This week, Pubmission awarded its first five-star editor rating to a submission titled Swirls in the Negative Space. Authors of memoirs often amaze me with their courage, and James Ferry is no exception. To expose your personal life in a book meant for public consumption has to be a difficult call for a writer even if it’s a lighthearted stroll down memory lane.
Swirls seems anything but lighthearted. There’s a fair amount of humor, but it’s also the candid account of James’s former life as a coke dealer in Los Angeles. And, as all good submissions should, it grabs your attention from the very first line and doesn’t let go.
Editor Toni Rakestraw provided the five-star rating, and after reading the submission myself, I had to agree with her. From the outset, it’s clear that James is an accomplished writer who knows that crisp dialogue, steady pacing, and an appeal to our voyeuristic sensibilities are the keys to getting a “send more” request from an acquisitions editor. I know I certainly would like to read more.
James graciously agreed to a short interview. He shares terrific insights on his creative process, the risks of using real names in memoirs, and the steps writers must take before they submit their work to publishers.
If you’d like to learn more about James and read a sample chapter of Swirls in the Negative Space, check out his website at www.swirlsinthenegativespace.com.
Can you start off telling us a little bit about the book and what prompted you to write it?
I began work on what would become Swirls in the Negative Space back in the summer of 2008. The local sheriffs had, um, visited recently and they’d taken my drugs and put me in jail and informed me, in no uncertain terms, that I was closed for business.
Fair enough. There was a legal limbo—post-arrest, pre-conviction—that dragged on for months and I was on the couch one day, as usual, feeling sorry for myself. Then I got up and went to the keyboard and started typing. I’d never written more than a few pages, and I was amazed at how therapeutic it felt. I’d spent five years dealing coke in Los Angeles, so I had no shortage of anecdotes.
But that’s how it began: just trying to amuse myself and keep the dark thoughts at bay, but I began to realize that there was something deeper at play. I’d come from a good family, went to good schools, etc. Why had I shown such poor judgment? What kind of person was I, really? These were my motors, and hopefully they’re just off the page, where they belong. The drug stuff—depicted, I hope, responsibly as well as compellingly—is purely situational. The real story is about a guy who just wants to find his place in the world. A guy who, like us all, just wants to be loved.
Your submission gives a frank account of how you adopted the lifestyle of a cocaine dealer in L.A. Now that you’ve moved on and rebuilt your life, are you worried that this self-portrait will affect your relationships with the people in your life right now and in the future?
Not at all. The whole idea is to transcend the experience, to take what you’ve learned—the wisdom—and share it. Not in a didactic, finger-wagging kind of way, but in a way that says, “Yeah I messed up, but I’m a better person now, I’m stronger.”
Besides, circumstances like mine have a way of tilting the scales. They divide everyone in your life into two camps: those who truly care and always have, and those who only seemed to care, when it suited them. The latter may have been more fun at times, but I’ll take the former any day. Knowing where you stand with people—it’s a simpler, less cluttered way of life.
What about other people you mention, perhaps unflatteringly in the book? Did you consider changing their names? (I get this question a lot from writers I meet who are working on a memoir because they’re terrified of being sued.)
Ha. Somewhere in the world there’s a memoir workshop happening right now, and some guy who doesn’t even own a copy of Strunk and White is derailing the class with all his “legal” concerns. For those fears to even to be remotely realistic, your book would have to be published and selling well—in which case everything else becomes a pretty good problem to have. Even then, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be sued. The “aggrieved” would have to come forward and prove in a court of law that they’ve been “defamed” by your writing—which, from what I understand, is such a long shot that it’s hardly worth the expense.
The other side of this issue is that if you plan on using your memoir to settle old scores, maybe you should question your motives, or perhaps write a novel instead. Vindictiveness is a very poor motor for autobiographical prose. I’ve been guilty of it myself, of course, and material like that has a way of stinking on the page.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing background? Your submission mentions a business background, but the quality of your writing, particularly with how you handle pacing and dialogue, struck me as coming from someone who’s been working at the craft for some time. Did you work with an editor or a coach?
Part of the aforementioned “rebuilding” of my life included the MFA program at Goddard College. I developed Swirls there, actually—it was my master’s thesis—and I got to work with some great writers, including Richard Panek, author of The 4% Universe and poet Michael Klein, who published two memoirs: Track Conditions and The End of Being Known.
