The Don Gilbert Interview!
We have a little challenge going at the Fresno Sci-Fi & Fantasy Writers forum called Write 1/Submit 1, which encourages all of us to write at least one story per month and submit it to publishers for publication. We’re a few months in, and I thought I’d sweeten the pot for January’s winner and provide them space here on this lil’ ol’ blog o’ mine to talk about whatever they’d like. Don Gilbert was our winner with a cool Steampunk/Chinese Hero story “The Garbage Man of Jianghu.” I asked him how he’d like to use this space, and he chose to go with an interview–which I’ve been dying to do anyway, so here we go!
Don Gilbert was born on March 25, 1966. He graduated from Granite City High in 1984. Don wrote “A Place to Call Home,” and it was published in Wisconsin Review in 1989. He graduated from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville with a BA in English in 1989 and an MA in English in 1991. He is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), Teacher Trainer, having spent his time in the Corps in Agusan del Norte, Mindanao, Philippines, from 1997 to 1999. Don and his wife Malu were married May 8, 1999. He served as English department chair at Yuma Catholic High School in Yuma, Arizona from 2002 to 2009 and now teaches English and art at Youthbuild Charter School of California here in Fresno. When he came to Fresno, his wife stayed in Arizona to continue teaching for a time, so with some free time on his hands, Don tried his hand at acting in Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s Summer of 2010 performance of The Merchant of Venice, as the Prince of Aragon. Not long after, he joined the Fresno Sci-fi & Fantasy Writers and though he enjoyed his acting experience, has decided to devote much of his time to writing. And once you check out his blog, Don Gilbert: So Many Words, So Little Time…, you’ll see why.
1. Don, you do movie reviews at your blog, what are your (top 5) favorite films?
1. Rear Window (1954) James Stewart, Grace Kelly, dir. Alfred Hitchcock
2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman
3. Star Wars—Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill
4. The Matrix (1999) Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss
5. Fight Club (1999) Brad Pitt, Edward Norton
2. Favorite movie quote?
“I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.” —The Matrix
3. What is your favorite Shakespearean play and why?
Othello. It has one of the nastiest villains in literature, Iago, who supposedly inspired John Milton in his creation of Satan for Paradise Lost. It is also about passion and jealousy, and it’s an early comment on racism at a time when Elizabethans distrusted foreigners, especially people of color. Some of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, like The Merchant of Venice and Titus Andronicus, relied more on racial stereotypes, but Othello, which came relatively late in his career, shows more progressive thinking. The Moor, Othello, is the central character, and he is multidimensional. I can’t think of any other play from that period that even comes close to presenting a character of color like that.
4. What are you reading lately?
One I am looking forward to reading soon is the latest by Stephen King, 11/22/63, a time travel novel about a character who finds he has the opportunity to prevent the JFK Assassination. I have just been reading a book on writing called How Not to Write a Novel, which looks at writing in terms of common amateur mistakes that prevent unpublished authors from becoming published. It also has humorous examples illustrating what not to do. I recently enjoyed Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar, a steampunk novel set in Paris by an Israeli author. Steampunk II is an excellent collection of steampunk short fiction, and The Immorality Engine by George Mann, another steampunk novel.
5. Star Wars or Star Trek?
Star Wars! I was eleven when the first Star Wars film was released, and it captured my imagination. I was hooked. I have seen all the films numerous times, read a few of the books, had lots of action figures, and even wrote a little bit of fan fiction. Recently I went to see The Phantom Menace in 3D, which proves that I am a diehard fan. The original Star Trek series was before my time, and after seeing Star Wars, I had a hard time relating to the Star Trek characters sitting around on the bridge while the camera shakes. I did enjoy The Wrath of Khan, though, and I used to watch Deep Space Nine. The new Star Trek film is a clever reboot, and I will likely see the sequel when it comes out.
6. Who or what got you writing?
In childhood, I had puppets and liked to make up stories and put on shows for kids in the neighborhood. My mother even built me a puppet theater that I could set up. I also used to draw, and I liked to tell stories through my drawings. At Southern Illinois University, I started out majoring in art, but found that my heart really was into telling stories. I changed my major to English, and I took creative writing classes. My professor was Lloyd Kropp, author of Greencastle, which won several awards and earned Lloyd the title of Illinois author of the year. Michael Douglas optioned his first book, The Drift, for a possible film adaption, though the film was never made. Lloyd was the first person who taught me how to write fiction, like understanding the difference between narration and scene development, or telling vs. showing. Lloyd had reading parties at his home, and I read several of my stories there. One of the stories I wrote for his classes became my first published story, “A Place to Call Home,” which appeared in a small press literary magazine called The Wisconsin Review. I went on to become an editor of another literary magazine, Sou’wester, and then I started teaching. I once met Joyce Carol Oates, and it was Lloyd who introduced me to her.
