Garry Craig Powell

About Garry Craig Powell

Garry Craig Powell, Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Central Arkansas, was educated at the universities of Cambridge, Durham, and Arizona. Living in the Persian Gulf and teaching on the women’s campus of the National University of the United Arab Emirates inspired him to write his novel-in-stories, Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012), set in Dubai and other parts of the United Arab Emirates. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2009, McSweeney’s, Nimrod, New Orleans Review, and other literary magazines. He has been awarded fellowships by the Arkansas Arts Council and the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow. He has completed a novel about the Italian poet, playboy, war hero, pirate and proto-fascist statesman, Gabriele D’Annunzio.

Articles contributed by this author
Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

Two Ways of Writing a Novel, April 26, 2017

Part One: The Cinematic Model

 

There are essentially two different ways to write a novel. The first is action-oriented, and usually heavy on dialogue; concerned with visible drama, above all, it works much as a film does. It observes human beings interacting and conflicting with each other. “I am a camera with its shutter open,” wrote Christopher Isherwood, in the second paragraph of Goodbye to Berlin, “quite passive, recording, not thinking.” One may argue about whether he succeeded in maintaining that objectivity, but unquestionably that was his aim, as it was of so many early twentieth century writers, among them Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Graham Greene. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

3/26/17  Is This a Good Author Photograph?

Is this a good author photograph?

When University of Central Arkansas student Park Lanford took this picture of me a couple of weeks ago (for the school’s literary magazine, the Vortex), I immediately thought, “That looks like an author photograph.” My next thought was, “Why is that? What makes a good author photograph?” Do you need, if you are a man, to look somewhat craggy, earnest and intense, as I do here? Does it help to be bearded, as so many of the giants of literature in the past have been? I am being facetious, but you get my point. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

Interview with Alexander Weinstein, author of Children of the New World

My interview with Alexander Weinstein, recently published in Rain Taxi Review of Books (link at the end of post). This collection of speculative dystopian fiction has been compared to the Black Mirror TV series. It’s quite excellent.

Garry Craig Powell: In a recent interview with 0 + 1 reads, you cite the influence of filmmaker Charlie Kaufman and mention that in spite of his metaphysical concerns, he grounds his stories in a gritty world. It struck me, reading Children of the New World, that you do that too. Unlike some cerebral writers, including some that you acknowledge as influences, you create complex, well-rounded characters with whom we can empathize. In the title story, “Children of the New World”, for example, a couple has to ‘delete’ their virtual son when his program is plagued by a virus—and incredibly, we feel sorry for them. You seem to want the reader not only to consider where the future is leading us, but also to explore universal human problems. Would you agree with that?

Alexander Weinstein: Absolutely.  I think the future is intrinsically linked with our universal human problems. In fact it’s these very problems, and how we deal with them, which will determine our future.  I set many of my stories in a gritty “realist” world, but one that is plagued by an overuse of technology, which is akin to the world we find ourselves living in now.  The problems we have with our current technology often reveal our own human foibles, and it’s these new emotions of cyberspace which reveal our struggles. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse

Writing in the Echo Chamber

Much hand-wringing and self-examination has taken place since the US Presidential election about why so many people, political pundits and journalists included, were blindsided by the result. The ‘echo chamber’ as a metaphor for social media has been the most frequently cited cause. Nowadays most of us, the argument goes, get our news from Twitter or Facebook feeds. This is true, not only for the millennials, but equally or almost so for older generations. Because most of us are reading ‘news’ (more often opinion, when it comes down to it) from our friends, who are likely to share our views, there’s a danger that our prejudices are never challenged and that we live increasingly in a world that bears little resemblance to reality. As an academic, I can confirm that this is the case for most professors, who are hardly better informed on matters of global economics and politics than the elusive and mythical ‘man in the street’. (Or woman.)

But if this is true of our political life, isn’t it true of our cultural life, too? Have we thought deeply enough about the consequences of reading literature that’s written by people like us, too? (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

