Friday Feature: Interview with Bill Soldan

Each week, the editors of Jenny Magazine sit down with either fellow literary magazine editors or past Jenny contributors for short interviews. This week’s interview is with Bill Soldan, a past contributor of Jenny Magazine.

Describe your first publication. Where was it, when, and what was the piece about? How old were you at the time and how did it feel?

I had published a few poems here and there when I was younger, but the first story I had published was actually only a little over a year ago. It was a horror piece called “Patchwork” about a psychologically disturbed addict who mutilates himself as way of keeping track of his sobriety. After a dozen or so rejections from various publications, it was eventually picked up by the UK-based Sanitarium Magazine (issue #13).

I’d written it in Christopher Barzak’s Introduction to Fiction Writing class my sophomore year at Youngstown State University. In fact, it was the first story I’d ever written (or at least finished and revised). Mr. Barzak had complimented me on my writing and got me to believe that maybe it was good enough to publish. It not only felt wonderful to be validated in the form of an acceptance letter, but it felt sort of symbolic to me since it was my first story. I’d been determined to get my first story published for that exact reason and, as it turned out, persistence paid off. The experience precipitated an ongoing relationship with Barry Skelhorn over at Sanitarium, who ended up publishing another of my stories, “The Tunnel,” just a few months ago (issue #25). All issues are available on Amazon, both in print and electronic formats, and are worth a gander for those who like horror. Incidentally, I discovered Barry’s publication through Duotrope, which has proven to be an invaluable resource for me. I encourage other writers to check it out.

What inspired your piece in the Jenny?

It was during the period when the Student Literary Arts Association was beginning work on its first themed issue of Jenny, which was also the first print edition of the magazine. I loved the idea of contributing to the mythology that had grown out of the Eddie Loves Debbie graffiti that was scattered around Youngstown, which is what inspired the issue.

Initially, I set out to write a fiction piece about the two lovers, but during the brainstorming process, something else occurred. “Sad Beauty” ended up being published as creative nonfiction, mainly because the primary narrative is a meta-account of my search for inspiration and ideas. What happened was each time I came up with a potential story for Eddie and Debbie, I would let it play out for a bit, and then decide it wasn’t what I was looking for. A friend who read and critiqued an early draft of the story suggested that I could insert these “false starts” into the overall nonfiction narrative and lend the piece a unique dynamic. I thought he was on to something, so that’s what I aimed to do.

The more I drove around, however, exploring the city and pondering possible backstories for the characters, the more I became engaged with the city itself. The imagery — abandoned buildings, scrap yards, liquor stores, vacant lots surrounded by chain link and barbed wire — it stirred up a sense of loss and nostalgia that I wasn’t expecting. Having sought escape during my childhood, a ticket to anywhere but Youngstown, I was pleasantly surprised by a newfound love of this place. As I’ve gotten older, my restlessness has subsided and I’ve come to the realization that this city is my home, and I love it here. So in the story, the city sort of took center stage, and I ultimately wanted to leave readers wondering if I ever finished the story I initially set out to write. I think I succeeded in that regard at least. Whether I finished the story…

What got you into writing?

I think like most writers it was just a love of reading and writing from an early age. As for the driving force that compels me to write — well, it’s inexplicable, really, something I don’t understand enough to reduce to words. I suppose it’s a bit ironic: a writer who can’t articulate something seemingly so basic. But when it comes to something like art, I prefer not to analyze the mystery of the compulsion. All I know is it’s something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember, and it’s the one ambition that has remained steadfast. No matter what is happening in my life, my desire to write has never really wavered. That being said, I didn’t start getting serious about it until a few years ago.

What do you like writing the most? Is there a certain style you prefer?

I used to write horror mostly. Sometimes it leaned more toward sci-fi, and sometimes it leaned more toward, I don’t know, any number of speculative sub-genres. Usually my stories would have realistic quality, though — with maybe one or two exceptions, my stories were, for the most part, rooted in our world (or a world quite similar).

