As a student-writer, I was hesitant to approach a writing professor with over thirty years of teaching experience under his belt—what questions could I ask that he hadn’t heard time and time again from students like me? But my correspondence with James A. Freeman yielded nothing but intuitive, down-to-earth responses. With particular emphasis on his connections to his home and his students, Mr. Freeman articulates his constant passion for, and his belief in, the personal truth of the written word. Later this month Mr. Freeman’s book of poetry, “Temporary Roses Dipped in Liquid Gold,” will be released through Finishing Line Press.
1. What inspired you to want to be a writer? When was the first time you felt like a writer?
I started writing fables as a very young kid, because I loved animals, and liked thinking that I could tell a story with a point. I began to feel like a writer when I learned to write in cursive in first and second grade and had filled up a leather folder with stories in cursive, not printing…
2. You’ve written over eighteen books in your writing career, including “Ishi’s Journey from the Center to the Edge of the World,” “Liars’ Tales of True Love,” and “Never the Same River Twice.” Which story was your personal favorite and why?
That’s almost like picking a favorite child, politically incorrect, lol, but people tell me that Ishi’s tale is the most haunting, touching story. I’m quite partial to the newer short stories in “Irish Wake: In Loving Memory of Us All’ (2011), and I have a book of poems that I’m proud of, “Temporary Roses Dipped in Liquid Gold,” due out in November with Finishing Line Press, and with a great color cover painting by a young area artist named Anna Gaul, now in pre-order which determines the press run.
3. Do you think the stories that are more difficult to write are also the most rewarding? Or is a story that is difficult to write a story better left untold?
Stories that are tough to write are dying to be told, need to be told. It’s often a struggle to find the right form, or point-of-view, or setting, the right tone and atmosphere… That said, sometimes the muse is with us (Voltaire supposedly wrote “Candide” in three days) and things go rapidly and well. Either manner is rewarding, even though the process is as much of the reward, the struggle, as the supposed end point. Writers love and hate to write, more so love, are driven to, I should say, would do it anyway, without acclaim or positive strokes.
4. From where do you draw your inspiration?
It sounds simplistic, but it’s the natural environment and people in it, feelings, touching souls with others. Ernest Gaines once told me that he had to have great jazz music playing, preferably with footage of Dr. J playing basketball broadcast too, when he wrote. Dr. Joyce Brothers told us that she had to have music on, any music, at a volume just below proper hearing to help distract her just enough to counter-focus on the task at hand, composing. Carolyn See draws pictures of her books, the whole enchilada graphically. I have to walk first, or take a shower, as there is something about running water that helps me plan, maybe those negative ions, I don’t know: I do know I write better, get inspiration from being or having been near water, the ocean, lakes, rivers, and, failing that, being near large mountains with snow caps. I’m serious about that. Then I use artist-easel-sized story board paper on the floor or walls, visually both characters, plot, conflict and resolution, drawing with colored markers, to plan the thing.
5. With so many stories to tell, how do you manage to write without repeating yourself?
There are far more stories to tell than I have time for… I work from scrap notes, usually analog, often on napkins, sometimes digital notes, but not often… as that comes later. If a series of scribbled notes coalesce after being deliberately lost for some time, if they leap off the napkins or placemats or post-it notes back into my heart and skull, I know I have to write “it.”
6. How do you know when a story is complete?
I know it’s a cliché’, but you are never really done, in the sense that it can’t be revisited or suggestions made by a good editor. Tess Gallagher just won a battle to have Ray Carver’s older Gordon Lisch heavily-edited stories restored to his finished intent, and the stories are the better for it, but Carver was a mad genius, and most often the editing dialogue improves, if it’s a partnership. Many of the poems in “Temporary Roses Dipped in Liquid Gold” are new, but a couple of old chestnuts were totally re-examined, cut in places a bit, but mostly layered with more loving particular detail that I think enhances, in one case 25 years after the first draft of a poem was written and then left alone for all those years.
7. You’ve taught Language and Literature at Bucks County Community College for over thirty years. How has your career as an educator influenced you as a writer?
I don’t steal student’s ideas, intellectual property, of course, but I am inspired by their passion to learn, to get better at the discipline they study, and, in the case of teaching writing, we are learning how to compose ourselves, literally and metaphorically, how to think, to communicate clearly, how to do thesis, antithesis and synthesis, to build an argument, to love and live ideas. I love learning so much, self-improvement to be better able to help others, that I’ve never really left schools and schooling, teachers and students in dynamic. I am disturbed by some community members’ negative attitudes toward public servants like teachers, and to them I suggest Matt Damon’s 2011 speech supporting teachers, as his Mom was one and he grew up loving them. Or listen to Taylor Mali’s dynamite performance poem “What Teachers Make.” I am seldom if ever disturbed by my students’ attitudes toward education, as they are almost always appreciative of the opportunity and usually meet that gift more than, for which they are often paying themselves via work, more than halfway. My students inspire me as they often overcome obstacles with grace. In particular, my Creative Writers have been known to particularly inspire me with their bravery to write their lives, but to tell them with an imaginative “slant,” learning to soar by working the controls of fiction, poetry, drama or creative non-fiction.
