Bruce McAllister – a masterclass in how to use answers to improve questions.

Bruce McAllister was born in 1946 to a peripatetic Navy family with a Pearl-Harbor-survivor father and an underdog-championing anthropologist mother.  As children, he and his brother Jack lived in Florida, Washington D.C., California and Italy. For twenty-five years he taught at a small university in southern California where he helped establish and direct writing programs. Since then he has worked as a writer and full-time writing coach and book and screenplay consultant. His short fiction has appeared in literary quarterlies, magazines in the fantasy and science field, “year’s best” anthologies and college textbooks; received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship; and been short-listed for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and New Letters awards.  His books include two novels, DREAM BABY and HUMANITY PRIME, and the career-spanning science fiction collection, THE GIRL WHO LOVED ANIMALS.  He has three wonderful grown children–Annie, Ben and Elizabeth–and lives in Orange, California, with his wife, choreographer Amelie Hunter, pictured above with Bruce at Seattle Gardens.

 

Tell me one little known fact about Bruce McAllister.

Take your pick:

l.  When I was 4 l/2 I shook hands with natty-dresser US President Harry Truman on a laid-back avenue in Key West, Florida.   I had no idea who the guy was, but my momma raised me right.  I wanted to be courteous, and he offered, so I shook his hand.  My baby brother Jack was seated on our grandmother’s lap on the sidelines just a few feet away.  Narrow street, military housing where we lived, no Secret Service with Uzis, very mellow–Key West, late 40’s, Battista’s regime in Cuba, another time. Two weeks earlier I’d tricycled through the waters left by one hurricane or another, and a week after the hand-shake we dropped over to see Mrs. Hemingway, who lived in a little beach house with palms and banana trees and who, though we didn’t know her, was hospitable.

2.  My brother and I didn’t get our red hair from our parents but from aunts on our dad’s side.  This led to much “milkman” teasing by our parents’ friends.  But nothing so interesting in our genes….

3.   By the age of ten I had a shell collection–thanks to grandmother, mother, father, Navy divers of TRIESTE fame, a WWII uncle in the South Pacific, and other friends and family–of over 2000 specimens.  All neatly labeled (I was a shell-geek) with Latin genus and species names and relevant collecting data.  I wasn’t teased by friends about it because–well, because the only playmates I had were domestic animals (not to mention the sea shells, which I anthropomorphized completely) and my poor younger brother Jack, who would have preferred something a little more normal.

4.  One of my ancestors was a guy named John Tompson.  Immigrated from Scotland to Ireland, then the US in the 1700’s.  Wore his kilt till the day he died, outlived five wives, had fifteen children.  Maybe the right stuff for a frontier, a New World, but I’ve always been horrified by the thought of having to live with someone like him.  The domestic, family side of BRAVEHEART?

I bet you’re the only person I’ve ever spoken to who has shaken Harry Truman by the hand – never mind Mrs Hemingway. Living in LA you must get more chance to rub shoulders with the great and good (entertainment industry) than us poor slobs out here on the edge of nowhere. Drop some names for me – and tell me a little about them if possible.

Actually, not much shoulder-rubbing in LA celebrity-wise.  Childhood had more shoulder-rubbing (though of course children never know how important one set of adult shoulders are versus another) thanks to our parents–my father’s Navy world (and his Virginia family–lineage:  Back to Robert the Bruce, supposedly, and laterally to Ben Franklin, or so they said….along with a Captain McAllister of the Confederate Army) and my mother’s anthropology/anthropology world (in which she, a “premature feminist” in the field–the generation right after Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict– did her early doctoral work on the famous Western Apache Shaman Silas John Edwards who, charismatic and threatening to the White reservation barons and missionaries, was framed for the murder of his wife and years later finally released from prison thanks to the efforts of Erle Stanley Gardner (PERRY MASON fame) and the Court of Last Resorts…a shaman my brother and I met when we slept on the holy grounds more than once during her research).  As far as our father’s world went, we had, on the Navy base where we lived in San Diego, the TRIESTE bathyscaph submersible in our back yard (literally–we would have played on it if we could have gotten a decent grip); a year later it would make the deepest dive in the Pacific ever made, with Jacques Piccard and a Navy diver and a civilian scientist–all of them diving legends if not then, then later).   Adulthood, on the other hand, has been writing and, for those 25 years in academe, teaching; and the coaching and consulting sense.  The dominatrix muse of the Word hasn’t, in my case anyway, allowed much shoulder-rubbing, I think; nor should the muse do so.

