At the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference last September, two different friends raved about Tim Weed’s workshop on the Essentials of Voice.
So I invited Tim on the RMFW podcast to do an interview about that workshop. To be prepared, I picked up a copy of his short story collection, A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing, to get a flavor of his writing. I read the first story and realized I would need to read the next. And the next.
You get the idea.
It’s a terrific collection. Highly recommended. (A full review follows.)
So Tim Weed, who lives in Vermont, was kind enough to answer a few more questions by email.
Tim is the co-founder of the Cuba Writers Program and has served as a featured expert for National Geographic Expeditions in Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego. He’s the winner of a Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award and a Solas Best Travel Writing Award, and his short fiction and essays have appeared in Literary Hub, Colorado Review, The Millions, Fiction Writers Review, Writer’s Chronicle, Backcountry, and many others.
A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing made the 2018 Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Shortlist and was a finalist in the short story category for both the 2018 American Fiction Awards and the 2017 International Book Awards. His first novel, Will Poole’s Island, was named to Bank Street College of Education’s list of the Best Books of the Year. Tim teaches at GrubStreet in Boston and in the Newport MFA in Creative Writing. He’s a member of the Vermont Humanities Council Speakers’ Bureau.
Question: So we go from South America to Italy to Granada in these stories and make a bunch of other stops, too. And the characters abroad are, I believe, always Americans in a foreign country. Even in the stories set in the United States, like Scrimshaw, the main character is a visitor to the island where the story takes place. What is it about travel and placing your characters in fresh landscapes that appeals to you as a writer?
Tim Weed: I’d answer that in two ways. One, while my fiction isn’t autobiographical per se, it does use life experience as a point of departure—as a kind of a raw material, like a sculptor’s clay or block of marble. And I’m fortunate in that my life experience so far has involved traveling and living abroad and spending time outdoors in landscapes that might be considered “fresh.”
Two, I’m a firm believer in the ecstatic or trance-inducing quality of fiction, and one of the things I’ve learned as a writer is that vivid descriptive prose has a lot to do with that transportation effect. The stories and novels that have had the most impact on me as a reader are the ones that made me feel immersed in a strange new world. The ones where you put down the book and feel that you’ve really been there. Fresh or exotic fictional landscapes, as opposed to familiar fictional landscapes, simply demand more descriptive prose—with the happy byproduct, in my view, of a stronger transportation effect.
Question: How do you know you’ve got a good germ of an idea for a short story? Do the sparks of inspiration have any commonalities?
Tim Weed: I get these vision-fragments. Where they come from is mysterious. They seem to be place-based for the most part and usually involve characters doing something in a particular landscape. Sometimes they just won’t leave me alone. I start getting these cascading insights—snippets of scene or dialogue—and that’s when I know that I’ve got something worth writing.
Question: The stories all come across as very grounded in the real world, yet mystical elements play a role, like the vision at the end of “The Dragon of Conchagua” or the entire reality shift in “The Foreigner” and the acid trips in “Tower Eight.” There is some advice out there not to write about dreams or visions but a few or your stories plunge fearlessly into the subconscious, whether drug-induced or entirely lucid. Advice and thoughts for writers on this alleged don’t-go-there rule?
Tim Weed: Great question, Mark. To me, one of the great advantages of fiction—one of the things it can do that no other artistic medium can with the same degree of power and effectiveness—is to give voice to the human interior: thoughts, emotions, a fresh and evolving perspective on a story-world as filtered through a conflicted or agonized or yearning or self-deceiving point of view character. It’s this special quality of fiction, I believe—the way it can provide a reader with the vicarious experience of a consciousness not her own involved in a mighty struggle—that makes it an indispensable art, ensuring that it will never be fully supplanted by movies or TV shows or computer games.
One of the reasons human consciousness is so fascinating, for me, is that it’s quite often not straightforward or rational: it dreams; it speculates; it envisions; it hallucinates. It pushes the boundaries of objective perception. In my opinion, imposing some kind of rule against “going there” is not only wrong, it’s self-defeating. Why would we as fiction writers want to close ourselves off from some of the deepest and most interesting aspects of the human experience? Why would we deny ourselves the full run of the comparative advantage of our artistic medium?
On a less abstract level, the reason that my fiction is full of dreams, visions, and hallucinations is that these things have been an important feature of my own experience as a human being living on planet Earth. One of my ambitions as a fiction writer is to get at some of the deeper truths of existence; it would be less than truthful to leave those things out. I also just find them intrinsically interesting.