7. Who has influenced your writing most?
I have many influences from authors I enjoy reading. One of my all-time favorite writers is Flannery O’Connor, who wrote very dark, comic short stories about serial killers and con artists. I also love Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic horror stories. Stephen King is another writer I admire. Sci-fi authors I enjoy include Isaac Asimov, who I read when I was growing up, and Ray Bradbury. More recently, I have come to appreciate Robert J. Sawyer, author of Flashforward, and Ursula K. LeGuin. I have always loved reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries and detective novels by Agatha Christie.
8. I notice a few of your stories have some great twists, and everyone loves a good twist, is there a particular inspiration for your love of surprise turns?
I’m a fan of O. Henry, who was famous for his surprise twists (“The Gift of the Magi” for example). I must have a special fondness for those kinds of stories.
9. If you could time travel, when would be your first stop?
To the 1590s or early 1600s so that I can prove William Shakespeare did write his own plays! Actually, I have studied quite a bit about Shakespeare, the man and his work, and I am curious to know more. We still don’t know how or why Shakespeare traveled to London and got started in theater, and it would be wonderful to see the original acting company perform those plays.
10. What is your creative process? Hardware? Software? Do you have music going or a tv show in the background, or do you go out to a café or a park?
I write on a laptop using Word. The laptop makes me mobile, and I like composing on a keyboard. If I need to research something, I use the internet to get started. My favorite place to write is Starbucks, where I can stay for hours writing a story. I like being out somewhere, as the background noise stimulates me. I don’t like total silence. If I’m at home, I have the television on.
11. Similarly, when and where do you do your best work or feel that your best ideas come to you?
I do quite a bit of thinking about a story before I ever write a word. My best ideas usually come to me from the time I first go to bed until I fall asleep. I am completely relaxed, and my mind is free to wander. Being relaxed seems to be the key. Somehow, I always remember those ideas later after I wake up. Then, I keep the ideas in my mind, and over time, they develop. When I feel ready, I start writing, and often during that first draft, my sense of humor creeps in and the story develops further.
12. As an English teacher and writer, what is your “go to” advice for aspiring writers?
Writers are readers, so I recommend that aspiring writers read everything they can get their hands on, especially the kinds of reading material they want to write. Nonfiction is important, too, since most fiction writers do at least some research. It is also important to be part of a writing community, such as FSFW, or any kind of writers critique group, whether face to face or on the internet. Since becoming a member of FSFW, I write a great deal more than I used to. I once saw W. P. Kinsella some years ago giving a talk at the University of Iowa at Iowa City, and I remember him saying that it’s essential for any writer to “set the butt in the chair” on a regular basis. I agree with that, too.
13. Do you have a cure or remedy for Writer’s Block?
A positive attitude and confidence in yourself are the best remedies for writer’s block. For me, writer’s block comes at a time when I am having doubts about my ability to write a particular story. This is why it is important to be part of a writers group or community, as the support from other writers is powerful to keep you on track and knowing what a story needs to be successful.
14. What has been your most satisfying job to date?
People have told me that I am a natural teacher, and teaching brings great joy to my life. I knew I was a teacher the first day I ever taught a class. Despite the politics, the never-ending piles of papers to grade, and the second-class status society often awards us, I love the job. My best teaching job is the one I currently have, teaching at YouthBuild Charter School of California. I teach young adults who are at-risk, and watching them grow and evolve into responsible human beings is like watching a miracle.
15. You’ve lived in Illinois, the Philippines, Arizona, Central California–which home has been your favorite? And now, If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be?
I grew up in southern Illinois, in a small steel town, Granite City, near St. Louis, Missouri. A Pulitzer Prize winning author, Robert Olen Butler, is also from there and attended the same high school I attended, though some years before me. One of Butler’s novels, Wabash, is based on Granite City, and Butler always called Granite City a place “where north meets south.” Many people from Arkansas migrated to Granite City to work in the steel mill, including my family’s next-door neighbor, who proudly displayed the Confederate flag on his car. I always wanted to escape from Granite City, as the pollution from the mill would leave a black coating over everything, and the racist attitudes of people bothered me.
I entered the Peace Corps in 1997 and was assigned to the Philippines. I lived and worked there for two years, and it was the greatest challenge of my life. I had to learn the language and the culture, and found myself as an outsider much of the time. It was like being a child all over again, trying to learn and get by. Everyday things became a huge challenge, like shopping for food or riding on public transportation. By the second year, though, I was something of a master and could navigate the place and culture more easily. I met and married my wife, who is a Filipina, and made many friends there. Our wedding was like the biggest social event the community ever had, and people I did not even know showed up with family members.