How to Write Like Gabriel García Márquez

  1. In your next incarnation, be born in Colombia, or anywhere that the beliefs of a traditional culture clash with those of western rationalism.
  2. Work as a journalist. Learn the importance of close observation. Learn how everything has political causes and repercussions. Understand that however extravagantly unique an individual may seem to be, he is as typical of his society as an animal is of its herd.
  3. Steep yourself in great literature: the Greek tragedians, for their belief in the implacability of fate; the great North Americans, especially Faulkner and Hemingway, for their disciplined, tightly-controlled storytelling; and the modernist masters like Joyce and Woolf, for their streams-of-consciousness and lyricism.
  4. Forget everything you’ve ever heard about how to write fiction. Tell, don’t show. Write entire chapters in expository prose. Write practically entire books in expository prose, with a rare scene here and there. Become a master of sleight-of-hand, a conjurer: stuff your paragraphs full of sensory images to convince your readers that they’re reading dramatic scenes, even though they aren’t. Do away with paragraphs when you feel like it. (The Autumn of the Patriarch.) Mix absurdist comedy with utter horror and tragedy. Be vulgar. If you feel like it, do away with protagonists. Have multiple plots.
  5. Write about politics constantly but never, ever preach. Let the reader draw her own lessons.
  6. Accumulate a vast vocabulary. Don’t be afraid to use it. If the reader doesn’t understand a word, she can use a dictionary.
  7. Work your arse off. No distractions, no social media or social life while you’re in the throes of creation.
  8. Abandon your job. Go into debt, get your wife to support you. Just write and to hell with the rest.
  9. Live somewhere beautiful and inundated with history: Bogota, Cartagena de las Indias, Barcelona, Mexico City. Ideally it should be a city that is corrupt, unjust, absurd, one of those sad spots on the earth where people are forced to laugh constantly or else they would slit their throats.
  10. Speak a sonorous language with rich, rotund vowels, a formal language, such as Spanish (or Italian or Portuguese). Know that you are the heir not only of Cervantes, but of Virgil, Ovid, and Cicero.
  11. Have grandparents who raise you and tell you tales of the supernatural and the fantastic constantly, mixing elements from different worlds in a bouillabaisse of myth, religious belief, superstition, exaggeration, and fables.
  12. Grow up in a tiny town in which there is nothing to do but read (and when you’re an adolescent, visit the brothel.) Make it a town owned by an American corporation that exploits people mercilessly and has them massacred if they go on strike. Learn the power and viciousness of capitalism in your flesh.
  13. Grow a bandit’s moustache.
  14. Become an intimate friend of Fidel Castro.
  15. Have a fist-fight with a fellow Nobel Prize winner.
  16. Above all, tell the truth, however much it hurts. Tell your own people you are leaving your land because it’s a “shit country”. Spare no one and nothing.
  17. Be ambitious. Retell the history of your continent. Homer did it; why shouldn’t you?
  18. Mix philosophical musings with lowbrow scatological jokes.
  19. Avoid sentimentality at all times.
  20. Believe in the dignity of ordinary people…
  21. And in the greatest miracle on earth, the love of one human being for another.

(Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

The Writer as Superman or Superwoman

Naturally I also admire artists and writers who are unexceptional at anything but their art. Nevertheless, the lives of people who do nothing but write or paint or make music, often seem barren or bleak. Who would want to live Kafka’s life, or Woolf’s, or Joyce’s? I have long been fascinated by multi-faceted geniuses like Leonardo, Michelangelo or Goethe, and those who performed great physical feats. Heroes live full lives. And by ‘heroes’ I don’t mean that we must approve of everything they did. But it’s useful to reflect on those artists who live on a grander scale, who consciously or unconsciously try to live as supermen or superwomen. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

What Writers Can Learn from Tolstoy’s Novellas

Lev_Nikolayevich_Tolstoy_1848I’m shocked when I read lists of favorite novels and see that most, and sometimes all, are American. There may be a leavening of British authors too; that’s something. Still, I think, haven’t you read the Russians or the Germans? You really think Toni Morrison or Jonathan Safran-Foer are better than Tolstoy or Musil? Anglo-Saxon culture is lamentably insular, and American culture is not merely insular but downright provincial these days. The greatest weakness of the writing done by creative writing students—graduates as well as undergraduates—is that it’s so rarely informed by wide reading. And however unfashionable it may be, my remedy is to send them to the canon. Not “back to the canon”, sadly, because most of them aren’t familiar with it in the first place. And you can’t do better than start with a Dead White Male who was also (oh, unpardonable elitism!) an aristocrat, Count Leo Tolstoy. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

The Buried Giant: Ishiguro’s Masterpiece?

Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro. Source: Getty Images

 Good art, Tolstoy said, is of two kinds: either religious or “universal”, which he defines as conveying “the simplest feelings of life, such as are accessible to everyone in the world.” I quibble with his use of the term “religious”, although I would accept the broader “spiritual.” About the universal, it’s hard to disagree. The question I ponder here is whether a novel set in Dark Ages Britain, with elements of fantasy including ogres, a dragon, a knight of the Round Table, and a constant mist that causes amnesia, could possibly fall into that category. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

J.K. Rowling’s Magic Bookshop

 

Skylight in Lello's

Skylight in Lello’s

The most beautiful bookshop in the world is surely Lello e Irmão in Oporto. It is the bookshop J.K. Rowling used to visit when she was an English teacher in Portugal in the eighties (as I was), and the one whose spectacular staircase—a neo-Gothic carved extravaganza—inspired the one at Hogwarts. For this reason alone, perhaps sadly, it has become a site of pilgrimage for Potter fans (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