Question: Are all these stories based on some scrap of personal experience? Have you ever worked for a utility company in Colorado? Tried to get into a Grateful Dead show at Red Rocks without a ticket? Worked construction on Nantucket? Climbed a volcano in South America? Are any of the stories drawn completely from the imagination or do you find you need to have put your feet on the ground where the stories are set in order to write.
Tim Weed: Yes to all of the above. You write what you know to a certain extent, or at least that’s the case for me. But because it’s fiction, you also have the freedom and in a sense the obligation to push things beyond what has existed in reality; to ask certain provocative “what if” questions and carry them to their logical conclusions. That’s true for nearly all the stories in the collection: each was inspired by a scrap of personal experience which eventually took on a fictional life all its own.
Question: Can you imagine writing a story set completely in an office building? Conversely, what is it about nature that attracts you as a writer? The storm in “Six Feet Under the Prairie,” the dangerous conditions in “Diamondback Mountain,” the random grip of a dangerous fishing spot in “Keepers” (great title, by the way).
Tim Weed: It’s funny, I once did an exercise where I wrote a passage in the style of Cormac McCarthy but set in an office building with an accountant as the main character. It was good for a laugh and proved somewhat illustrative on the question of how one’s writing voice is to some extent shaped by content. Beyond that, I don’t know. I suppose that nature—or more precisely, the interaction between place and character—is one of my central topics as a fiction writer because it’s something that preoccupies me personally. On a species level, direct, visceral interactions with nature strike me as one of the things we’ve closed ourselves off from, and even to a large extent forgotten about—to our own peril as a species. So it strikes me as an important thing to write about, especially at this moment of critical environmental crisis.
Question: I’d love to hear what inspired “The Foreigner.” Have you ever been in such a situation, completely thrown off guard and feeling like you don’t know what’s what?
Tim Weed: I spent a year directing a college semester abroad program in Granada. We had an apartment in the Albaicín, in a 15th century building with a terrace that had a panoramic, close-up view of the Alhambra. It was an incredible period in my life, the closest I’ve ever been to an extended sojourn back in history. There’s something uncanny about Granada too—as there is about Rome—a sense of the spirits of all those who lived and died over all those centuries still being in some way present. The story was inspired by that lingering aftertaste of the past: ghosts roaming the ancient cobbled streets and alleyways, and the art and architecture coming to life. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as lost as James in “The Foreigner,” but I have experienced loneliness, culture shock, and the sense of isolation that goes along with living as an expatriate in a society far removed from one’s own. I have no doubt that some of those feelings found their way into the story.
Question: When you start writing a story, do you know if your characters are going to make poor choices, like the lead characters in “The Money Pill” or “Scrimshaw”? Do you know where a story is heading when you plunge in? You’re not afraid of leaving us hanging at the end, say (without giving too much away) like the end of “The Dragon of Conchagua” or “Scrimshaw.” How do you know when ambiguity works?
Tim Weed: Interesting question. With stories, as opposed to novels, I almost never give the ending much conscious forethought. As a writer, endings are one of the most difficult things for me. In a few cases the endings were there from the beginning—more as a vague feeling as to where the story in question was going—but the endings of the majority of the stories in the collection only fell into place after a drawn-out process involving multiple rewrites, with plenty of fermentation time in between.
Question: You have worked with and taught many writers over the years. What is your core philosophy about helping writers find their voice? What is the one mistake most budding writers make?
Tim Weed: I think it’s really important to try to understand a writer’s intention, and to try to help them achieve that intention rather than imposing one’s own aesthetic preferences or prejudices. I think every writer should study the craft, and the best way to do that is by reading broadly and analytically—like a writer. But a writer needs strong intuitive skills as well, and I’ve found it helpful to remind aspiring writers to keep these two skills—intuition and intellect—sharp and separate. To give yourself fully to each, but to alternate their use as you make your way through a draft.
In terms of mistakes: not reading enough, not taking feedback seriously enough or taking it too seriously, following too many writing “rules,” getting too caught up in perfection to finish a project, getting stuck for too long on one project instead of moving on. There are many pitfalls for budding writers. The good news is that they’re generally pretty easy to avoid if you’re looking out for them.
Question: Favorite writers? Favorite short story writers?
