Welcome to the second part of our Spotlight interview with 2014 Flashversary winner Maggie Duncan. (Read the compelling first half here.) Today we dive into the choppy waters of criticism and negative feedback. CAN A WRITER SURVIVE?!!?
What about the Flashversary finalists’ prompt inspired your story?
The perspective of the photo. It was the interior of a didgeridoo, and I’d never seen the inside of one.
Unfortunately, your story, while almost universally praised for its lyric beauty, also garnered some negative attention for presuming to write from a cultural perspective that isn’t yours. How did you approach the difficult task of writing from another ethnicity’s POV, specifically the indigenous Australian culture?
I have always said the protagonist of anything I write has asked me to tell his or her story, whether it’s my grandmother, an old classmate, or a complete stranger. Pinckney Benedict, a writing instructor of mine, and a magnificent writer, calls this “allegory of self,” meaning you express your desires through your characters; they will only do what you want. Allegory of self is the place in your work where you find yourself. That means real writing, per Pinckney, “is a sharp, unpleasant stick.” I was true to my allegory of self, and, according to Pinckney, that is inescapable.
So, when I saw that photo prompt, the protagonist “recited” his (or her) story to me. Once I had a draft, I knew I had to fact-check—yes, even though it’s fiction. I have some awareness of the treatment of the indigenous Australians by people who migrated—willingly or unwillingly—to that area of the world, so I researched the culture and the political issues. Having been one of the few women in my workforce for many years, I understand the concept of feeling like an outsider and wanting to escape that feeling.
I also understand, however, that may not be sufficient for some, but, truly, in my writing I only disrespect people who have earned no respect in my eyes, i.e., the oppressor of any ilk.
You’ve made it a habit as a writer to try walking in other cultures’ shoes; your novels feature Russian, Afghan, and many other characters from cultures other than yours. What have you most enjoyed about writing from these POVs? What has challenged you?
I’ve written from the POV of rich English women, poor Irish men (and women), minors who have been human-trafficked, and bigots of all stripes, among others. Yes, one of my main characters in my novels is a Russian man born toward the end of the Great Patriotic War, indoctrinated by Communism, and now not only living as a defector but actively fighting against his previous homeland. (He will remind me he was Ukrainian and now an American.)
How boring would it be if I only wrote about middle-aged, divorced white women, which is what I am? So I write characters from different cultures to learn, to broaden my scope, to develop my understanding of the world. That’s the fun part.
My biggest challenge right now is a very new character for me: a retired Navy SEAL transitioning from a man to a woman. Since I’m comfortable with my gender identity, that’s a difficult character to grasp, especially when I want to do her justice. Again, research and sensitivity to the issues surrounding gender reassignment are absolutely necessary. Researching this character has heightened my social activism in support of people undergoing this transition.
How has your own heritage/background influenced you as a writer?
I’m half Irish, half Scots, and both families come from a history of being oppressed as minorities in their own countries for religious reasons and in the United States for ethnic reasons. Now, I personally have no experience with severe oppression, other than my Irish grandmother’s stories and my own experience in a predominantly male workforce. However, I think that heritage has influenced me in that I write a lot about bringing down the oppressors.
Criticism is a difficult but common part of writing, especially in these days of reputations being made or destroyed by social media. How have you learned to handle criticism of your writing? What advice would you give other writers, especially newer ones, with regard to handling criticism?
Constructive criticism is something every writer should want, e.g., this character isn’t working for me because a, b, c. That specificity helps you build up the thick skin to handle those who’ve obviously not read your work and give you one star on Goodreads. Anne Rice is on a crusade (oops, trigger warning) against these faux reviewers who only want to disparage a writer. If I may be frank, I think it’s simple jealousy, i.e., the people who disparage for no apparent or for a dubious reason see something in you they can never have and feel compelled to punish you for it. There’s no way to handle that other than ignore it.
Back to your Flashversary story and flash fiction: do you participate in other flash contests? Have you won other writing awards or had pieces published?
I’m in the middle of prepping two very different novel manuscripts for agent submission, so I’ve given up on some flash contests for a while. In addition to an occasional stint at Flash! Friday, I also participate in Press 53’s monthly 53-Word Story Contest.
I was a finalist last year for the Press 53 AWP Flash Fiction contest. In fact, the story that didn’t win Flashversary in 2013 was a finalist in that contest and later published in Prime Number Magazine. If you go to my web site, you’ll see where several of my stories have been published.
What other forms do you write?
I also write standard-length short stories. I have a 3,000+ word and a 5,000+ word story both in process now. I’m searching for the right home for them. I also have a novella and novel-length works in various stages of readiness. I actually prefer the novel length work. It lets my raging imagination go wild.
What’s next for you–what are your writerly goals?
I’d like to have a solid body of work published. Right now I’m still working on the traditional route, but independent publishing is not out of the question. I think my characters have something to say, and I’d just like them to have an audience who appreciates them and the message. Those are the goals I work toward every day.
CONGRATULATIONS again, Maggie, on your Flashversary win. Thank you for allowing us to chat with you about your life and thoughts as a writer. Best wishes for a successful 2015!