8. What do you think is the most important thing to teach your writing students? If you could give aspiring writers one piece of advice, what would it be? Alternatively, what is one thing you wish someone had told you when you first began writing?
I tell students that while people can lie verbally or with gesture, that it is impossible to lie in writing in a journal, that your hand, eyes, brain and heart won’t let you do it, physically, won’t let you write it down; therefore writing can save us. I tell my creative writers to “start in the middle,” at the mid-point of conflict and rising action, to draw us in without excessive background, without pretense. The mystery novelist James Crumley, who was my fiction teacher at Reed College many moons ago, told us, “You are not a writer until you have a steamer trunk full of manuscripts.” Nowadays, that would be a USB drive full of files, most of which are the absolute best you can do.
9. What is the most important lesson your writing students have taught you?
I have learned from them humility, the value of persistence, that learning can and should be fun in public, backed-up by reflection, re-cursiveness and just plain hard work in solitude.
10. Is there a sentence or passage you’ve read that has stuck with you? Or do you have a favorite writer you recommend?
I’m not big on organized religion, but that biblical passage about love being “patient and kind” is pretty hard to beat. And Aesop’s shortest fable is pretty cool. “A vixen (female fox) sneered to a lioness the question, ‘why do you bear only one cub?’ ‘Only one’ answered the lion, ‘but a Lion.’”
Hmm, quality is more important than quality in two sentences: pretty cool! And over two thousand years old. Some things never change… Oh, and my favorite American writer is John Steinbeck, who rocked my world as a high school reader and who still does. Love “Tortilla Flat” and “Cannery Row” as well as the big ones. Love his non-fiction too, like “To a God Unknown,” Travels with Charlie,” and “Sea of Cortez.” Mark Twain is pretty hard to beat too; Hemingway might have been the best American ever if he would have written more women like his strong feminine protagonist in the jewel of a story “The End of Something.” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” changed my life. Carolyn See is an amazing writer; her daughter Lisa See is a NYT’s bestseller for a reason, too.
11. In another interview in ‘Times Publishing Newspapers, Inc.,’ you explained that you grew up in California so your writing was usually set there, but over time your stories settings shifted to more local areas. How crucial is it to be familiar with your setting in writing? What role does the idea of “home” play in your stories?
A writer has to know his or her settings intimately (unless it’s Mars in the 26th century and even then) or he/she risks wasting the setting as backdrop when it should be integral to everything that matters to the characters and this time and place with them in it, acting. Home place, or the Latin ‘patria’, is everything. I am lucky enough to have at least two of them.
12. In the same interview with ‘Times Publishing Newspapers, Inc.,’ you said that the common theme of your short story collection, “Irish Wake, In Loving Memory of Us All,” was that, “we are all caring individuals who have more in common than differences,” and “that as humans we will touch other’s lives and souls throughout life.” Are any of the protagonists or characters in these stories reflections of the people you’ve met in your newer home in Pennsylvania?
All of “my” characters are amalgams of characteristics, physical, intellectual or emotional, of people I’ve known, many of them from right here and now and then. But it’s a mistake to assume real person A is character C, because it’s all spun in a centrifuge of whole cloth invention, real pieces and parts becoming invented folks, who, hopefully, are as real or real as your next door neighbor. That’s why they call it fiction or poetry, not memoir or auto-biography.
13. If you had to describe the entirety of your writing career in only a handful of words, what would they be?
I came, I saw, I’ll never conquer nor earn a statue, but I’m having fun, making a soft, small chalk mark, and rubbing up against other humans and creatures as we all sing and dance and play in this pageant parade called life.
For Meet the Author:
DATE: Dec. 11, 2013
TIME: 7:15pm to 8:30 pm
LOCATION: Bucks County Community College, in the Orangery Building, 275 Swamp Rd., Newtown, PA 18940
Finishing Line Press author James Andrew Freeman will be part of a Wordsmiths Book Launch for his new “Temporary Roses Dipped in Liquid Gold,” published in Nov. by Finishing Line Press. Free to all and with refreshments served. Contact Dr. Chris Bursk at 215-968-8167 or the English Department at 215-968-8150 for more information or via firstname.lastname@example.org. Jim and his new FLP chapbook are featured in the Winter Issue 2013-14 of “Bucks County Magazine” on news-stands now.
DATE: January 21, 2014
TIME: 7:00pm to 8:15pm
LOCATION: Beth El, 375 Stony Hill Rd. Yardley, PA 19067
James Andrew Freeman will also be the featured guest with the Yardley women’s chapter of the AAUP for a free writing process discussion/ book launch on January 21, 2014, at Beth El, 375 Stony Hill Rd. Yardley, PA 19067 (215) 493-1707 from to 7:00 to 8:15 pm. Refreshments served. Please contact AAUP coordinator Carol Curland at 215-949-2489 or curland38F@aol.com for more information.