AN INTERVIEW WITH DAN WHIPPLE
Robert Buckland interviews the author of the winning chapter
in the 2007 Novel of Promise Competition
RB: Tell me a bit about your own background.
DAN WHIPPLE: I was born and raised in Baltimore, then went to college in Washington, D.C. I’ve lived in the Rocky Mountain West -- in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado -- for most of the last 30 years. I’m a journalist, writer and editor. I’ve edited two magazines -- High Country News and Northern Lights -- and I was an editor and writer at a daily newspaper, the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, for nearly ten years. At present I’m a full-time freelance writer, specializing mostly in science and environmental coverage.
RB: When did you start writing?
DAN WHIPPLE: When I was growing up, I didn’t know even know it was possible to be a writer. When I got out of college, I was working for the U.S. Department of Labor, in a job I hated. I started writing a novel -- in fact a very early version of the novel that won this award. I eventually went to work as a journalist because I thought it would help me hone my writing skills -- “exercising my writing muscles” I called it. In a way it did, but journalism is also a very time consuming profession. And it’s hard to write at your job all day, and still have energy left to devote to creative efforts. But I took up journalism in order to support my interest in writing fiction.
RB: Is this your first attempt at a novel? Have you begun and abandoned any earlier efforts?
DAN WHIPPLE: I started this novel nearly thirty years ago, and it was the first one I attempted. It has been written and rewritten several times. Since I started it, I’ve also written a murder mystery, which was published in 2001 by the University Press of Colorado. I’ve also written two other unpublished works, one that I’ve abandoned, another that I’m still working on and for which I have hopes. My Greatest Hits is by far the most literary novel I’ve done.
RB: When do you write? Do you write in longhand or on the keyboard?
DAN WHIPPLE: I write every day at whatever time fits the day’s schedule. I require myself to write at least 250 words each day, with no days off, no weekends. Every day. That requirement usually means that I write more than that. But 250 words is not very much. It’s an achievable goal that makes progress toward completion.
RB: Did you devote much time to planning your structure ahead of time or did you just begin to write? Or something in between?
DAN WHIPPLE: I think the best way to write is to do a good outline. Unfortunately, I never seem to be able to to it that way. I usually start with an idea and a character or two and see where they take me. One of the most interesting things about writing fiction is finding out what happens. It always surprises me the turns required by imagination, characters and plot line. But this method wastes a lot of time compared to planning ahead, I think.
RB: Many writers draw on autobiographical detail, especially for their first efforts. How much of My Greatest Hits derives from your own life?
DAN WHIPPLE: The setting -- the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area -- is from my own history. And when I wrote the first versions all those years ago, there was considerable autobiographical detail. But the first versions were also lousy. As I developed the plot and characters in rewriting most of the genuinely biographical material fell away.
Having said that, though, the only thing a writer has to draw on is his or her experience and imagination. So some shadow of your own life usually survives. The story of the grandmother and Tommy at the end of the first chapter, for instance, is based on a family story which my mother swears is true (though I don’t actually remember it myself).
RB: Let's talk about the creation of characters. What's the relationship between your characters and real people in your past?
DAN WHIPPLE: The easiest way to characterize this is to say that while you draw on experience and people you’ve known to flesh out your characters, they are inevitably amalgams of characteristics of people. In fact, I think the characters end up being different aspects of myself. In Steppenwolf Herman Hesse has a section where he notes that everyone has many personalities. I believe writers draw on all those personalities to create their characters. You may take traits from people you know or meet, but their all filtered through one of your personalities.
RB: How much emphasis do you place on rewriting?
DAN WHIPPLE: Rewriting is everything. I put down the most godawful stuff the first time around.
RB: What for you is the hardest part of the writing process? The easiest?
DAN WHIPPLE: I enjoy the first and even the second rewrites the most. After that, it can become pretty tedious. I think I’m good at creating characters, but I have difficulty with plots
RB: Are you already thinking about future projects?
DAN WHIPPLE: I’m currently at work on a historical murder mystery.
THE AWARD ANNOUNCEMENT
MY GREATEST HITS: A chapter
THE COMPETITION RULES AND PRIZES
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