You can see where the themes of “the alien” and “the natural world”–the behavioral sciences and the biological sciences–came from in this guy’s fiction.

Given your mother’s anthropological background – are there overt Native American influences in your fiction?

Only one story that I can think of–overt Native American influence–“Assassin,” OMNI early 90’s, I think–but the theme of the Outsider, the Other, the Alien in the larger sense, runs through almost all of my fiction.   That came from being in a military family, from having a sense of being an outsider; but also from an underdog-championing anthropologist mother.   I was the red-haired kid, white as day, playing with the Apache kids on the reservation as she crossed the cultural line to study them.  Why did she study them?  Well, it turned out that she was probably l/8th Chickasaw herself.  She never mentioned this to any of the Apache families, shaman families and the families of the girls who went through the White Changing Woman ceremony each year, but according to the wife of one shaman I spoke to a few years ago, “We knew.”  It may have been a flash in her eye; her father, who was called “Chief” in the oil fields of Long Beach and was born in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), had the same eyes, slight epicanthic fold perhaps, but certainly something that suggested it.  She was trying to home again in some way, I always felt, and I think she would have been happier as a fiction writer than as the “premature feminist” she was in her field.  But we enter this life to take the journey we’re meant to take, joy and agony alike.

I know you had a long break from writing – would you be comfortable telling me about your journey back?

I lost most of the 90’s to the experiments of a local doctor–which means, yes, nearly a decade of writing lost to another kind of journey.  All I needed was thyroid, but the doctor somehow missed that, and it took a team of teaching- hospital and cutting-edge alternative practitioners to cure me of the doctor’s “cure.”  As one of the saviours put it, “Your system is now not unlike a lightning strike patient’s neurologically…thanks to those helpful meds.”  How does this relate to writing?  I began my way back to health and a worldly presence in l998.  I hadn’t written–been able to write–to think well enough to write–for years–but the old urge was there (you can’t kill it–any writer knows that—it’s not just a joy, it’s a need—a karmic inevitability).  I started writing little things—paragraphs of “creative writing”, epiphanic mood pieces, vignettes, fables, objects and places and people from the past that I’d loved, childhood memories, leaps of imagination driven by intense feeling, fantasies of transformation and transcendence.   All no longer than flash fiction.  I didn’t ask much of myself.  I was simply glad to be alive and on the route to repair…and glad to be writing anything since writing, I‘ve come to believe, uses all of us, the full psyche, the highest and the deepest, and that’s why it feels the way it does to us.  After all, as a wise writer friend once put it, “Hate to sound sentimental, but writing is simply love seeking the words.”  Simply being able to love—as opposed to fear–to feel it—feel something other than a medicated state–fit the celebration of life I was feeling even if at first there wasn’t much energy for the party poppers and kazoo blowing.  But the pieces got longer year after year.  I couldn’t plot at first; my brain couldn’t develop a storyline, a plot.  Finally, like Rip Van Winkle sleeping and finally wakes to a different world, I woke.  The stories were long enough to send out (this was about 2002).  The world had changed.  The rules were different.  Writer-friends and colleagues I hadn’t been in touch with or even been very able to read about for a decade had become famous writers in different fields or left writing to raise turkeys happily in Iowa or died young death.  Editors no longer asked for rewrites; they didn’t need to.  You could get a rejection slip from an editor who’d already accepted something from you.  Magazines took as long as 6 month to 2 years to answer.  I had a decade of writing and the world to catch up on.  To bring it full circle, two of the doctors who helped me return agreed:  I’d unconsciously rewired my brain with the writing I’d done—starting with those little epiphanic paragraphs, each begging for more Story.  They’d seen it happen before.  Neurologically traumatized individuals could heal through activities like writing.  Ah, what our deepest psyches–arm and arm with our bodies–know that we in feeble cognitive consciousness don’t.

Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Do you feel your writing is better, worse or simply different since your hiatus? Explain how.

Better, I don’t know–but as good, maybe–judging from publication venues and attention some of them have received–but mainly different.  How?  Most of the new fiction since the hiatus/journey/dying-into-life-again as Hinduism might put it is gentler and often funnier–as if I were writing “divine comedies.”   There’s always been a “transcendental” element to my fiction–even in the darker stories–and that’s because it’s never been nihilistic fiction.  It’s been about “the light shining brightest against the darkness,” as one writer friend put it.  The change, I suppose, has been in how dark that background is, how dark the world is perceived, and it’s brighter now–perhaps because in divine-comedic terms, “all’s well that ends well, and it will end well because the light matters more than the darkness.”  Not surprisingly, that was the most profound moral of my 90’s journey.   Fans have said, “Why don’t you write like the OMNI days?”  At times I wish I could, but when life changes our cosmologies, it changes everything–certainly our relationship with the world, our relationship with ourselves, and anything we create from it at all.  The new goal, the new journey, seems to be, whether I wish it to be or not, about “being in the world but not of it”–the old and wise spiritual advice that combines the better parts of a dozen religions and spiritual postures.  I co-wrote a dark sf story recently with a friend, WS Adams (former military medic, tissue bank veteran, a high-IQ guy from West Virginia who’s seen darkness aplenty but has one of the greatest funny bones I know and is stunningly open and upbeat about life)–just to see what the “old McA fiction” felt like, and it felt okay…because indeed there was a light in it, or should I say a main character’s aspiration toward it, and a redemption by that aspiration.  Not surprisingly, the story will appear in SUBTERRANEAN magazine, a darker venue than my usual venues these days.

 

It seems with most artists (writers/singers/painters) that their best work often comes very early in their careers. Do you think your best is yet to come?

My answer here is related to my last, I suppose:  “Better,” I don’t know.  Wiser certainly.  I’d say simply “different” and, I’d hope, just as good.

Tell me about your coaching. Who do you coach how did you get into it? What did you do before coaching?

