Name Clark Zlotchew
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Here is the beginning of a newly-written short story, “A Haunting Bolero,” to be published in April by Sick Lit Magazine:
Sometimes the mists of time seem to thin, and to part like the curtains of a play, affording an intriguing glimpse of the past. Intriguing, yes, but disturbing as well. I had a very strange and personal encounter with the past in Cuba. Not because they’re still driving cars produced in the Fifties. The experience I had was unnerving and so weird that I still can’t believe it happened. And yet, I know it did.
And below is a paragraph close to the beginning of “The Smell of Land”:
Currents of cigarette fumes wafted through what passed for air. Attractive young women in bright-hued gowns glided through the streams of smoke like tropical fish in an aquarium. Detecting the white uniforms and leathery faces, they promptly approached the Navy men. Very pretty, Ed thought. But hungry. A school of piranha. Just what the doctor ordered: fun and games with no complications. Right: no complications.
Below is the beginning of The Caucasian Menace, my espionage/thriller novel published in 2010.
Halfway through his steak, Thorne saw three men get out of a taxi and walk into the Bank of Buffalo. Two of them wore three-piece grey suits. The third man wore a double-breasted pinstripe. Their faces matched the photographs Thorne had committed to memory. Thorne turned to Pérez, and noticed that the nervous little man had hardly eaten any of his sandwich but whose beer glass was completely empty.
Thorne jutted his chin in the direction of the three men entering the bank.
Pérez’ eyes widened. “Now?” he asked.
“Steady on, old boy, steady.” Thorne’s tone was soothing.
Pérez stared after the three men, even after their backs had disappeared inside the bank. Then he took a cigarette out of a pack and dropped it on the floor. He bent down and, with a trembling hand, retrieved it. Then he struck a match and shakily lit the cigarette, staring out the window once more.
After five minutes, Thorne said, “All right, just sit here, and for God’s sake, take it easy. Get a grip on yourself.”
Thorne stood up and walked over to the wall telephone next to the bar and inserted a coin. When he heard the tone, he pushed buttons and waited. He heard the phone ring twice, but the third ring was incomplete.
The interruption of the third ring coincided with the roar of a deafening explosion. He looked past Pérez’ head, through the window, and saw the name BANK OF BUFFALO on the plate glass window across the street crumple, turn to glistening dust and fall to the sidewalk as tinkling shards of glass. Black smoke issued from the opening that had been the bank windows, and, through the smoke, tongues of orange flame licked the air.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Finding the time. Besides that, I’ve had 17 books published, but limiting myself to my fiction only, I’d have to say the way I write fiction seems strange even to me. Most writers sketch out a plan. They know what the beginning and the end will be, and then fill in the middle. I never do that. I come up with a certain kind of character and place him in a particular situation, and maybe it sounds weird, but he tells me what happens next. I never know how the story will end until I get there. Maybe I should say, until he gets there.
Where are you from?
Jersey City & the Bronx, but have lived the most recent 42 years of my life in the small town of Fredonia in rural Chautauqua County in Western N.Y. State. But my wife Marilyn and I have also lived in central Vermont, Binghamton, NY, Geneseo, NY before coming to Fredonia.
A little about your self `ie your education Family life etc
I’m the first in my immediate family to attend college. I put myself through college (NYU) by working 9:00 to 5:00 for the export Dept of a large liquor company in Manhattan and attending classes at night. Received the BS in Foreign Trade. Decades later I earned the Ph.D. in Romance languages and literatures, State U. of N.Y. at Binghamton.
Marilyn and I have three sons, all in their forties now. Two of them are lawyers. One in Princeton, NJ, another in Los Angeles. Yet another has lived in Central America for a decade where he teaches English.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
Just retired (January 1, 2017) from teaching Spanish language and literature in Spanish language at State U. of NY at Fredonia. (I call that “early retirement” at age 84.)
I have more time for writing, travel, visiting grandchildren in New Jersey and in Los Angeles.