My wife, our daughter, and I lived in Granite City for a couple of years after I returned to the States, and we got so many unwelcome stares from people. The bank where I did most of my banking throughout my whole life suddenly did not want me as a customer when my wife and I applied for a joint account. We then moved to Arizona, which was more comfortable for my family since my wife and daughter could fit in better. Arizona, though, has its quirks and tends to be conservative. The state recently tried to pass an anti-immigration bill that made us all uncomfortable.
Now, we live in Fresno, California, which is, in my opinion, the best place I have lived. While not perfect, people are laid-back and we feel free to live our lives in peace. If I could live anywhere, it would be here in Central California, though a close second would be the Philippines. My wife and I have talked about retiring to the Philippines some day.
16. Having known you for close to a year now, and looking over your blog, I’ve noticed that you became quickly and deeply involved in the Fresno Community–acting, your activities with the church, teaching at YouthBuild, and of course the FSFW–what are some of your favorite things to do in Fresno, and what about this city would you like folks to know about it most?
When I first moved here, I had to leave my wife and daughter back in Arizona, as we needed my wife’s income to make this transition happen. I became very active in the Fresno community because I was alone, and I needed to keep myself busy. The first thing I did was join a local church, which helped a great deal because they had social events and activities. A colleague recommended the Woodward Shakespeare Festival, and somehow I ended up auditioning when I heard that they would consider beginners as well as seasoned actors. I ended up being cast as the Prince of Aragon in The Merchant of Venice. My wife was shocked when I told her, since she knows me to be a quiet person. The odd thing about my acting experience was that I enjoyed rehearsals much more than actually performing in front of an audience. The rehearsal was a time to develop the character and explore ways to present the scene. Once the show premiered, my performance was set and couldn’t change. I was never nervous performing for an audience, as after tons of rehearsals, the part was second nature. I was only on stage for about ten minutes, and the rest of the time was spent backstage sitting around, waiting. I had to stay in costume for the entire show, as I had to take a curtain call with the rest of the cast at the end, and then we all had to clean up as soon as the audience left. I find acting incredibly difficult, and while I’m glad I tried it, I am in no rush to do it again.
I absolutely love the Tower District, which reminds me in some ways of the Central West End of St. Louis, MO. All the neat shops, and there is so much excellent community theater. I have been attending the New Ensemble productions at the Broken Leg Stage in Tower, founded by Heather Parish, the director I worked with at the Woodward Shakespeare Festival. Heather picks challenging, contemporary plays that don’t get much play here in Fresno. I also have been attending the Fresno Philharmonic at the Saroyan Theater.
17. What is your favorite word?
Awesomeness! (My wife likes to use this word)
18. Who or what makes you laugh?
My daughter makes me laugh. She likes to do funny voices, and can imitate Stitch from Lilo and Stitch, and Yoda from Star Wars. I tell her all the time she should become a voice actor for cartoons.
19. Favorite Place to Eat?
Pho 75 #2, near McKinley and First. They have the best chicken noodle soup in the world.
20. Favorite TV shows?
Favorite Comedy: The Big Bang Theory, largely because of Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon.
Favorite Drama: Person of Interest, a bold mystery drama that goes well above all other television dramas. The storyline from week to week keeps me watching.
Favorite Reality Show: The Voice, because the judges are all current, successful recording artists, and initial auditions are blind. I also like that they don’t show the obsessed, off-key contestants who think they’re already stars.
21. What is your favorite song of all time?
“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith. When my wife and I were dating in the Philippines, the film Armageddon was popular, and we used to hear that song everywhere. It became “our song.”
22. Finally, any other projects you’re working on or have a hand in you’d like us to know about?
I have been helping a friend edit his thriller novel. He just reported to me that an agent wants to read the entire manuscript. If it becomes a bestseller, my name will be on it as editor.
I currently have two short stories being considered for publication, and I am trying to write two new stories every month, at least one full-length short story, and at least one flash fiction story. My latest obsession is with steampunk, and I recently wrote a Chinese steampunk story. I am trying to push myself to try new things, to write different twists on current sci-fi and fantasy genre, and to try different styles of writing.
I also keep up with posting on my blog, and I am trying out some humor writing for a change of pace.
One of my instant favorite’s of Don’s stories is “The Rat and The Hawk,” his entry in Roh Morgon’s Snowfest blogfest earlier this month. I highly recommend it! It’s a short short story with Don’s distinctive voice–delivering shocks and zings with the calm of a master clock maker. Oh, and if you think the acting world has lost Don as a performer, take heart, because he can sometimes be found at Open Mic nights in Clovis or Fresno, reading some of his work, so stay tuned!