Welcome to a new interview in my series on creativity in non-fiction writing. Today we meet Jeff Deck, who I first came across when I read his excellent memoir / travel book about correcting typos across America, “The Great Typo Hunt” (read my review here). Jeff’s next project was a fiction book, so he is well placed to talk about creativity in both, and he’s obviously done a lot of thinking about the topic. Read on to see what he has to say …
Hi there, Jeff. First off, tell me a bit about yourself and your books.
Hi, Liz. I’m an indie author who writes science fiction, horror, and fantasy. My new e-book is “Player Choice”, a sci-fi gaming adventure. In a former life, I published a nonfiction book called “The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time”, with Random House.
How did you start writing, and which came first, fiction or non-fiction?
Fiction came first for me—and then nonfiction—and now I’m back to fiction! It’s the circle of life!
I was a creative writing major in college. My thesis was a horror novel that my advisor, an accomplished literary fiction author in his own right, did his best to take seriously (“Nice story, but do you really need a monster?”).
After I graduated, I spent several years improving my writing via various fiction projects, a few in tandem with my writer friend Benjamin D. Herson. We made some attempts to get the traditional publishing industry interested in our work. But it was like trying to breach a fortress. You need either a really good battering ram—or you need to know a guy on the inside. Otherwise you won’t even get past the front gate. In those days, the traditional route was the only real option.
Benjamin and I did get into the fortress eventually, but with a completely different project, and without the intention to do so. We took a road trip around the United States to fix typos on signs, blogged about it, and got a lot of major media coverage. Agents and editors came calling. Thus the nonfiction book “The Great Typo Hunt” was born.
Fiction was still my main squeeze, though. I resurrected a book I’d been working on in the old days. One that just needed a little more love, and, say, five or six more drafts. By the time the novel reached peak level of awesomeness, I realized two things:
1) Because this book was fiction, not nonfiction, I’d be basically starting over if I pursued the traditional publishing industry. My agent was mainly a nonfiction rep. My remaining contacts at Random House were all in nonfiction as well.
2) The publishing world is a lot different than it was in, say, 2005. Advanced technology has created a large audience of e-book consumers. And a writer can reach this audience directly without having to rely on traditional publishers. E-book prices are set lower than physical books, but being able to earn 60-70% of the cover price per sale rather than 12-15% is a big deal.
So I went indie with my fiction. And here we are with the newly released “Player Choice”.
That’s an interesting move, as many people want to go from indie to traditional publisher. But it seems right for you, and that’s what matters! Now, I recently blogged about finding that writing non-fiction was still “creative”. Do you agree, or is only fiction writing truly creative?
I think we have to be careful with this “creative” label. Just like with the “literary” label that we only apply to certain types of books. These criteria are highly subjective.
But to me, creativity manifests itself in nonfiction as well as fiction—and in cooking, and woodworking, and math, and pretty much anywhere else people can use their grey matter to come up with new ideas and innovative solutions to problems.
Maybe it’s different for textbooks, or the manual for a Kenmore vacuum. But while writing “The Great Typo Hunt”, Benjamin and I had to draw on all of our creative powers to make our narrative as entertaining and compelling as we felt the account of our real-world adventures deserved.
We pondered whether first-person singular or plural (or third person!) would be the best way to tell the story. We turned to research, historical events, and the great carnival of the internet to bolster our points in the book or to make chapters more entertaining. We put a lot of thought into what specific turns of phrase, structure, and vocabulary would make our scene descriptions funnier.
If Malcolm Gladwell had been the one to correct typos around the U.S.—doing all the same things we did—his version of the book “The Great Typo Hunt” would still be radically different. He has his own writing style, his own way of thinking, and his own ideas about what to emphasize. If Elizabeth Gilbert, or Bill Bryson, or Mary Roach had taken the trip, we’d see still more examples of drastically different approaches to the same raw material.
Again, with the possible exception of describing how a vacuum cleaner operates, there are a million different ways to approach the same raw material when writing nonfiction. That’s where our individual creativity comes in.
And also, of course, that’s why we should remain skeptical of nonfiction as a source of authority. It’s never the Word of God, even when it pretends to be.
I’ve heard it said that memoir should be considered as “creative non-fiction” – do you agree with that description? How do you think writing memoir differ from writing fiction on the one hand and non-fiction on the other?
If we accept that nonfiction has the capacity to be creative, then memoir is certainly a part of that. It’s an especially good example of creative nonfiction because you are speaking in your voice about your life. You’re not an objective reporter. You’re a storyteller in a tradition that goes back to ancient warriors boasting around the fire about their own exploits.
I think we can still classify other types of nonfiction as creative, while at the same time recognizing the desire for more objectivity in those cases.
An author can inject wonderful personality and color into, say, a book about a certain historical time period (see Ian Mortimer’s “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England” for a great example of this).
But we’d also hope that the author can give us as unbiased and fact-based a look as possible at that period. We’d want the work to be “creative” in the sense of “originality of thought” rather than the other, facetious meaning of the word—”taking liberties with the truth.”
If you use your own life in your fiction, was writing a memoir different from doing that?
“The Great Typo Hunt” was inescapably about my own life. “Player Choice”, on the other hand, takes little pieces from my life in far subtler ways. Most fiction is like that. Even stories set in the most outlandish worlds, starring the most alien characters, will still contain little nuggets of their author’s own outlook and experiences. It’s nearly impossible to take yourself completely out of it.
The focus on virtual-reality gaming in “Player Choice” comes directly from my own interest in video games and future tech, of course. And there are aspects of Glen’s (the main character’s) personality and background that mirror my own (how his single-minded focus on a project endangers his relationships; having an abusive figure in his childhood, etc.).
But my own life also informs the story in less obvious ways. I assign the roles of heroes and villains (and everyone who exists in the grey area between) based on my experiences and my moral outlook.
Another writer—say somebody who grew up on a farm in Caribou, Maine—might have made the technophobes in Player Choice the good guys instead. A writer who’s spent thirty years as an advertising executive might not have painted the ads of the year 2040 in the intrusive, cranium-busting way that I have. Ayn Rand would have made my libertarian firebrand Freya the indisputable heroine of the book.
That’s an interesting perspective, thank you. Finally, please tell us where we can find you and your books!
“The Great Typo Hunt” is available wherever you can buy books, period. Except for that used-book store down on the corner of 19th and Lodgepole, the one that smells like ham sandwiches all the time. Don’t bother looking there.
You can read new interviews in the series, either by subscribing to this blog (see the links in the top right if you’re viewing on a PC or on the drop-down menu if you’re reading on a phone or tablet) or clicking on the “non-fiction creativity” tag at the top of this post, which will give you access to all the interviews published so far, as well. Happy reading!
My own books are all firmly in the non-fiction area, but I do involve aspects of my own life and experience to make them more accessible and welcoming. Take a look by exploring the links on this page, or by visiting the books pages.