I’ve had newer short stories published in 2016 in Scrutiny Journal (U.S.) and in Jotters United (U.K.). In January 2017 I was one of three winners of the annual contest of Baily’s Beads, literary magazine of the U. of Pittsburgh, Bradford, PA. That journal published the story, “Man of Adventure.” (They also published 5 poems of mine.)
My poetry was published in The Fictional Café December 2016. The same e-zine is going to publish some blogs of mine.
Sick Lit Magazine will publish my poem, “The Inexorable Lion” in a couple of weeks, and my short story “A Haunting Bolero” in April.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
It’s hard to say. I remember writing stories and poetry when there was a lull in activity at the liquor manufacturer’s export department. Just for my own amusement and that of my friends.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Starting with my first published book in 1982, but feeling more like a writer with each succeeding book. I’ve had 17 books published. Most of them in my academic field. But three of my books are my own fiction: An award-winning short-story collection, Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties; a military/action novel, TALON Force: Dire Straits under pseudonym of Cliff Garnett; and an espionage thriller, The Caucasian Menace.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
My first book was my translation of a series of interviews with a well-known Argentine author, Jorge Luis Borges, conducted in Spanish by Fernando Sorrentino. I was impressed with the questions and answers in that book and wanted to make the ideas expressed in it available to the English-speaking world.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I don’t really know. I use a different voice, a different tone, depending on the story and on who the narrator is. But people who have met me say when they read my fiction they can hear my voice.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
Well, let’s talk about my three works of fiction: TALON Force: Dire Straits, under the pseudonym Cliff Garnett. It was part of a series of military/action novels in which the same seven characters, members of a (fictional) special forces group named TALON Force fight against terrorists around the world. Each of the different authors had to use the same pseudonym: Cliff Garnett. Each novel was differentiated from the others by the sub-title. I chose “Dire Straits” because the action begins with the destruction of a bridge over the Strait of Bosphorus in Istanbul.
The Caucasian Menace is an espionage/thriller novel in which the main action takes place in Daghestan, one of the republics within the Russian Federation, in the North Caucasus region, between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea. (BTW: it’s where the Boston Marathon bombers were brought up). In the novel, this republic has broken away from Russia and is ruled by an unhinged dictator who happens to own some nuclear weapons left over by the Russians.
Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties has its title because the background of the narratives is the 1950s. That era was a very different one from the present. The 17 stories contain adventure, racism, segregation, sexism, love, storms at sea, violence, Havana on eve of the Castro Revolution, Savannah during segregation, and much more…
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
If a writer of fiction wanted to deliver a message straightforwardly, or even was clear in his own mind as to what the message was, he/she would write an essay or some other form of non-fiction. He would not write fiction. The message of a piece of fiction depends on what the reader feels when reading the interplay among the various characters and against their surroundings (human as well as that of nature) and how he sees it. For me, a piece of fiction is more enjoyable than a factual essay. It allows the reader to reach his own conclusions while being entertained.
There’s a saying: “No two people ever read the same novel.” Of course, this is an exaggeration to make the point that each individual finds different messages –even a different story—based on that reader’s own background: his experiences as a child and as an adult, his educational background, his view on life, his family’s influence, the influence of his own personal history that he brings with him to the work of fiction. In many cases the “message” might reveal one thing on the surface but something else underlying it which might speak more to the subconscious than one’s conscious mind.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
In every piece of fiction, there is always something autobiographical. It might be minimal with regard to the plot. It might be nothing more than an emotion felt at some time in the past. At the other extreme practically the whole story really happened to the writer, but is well (or not so well) disguised. But there’s always something of the writer in the writing.
In one of my stories, “Storm Warning,” the physical background as well as the social setting of Savannah, Georgia in 1956 is definitely reflected. It was a time of extreme racism and racial segregation in the Deep South. The description of being in a storm at sea, in that same story, accurately reflects my experience too. Almost everything that happens in the story is factual, except the scene of violence at the end. But there is one chilling scene around the middle of the story in which a local police officer has a confrontation with two Northern sailors and a local African-American. This incident actually happened to me and I render it faithfully. It opened my eyes to what segregation really meant in the Deep South in that era.