Tim Weed: Tough question! The last good novel or story I’ve read is usually my favorite. That said, I’ll take advantage of the chance to list some of the fiction writers that have stood the test of time and remain in my personal pantheon: Tolkien, Tolstoy, Wharton, Hemingway, Steinbeck, le Carré, Mary Renault, Cormac McCarthy, Ursula K LeGuin, Peter Carey, Graham Greene, John Fowles, Jim Harrison, James Welch, Patrick O’Brian. Newish candidates awaiting entry: Hilary Mantel, Paulette Jiles, Anthony Doerr, Amor Towles, Paula McClain, Leonardo Padura, Lily King, Peter Heller, Emily St. John Mandel. It’s a shifting list, and no doubt there are many more that I’m forgetting. And for short stories specifically: Cheever, Hemingway, Wharton, Denis Johnson, Paul Bowles, Robert Stone, Jim Shepard.
Question: What’s next?
Tim Weed: I actually have two newly finished novels ready to go out into the world. I know that you, Mark—and many of your readers too—are aware of how difficult the traditional publishing environment is these days. Hopefully both books will find their way out. Fingers crossed! And of course I’m working on something new. Some of the best advice I got early in my writing career was simply that: Always be working on something new . . .
Tim Weed’s website
A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing starts with a story called “The Camp at Cutthroat Lake.”
The opening is bucolic:
“Two boys and a man in his late forties sit in an aluminum rowboat in the middle of a lake at the bottom of a broad mountain basin. The lake mirrors the sky of a calm summer afternoon, but tendrils of cold air coming down from the surrounding crags will soon dispel the fragile illusion of warmth.”
If there are two words that sum up this entire collection of sharply-drawn, memorable stories, it might be “fragile illusion.” In Tim Weed’s stories, reality often slips away. Or slips in and out of focus. Or reality, if you’re not paying attention, will reach up and grab you by the throat. The opening beauty of “Cutthroat Lake” quickly becomes a stark lesson in life and death with a “faint, dry pop.”
Self-discovery is one theme in this collection. So is loneliness. And longing—the alluring Cuban women in “The Money Pill,” the elusive Soledad on Granada in “The Foreigner” and the tempting Kate in “A Winter Break in Rome.”
Nature is a major presence and sometimes an active participant, dealing its vicious cards in random fashion. There is always movement and activity, real people putting in real work for outdoorsy pursuits or a paycheck, either way. The stories themselves move quickly, too. There’s an entire trip up river to the dense jungles and back, including a major moral quandary and a strained relationship between two scientists, in the brisk pages of “Mouth of the Tropics.”
Weed takes us to New Hampshire and Nantucket, The Andes and Venezuela, and Rome and Cuba, too. His characters are primarily young men and they are often strangers in a foreign land—even the construction worker Phil in “Scrimshaw” commutes by plane to Nantucket and marvels at the island, “an Aladdin’s lamp crescent of sand and yellow-green heath; a rich man’s playground of weathered cedar cottages and summer mansions.” (Watch for the allusions to magic, like the Aladdin reference; they are plentiful.) When there isn’t regular travel, Weed’s men drop acid, contemplate hallucinations, or ponder their own powerful dreams.
Weed sets vivid scenes with ease. The landscape is never in doubt. It’s very hard to imagine, after reading these thirteen entries, that Weed could write a story set entirely under fluorescent lights in an office building (but I wouldn’t mind seeing him try). But don’t think landscape as scenery, think landscape as character. It is frequently integrated front and center, as it is in “Diamondback Mountain” and in the most heart-pounding story here, “Keepers.”
The writing is muscular and tough, but Weed’s characters are often open to their sensitivities and vulnerabilities. (Not always; see “The Money Pill” or “Scrimshaw.”) But in stories like “The Dragon of Conchagua,” in which a former Peace Corps volunteer named John returns to Ecuador in an attempt to scale a high-altitude volcano, the main character is keenly aware of a key memory from his youth, one that involved his hiking partner Gabe, and puzzles over a fleeting apparition. John comes across a wrecked vintage Cessna, the fuselage half-consumed by pillow moss. “Kneeling to peer into the cockpit, he sensed a fast-moving object overhead and glanced up reflexively, fear gripping his gut like a fist. But apart from blue sky and a few lingering wisps of fog, there was nothing to see. Taking a deep breath, he squinted down into the cockpit. Once again, there was nothing to see.” This moment neatly foreshadows the harrowing finish with both flight and visions playing key roles.
Immersive, visceral, and chock full of sensory detail, “A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing” is a winner from first story to last. Murder? Yes, it’s here. But in the traditional sense it’s in short supply. Fly fishing? Yes, it’s here. But in the traditional sense, it’s in short supply. Like the stories within, the title of this collection is a bit of a fragile illusion.