Interview with Kevin Vachna
Kevin Vachna is the author of Summer of The Fall (2009) by Outskirts Press. Kevin started writing the novel in his sophomore year of high school, finished it his senior year and then went on to publish it in college. I asked him a few questions about the process of writing and publishing.
PUBSLUSH: Were you showing anyone your work during the original writing? Any friends or mentors?
Kevin Vachna: Not until, in my own mind, I thought I had something that was finished. So I’d say “here’s the basic story, give me your feedback, tell me what you think.” Within my circle of friends there were a couple a people whose opinions I valued over others. So I’d say “you might be able to get what I’m going at, what I’m trying to say;” I’d reach out to them to see if what I was getting at was coming across.
PS: Was your family really shocked when they found out you’d been secretly writing a novel and had already begun the publishing process?
KV: My father’s exact words were “We’re very proud, but you know we hate surprises.”
But they were very supportive, and you need that support network. My mom read it and said “I read it. It’s really good. It’s really dark though.” But I was dreading it for those reasons, A. that my family would think the novel was about me and B. that they’d think it was about them and would ask is this how you view me? Chris’s relationship with his parents is very strained. But I have a great relationship with my family.
PS: Were you at all embarrassed showing your parents because of the more explicit content?
KV: No, that’s what really scares. It was like training wheels. At first, I was still scared to write, scared what people would think. And as I developed as a writer, I don’t really care anymore, I’m like this is the story I’m going to tell, this is what I want to say, this is how I want to say it. To hell what everybody else thinks. So explicit content wise, it doesn’t hold a candle to where it goes now.
PS: Do you keep track of your writing hours?
KV: Yeah I try to. Because, it gets away from you. Writing, like anything else, is muscle memory. You get better at it the more you do it. And if you stop, you have to take the time get into that groove again. And when you’re in you’re that groove, writing is the easiest thing in the world. When I write, I unplug the internet, because it’s too easy to get distracted. You’ve got to make that time to write, because there is always going to be an excuse not to. It comes down to you. If you want to stick with it, you’ll stick with it. If not, you’re probably going to be one of those people who gives up. And then you have that unfinished manuscript always hanging there.
PS: So did you ever find it difficult to keep faith and have confidence in yourself enough to make the time to write? It’s an extraordinary amount of time and effort to put into something without knowing what will become of it.
KV: Writing is how I work through things. I don’t know what I think about something until I’ve written about it and explored my thoughts. It’s a commitment to the work, it’s a commitment to yourself, because no one else really matters. No one else is going to care if you didn’t get it done. It’s what you value, and if you want to tell that story and you want to finish something you’ve got to be committed to that, because you’re the only one who is going to be let down if you don’t. As I become an adult, it gets harder and harder to find the time to write and I kick myself about that. When I think about what makes me unhappy, it’s because I want to be writing more, I should be writing more. So I should be writing more.
But at the same time, life gets in the way. I really believe that in order to write you need to live. You need to have experiences and to draw from them. So you have to find a balance and you’ve got to make it a priority. You’ve got to make time to write. And that is the hardest part.
PS: So what was it like holding the finished product in your hands for the first time?
KV: That was really cool. It’s ineffable. I can’t put words to how good that feels to have that. Of course I thought “I should have edited better, I should have written more,” but it’s done. No matter what, I know had this, I know I did this. I know I said something meaningful, if only to myself. It was a great experience.
PS: You’re a high school teacher and you teach Summer of the Fall to your students. It must be really great for them to know the author of a published book.
KV: Yeah I think it’s good. There’s creative writing and creative reading. And that’s the coolest thing for students. It’s about what you find as the reader, what you get out of the book.
PS: Could you talk about the process of publishing?
KV: My personal opinion is that the publishing industry is a lot of bullshit. I think a lot of people are slowly learning that. It’s a game. They’re only publishing certain types of books. The top publishing houses don’t accept open submissions, or if they do it’s very limited. Whatever comes before them has to come through an agent and to get an agent you have to compete with thousands upon thousands of people. What they usually go with is what’s popular or what they know will sell and I think that’s very detrimental to writers across the board because we all have idea, and we shouldn’t have to mold what we have into something else, because that artifice becomes very apparent. I wasn’t writing a book to make loads of money or become famous, I was writing a book because it was important to me, I had a story to tell.
I had a teacher in high school who has one of the first people who read it, recommended Outskirts self publishing to me. I decided I would self publish. A lot of self publishers keep the rights and you get nothing for it. They essentially steal your work from you. One good thing about Outskirts is that it’s a very small amount of money you have to put it up and then you keep the copyrights and if someone else wants to pick it up, it can happen.
The biggest downside is that you have sell this, you have to do your own marketing. You had to be organizing your own signings, readings. You have to be on the web and create a buzz on blogs, etc.
PS: Where do you get your inspiration? What do you decide to write down?
KV: A lot of it has to do with where I am in my life. A lot of yourself goes into it, you can’t really help that. Also, stories from friends, or that I’ve heard. I consider myself an observer, I watch, I listen, I try to hear what people are saying and study that and write it down. I listen to people on the subway. I always carry something to write stuff down on.
PS: Has anyone ever caught you eavesdropping?
KV: I’ve gotten looks. No one’s ever called me out on it. But my friends might read something I wrote and say “hey I said this” and I’ll be like “yes I did, but that doesn’t mean this character is you.
PS: You’ve said your characters exist on their own for you. Do they ever surprise you?
KV: Yeah, all the time. It comes to the point where, you create a character, but then the character starts to think for themselves. They start doing things you didn’t think of, but when you look at them as a whole, it makes a lot sense, like “they would do that.” If that doesn’t happen you’re probably not writing good characters. There’s a part of writing that’s a little crazy.
PS: How do you know what’s worth keeping and what’s not? Do you find it’s difficult to make those decisions or is it sort of natural?
KV: It’s difficult. Because you write something, and for beginner writers you write a first draft and think “this is perfect because it’s how it’s how I feel and I couldn’t see it in a different way” but then you really have to go back and look and see if you’re conveying what you’re trying to say. But you have to think about your reader and see if it would make sense to them. But you’ve got to edit, you’ve got to cut. It only comes with practice. Also you’ve got to read what else is out there, read a lot.
PS: Do you save the stuff you cut?
KV: Sure yeah, and sometimes you can use it again. You should keep everything you write.
PS: Do you have any advice for people writing and thinking of finishing a novel and publishing it?
KV: Definitely do it. You definitely should evaluate your reasons for why you’re doing it and make sure they are realistic reasons. But in my opinion, nothing is worth doing it unless you’re going to finish it. And with a novel, specifically because it changes so much over the course of writing it, it’s one those things you can lose interest or heart or commitment to. And you’ve got to stay with it if it’s something that’s important to you. So definitely stay with it. The publishing industry, again, is a lot of bullshit, so if you’re writing to tell a story then get it out there. Explore your options.
Setting a deadline for yourself is very helpful. I want to say that you’ll know when your story is done but you might not. You may be very unsure about it. But that may just be something to address in the editing process.
Don’t resist where your writing is pulling you. Explore it. You may eventually have to cut it but write it down.
You can find Kevin’s book at http://www.amazon.com/Summer-Fall-Kevin-Vachna/dp/1432729608
Or follow Chris Davis (the novel’s narrator) on twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/nobodysboyscout