Actually, I’ve been one-on-one coaching for about thirty years–though officially, as a full-time coach, only twelve or so.  And by that I mean working one-on-one with writers outside of the university teaching.  In university I worked not only with creative writers there on the faculty and outside, but also with scientists from a dozen fields on their dissertations, journal articles and books.  I like the sciences; I love working as an interdisciplinary consultant (hard and soft sciences, humanities, and the arts).  I’m the son of a physics/electronics/engineering/oceanography father and a behavioral science mother…and an artist-grandmother (our third parent when we were growing up)…and studied art in Florence when I was very young (and am now married to a choreographer and world-dance specialist—how’s that for insistent, obsessive interdisplinariness?).  The interdisciplinary isn’t at all surprising, but my brain seems to be wired in a strange way:  I have a face-recognition wetware that won’t quit and a general pattern-recognition ability that’s as stunning as is my inability to retain discrete data (and, no, that was there, I’m afraid, long before that ‘90’s doctor’s experiments).  We’re all a strange mix this way–and should be, given that there are, if memory serves, 26 different kinds of intelligence, and we’re all idiot savants of one kind or another, with a genius deep down inside us that we’re trying to connect with despite our fussing human egos and conscious minds in their service.  Growing up, I always assumed that everyone else remembered numbers and names as colors—with total consistency (red-red-orange is 335)–a kind of quiet synesthesia.  Not so, but in my case it ties to a visual orientation.  I have to write an awful lot of drafts because I have to see the writing on the page to judge, and every change demands a new looking; my good friend and mentor Barry Malzberg hears his writing and transcribes it and that’s that.  I know a political scientist like that too, with his own twist; he naps and wakes and the article is scrolling in his mind’s eye and he simply transcribes it.  Not me.   I have to chisel and chisel and re-chisel.  Anyway, back to coaching:  If I have a strength in the scholarly and scientific world, or coaching, or writing, or life itself, it’s a “pattern” recognition one.  That allows me to consult effectively, it seems, on writing in any field and even to know what’s being said–well enough anyway for “theory” and “methodology” considerations–even if it’s something as quantitative as plasma physics.  Form is truth.  I taught for 25 years at a small private university in southern California until l997.  When I left the university because it seemed to both parties that I was either dying or would be an invalid forever (see comments on the Lost 90’s), and soon began to repair, I started one-on-one coaching.  Just a little at first, given the mess my neurons were in and the low-thyroid energy problems; but before long energy was restored after a decade’s interruption and the neurons started firing properly.  I’ve been coaching full-time ever since, and mainly through loyal clients and their grapevine but also wonderfully surprising calls through my website and the fact that by this point in my life I’m pretty good at what I do–which is about every genre of writing imaginable for the simple reason that I’m a generalist by personality, have that pattern-recognition skill and also taught every genre imaginable in academe–I keep busy, happy and solvent and get my own writing done whenever I can.  (Retirement?  I calculated it the other day.  Given how early I left university, I should be able to retire at 85.  But writers rarely “retire” from what they do, so that’s an illusion, too, I’m happy to say.)  Even in academe I was drifting away from the classroom–which is fine for some things, but not real or at least fast and dramatic growth as a writer.  I was teaching my classes and handling program work and other duties and also having 3-5 hours a day of one-on-ones with students…and you can’t keep doing this forever without something breaking.  But as one teaches, certain things–some of them increasingly opposed to conventional ways of teaching (like the ideal undergraduate creative writing workshop), to the classroom teaching of writing, to writing programs themselves (don’t get me started)–become clear, dramatically so, and once they do, it’s impossible to go back again.  As a one-on-one coach I get to take the iconoclastic wisdom of what I learned in academe (thank you for those years, my old home) and apply it directly in working with both brand-new writers and established ones, even some celebrities now and then.  I love working with new writers for a number of reasons, but even established writers have problems with their books and their agents and publishers and need some guerilla-tactics help; and everyone these days needs help figuring out how to publish and when and where and the follow-through.  If I’m unusual as a coach, it’s because I’m not only a former academic and a coach of three decades’ experience, but a fellow writer.  That’s what they tell me anyway.  Most of the work I do is with writers of novels, non-fiction books (commercial and formal/professional) and screenplays, but I also work with poets, intensive-journal keepers, freelance magazine article writers, ad copy writers, anyone else whose passion is a form or a process I feel qualified to help wit.  I might mention, too,–not that this hasn’t been long-winded enough already–that I come from a family of teachers:  My father had a second career in university after leaving the Navy; my mother taught high school, then university, the community college for forty years.  Teaching of whatever kind is in my veins, nature and nurture both, but in the university classroom and in coaching it feels more like sharing the “truth” of the craft tricks and miracles of writing…and the human truths of beauty, connection and creation that drive us to know those tricks and wield those miracles.  That’s the only way I know how to say it.

If you were an artist (musician, painter, actor, film director etc.) other than a writer, and you were going to be remembered for only one piece of work (a one-hit wonder), what would that piece (song, painting, movie) be?

