Name Bill Cushing
Where are you from
Originally I grew up in New York although I was born in Virginia while my father was the Navy.
A little about your self `ie your education Family life etc
My education was spotty at best, and it’s nearly impossible to separate it from peripheral events. I failed my first attempt as a journalism major, and because of the draft during Vietnam, I enlisted in the Navy where I was assigned to electrician’s school before joining the fleet. I returned to college later only to drop out. As a result, I spent about 16 years drifting between numerous jobs (bartender, cabbie, retail sales, truck driver) with the bulk of my work life continuing as a shipyard electrician—mostly on oil tankers. Then, a series of work-related accidents and the coaxing of a good friend convinced me to try completing my academic coursework one more time. This time it took: I began at a community college in Jacksonville, Florida intending to major in history but met an English instructor who roped me back into my interest in writing, so by the time I entered the University of Central Florida, I focused on American and modern literature but also took enough creative writing classes to declare a double major in English. After moving to Puerto Rico with my wife (then girlfriend), I began work on my MFA at Goddard College in Vermont. I intended to write a novel based on the Norwegian folk tale of Peer Gynt using the backdrop of my years as a “yard bird,” but after only three months of marriage, my wife died, so I took a semester off, returning with an entirely new project in mind—the memoir of her, our relationship, and the effect that cancer had on us. While writing that work, I was lucky enough to meet my current wife and now live in Glendale, California with her and our son.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
After a near-decade layoff from actively writing and submitting my work, I now have had the pleasure of being featured in several publications at once, mostly with my poetry. This has inspired me to return to the book I wrote as my MFA creative thesis, a memoir devoted to my late wife and our ordeal with her cancer.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
My first interest in the arts was visual, and I used to sketch and paint. However, when I entered the sixth grade, I was lucky enough to have several teachers who chose our reading assignments very well so that I soon began to read with a passion. My admiration for these writers pushed me to try it myself, and by the time I reached high school, I was active on the student newspaper, writing across departments with a monthly column being my favorite assignment since it allowed me to choose whatever topic I wished. Even before I made writing an academic choice, I kept journals, sketchbooks, and pads of paper with short pieces and some short stories. I still have many of these in file folders and boxes, much to the chagrin of my wife.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I have probably considered myself a writer since before high school even though I earned no formal training or recognition for it until I was over 40.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
Although the first book I tried never panned out—a novel based on my experiences as a shipyard worker, I was able to get some decent short stories from the effort, but the book I completed, Counting Down the Breaths, chronicles the dual lives of me and my late wife, our subsequent relationship, her battle with cancer, and as indicated by the title, the event of her death, which I witnessed over the final hours of her life. Perhaps the greatest inspiration for the work was my desire to share with others the ordeal of the caregiver for those with terminal disease. I want it to be a way to inform anyone else thrown into that position of what to expect.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I have to admit that I am usually influenced by whoever I have read most recently, which makes things confusing at times but also, hopefully, interesting.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
I literally did spend about two hours before Ana’s death watching her breathe slowly subside and stop.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
The basic message of the book is to convey that the pain that people watching their loved ones go through, while personal and unique to each of us, is not isolated.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic?
All of it
Fiona: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
I think it is difficult if not impossible for writers not produce material based on people and events in life. I have a short story scheduled for publication in the Newtown Literary Journal, and anyone who grew up where and when I did will know exactly who the characters are. Even most of my poems are images and impressions of those I’ve met or that which I have experienced.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most? a mentor?
If I had any mentor, it would be Kevin Bezner, the college professor who pushed me back into writing after seeing a few of my papers. He and I have become very good friends even though we have a continent separating us. He is still an active poet as well as a deacon in the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
Literarily, I admire Anthony Burgess the most because of his command and knowledge of languages, but I also enjoy Kurt Vonnegut, Isabel Allende, and John Gardner.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
Lately I have been delving into the French novel A Void by Georges Perec, a surrealistic mystery that reads like the last few chapters of Steppenwolfe and one in which the letter “e” is never used.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
I have to confess to not reading many contemporary writers only because there are so many other works from the past I have yet to get to. For example, I still have to read Boccaccio’s Decameron, and I am due for a rereading of Orwell’s 1984, a work I return to about every 15 years or so.
Fiona: What are your current projects?
I am now trying to pare down the memoir to a publishable piece, but I continue writing poetry and submitting chapbook manuscripts in the hope of getting one out there.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
If anything motivates a writer, I argue it is the desire to be read and heard as an individual. Writing becomes my voice.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
I would say it is more a calling because, whether I get paid or not, published or not, I cannot stop writing. Perhaps that makes it more of an obsession.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Well, actually, that is the task I am undertaking at the moment—trying to make it better.
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I hate to say it, but writing became sort of an escape from reality for me. I was friendly as a child but very reserved because of my father’s overpowering personality and achievements, so writing allowed me to release everything that was inside without fear of judgment.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
The end began on July 23, a Saturday. Ten days earlier, it appeared that Ana might respond to the chemotherapy started in Florida. She looked a little better although there was still a sort of permanent frown on her face when she slept, reflecting constant pain. One corner of her lip had sprouted an open sore, irritating her. I applied steady coats of Blistex to it for whatever good that might do.
