About | Interviews and Press | Flashquake

Originally published on Flashquake in May, 2012.

Interviewed by Andrea Beltran

FQ: What was the inspiration behind this piece?

JM: "Giving Head to Kyle Leung" started out as a writing assignment I modified from Janet Burroway's excellent book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. I teach a Story Structure course at Capilano University, and I've got to admit, I'm rather fond of assigning homework. I believe one of the best ways for people to learn is by doing, so I ask my students to write between classes. A lot. However, I also believe in being fair, so every time I ask my students to complete an assignment, I do it, too. One of the assignments I like most involves crafting a complete story in 200 words or less--something with a beginning, a middle, an end, conflict, complications, and a moment of choice for the main character (after which their life has irrevocably changed). Jamming all that into 200 words isn't necessarily easy, and when a student pulls it off, I make sure the class is very generous with their applause.

The exercise also calls for two elements we've generated earlier in class: one from a list of three things a friend or family member taught you to do, and the other from a list of three things a friend or family member never taught you about. The life lessons I picked were pouring beer (my dad was very clear on how to do that) and asking someone for a date (I can't remember getting any advice on that topic, ever), and I decided to set the piece at one of the parties our residence held during my first year at university (a time when those lessons could have had great relevance). Originally, I told "Giving Head to Kyle Leung" from a young woman's point of view, but when I revise my first drafts, I often change genders and viewpoints to see if I get better results. Hopefully, I've succeeded.


FQ: What is the best advice you've received regarding your work?

JM: My best advice comes indirectly from Ernest Hemingway (I never met him). He's often quoted as saying "the first draft of anything is shit." When I came upon his quote it blew me away (my first drafts aren't really share-worthy, and as a result I used to assume something was unfixably wrong with me as a writer). I remembered reading about authors like Stephen King (I haven't met him, either) and their writing quotas and wondering how a writer could possibly produce ten polished pages a day (I was naively assuming they were finished pages--King never claimed to write ten polished pages a day, just ten pages or two thousand words when he's writing). After hearing Hemingway's quote, I realized no one writes ten polished pages a day--they're writing ten pages of crap, the same as me. And then the full import of Hemmingway's idea hit me--when you're writing a first draft, it's supposed to be raw. The purpose of a first draft is to get your ideas down on paper so you can never lose them. You'll fix it later. You only allow yourself to polish during an editing phase. This separation of creation and evaluation is the best advice I ever received--it's really been a comfort and a confidence booster to know I'm not doing everything wrong.


FQ: Any quirky reading or editing habits?

JM: I'm a very eclectic and voracious reader--I'll read most anything. Literary fiction, science fiction, YA, poetry, play scripts, non-fiction, memoir--practically anything with a plot. I figure getting exposed to so many different ideas can't hurt. I also keep track of what I read. On my website (www.johnmavin.com, if you'd like to check it out), I keep a list of the year's published books I've read, and review it every December. Offline, I keep more detailed notes in a journal--things like points-of-view and tenses used, a personal rating system, and the time it took me to read each book, in chronological order. That way, I can go back over my notes and see what I was reading (and consequently thinking about) at any given point. I've only been doing this for the past six years, but I'm very glad to have started the practice.


FQ: If your work had a soundtrack, what song would you say is the theme song?

JM: If you could imagine "Giving Head to Kyle Leung" taking place while "Doctorin' the Tardis" by The Timelords plays in the background (and you've had one beer too many), I think you'll get a clear impression of what the type of parties the story takes place in were like.


FQ: What book have you read that's stayed with you most and why?

JM: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. It's got the most meticulously-crafted structure I've ever seen. Six loosely-interlinked stories, nested like matryoshka dolls, all in different genres, all set in different time periods, and each using a different technique. The fact Mitchell attempted this is inspirational. The fact he was nominated for the Man Booker Prize means he pulled it off. I've been so impressed with this book, I use it in my Story Structure class to highlight an extreme example of what can be done.

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