How to put a guy on the spot.  I’m a film aficionado from way back (film has influenced my fiction immensely), but also was trained in art, as I think I said, in Italy when I was very young, and one of my parental figures (I had three) was an artist, so those two media jump to mind.   In films I’d have to choose one from the following, though I’m not sure I could do that:  PASSAGE TO INDIA, BLADE RUNNER, IN A BETTER WORLD, YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, and THE BOOK OF ELI (which I read differently from many).  In art, anything by the transcendent light of Rembrandt and the moody palette knife of Vlaminck…but countless others, too, I’m afraid.  Many of my short stories–and one novel–I’ve written to a single popular song or classical compositions played endlessly–and I mean endlessly (Peter Gabriel’s SO–“Red Red Rain” and the rest–for my novel DREAM BABY)–so in music, I suppose, if we’re to be grand, “La Fanciulla del West” (Puccini) and Schubert’s Wiegenlied, Op. 98/2, D 498 – “Mille Cherubini In Coro” (either as epic-orchestral or as tiny lullaby).  None of which means that I don’t like B creature features and B and above thrillers (wouldn’t mind passing with the BOURNE trilogy to my credit), pop music back to the late 1800’s, and all sorts of pop-culture product whatever its source.  What moves us moves us when we need it to, and for the epiphanies (banal or glorious) of our lives, our breaths, our hearts we use whatever works, right?

I’ve got to press you for one single work.

This one then:

Schubert’s Wiegenlied, Op. 98/2, D 498 – “Mille Cherubini In Coro” (either as epic-orchestral or as tiny lullaby).

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About Bob Neilson

Bob Neilson lives in Dublin with his wife, two daughters, son, two dogs, one cat and a growing feeling of claustrophobia. In partnership with his wife he runs a successful retail business in Dublin city. His short fiction has appeared extensively in professional and small press markets and he has had two plays performed on RTE and one on Anna Livia FM. He also presented a radio show on Anna Livia for a year. He has had two short story collections published, Without Honour (1997, Aeon Press) and That’s Entertainment (2007, Elastic Press) as well as several comics and a graphic novel. His non-fiction book on the properties of crystals is a best-seller in the UK and Ireland.
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5 Responses to Bruce McAllister – a masterclass in how to use answers to improve questions.

  1. Linda Prentice, Lake Arrowhead, California says:

    Bruce McAllister is my writing coach. I like the line above about ‘writing is love trying to find the words.’ Bruce is able to pull that from his students. He is kind and respectful of his writers, no matter their level, but he doesn’t shirk his duty; he makes you work, makes you improve, makes you ponder, makes you revise, revise, revise. He’ll tell you, politely, something is “cliched,” “overdone,” “passe.” So, I revise. Sometimes I hate it because I’ve loved a phrase or a line. But I have a trust in Bruce that I don’t have with any other human being. He finesses the best out of a writer. He somehow, magically it seems to me, lets the epiphanies you have hiding inside you find their way out. I’m working in poetry right now and I look for one word from Bruce – and that word is “Wow!” Anything less and I’m back to the drawing board. I trust him implicitly with my work and letting your work out into the real world has unimaginable fears attached to it. With writing, your rawness is exposed. It’s absolutely necessary to find the perfect writing coach so that the ragged edges of your life are assuaged and turned into the poetry -or fiction – or drama – or art that defines you. In Bruce’s hands, I am always soothed, pushed, prodded, stronger. Who could ask for a better mentor? Not I.

  2. Ron Arias says:

    Linda’s reply is right on. Bruce pulls the “love” out of writers in words. For 40 years he’s been reading my efforts with that same compassionate, savvy eye–and a lot of my efforts have resulted in books, articles and stories. I’ve recommended him as a writing coach often.
    -Ron Arias
    Hermosa Beach, CA

  3. Maggie Bolitho says:

    Bruce has been a fabulous teacher to me too. He has helped me dig deeper and get to the heart of what I am writing. He has enormous patience and a real sense of what works and what doesn’t.
    I enjoyed getting to know him better – what an interesting life!

  4. John Kenny says:

    Just got a chance to read this now. Great interview, Bob. Fascinating insights from Bruce into the way creative minds can and do work.

  5. Pingback: INTERVIEWS » McAllister Stories

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