Apparently, the story was so faithful to time and place that a close friend of mine, who had been on that training cruise with me, told me, “Wow, that story really brings me back to Savannah, but I think my memory is going.” I asked him why he thought so, and he said, “I remember everything about that trip, except I don’t remember the fight.” I told him, “Don’t worry. Your memory is just fine. There was no fight. It’s fiction, old pal, fiction.”
Some of the other 17 stories have a lot of autobiographical material in them, while others have almost none. In one of the stories, “Going for the Gold,” I came up with a character very much like so many guys who watch sporting events while sitting in an easy chair drinking beer and eating fast food. This man, who is out of shape, identifies closely with the athletes on the TV screen. A couch potato who thinks he’s an athlete. But we find out as the story proceeds that he has a dark history. From that character and that situation, the character seemed to tell me what would happen next. I simply wrote it out.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most? a mentor?
I’ve had no mentor, unfortunately, and have never taken a course on creative writing. I have read books on the subject, however, but I find that while those books can give helpful suggestions, a writer is either born a good story teller or is not. I’ve read a great variety of books, both fiction and non-fiction that I’m sure must have rubbed off on me in some way, though not as much as my personal experiences. Way back, in my twenties, when I worked for the liquor company, I would get together with some of my fellow employees for lunch. When I would tell them about things I had experienced, they often told me I should be a writer. (They also told me I should have been a stand-up comic.)
When I interviewed Borges at his apartment in Buenos Aires, he had trouble remembering an event in one of his stories (he was 85 years old). I had to remind him of certain elements. He said, “Well, I never read what I’ve written once it’s published. But you have read it many times, so the story is really more yours than mine.”
Another Argentine writer, Marco Denevi, when I asked him about the influences on his writing, said something like, “Every book stems from other books, even those the author has not read.” Kind of a mysterious statement, but one that has validity, since the ideas and even techniques in books other people have read will find its way into our thinking one way or the other. I think he meant something like that.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest and who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Well, I’m not sure what constitutes “new” in this context, but I enjoy reading Tom Clancy, Daniel Silva, John Grisham and many others whose names elude me for the present. I enjoy their thrillers because of the action, the intrigue, the knowledge of how espionage can be carried out, the very vivid sense of place in their descriptions, and in the case of John Grisham, his knowledge of law in addition to the ways of criminals. But I’ve read so many books –I’ve been around for a long time—both fiction and non-fiction, that so many authors have had to have some kind of influence on me.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
For the last three years I belong to a writing group, Write Circle, that meets every Friday morning at the public library in Sinclairville, a very small town off the beaten path, up in the hills of this rural county. We write and critique each other. This feedback helps a great deal. The suggestions for changes to make and even the praise for specific passages because of the effect it has on them is a real learning tool. Of course, a writer can think about those suggestions and decide which ones to act on and which ones to ignore. And they spur you to write something every week. There is a great sense of mutual support among us.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Well, at the age of 84, I’d have to say no. But, as we all know, there are those who have made it into a well-paying career. Their names are often practically household words. One way to make it a career would be first, write what will capture the minds and hearts of anyone who reads the book. But, before a book can do that, people must be drawn to read it. This would take many thousands of dollars in advertisements. Not many people can afford that route. I know I can’t.
Another way would be to somehow get your book into the hands of highly-respected critics who write for equally respected newspapers, literary journals, that have great circulation. Yet another way would be to first become a well-known celebrity. The term “celebrity” consists of entertainers (which includes sports figures, movie stars, rock stars) or politician or even (or especially) murderer.
Lacking all the above, and I know I’m being cynical, one should write for the enjoyment of the process, to expel his demons (thereby avoiding psychoanalysis) and to entertain friends.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
I don’t think so.
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
My interest in writing came from several sources: From loving to read. From loving to tell stories. Through a desire to connect with many people, to make a mark in this world, to share what it means to be human, and to leave something of myself in this world to show I was here.