These days, I’m writing more “realism” and slice-of-life type stuff. I mean this in the sense that I’ve deviated from monsters and dystopias. The way I see it, the present is dark enough. I don’t need to venture far to tell the stories I feel inclined to tell these days. I’m actually a big fan of the burgeoning genre of Midwest Gothic writing, which is a type of gritty, Midwestern regionalism that I really connect with having grown up here. I’d say if I were to label my current work, I’d place it in this loose category. Some of my favorite writers are publishing work that fits into this niche, and I love what some of them (as well as publications like Midwestern Gothic) are doing to showcase this part of the country, an rather large area that, historically, has been largely overlooked.

In terms of what style I prefer, however, there really isn’t one. If it’s well-written and a story that I connect with, it doesn’t matter what genre it falls into. I do tend to gravitate toward dark fiction, though, regardless of the genre. I just seem to be more receptive to bleakness and desolation, I guess!

What are your influences? Who are your favorite writers?

Well, I’ll get the clichés out of the way first. My biggest influence and support comes from my family, my mentors, and my writing community. As for favorite writers, I’ll just give you the list of my most recent favorites. Otherwise, it will get a bit tedious. My current influences, writers whom I urge everyone to go out and read, are Donald Ray Pollock, Benjamin Percy, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Daniel Woodrell, and Richard Lange.

Others who have influenced me range from Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson to Clive Barker and Stephen King. And I can’t forget Christopher Barzak, whose work is spooky and imaginative while also containing a nuanced vulnerability that never slips into sentimentality, which is hard to pull off. Not to mention he’s carrying the torch for those of us in the rustbelt!

What’s your proudest moment as an author?

Each time I get an acceptance letter! Also, I got a message from a guy on Twitter telling me he’d read one of my stories in Sanitarium and that he thought it was “wonderful” and his “favorite one.” That tweet absolutely made my day.

How has your writing developed over time?

Well, I’ve moved toward realism, as I mentioned before. Other than that, I think I’ve simply become a better writer over the last few years, though I still have a long way to go and will likely never be very confident or satisfied with my own work.

Are you currently working on anything?

Yes. I’m generating material for my graduate thesis, which is a collection of short stories that are thematically and geographically linked. It may turn into more of a novel-in-stories, but for now it’s just a collection. I’ve got about half a dozen pieces completed, am working on a few simultaneously right now, and have another handful waiting to be tackled. I’ve also recently begun some preliminary notes for a possible novel. But for now, I’m still cutting my teeth with stories and haven’t worked up the nerve to begin something that big.

What’s your writing process?

I wish I could say. I really just see which one of the countless ideas circling in my head slow down long enough for me to wrangle it. When I get a hold of it, we do battle until one of us is left lying in a heap on the floor.

One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that I often have an ending to a story in mind before I have anything else. Or sometimes it’s a beginning and an ending, and I need to work toward one from the other. That probably sounds insane, but no one ever said we were a rational bunch. Lately, I’ve taken to making bulleted lists of potential scenes that I think will work to get the story across. It’s sort of a shorthand version of outlining that requires no real planning, just “scene at bar” or “argument in kitchen” or “backstory” — that sort of thing. So far it’s been working for me.

What are you currently reading?

I recently finished Junot Diaz’s story collection Drown and am now reading Philipp Meyer’s novel American Rust. I’m also listening to Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter on audio book.

Have you ever worked with a medium other than writing? Or collaborated with someone in another medium with your writing?

Back in about 2003, a friend of mine and myself had begun collaboration on a graphic novel idea he’d come up with when he was living in New York. We were going to co-write the story, and I was going to do the artwork. But we were young, and our lack of discipline and various other extraneous factors interfered and it never went anywhere. I also had a former classmate of mine approach me about adapting my story “Patchwork” into a screenplay and maybe making a short film out of it. The conversation never evolved beyond his initial proposal, but I’d certainly be interested in doing something like that in the future.


Are you a past Jenny contributor or an editor at a literary magazine and interested in an interview? Send us an email.

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