, was born in a small town in New England. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works as an attorney. He is seeking representation for his first novel and is hard at work on his second. In addition to being featured in the 2015 edition of the Roanoke Review, his work has been published in Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. Steph Spector speaks with Ian below.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in New England, which means I’m awash with cynicism and have never known any other way of looking at things. I spend the majority of my free time in a dimly lit room making up stories about ornery men and heartbroken women and not-quite-empty woods while my Labrador retriever keeps my feet warm and worries that I don’t get out enough.
So much of your characters’ personalities are realistically woven in their dialogue in Shallow Water. What do you think is the key to writing effective dialogue?
Dialogue is hard. If you want to write effective dialogue, the best thing is to ignore anything I might have to say and crack open a book by Annie Proulx or Kent Haruf or Larry Brown. These are writers who write dialogue – true, honest to god grab-you-by-the-throat dialogue. But if you have to settle for me, I’ll give you my thoughts:
There are two components to dialogue: how it sounds and what it does. I like for dialogue to sound like music. Not an orchestra – but something simpler, like a Townes Van Zandt song. There’s a theory I remember reading a while back about why humans find music so pleasurable. I’ll probably butcher this, but the thrust of the theory was that music sets up a series of expectations – sonic patterns and regularities - and when those expectations are met a dopamine rush is produced. With respect to dialogue, I don’t want the words to be predictable. But I want the sentence to SOUND like it was supposed to come next. So, when the writing is going well, I hear the next line of dialogue like a muffled song. As if somebody dropped a Marantz 2500 Stereo Receiver in a lake but it’s still playing. There are no words, but I can hear the melody and the rhythm. Once I’ve got that, I use its confines to shape the actual words. That’s where the second component comes in. I don’t succeed nearly as much as I would like, but my goal is that every piece of dialogue reveals something about the character or else moves the story forward. That’s something I learned from Kent Haruf. He was a master of excising exposition. Everything learned about his characters is learned through their actions and their dialogue. I keep a Thomas McGuane quote by my desk that says “It don’t do you no nevermind to tell nobody nothing.” I try to remember that when I’m writing dialogue. Let your character’s reveal themselves to the reader through their words and their actions. Nobody wants to see the author pulling the strings. It don’t do you no nevermind to tell nobody nothing.
In what ways do your career as an attorney and your writing life overlap?
Ernest Hemingway once said about editing that you have to develop a built-in bullshit detector. I think being an attorney has equipped me with that. My day job consists of reading critically for eight hours – searching for spots where my arguments are flimsy and poking holes in the arguments of others. I think that way of looking at things has carried over to my writing. I research religiously and try to make sure everything I write holds up under scrutiny. I’m not always successful, but putting in the effort seems ordinary.
Congratulations on writing your first novel. How long did it take to complete it? What joys as well as challenges have you encountered in the process of writing your second?
Thank you. The first novel took longer than I’d like to admit. I started it as an undergraduate and continued working on it through law school. I don’t have a lot of friends, so it was easier than you might think. But the story I ended up with is hardly recognizable from those college and law-school drafts. The second one went much more quickly. I wrapped up the first solid draft in a little less than a year. It was fun to write. It stems from an incident that occurred between two young boys high up in the hills of the small town where I grew up. This particular incident has always haunted me and so I used it as a spark to write the novel. The challenges, of course, are always present. I think all writers have trolls hiding in the brush growth of their brains whose only purpose is to whisper: this isn’t good enough . . . this isn’t good enough. So, one of the constant challenges is to drown that troll out long enough to get some work done. I find whiskey helps with that.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about writing?
I think there’s a misconception that writing is easy. A lot of people say that they’d like to write a novel someday, as though all it takes is time. People don’t speak that way about other professions. People don’t say that they’d like to perform brain surgery if they could just find the time. I also think there’s a belief out there that writing isn’t important. And I suppose that belief is reinforced when much of the media spends more time analyzing celebrity tweets than works of fiction. But a couple of years ago a study designed and commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts concluded that literary readers are markedly more civilly engaged than nonreaders in the same socio-economic class and are in fact four times more likely to perform charity work. Reading, more than any other medium, requires intercommunication. It broadens our perspective by forcing us into the shoes of people whose lives are markedly different from our own. Every time I see someone stand up in front of a television camera and denounce homosexuals or make some other equally ignorant remark, I want to grab my wallet and make a donation to the World Literacy Foundation.
What question have you always wanted to be asked as a writer?
The best part about reading an interview with a writer is getting to the last question where the interviewer inevitably asks him or her what books he or she has enjoyed recently. I’ve discovered a lot of great books that way and I suppose it would be nice to return the favor. So here are some books I’ve devoured lately: Wynne’s War by Aaron Gwyn, Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, Stars Go Blue by Laura Pritchett, Winter in the Blood by James Welch, The New Valley by Josh Weil, Go With Me by Castle Freeman, What This River Keeps by Greg Schwipps, Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer, and of course all of the solid writing posted on the Roanoke Review.