There’s this attitude about writing programs, that they produce a formulaic, “workshoppy” kind of writing, and nothing could be further from the truth. It’s really just a group of artists coming together to learn from one another, and I owe a lot to the experience. As for your critique of my submission—I’m flattered, really, but you should have seen the early drafts. Oh boy. Superfluous characters, extraneous plotlines. Pedantic and predictable dialogue.
Dialogue is tricky. You have to rely on your ear, which means reading out loud repeatedly for clarity and authenticity. When it works, dialogue can do a lot of the heavy lifting, and every line, in addition to being character-specific, hopefully says more than what’s actually being said.
And you mention the pacing. I’m not sure which scenes you felt worked well in particular, but I can assure you that earlier versions were longer and much less effective. You find the pace in the editing, I think. Writers often fret over why their stories are plodding. Then one day you wake up, clip a third of what you’ve got, and voila!—everything starts moving. Kill your darlings. Hemingway taught us economy. Again—the teachers. They’re all around us. Use them.
Writing is usually such a solitary act, but we all want to know how other writers go about it, from what time of day you write, to your writing implement of choice, to how you stay motivated. What can you share with us about your writing routine and how you went about finishing this book?
Every writer has his or her process. Some get up in the morning and battle the blank page. Not me. I write mostly at night, when it’s quieter. I might revise during the day but I think better at night, so that’s when I tackle new pages.
I’ve heard of writers who do first drafts in longhand, but that would drive me nuts. I type on my desktop, which I use basically as a word processer, with my laptop next to me so I can use the internet as a thesaurus or research tool (or when I simply need a distraction).
Writing is grueling work, let’s be honest. And there were times when it felt like a chore, but not finishing the book was never an option. In my case, the writing lifted me out of a depression, gave me hope, and I felt sort of indebted to it—it brought me out of the woods. (I don’t imagine that too many people walk out of L.A. County jail and into grad school, but I did.) The bottom line is that there are no correct “implements,” and there isn’t a routine in the world that can compensate for a lack of drive. If you’re passionate about your project, you’ll inevitably see it through.
The big question I regularly get from authors at the writer’s group meetings I lead is: I’ve written a book, what do I do now? How are you approaching that question for yourself? You signed up for a couple of Editor Ratings on Pubmission, so you’re obviously seeking feedback, but what else do you have planned?
I read an interview with Mary Karr, author of The Liars’ Club (and fellow Goddard alumnus), in which she states that for every book she writes, she types and polishes about 800 pages. She then whittles those down to the best 300 or so and that’s the book. My friend Tom O’Malley, author of This Magnificent Desolation, makes a similar claim. Think about that. (I thought I obsessed over my work.) If you think you’ve finished the book, you probably haven’t.
And that’s not a dig at anyone who completes a manuscript—that’s HUGE, and we all know the urge to want to get it out there. But slow down. Put the manuscript away. See if it calls you back. If it does, give it another polish. Bring it to your writer’s group, or give it to some Beta readers.
Then, once you feel like it’s ready for submission—that is, you’re prepared to endure copious rejections without freaking out or second-guessing yourself—then send it out. At that point, it’s just a matter of persistence. And that’s where I’m at. I’m not under the impression that my manuscript is perfect by any means, and I’m always open to feedback, but I believe in my book, and not because I’m naturally confident. It’s only because I’ve put in the hours.
Where do you stand in the traditional vs. self-publishing debate? Are you looking for an agent or do you plan to go it alone?
Yikes. Not sure how to answer this question. (Honestly, I had no idea there was even a debate going on.) I know that Henry Rollins chooses to self-publish, despite being the punk rock icon that he is. And while I admire that kind of DIY spirit, I think I’m typical in that I’d prefer to go more traditional. I’d certainly be open to working with the right agent, but then that’s not entirely up to me, obviously. A memoir by an unknown writer is a tough sell, particularly to a big house. I know that, but what can I do? The work is what it is, and I stand by it.
There’s this notion that the truly good manuscript cannot be ignored forever, and I think that’s true. After all, I was only approached for this interview after receiving a five-star review—Pubmission’s first, apparently. And there are some great small presses out there, so I’ve got to believe that someone, somewhere, will have me eventually. Just imagine getting shot down by every publisher in the world. I could probably get a halfway decent book out of that experience.
More about James Ferry
James Ferry holds an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. His work has appeared in several literary journals including The Fiddleback, Pitkin Review, Heavy Feather Review, Citron Review, and the Hamilton Stone Review. A lifelong itinerant bachelor, he remains, at forty, single and childless. Though little about him could be called permanent, he can always be found at www.swirlsinthenegativespace.com.