Interview with William R. Soldan

“I’d rather use a story to gut someone than use it as a pillow.”

Soldan-Head Shot(1)

Coffin Bell: Introduce yourself.

William R. Soldan: William R. Soldan was born in Milwaukee, WI, but grew up in and around Youngstown, OH, where he currently resides with his wife and their two children. After dropping out of high school at the age of seventeen, at the suggestion of his guidance counselor, he proceeded to work jobs ranging from factory machinist to house painter to bartender, among other things, and traveled around the country in a van for a while. About a decade later, he enrolled in college, eventually earning a BA in Literature from Youngstown State University and an MFA from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program. He has been published in a number of journals and anthologies such as New World Writing, Kentucky Review, Floyd County Moonshine, Cowboy Jamboree, and Best American Mystery Stories. His debut story collection, In Just the Right Light, is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press.

CB: What got you started writing?

WRS: My mother has always been a voracious reader, the type of person who will read a book in a crowded room, and despite working long hours, she would tear through several books a week. She passed this love of reading on to me at an early age, and though I had a Hardy Boys phase and a Boxcar Children phase, I began reading adult fiction–primarily Stephen King–before I was out of middle school. But as far as my own creativity went, I was more inclined to visual art. I loved comic books, but I spent more time studying the artwork than the narratives. When I was about twelve, I found my Mom’s typewriter and attempted writing my first story after reading The Shining. At that age, however, I was more intrigued by the idea of writing than actually doing it. Around that time, a little earlier actually, I also discovered my mom’s record collection and fell in love with the 60s. Then came pot and bad poetry and a desire to be a rock star. I filled notebooks (most of which I still have) with a frantic intensity, all of it angsty, drug-inspired, and deliberately cryptic. It was good fun, if not good writing, and it became the one form of creativity that never really ebbed. My desire to do visual art or crafts still comes and goes, but since those early teenage years, I’ve wanted to be a writer above all else. I spent most of my twenties getting drunk and high and arrested, though, and didn’t begin writing in earnest until I got clean and sober and overcame the insidious delusion that I needed to be a tragic mess to be a real artist.

CB: What is the most rewarding aspect of writing?

WRS: Seeing myself grow is a big one. Sticking with it and seeing the fruits of my labor evident in the work. There are some things I still love about my early stories–when I was mostly writing horror and various other types of speculative fiction–but I’ve come a long way in “finding my voice” or style. On good days, when I can acknowledge this without my self-doubt and disillusionment getting in the way to ruin it, it’s quite rewarding to feel that I’ve been steadily moving forward. The other two things I’ve found the most rewarding are the relationships I’ve developed with certain editors and the occasional private message from a stranger telling me how much they enjoyed this or that piece of mine. These messages, though infrequent, always seem to come when I need them the most and mean more to me than I’ll ever be able to express in a simple “thank you.” In fact, I had such an experience after the publication of my story “The Tooth” in Coffin Bell, and it really made my day.

CB: Do you have a designated space for writing? Tell us about it.

WRS: I do have a home office, which I love, but the wi-fi in there is spotty, which can be frustrating if I need to hop online to research something while I’m working; on the other hand, it can be helpful, because I can’t hop online, reducing the risk of getting sidetracked from actually writing. So sometimes I take the laptop into the bedroom or the living room or the dining room when I’m typing up a piece or revising or editing. I write everything longhand first, though, either in a journal, a composition book, or legal pad (I even use scraps of paper if the mood strikes me and that’s all I have available), which means I can, and do, write anywhere. I’m not one of those people who needs to be in a designated space to get the words down. Every space is my designated space–my car, a restaurant, the gym, the break room at work. It doesn’t matter. I believe in allowing myself access to my creativity at all times. There is never a “right time,” or if there is, it’s extremely rare, so I get it in when and where I can; otherwise, I may never get anything done.

CB: Are you a planner or a pantser? Tell us a bit about your writing practices.

WRS: In terms of “outlining” vs. “just running with it,” I definitely lean more toward the latter. When I feel compelled to lay it all out ahead of time, the most I do is a sort of shorthand outline in the form of a bulleted list, just so I know how many tentative scenes I might need to read the ending (which I more often than not have in mind before the rest of the story) and the locations / content of the scenes. For example:

  • fight in a bar
  • argument in kitchen
  • drug deal at the Waffle House

That sort of thing. When working in a novel, I might make a longer version of one of these lists, a few chapters worth of scenes, but there’s always an element of discovery as I go.

That said, even with stories–flash and longer form pieces–I’ve typically been turning an idea over in my head for a while by the time it hits the page. Sometimes it’s just an image or a setting that keeps popping into my head. Or a character name. Or a situation. I jot all these things down, and sooner or later, most of it makes its way into a piece. For instance, I was in my car one day, and an independent taxi cab was next to me at a red light. I thought, I want to write a story about an independent cab driver in a small city. I made a note of it in my notebook–“Independent Cabbie Story.” That was it for a while. I had a character forming in my mind but I wasn’t actively trying to write the piece yet. Then one day I saw a man waiting for the bus and he looked so much like the character that had been forming in my mind that I finally had to start scribbling. It came pretty quickly, that one. It took me about two weeks between the first handwritten word and the final typed revision. It came out in late June in Tough magazine and is one of my favorite pieces that I’ve written. Anyway, there’s this sense that I’m always writing, even when I’m not physically putting words on a page, so no matter how much of a pantser I might be in some respects, there’s always an element of planning, too.

CB: What advice to new and emerging writers could you give?

