Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. He holds
a degree in English from the University of Texas system and has been
writing since childhood. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the Yale Summer Writing Program. After retiring from a long career in aviation, he now writes full time. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Mirror Dance, New Myths and many other places. Other than writing, his interests include cooking, photography, filmmaking, video editing, homebrewing, playing guitar, world travel, skiing and hanging out with cats.
Jessi Cole Jackson: To begin: why a cigarette?
Cigarettes appear in A Cigarette for Lester because of the story’s origins in reality. When I was a kid in the 70s my grandfather did live in a nursing home, and there was this old man residing there who always asked you for a cigarette. That’s as far as the reality goes, though, but when I sat down to write one day, that memory popped into my head, so I decided to turn it into a story. In the original draft, the story was about nothing more than the kid sneaking off and giving Lester what he wanted, a cigarette. But through various rewrites the cigarette became a symbol, maybe even a totem representing forbidden fruit to both Lester and the kid. The kid sort of takes a chance stealing the smokes from his dad, and thus he both pulls himself up into the adult world briefly, and brings a bit of it back for Lester, who is now an outcast from that world. Initially the kid didn’t get caught and the ending was pretty flat, but through rewrites (via editorial suggestions from Every Day Fiction) I managed to ramp up the dramatic tension by having the nurse catch the kid and Lester smoking. This also allowed me to bring the father back into the story, first with anger toward his son, but then having him do what possibly no father would do nowadays: give his young son a cigarette. Thus at the end of the story the cigarette continued to have meaning as a sort of rite of passage between father and son.
Jessi Cole Jackson: One of my favorite aspects of “A Cigarette for Lester” is the frustration running through the story. The frustration of the other people that Lester only says one word; Lester’s frustration at only wanting one thing in life and being denied it. Was that an intentional goal for the story? Did you have specific things you set out to do?
I usually just free write when I begin a story, sort of let it go where it wants to. Then through rewrites I try to add depth and meaning. In the initial draft, when the kid gives Lester the cigarette, Lester just spouted a bunch of senile old man gibberish. But this felt quite flat to me. Having Lester become coherent while he smoked may be a bit unrealistic, but I believe that such a thing is a possibility–a familiar object drawing out cohesive thoughts for a moment. It also gave the story a great deal more depth, rounded out Lester as a character, and perhaps emphasized that people like Lester, despite being institutionalized, still have some life to live. I think institutions like nursing homes have the best of intentions at heart, but in the name of healthy living they deny people things that make such a life bearable. Some of the things that make life worth living are not always the best things for us, but they can be part of a rich and rewarding life, whether they be a drink and a smoke or the danger of climbing a hazardous mountain. My own father spent his final months in a cancer hospice where he couldn’t drink or smoke, and I’ve always thought that, with his death immanent and unstoppable, denying him those things was unnecessary.
Jessi Cole Jackson: What is your writing space like? Do you have any habits or rituals that you must do in order to write? What’s your typical process like?
I have two writing spaces. The first is my office, which is cluttered to the gills with books and notepads and files and pictures and a lots of places for one of our cats to hang out. I’ll straighten it out and that lasts for about a day, then the clutter returns, but I seem to work well with clutter. I work there in the mornings, and in the afternoons I’ll move to my second space, taking my laptop outside for a change of scenery, and perhaps a cigar now and then while I work. As to rituals, I really have none, but I have a few techniques that I use to get going when I don’t have a story in mind. Some of them include taking five random words from the dictionary and seeing how they associate, seeing if by linking them I can form the kernel of a story. I also sometimes listen to music, and sometimes the words of a certain song or just its music will inspire a story. I’ve got over ten thousand songs on my iPod, so lots of possibilities there. I think at least three of my stories up at Every Day Fiction were inspired by songs.
Jessi Cole Jackson: If you were stuck in an institution, what would you hope someone would bring you?
Like most people, I hope to never end up in a nursing home or similar, but I guess if I were there, I’d want what the kid and the dad brought the grandfather, a visit. I wouldn’t turn down the beer and smokes, though.
Jessi Cole Jackson: What are you reading? Who are some of your influences/favorite authors?
