Interview with Toni Volk

When did you first start writing?
I wrote my first story after my dad passed away. I was with him when he died, I was 25, and it was such an extraordinary experience, and of course, I could not talk about it. No one around me wanted to hear anything about it. But it so moved me and I was so frustrated wanting to examine it, wanting to articulate what it was like for me, those feelings of witnessing something sacred and in some odd way, lovely and touching—that and this sense of being honored to have been the one to share his going with him, my dad I loved so much. So about six months later, still not over losing him or the experience, I sat down on the grass outside this place I was staying at in Missouri—symbolic distance, I guess—with a pad and pen and wrote about it. And because I was still very close to it, I wrote it from a guy's point of view, then put it away in a box.

It wasn't until years later that I began writing in earnest, and years after that before I could actually let someone read my writing. Then it was several more years before I committed to it—before I said, good or not, this is what I'm going to do the rest of my life.
What was it that made you finally commit?
I was at the Iowa Writers Workshop and had an editing assistantship, much like the teaching assistantships many grad students get. There was an editor who worked on the same floor there who had been through the workshop years before. He'd even received an NEA grant and had gone to the Provincetown Fine Arts Center. I was very impressed. He wanted to see something of mine, so I gave him a story I was working on. A day or so later, he showed up at my office and slapped my manuscript down on the desk. He was clearly unhappy about delivering the bad news. He didn't know what to say, is how he put it.

In that moment, it was clear. I don't care, I thought, because this is the first thing I've ever really loved doing and I'm not going to stop. I'll just have to get better. That sudden clarity remains among my fondest memories. By this time I was 39 or 40, because I recall having my 40th birthday at Iowa. So, you see, I was a slow bloomer, as well as a late one.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Getting lost in another world. That's big. That feeling of self-expression. Nothing else like it. The excitement when the subconscious is working with you or for you and the piece starts taking on a life of it's own that surprises you. And when that happens, the quality of the writing goes up one hundred percent over that initial forced effort. That's why it's important to keep your hand in daily, so you keep a momentum going. Any big interruption and you have to start all over again, coaxing the subconscious to get back on board. The worst is when circumstances force you to do a start-stop, start-stop thing. Brutal. Doesn't work.

But writing something isn't all there is to it. There's also that amazing rush when readers like your stuff and identify with your characters and let you know about it. This part of writing, connecting to an audience, knowing you haven't just been writing in a vacuum, completes the cycle, so to speak. And if you don't get this part, it's like being pregnant and failing to give birth. That's the most drastic way I can think of to describe writing without ever connecting to a reader. Me, who once threw a notebook into a wood stove fire because my boyfriend was chasing me around the house, trying to grab it to read it. That's how afraid of criticism I was when I first started writing. Ironic, isn't it? Now I go to great lengths to get someone to read my writing.

Speaking of that, once you could send a submission directly to a publisher or editor—"over the transom" it was called. In the last decade or even earlier, that's all changed. Most of the big publishers made the must-be-submitted-by-agent' rule. I swear it's harder to get an agent to take a look at your work these days then it used to be to get an editor to. This is why the indie movement is so important, and those guys like Mark Coker who helped develop it. Coker, definitely, is a game changer. The publishing industry will never be the same again.
What's the story behind your latest book?
My latest one, Keota, will be out soon. It began as a father/daughter story set in Montana—mom leaves, dad becomes the nurturer. But, around that time, my daughter and I drove all over Mexico, everywhere but the Yucatan Peninsula. We had many experiences and a few close calls—car trouble in Culiacan, we got robbed in Mexico City, we got caught in the tail of a hurricane between Guadalajara and Acapulco, we ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere on our way from Mexico City to Galveston. Stuff like that. This became another thing I wanted to talk about, so I finally wrote about a few of those experiences and my father/daughter thing soon became a buddy story—the daughter and her friend go to Mexico looking for mom. Then, unexpectedly, after I think the story is finished, the mother wants a voice and, despite my reluctance to go there, it's now a mother/daughter story as well as a friendship story. Whatever happened to that dad? He just dropped out of the picture.
What are you working on next?
I'm going to put up this historical piece. Maybe it's not officially historical, though all the historical events in it were well researched. But it doesn't just center around one particular event. So it's more a period piece, a trilogy actually. It's something I've worked on for years, and I mean years. And when it got to be over 1,000 pages, I still couldn't stop so I divided it into three novels, which of course required more writing to make each portion stand on it's own—with complete beginning, middle and end. So, now, before I get carried away expanding each of those parts until they're all 1,000 pages, I'm going to stop, format them and move on.
Describe your desk.
Messy. No, that's not quite true. I never sit at a desk and anymore don't even bother having one—or a desktop computer. I'm all about laptop because I don't like sitting up straight, or in one place. I move around from a couple favorite chairs, the couch, against pillows on the bed, and in good weather, a lounge chair outside. In the old days, I had a desktop computer that I moved around with me—I put it on a low table by the couch or chair or on the bed, with the keyboard on my lap. When I worked in a cubicle or an office, same thing. I'd work in the cafeteria, at a cafe, anywhere but in my assigned space. The secretary at one place I worked would even say "Will you be in your office . . . or in your other office?—meaning the cafe across the street.
So now I don't have a messy desk, just messy areas, which frankly, are more cluttered without the clear boundaries desks provide.
Published 2014-07-31.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

Keota
Price: $5.99 USD. Words: 123,380. Language: American English. Published: November 15, 2013. Categories: Fiction » Literature » Plays & Screenplays
This is the story of Keota who runs out on her young daughter; Chris, the daughter she abandons; and Chris's friend Rainy who sees her through it all. When an adult, Chris wants to find out what happened to Keota and pesters Rainy to go with her—all the way to Mexico. In this land of stark beauty and ever-impending danger, these three brave women risk everything to find what they each need most.
Interior Designs
Price: $5.99 USD. Words: 102,440. Language: English. Published: September 11, 2013. Categories: Fiction » Literature » Literary, Fiction » Themes & motifs » Family sagas
Toni Volk's novel, Interior Designs, is a quietly radiant story of an endearingly crazy Montana family. It is the compelling saga of Annie, who announces to her husband Morton that she's giving up sex. Her decision sets off both a search for her own place in the world and an ongoing struggle to understand the conflicting relationships that have brought her to this point.
Montana Women
Price: $5.99 USD. Words: 94,750. Language: English. Published: July 19, 2013. Categories: Fiction » Literature » Literary, Fiction » Themes & motifs » Family sagas
Montana Women is a deeply affecting novel about the inextricable bonds of family and place—how they define and limit us, but also how we can find ourselves within them if we survive long enough. It is a complex story, beautifully and simply told in a voice that is at once as lyrical as the mountains, and straightforward as a prairie.