The bag draining the catheter rooted in the side of her stomach seemed to take more time to fill up, a sign that the disease’s action was slowing, perhaps succumbing to treatment. The only real problem was the return of the yellowing in her eyes and a withering weakness that had begun as her body went into actions of its own apparent will. She began vomiting, but the liquid gushing from her mouth over my hands and arms while I held her head over the bowl was unlike anything else I’d seen or felt up to that time. The fluid looked greenish, but the coloring wasn’t consistent. It was a dense gelatin-like substance—clear with small green squares suspended within. It felt more like mucous than regurgitated foods or liquids. This was a product of the disease, a form of gangrene resulting from the cancer’s silent, insatiable appetite for Ana’s body. It was her very life being eaten, chewed, spit out.
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Finishing up. I recall the words of a writing colleague from Florida: “A writer is never satisfied; he just gives up.”
Fiona: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I am convinced the Anthony Burgess is one of the greatest modern writers of the English language because of his sharp mind and versatility. I mean here is the man who wrote A Clockwork Orange, one of the more disturbing stories on society versus the individual, as well as Man of Nazareth, an ode to the life of Christ that became the backdrop for Zefferilli’s six-hour movie. He has written novels, biographies, and critical studies that knock me out. I know that when I read him, I better have a dictionary nearby because of the linguistic jokes he loves to plant in his work. In fact, there is a word that I still cannot nail down from his novel Napoleon Symphony—a fictionalized look at Bonaparte’s life divided into four parts where Burgess tries to pace his diction according to Beethoven’s Third Symphony. That is magnificent, clever, and indicative of real discipline.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
Usually just outside followed by a lot of inner-self diving. I have spent a good portion of my life traveling the country because of my work, and I’ve found that material is almost anywhere there is a window. Yes, I travel, but I do not travel to write; my writing comes out of the journey.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
The book is not yet published, but if anyone wishes to look at it, I will certainly let them pick the cover design—although I have a suggestion based on one the final photos I have.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
It was very cathartic. I spent much of the time weeping and writing, which is why I need to return to it upon the suggestion of a literary editor who wisely told me that I needed to get much of the information out there for myself but the readers really do not need all of it.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I was a bit surprised at how easily it flowed in terms of its information and detail. It certainly wasn’t “easy” on an emotional level, but my time was very productive.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Two great views of writing are first, “write without fear; edit without mercy.” Just because one has suffered, that does not make for great writing. I believe Oscar Wilde once said that all true emotion leads to bad poetry. The second axiom I would emphasize is do not be self-indulgent. While the inner part of you provides the motivation for your work, it should not be about the writer but what that person sees or witnesses.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Since there seems to be this constant debate over the task of the writer—is it to entertain or enlighten—I would tell readers that if you cannot enjoy, then learn. If neither happens, choose other writers.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
Aside from Dr. Seuss, the first book that really floored me was, ironically enough, John Gunther’s book chronicling the loss of his son to a brain tumor, Death Be Not Proud. I read it not long after the death of my grandmother, a woman I loved dearly.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
Right now, my son. He was born with extremely rare disabilities, yet his good nature and stubborn approach both inspires and saddens me.
Fiona: Is there one person past or present you would meet and why?
I was actually named after William Barker Cushing, a distant cousin who was a naval hero in the Civil War but also apparently quite the wild seed. As a young man, he visited a girlfriend by riding his horse not only to her house but actually inside the building, which I am sure pleased her father to no end. I would love the opportunity to sit with him and just listen to the stories of his exploits, personal and otherwise.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why ?
One of my best friends actually came up with my epitaph when he dedicated a book he sent for my birthday with “To a man who loves good music, good scotch, and a good argument.”
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies ?
I grew up sailing and still try to get out as often as I can, but I also love just about any of the performing arts—movies, theater, opera, dance—as well as visiting art museums.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
I always like to say “anything that is well written.” I am not trapped by categories too much, but my all-time favorite movie is Casablanca, which I say without any hesitation. I even wrote a poem titled “I Want to be Rick Blaine.” Humphrey Bogart is the coolest man ever in that movie. A musical I never get tired of watching is Les Miserables although I’d argue that it is really an opera that is packaged as a musical to make it more appealing to audiences.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music
When it comes to food, the only ones I do not like are hot cereal (don’t know why but it must have been something from my childhood that I’ve blocked out) and internal organs. Any colors I tend toward would be fairly muted, a reflection of my youth spent trying to conceal myself from exposure. I love Italian food, but my marriage now to a Peruvian has really opened up a whole new culinary door for me—wonderful stuff that.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
I write but also teach, a profession I have grown to love over the years, and I always say that anyone who teaches probably wanted to be either a comedian or a preacher, maybe both.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
I do not have my own website although I suppose I should. However, I periodically post work at http://www.poemhunter.com/bill-cushing/