A New Path for Literary Fiction

 

We need a revolution, not just in politics, but in literature. It’s long been apparent that most fiction writers are stumbling blind down one of two dead-end streets—either trying to rewrite the nineteenth century novel, or else writing so-called ‘experimental’ fiction, usually based on postmodernist principles, often cleverly enough, but for me most of them are unreadable, because they’re little more than cerebral and linguistic games. Obviously I’m generalizing, and naturally there are exceptions. Still, I stand by my thesis: most current fiction, especially in America, and especially if we consider the literary stars, is neither engaging nor significant, and I want to consider why that is and what can be done about it. I think there is a way out of the impasse that fiction in English has got itself into. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

Arthur Schopenhauer - German Philosophy - Deutsch Idealismus - Deutschland Ostmark - Peter Crawford

4/26/16 — A Philosopher on Writing

One of my favourite philosophers, Schopenhauer is especially interesting for writers because he has a cogent Aesthetics and addresses writing specifically, which few other philosophers do. For instance, he declares that there are three kinds of author. The first are those who write without thinking; this is the largest group. Who can doubt this, even among writers of so-called literary fiction? Most tell stories merely for the sake of it, so as to “express themselves.” The second group consists of those who think while writing, in order to write. These too are common, according to him. Lastly, there are those authors who think before writing, and write because they have thought. Rare, says Schopenhauer. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

Does Fiction Need Philosophy?

American writers rarely seem to have any formal philosophical training, wrote David Joiner to me recently (I am paraphrasing). Reading Flanagan’s biography of Yukio Mishima, he had been struck by how strongly and consistently the Japanese novelist’s work had been infused with his ideas, which amounted to a coherent philosophy concerning beauty, purity, and honour. Joiner, who is himself an accomplished novelist (Lotusland, Guernica Books, 2015), speculated that all great fiction probably has an underpinning of philosophy. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

Can Fitness Help You Become a Better Artist?

Living as we do in a world of Cartesian duality, most people would probably say, of course not. You use your mind when you’re writing; the body is irrelevant. It’s taken for granted that mind and body are distinct things that have very little to do with one another. And in the West, most people are much prouder of their brains than their bodies; I’ve never understood why, since both are largely inherited (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

A (Somewhat Less Insular) Reading List for Students

Having taught in an American university writing program for a dozen years, I am convinced that what my students need more than anything is to read more, and to read differently. Many of them do read a lot, but they are reading American writers and very little else. Recently I discovered that two of my most gifted graduate students had not read Graham Greene, which flabbergasted me. And this is not their fault–it’s the fault of the professors who keep feeding them the same predictable stuff. The obvious weakness of the contemporary fiction scene in the US (and of “Program Fiction”) is its homogeneity and its insularity. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

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Novelist Cristina Garcia with me at the University of Central Arkansas, November 20, 2015

The Writer’s Responsibility

In this age of global terrorism, impending war and inevitable ecological catastrophe, does the literary writer have any political responsibility? As a young man, I detested politics and saw myself as an aesthete. I would have answered that the artist’s role was merely to create works of beauty. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

Do You Know the First Thing About Writing Fiction? (It’s not craft!)

I’ve been thinking a great deal about how creative writing is taught in the US, about its strengths and weaknesses, and it seems to me that its great strength is that we teach craft very well, so well that there has probably never been a society that turns out so many competent, professional writers. As the Poetry Editor of a national magazine told me at AWP this year, most of the submissions he receives are technically accomplished—and yet very few of them are worth reading. Or as Robert Olen Butler describes his graduate students, they know nine of the ten things that fiction writers need to know very well—but they don’t know the first thing. And what is the first thing? Inspiration. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

9/26/15 – Tell, Don’t Show

Show, don’t tell is such an axiom of creative writing programs, and indeed of advice given to writers in general, that it is rarely questioned. The most recent author to visit the university program where I teach, for example, gave this advice to our students—and of course it’s sound, especially for the beginning writer, who is much more likely to err on the wrong side, of summary and exposition, including so few scenes that the writing remains dull. No less a master of fiction than Joseph Conrad said that the novelist’s task was to make the reader see, and who can doubt that that entails writing dramatic scenes most of the time? All the same, I have been pondering this question a good deal lately, and would like to share my reflections on why “show, don’t tell” has become such an unchallenged axiom—indeed an almost sacred Commandment—particularly in the United States, and what interesting alternatives to this strategy there might be. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker
Review by Garry Craig Powell