WRS: The classic “read a lot and write a lot” never goes out of style. So definitely do that. Also, write what you want to write; if you write only to please others or to satisfy some criteria you learned in a class or in a book, you’ll eventually come to hate it. If you don’t know what you like yet, figure it out. Try new things, experiment, find a writer friend and give each other assignments–whatever you need to do to get you writing. Be open to the constructive criticism of other writers, particularly writers whose work you admire and whose opinions you value. Learn to distinguish good feedback from bad feedback, because there’s a lot of bad feedback. But above all, remember: writers write. So write. Sometimes this means forgoing the Netflix binge or the videogames or whatever vice takes up so much of your time. There are writers and people who like the idea of being writers. The former writes; the latter mostly just talks about it. Lastly, be suspicious of generalized comments that begin, “You should never…” or “A story has to be…” or any other statement that’s really just nonsense masquerading as sound advice. There are a lot of those out there, too. They make me laugh.

CB: Who are your influences?

WRS: This is always the toughest question because I always end up leaving people out. I’m influenced by so many artists–writers, painters, photographers, musicians, filmmakers–but listing them can quickly get out of hand, so rather than naming names, I’ll just say that my major prose influences for quite some time are those working in the modes or genres of Grit Lit; the American Gothic offshoots, particularly that which has sprung up in the Midwest in the last decade or so; noir in its many forms; and working-class literature with a strong sense of place. There are many others that influence me, as well–both prose writers and poets–that wouldn’t really fall into any of these categories, but as for influences that have had a profound impact on my own work, many of the names that pop up when searching the above terms would surely make the list.

CB: Physical books or e-readers?

WRS: I love the physicality of the real thing, the immersion of the senses; I like the smell of books, the sound of pages rasping as you turn them, the feel of them between my fingers. I’ve never actually eaten one, but hell, if times got tough enough, I reckon I’d enjoy the taste. I do have a Kindle, though. Mostly, I used it when my son was still a baby and sleeping in our bed because I needed to turn out the light so he’d fall asleep. It strained my eyes, so I could only bring myself to read short stories on it. That’s what I mainly use it for–that and listening to audio books. I’ve read a few novels on it, and I have grown more accustomed to it, but I still prefer print books to digital. But beyond personal preference, some say the advent of e-readers have led to people reading more, people who might not otherwise read at all. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but if so, I’d definitely say that’s a good thing.

CB: If you could give a PSA to journal editors, what would it be?

WRS: Oh, I’ve got a long list. As a former editor myself, I’ve thought about writing a book on this topic alone, in fact. But I’ll stick with one that’s always bugged me, and it has to do with transparency, in a way:

If you’re an editor who wants to be clever and tailor your form rejections to sound as if they’re personal rejections, pandering to the ego of the writer you’re rejecting in some vague but seemingly specific way (“we really dig your style” or something like that), then at least take the time to change your form letter with every submission cycle. Because when a writer submits again in the future, and you reject them with the same letter that sounded personalized the first time, it makes you seem disingenuous. A plain ol’ form letter would be better than realizing the editors were just bullshitting you. Writers deserve better. So do better.

CB: Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive. Tell us about your fears.

WRS: I think it was Stephen King who once said something about fearing Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases that affect the mind and memory. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that as a writer, he relies too much on his memory, and the thought of losing it terrifies him. I thought to myself then, Holy shit, he’s right. So much of my work is rooted in past experience, almost all of it in some way or another, and not having access to that experience anymore is something I never hope to face. But the thing that truly scares me–I mean, the thing that, just thinking about it, makes me tense and paranoid–is harm coming to one of my children or my wife. Nothing, not even the loss of my faculties, scares me as much as that does.

CB: What draws you to dark fiction?

WRS: I don’t do happy. Not that I’m an unhappy person, but when it comes to writing, fiction especially, my inclinations lean toward the dark side of humanity. I’ve written a few pieces that could be argued to have at least the potential for hope, but mostly my work is pretty bleak. I grew up poor, both in the city and the sticks, surrounded by rough characters, many of whom aren’t much different from the characters that populate my stories. I was a child of divorce who moved to a dying city when I was six years old. I was a latch-key kid because my mom had to work multiple jobs to support us. I’ve witnessed abuse and betrayal and the desperation that comes with being destitute. I’m a recovering alcoholic, meth addict, and heroin addict. And all of these things–all of these past experiences–are still in the fibers that make up who I am, and so it all comes out in my work. Besides, with the exception of satire, which itself is darkly comic, happy stories bore me. I don’t mind hopeful endings, particularly in novels, and I love poignant reflection. But conflict is inherently dark, whether you’re writing dark fiction or not, and hope or happiness or whatever should only come when it’s at odds with some kind of darkness. Otherwise, it’s most likely fluff. And I’d rather use a story to gut someone than use it as a pillow.

CB: How does the darkness in your piece enhance the work?

WRS: Well, I can’t really see how a story about a paranoid father extracting his son’s infected tooth with tools from the shed could even work if it wasn’t dark. I mean, it’s a rather dark premise! I suppose someone could write a comedy with the concept, but I’m not the guy for the job. Hopefully, though, as short as the piece is, the details about the father and their life, and the description of the mother, leads to the inevitable conclusion in a satisfying way for the reader. I sure as hell enjoyed writing it.

CB: Tell us about your book / publication / web site / promotion.

WRS: My debut book, forthcoming from Unsolicited Press, is In Just the Right Light, a linked story collection set in northeast Ohio. Most of the stories take place in the fictional town of Miles Junction, but several of them venture into the city of Youngstown, where I live. You can find a number of my published stories and poems on my website and also find me on social media if you’d like to connect that way.



Read William R. Soldan’s “The Tooth” in issue 1.2 of Coffin Bell!