Peter Anderson is the author of Wheatyard which I reviewed at CCLaP. In this interview, we discuss favorite authors, the autobiographical elements of Wheatyard, and the challenges and rewards of being a writer with a corporate job.
What inspired you to write Wheatyard?
I used to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) every November. My first few years were mostly unsuccessful (one abandoned novel, two finished stories that were later published, and two abandoned stories) and as NaNoWriMo approached again in 2005, I had nothing in mind to write about. Then one day my daughter Maddie (then five years old), from out of nowhere, said the name “Elmer Glaciers Wheatyard.” I asked her what she meant and, not surprisingly for a kid that age, she said she didn’t know. But the name stuck with me, and I just decided to start writing a novel about a protagonist with that name. Even as I wrote it, I had no idea where the story was going, and yet eventually I finished the first draft of what would ultimately become Wheatyard.
Are there biographical elements in the character of Elmer Glaciers Wheatyard?
Wheatyard is unlike anyone I’ve ever known, but instead is sort of the culmination of what I imagined an eccentric, free-spirited, obsessive, non-conformist writer would be. Even now that I’ve been writing seriously for over ten years and have become part of the literary community, I still haven’t met a writer who’s at all like him. However, the narrator is based roughly on myself – his basic predicament (stuck in Champaign, Illinois, unemployed, after finishing grad school) actually happened to me. But unlike the narrator, I never met a Wheatyard, though I wish I had – that long, dull summer would have been a lot more interesting. All of the other characters are also totally invented, though each has elements of various people I’ve known.
Wheatyard is about issues involving one’s work life and one’s creative life. As a writer working in a corporate environment, what challenges have you faced balancing work and creative endeavors?
These days, the biggest challenge is finding both the time and the drive to write. My family comes first, so I rarely write at home – I never want to be one of those archetypical (and possibly apocryphal?) writers who cloisters themselves in an attic to slave away at their work. If I’m home, I focus on my wife and daughter. I never write at the office, so the workday is also out. That leaves just my hour-long train ride to and from work, which would be fine if all I wanted to do was write. That would give me ten writing hours a week, which is more than enough to be productive and even prolific. But the train is also where most of my serious reading gets done, usually in the mornings, and in the evenings I’m usually drained after a long day at the office and don’t feel like doing anything more engaged than reading blogs on Feedly or prowling Facebook. So working a corporate job saps both my time and energy, with another negative being that there are few literate types around the office, which often makes me feel isolated and out of place.
What are some of the advantages of being a writer with a corporate job?
Having a regular paycheck, health insurance and a 401K means there’s no pressure to write for money, so I’m free to write whatever I want, at my leisure and without deadlines. Working in finance also makes writing and literature that much more appealing, as a refreshing reprieve from my professional duties.
Jason Pettus, founder of the CCLaP, told me he knows you. How did your friendship develop?
If you’re even slightly exposed to the Chicago literary community, you know Jason. The man is absolutely everywhere – publishing, promoting, reviewing, podcasting, selling rare books, holding court at a local bar during the Printer’s Row Lit Festival – and just brings so much energy and enthusiasm to the community. I first met him before a reading I participated in at Book Cellar up in Lincoln Square, and we’ve been friendly ever since.
How do you find the time to write? (creative scheduling, etc.)
There’s the evening train, as I mentioned, plus on the weekends I often get up early and write before the family wakes up. Strangely enough, even though winter is supposedly when we hibernate, I found it easier to get up early last winter than now. As the weather has warmed up, I’m much more prone to sleeping in. Just once, I’d like to try writing all night long, though that would probably wreck my sleep patterns for a week or two after. The only time I ever really got creative with my writing time was during my previous job, when I often wrote at my desk and even snuck out of the office in the afternoons to write in a coffee shop. I never ever do that now, of course, with my present employer.
Who are some of your favorite authors and/or artists?
For fiction, my favorite writers are Knut Hamsun (for his early novels, especially Hunger, which is my alltime favorite; I ignore his later novels and especially his late-life dalliance with Hitler), Nelson Algren (Chicago’s bard) and Kent Haruf (whom I think is our greatest living writer). For nonfiction, my favorites are Studs Terkel, Mike Royko and Alex Kotlowitz. Huh. I’m only just realizing now how Chicago-centric my pantheon is.
Any words for aspiring writers?
I can’t say it any better than I did on the acknowledgments page of my novel: “And to every Wheatyard out there who is struggling to publish their first book: chin up. Keep believing and perservere, and rewards will someday follow.”