Reading is very important to me, and I try to read for at least an hour every morning before I start my writing day. If you read any book on writing, or listen to a successful writer speak, they’ll tell you that reading is very important to the craft of writing; you really can’t write well without reading a lot. Luckily, I love to read and my reading interests are all across the board. I read a lot of Science Fiction and Fantasy because I like it and also because I write a great deal in that genre. Some of my favorites of that ilk are Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Tad Williams, Anne McCaffrey, Theodora Goss, George R.R. Martin, Pat Cadigan, Robert V.S. Redick, Tim Powers (particularly The Anubis Gates and Last Call), and of course my favorite writer, John Crowley (Little, Big, The Aegypt Cycle, etc) who I was fortunate enough to have as a writing teacher at Yale. Some of my mainstream favorites include Joanne Harris (Chocolat, Coastliners, Holy Fools, etc), Kurt Vonnegut, John Gardner, Raymond Carver and many others. I also revisit the classics a great deal. Hemingway is one of my favorites (and one of my heroes), as is Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Aristophanes and Homer.
Jessi Cole Jackson: On your blog and in your bio you mention attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop. What were some of your favorite aspects of the workshop? How did it help you improve your writing? Would you recommend Odyssey or other workshops to beginning writers?
Odyssey was at times a grueling, soul-crushing experience, but it was well worth it. I would recommend it for anyone who has been writing for a while and seriously wants to take things to the next level. It’s sort of a six week long writing boot camp, but it is amazing to spend that much time dedicating yourself solely to your craft. It features a rotating staff of top flight writers and editors (some past instructors have included George R.R. Martin, Harlan Ellison, Elizabeth Bear, Gary Braunbeck, John Joseph Adams) that bring a great deal to the experience, but the heart and soul of Odyssey is its director, Jeanne Cavelos. Jeanne is a writer but she is also an editor (she won the World Fantasy Award for her work at Bantam Doubleday Dell, and is nominated for another this year for the Odyssey Workshop itself). Being taught writing by an editor is an immensely valuable experience, and Jeanne knows more about the craft of writing and storytelling than anyone I’ve ever met. I learned more about the nuts and bolts of writing in those six weeks than I did in the thirty some-odd years I’d been trying to write beforehand. As for beginners, Odyssey really isn’t a beginner workshop. It is, like the Clarion Workshop, highly competitive to get in, based upon writing samples and an interview, but for intermediate writers, it is often a fast track to success. Odyssey graduates have gone on to win or be nominated for Hugos, Nebulas and World Fantasy Awards, and some have ended up on the New York Times Best Sellers List. You’ll also end up being a part of an ongoing writing community that offers lots of support and encouragement.
Jessi Cole Jackson: What projects are you currently working on? Could you point readers to other stories of yours, either forthcoming or published?
I’ve got almost forty stories published, from short flash fiction like my stories at Every Day Fiction to longer works, including a few Novelettes and Novellas. My blog has a publications page with links to many of them. I’m currently working on a few different novels, and I sort of switch back and forth between which one I’m working on to keep from getting burnt out. These include Faith, a mainstream novel about the romantic relationship between an atheist and the very religious daughter of a televangelist; a science fiction novel,Behavior, about an unorthodox rehabilitation method in the future; and a fantasy novel, The Fairies of Maine, which follows the supernatural exploits of a group of people at an inn in Maine during the week of Midsummer’s Eve. Finally I’ve got a Civil War novel called Fentress that is based on some of my own ancestors that I learned about during genealogical research. So, obviously I’ve got enough to keep me busy for a while. I still try to write short fiction as well, and I’m deeply in love with flash fiction. I think I’ll always write flash, as I love the format, and the way one can craft an entire tale in a single sitting. I’m infinitely grateful to Every Day Fiction for providing a venue to feature so much of it.
Jessi Cole Jackson lives and works in New Jersey, though she’s not from there. By day she builds costumes for a Tony Award-winning theatre. By night she writes stories, questionable poetry and lots of abandoned outlines. When she’s not working she enjoys cooking, reading, and exploring local farms. You can read more about her sometimes exciting (but mostly just normal) life at jessicolejackson.com.