Subtitled Why we tell stories, this book, which took the author 34 years to write, is not only Booker’s magnum opus, but one the great works of contemporary criticism. Building on Jungian archetypal psychology (and who isn’t a Jungian?) Booker’s thesis is that we read stories because we need to, in order to make sense of our lives, and more specifically because stories provide us with a blueprint for what Jung called individuation. For this reason, he contends, stories from all over the world, whether folktales or highly refined literary forms such as epic poetry or the modernist novel, or for that matter lowbrow entertainments like the James Bond movies, all tend to follow one of seven basic plots. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

Pompeii and Wolf Hall: Two Kinds of Historical Novel

By Garry Craig Powell

I have just finished reading, back to back, Robert Harris’ Pompeii and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Both are international bestsellers; both deserve to be for the quality of the research and the vividness of the writing; both authors are English and middle-aged. (One of them, Harris, is like me an alumnus of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and was, I believe, in residence while I was, but if I met him, I don’t remember.) Both are worth adding to your summer reading list, if you haven’t read them already. Still, there are some major differences between them, which illustrate, for me, the two main categories of historical fiction, so it may be useful to consider their qualities in a little more detail.

robert-harris_400x400

Robert Harris

Pompeii first. You know the basic plot: Mount Vesuvius explodes and wipes out Pompeii and Herculaneum, and pretty much everyone in them. And yet, although we already know the ending, Harris crafts a gripping thriller by creating characters who are not only trying to outrun the volcano, in some cases, but each other. The suspense comes from wondering who, if anyone, will survive. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

I have removed yesterday’s post (The Critic’s Role: Balancing Truth, Kindness and Necessity) because of the furore it has created–in my view, because some readers misunderstood it. I don’t retract what I said but do not feel that the essay was so vital that it justifies provoking the fury of some readers. Perhaps I need to rewrite it more carefully and subtly.

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

Introducing Guest Blogger John Vanderslice, author of Island Fog

John Vanderslice is our guest blogger for June 1st. Here, with gratitude to Jeremiah Chamberlain, the editor of Fiction Writers Review, who first published my interview with him, I reproduce our conversation, which dealt mainly with his linked collection, Island Fog.

A native of the Washington DC area, John Vanderslice has an MFA from George Mason University and a PhD from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. After graduating from ULL in 1997, he began teaching at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), where I met him when I began teaching there in 2004. John is a much-loved professor, and I was at once struck by the wit, the range, and the quality of his short fiction, which has been published in many leading journals, as well as several anthologies, including Chick for a Day and The Best of The First Line. His debut collection, Island Fog (Lavender Ink), was published in the fall of 2014. He is also a marathon runner, and gets up earlier than a fisherman each day to write.

Named by Library Journal as one of the Top 15 Indie Fiction titles of 2014, Island Fog is a quirky yet captivating collection of ten stories and two novellas (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

Must Writers be Musicians?

Everyone loves music, don’t they? Most people claim they do. But ask any musician what proportion of people in an audience are actually listening and appreciating the music, and you get a different answer. A couple of weeks ago, while I was in Minneapolis attending the Associated Writers Conference, I found myself in a jazz bar downtown, completely surrounded by writers (most of them still had their conference nametags on), and guess how many were applauding the musicians’ solos? One. Me. And this wasn’t a third-rate provincial band, but an excellent one, (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

virginia_woolf_01

Virginia Woolf

3/26/15  IN PRAISE OF WOMEN OF GENIUS  After my last essay, “On Talent and Genius”, whose examples of genius were mostly or—ahem—entirely male, one of my readers archly asked if I might be biased, even subconsciously. Of course one can affirm confidently that one is not biased consciously, but the charge of subconscious bias is unanswerable. The only way I could disprove it is by taking a psychological test. (And even then…) However, I do have a couple of responses to the accusation: first, my examples were male not because I believe that no women of genius could have been exercising those arts, but that in fact few did, until quite recently, because of societal pressures. (Continue reading)

Garry Craig Powell

GARRY CRAIG POWELL

Author of  Stoning the Devil

TALENT or GENIUS?

What is genius? How is it different from talent? Is it a matter of degree, or is it something altogether distinct?
In the past week on Facebook—admittedly not the most elevated forum, though I like to think that most of my friends are fairly bright—I have read that the following people are geniuses: JK Rowling, Prince and Stevie Wonder. I also read that Taylor Swift is extremely talented: she must be, said my friend, an intelligent person, because she is so widely popular. (I had perhaps foolishly, and certainly thoughtlessly, given the opinion that she was ‘completely talentless.’)

For a number of reasons, these comments disturbed me, and forced me to consider—yet again—whether it is possible to make any objective evaluation of the talent of an artist—Aesthetics 101—and also, if it’s possible to discuss the subject without simply getting into a curmudgeonly rant about declining standards, whether there is such a thing as genius, and if so, whether we might be able to define it (Continue reading)