Monday, October 10, 2011

My First Time: Ron Franscell

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Ron Franscell.  His memoir The Sourtoe Cocktail Club has just been released by Globe Pequot Press. Franscell is a bestselling author and journalist whose atmospheric true crime/memoir The Darkest Night was hailed as a direct descendant of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and established him as one of the most provocative new voices in narrative nonfiction. The Sourtoe Cocktail Club, the true story of a life-changing road trip with his teenage son to the Yukon to sip a cocktail containing a mummified human toe, is his eighth book. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Denver Post, San Jose Mercury-News, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Franscell grew up in Wyoming and now lives in Texas. You can find him hanging out on the web at this address.

My First Conceit

I started reading young. I fell in crazy-mad love with books, or at least became addicted to the way they made me feel.  I began to wish I could use words to make other people feel things, too. So I wrote vivid (if imperfect) grade-schooler epics in spiral notebooks, then worked on every campus paper from junior high to college, and became a newspaperman. I got paid to write and even won a few awards because I was pretty good at it.

But it wasn’t enough. Somewhere deep down in the heart of the heart of my ink-stained heart was a dirty little infatuation.  I wanted to be a real writer, and real writers wrote books.

How hard could it be?  The transition has been made by so many writers--such as Hemingway and Twain--I believed it would a natural, painless, pleasant a colorful-but-earthbound caterpillar becoming the brilliant butterfly it was meant to be.

OK, maybe not quite that enchanting. Maybe more like shifting gears in a sleek sports car, where the transmission is set differently for shorter and longer trips. I saw book-writing as just a longer trip. I was already a storyteller of sorts, wasn’t I? Just do it a little longer and use more words. No problem, just shift into gear and settle back. And so I began.

Unfortunately, no butterflies were born. The engine never clicked.  I spent six arduous, unsatisfying months starting a novel that I literally destroyed in a fit of frustration. Broke the floppy disk into a billion tiny pieces and shredded about 20 awkward manuscript starts into the compost bin. The story sucked.  It was too reportorial, too distant.

Then came a low-grade epiphany. I realized I must become a beginning writer again, after almost 20 years in newspapering. Once I got past the errant and arrogant notion that a newspaperman was naturally gifted to write a book, I was free. I shed my conceited cocoon. I took a college creative-writing class, read a lot of writing books, and tried to separate what I knew about journalism and what I didn’t yet know about fiction.

Much of what we learn in journalistic storytelling is anathema to longer writing, especially fiction. In a newspaper, we’re taught to distance ourselves from the material, to put our emotions in a box, to write short and fast, fabricate nothing, produce a publishable first draft, and put the most important thing first.

Well, a novel would be very short if we put the most important thing first! And everything is fabricated, the revision is endless, and the story would be empty if it wasn’t filled with an author’s emotion. Think about it: a poet, a songwriter, a news anchorwoman and a technical writer are all wordsmiths and each tells a kind of story--but none of an anchorwoman’s skills make her a natural poet, not one of a songwriter’s talents ensures he could be a good journalist. We have many storytelling modes, and each requires special proficiencies.

I emerged from my self-imposed (and unpaid) internship with a new perspective. I restarted the novel and a few years later my first novel, Angel Fire, became a critical and commercial hit that’s still in print more than 13 years later.

In the end, my newspapering inspired my fiction, and vice versa. My fiction has benefited from the authenticity of my newspaper writing, and my newspaper writing has benefited from my development of a more distinct voice and confidence in long forms. And they are blended most inextricably in my recent nonfiction books, where I’ve told true stories using some of the tools in a novelist’s toolbox, such as foreshadowing, dramatic pacing, dialogue, and a more literary flourish. Over time, my wings have strengthened and take more naturally to the wind.

Today, beyond my newspapering, I have written three novels, six book-length nonfictions, a few screenplays, and plunged headlong into narrative journalism...all with some degree of commercial and artistic success. At each pivot, I swallowed my arrogance and went back to the beginning, to learn the conventions, skills and techniques that prepared me to tell those stories the best I could.

What always came next after the chrysalis of conceit was easy. I merely had

Photo by Mary Franscell

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