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
It’s challenging to attempt to reach people who might read what I write. I’m hoping that you, Fiona, will reach another segment of the public who might want to read my material.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
Only once did I travel specifically for the purpose of writing a book. I lived for three weeks in Argentina and one week in Uruguay in 1984 for the purpose of interviewing authors who lived there.
Otherwise, I have not traveled for the purpose of writing a book. However, I have traveled widely on five continents, with the Navy when I couldn’t afford to do it on my own, and as an academic taking part in international conferences, and as a tourist. My experiences during those voyages have become part of my writing. But after the fact.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I learned it’s much harder to sell a book of fiction than a book giving useful information. Text books, how-to books, fill a definite need in people. My book, Alpha Teach Yourself Spanish in 24 Hours is one that sold like the proverbial hotcakes. At the other end of the spectrum, my books of fiction sold very modestly. I mean, very, very, very modestly. Those who’ve read them love the writing (maybe I shouldn’t say this. It sounds too self-congratulatory. But it’s the truth.) They give the writing high praise. The trick is to let people know about the books. The problem is a lack of advertisements and promotion, especially if it’s a small press that publishes the book. People have to know about the book before they can contemplate acquiring a copy of it.
Fiona: If any of your books was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead
Liam Neeson as Dirk Baker, one of the two CIA heroes.
Mark Wahlberg as Jeff Gold, the other CIA hero.
Johnny Depp as the sadistic arch-villain, Anthony Thorne.
(Now if it were the 1940s, I would choose Gary Cooper as Dirk Baker, John Garfield as Jeff Gold, and Humphrey Bogart as the villain.)
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Have fun writing. Don’t make it a burdensome task. Most of us won’t make a living on it, so you need to enjoy the writing. Another piece of advice: Read! You can’t be a good writer if you don’t read. You should write the type of material that you enjoy reading.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
I’d be interested in any comments you could make about any of my works you’ve read.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I just finished reading the novel called, A Man Called Ove. It’s the English translation from Swedish. It’s an extremely heart-warming study of a character and his development. I belong to a reading group up in Sinclairville (as well as a writing group), that meets once a month. I’ve been reading so many books for group discussion (as well as books in between) that I couldn’t just choose one to mention, and I wouldn’t want to mention all the books I’ve read in the last year. A problem in answering this question is that for decades, most of the books I’ve read were in Spanish.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
It was so long ago that all I remember is that it was written on clay tablets.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
Funny things make me laugh, while sad things bring a tear to my eye. But I don’t cry, except to cry “wolf.” If I were a crier, probably the state of the world would do the job.
Fiona: Is there one person pass or present you would meet and why?
No, but there are some people from my past that I would not particularly want to meet.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why ?
I’d have to think about that. Perhaps, Here lies a man who was dying to get into this cemetery.
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies ?
Learning languages, traveling, playing guitar, listening to classical music, working out at the gym, staying alive. I speak fluent Spanish and get along very well in French, Italian and Portuguese. I’ve been teaching myself –strictly orally—Japanese and Russian, and have managed to get around cities by asking directions in Japan (in Japanese) and in Ukraine (in Russian). Oh, and my English is pretty good.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
Films from the 1940s (e.g. “Casablanca”; “Gaslight”; “To Be or Not to Be” “Double Indemnity”, etc.), reruns of sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” and espionage and foreign intrigue films.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music
Foods: I love all foods. To paraphrase Will Rogers, I have never met a food I didn’t like (except for shredded coconut which looks and tastes like sawdust). I especially love arroz con pollo and anything that includes rice and beans.
Music: Classical music, Latin American music, and the traditional folk music of worldwide cultures. I don’t like head-banging rock or rap.
Colors: I want people to show their true colors.
But does anyone really care about my food and music preferences?
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
If I weren’t a writer, that is if I didn’t enjoy writing, I would have had to spend a great deal of money on a psychotherapist.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
So far no blog. Too time consuming. My website is http://www.clarkzlotchew.com
Take a look, folks.