Bio: Gary Eldon Peter is the author of two works of fiction: Oranges, a linked short story collection published by New Rivers Press, and the recently released novel The Complicated Calculus (and Cows) of Carl Paulsen, published by Fitzroy Books/Regal House and winner of the Acheven Book Prize for Young Adult Fiction. Oranges received the Gold Medal for LGBT+ fiction in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, the Midwest Book Award, and was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals and has been performed on the public radio program Selected Shorts. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and is a faculty member at the University of Minnesota. You can learn more about Gary and his work at garyeldonpeter.com
Thanks to Gary Eldon Peter for taking time to give such fabulous answers to the many questions I asked him:
- With what do write? A computer? A pencil? A ballpoint/ biro? Rollerball? Quill and the blood of virgins (male or female is fine.)? A fountain?
I tend to move back and forth between computer drafting and pen and paper, but when it comes to pens I can only write with Paper Mate Flair felt tip pens, alternating between black, purple, green, and blue. They also need to be broken in until they have a certain “mushiness” so that the “lines” of my writing are thick enough so that I can really see what I am doing but not too thick that I can’t read what I’ve done. The thicker the lines become, the more I feel I’m getting somewhere.
- What kind of paper do you like?
When I’m writing in long hand I only use steno pads and tablets with the spiral on the top, because bumping into the spiral on the side when I’m really going is very distracting to me. The right pens, the right paper…it’s funny how important and necessary these things are to a writer, even if they might seem kooky to someone else, but if I don’t pay attention to them I know I’m not going to be able to write anything.
- What’s the trashiest book you’ve ever read?
I have a memory of picking up my mother’s paperback copy of Valley of the Dolls and trying to read it when I must have been eight or nine, though I don’t think I got very far. I think I was probably too young to appreciate its trashiness and was more amazed that someone could actually write (and read) a book with that many pages.
- Has your education helped you become a better writer?
I know there’s a lot of different points of view about whether pursuing an MFA is important or helpful or necessary to be a writer, but speaking just for myself going to graduate school for creative writing was pivotal. I wrote almost everyday, I met amazing classmates who were supportive and constructive readers and who became lifelong friends, and I worked with teachers who cared about my work and helping me grow. It’s no exaggeration to say that getting an MFA changed my life and how I viewed myself as a writer.
- What has been your proudest moment in your literary journey thus far?
Given that it was over twenty years from the very earliest drafts to the published version, opening the box of author copies and actually holding my first book Oranges in my hands was a moment of pride that I will never forget…I couldn’t quite take it all in. Another moment was hearing one of my stories performed on the great radio program Selected Shorts and being in the audience for that. I’m a long time fan of the show and had dreamed about what that would be like, and to have it be a reality was unforgettable.
- When did you start writing?
Writing and storytelling have always been a part of my life. As a child I daydreamed a lot (much to the chagrin of some of my elementary school teachers), thinking about stories that I made up in my head about fictional people and events. Sometimes I would try to write them down but they would usually escape the minute I started putting words to paper. Later on I took as many writing classes as I could in high school, majored in journalism in college with the idea of perhaps being a journalist, and then ended up in law school where writing was a huge part of the curriculum and a major part of my work as a judicial law clerk and lawyer in private practice after I graduated. But I didn’t really start writing fiction until I was well into my thirties when I started taking classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, near where I live. Eventually I made the decision to pursue an MFA, where the idea of writing seriously and publishing started to seem like things that could actually happen.
- With all the emphasis in the schools these days on STEM classes, what would you say to educators and policy makers about the importance of arts such as creative writing in the curriculum?
As someone who works in higher education teaching at the college level, I’m closely following the trend of fine arts and humanities-related programs, majors, and courses being eliminated and it disturbs me greatly. I’m a firm believer that a broad liberal arts education is really key to developing the whole person and is important preparation for life just as much as more specific classes in math, science, and other fields (though I certainly understand the need for graduates in STEM and have taught many STEM students over the years). I just think there needs to be a balance, and I worry that we are focusing too much in one direction.
- Which authors influence you?
I’ve been influenced by lot of writers (and continue to be), but when I was taking those first small steps into fiction writing, I was very much influenced by the “minimalists,” most notably Raymond Carver. I read every Carver story that I could get my hands on, and I think I was under the very mistaken impression that he made it look so “easy.” Looking back I shudder to think about how my very early attempts at short stories tried to imitate him with fairly awful results. Given that I previously studied journalism and legal writing, both of which stress concision and clarity, I suppose gravitating towards his work is not all that surprising. I’m also a big fan of Alice Munro, just because her stories do so much with time and are so novelistic. Her work really helped me see what the possibilities for what a short story could be. And as a gay male writer, I admire the work of Edmund White, Garth Greenwell, Allan Gurganus, David Leavitt, Brandon Taylor, and many others who have inspired me.
- Do you come to your writing through a particular lens? Do you sketch out the plot first and work out other aspects of the story in relation to that consideration? Do characters spring up in your mind asking you to write their stories?
I’m afraid I’m not one of those writers for whom characters appear and demand that I tell their stories! I keep waiting for that to happen. Sometimes I just write to see what comes out, other times I go more into outline mode, with lists and short summaries where I try to figure out where I’m going. Sometimes it’s a scene that takes me somewhere, or a line of dialogue that I’ve heard. At other times I work on a “dual track” – writing the actual story in one place and writing “about” the story and what I’m trying to do in another. I just try to be open and do what feels like the most helpful thing at the moment.
- Do you view your current genre as being your one and only, or are you tempted to try your hand at others? If so or if not, why so, or why not?
I love reading poetry and hearing poetry but I can’t imagine myself ever trying to write poetry…it just seems really intimidating for reasons that I can’t quite explain. Maybe it’s the “eye” for image and patience for structure and form that I don’t know that I have. Since I’m about to publish a novel I find myself wanting to go back to short fiction at the moment, and when my first book (a collection of stories) came out, I couldn’t wait to get back to the novel. Last summer I wrote a ten page essay for an anthology, and it took me two months to finish it. To think in a less “fictional” way about a subject and write about it was a big challenge for me but a good one. I wouldn’t mind trying to write more essays.
- How would you personally define success in the literary field?
Before I published a book I thought that success is of course defined by whether you ever get published. And then I had a long discussion with a former mentor and teacher right before my first book, Oranges, was about to come out and she said that it would be both an exhilarating moment and a sad moment…exhilarating because it was a goal achieved but also sad because the moment happens so fast and then it’s over. She also cautioned me to keep it in perspective…yes, it’s a great thing to have a book, but it’s not everything and it, and how it is received, doesn’t define you as a person or your worth. I didn’t quite know what she meant at the time but after the book came out I knew exactly what she was getting at. As I prepare for my novel The Complicated Calculus (and Cows) of Carl Paulsen to be published, I feel much more ready for what to expect and how I’m going to feel.
For me, success is knowing that you are connecting with readers. I will never forget a reader who reached out to thank me for writing stories that reflected who they were and their experiences. In other words, they felt seen. For a writer, to know that you’ve connected with your audience is such a personal way…that really is everything.