Interview with Joel Fishbane5 min read

Joel Fishbane is a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. His novel “The Thunder of Giants” is available from St. Martin’s Press while new short fiction will appear in upcoming editions of New England Review, Litbreak, and Shift. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Find out more at www.joelfishbane.net.

What was the inspiration for “doctor time”? How did the story develop/change from conception to completion?

I’ve been writing this story for a long time so I don’t remember the original spark of inspiration. I do remember it was originally a piece of flash fiction focused on Jackson Pope but I liked the character so much that I just kept writing.  

How did the Young Doctor – the narrator – first form in your imagination? Was there a pivotal moment, in the course of writing the story, where you discovered something unexpected about him?

Since the original story was focused on Jackson Pope, the Young Doctor was originally a secondary character. During this period, I read an essay on dementia and the debate over whether it’s better to correct patients or let them enjoy their delusions. This got me thinking more about the Young Doctor and I shifted the focus of the story. Finding his voice was the biggest challenge since it’s written in first person. I didn’t want him to sound like a “writer” since he’s a doctor, so I tried to avoid flowery passages. He also doesn’t sound like my own narrative voice – he’s very serious and my own narrative voice often incorporates a wry or humorous tone. Finding his voice was the pivotal moment and it really helped me start to figure him out as a character.

Both the Young Doctor and Jackson Pope struggle with the conflict of confronting or admitting loss weighed against the need to avoid or even to forget it. What interested you in exploring these ideas through this particular story?

Losing things is part of the human condition and while I’ve had my share of it, I’m fortunate that I haven’t had to deal with it to the same the extent as Jackson Pope and the Young Doctor. But I’ve long been fascinated by the two sides of grief – the need to honor those who are gone with the need to put them aside so we can carry on with our own lives. Finding this balance can be especially difficult when the loss is tragic, as it is for Jackson and the Young Doctor. I was also interested in the conflict for the Young Doctor – we have a man who can’t give up the past confronted with a patient who has lost it and I think he envies Jackson in some ways because Jackson has been allowed to forget. The whole point, though, is that forgetting isn’t any better than obsession. We’re always looking for ways to live with the past without letting it consume us.

How would you describe your writing and revision process? What have you found to be most helpful for you when dealing with writer’s block?

I love rewriting so I generally write many drafts and I like to give myself lots of time between them. Time away helps me “forget” the draft so I can go back to it with a fresh eye. It helps that I usually have a few projects on the go and I write in different mediums (I’m also a playwright and screenwriter). Writer’s block, when it comes, is always a sign that I need to step away. Sometimes I just nap or read or get lost online for a while. I also try to shake up the story I’m writing. Changing relationships is often a good way to come at a story from a different angle since it raises the emotional stakes. In the case of “doctor time”, for instance, there were early drafts when Jackson Pope and the Young Doctor weren’t connected through Nia. When I realized that Jackson and Nia could be father and daughter, the entire story came into sharper focus.

What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received as a writer and what advice would you give new writers?

There’s a sketch called “Studies of the Virgin and Child” by Michelangelo’s assistant, Antonio Mini. On it, Michelangelo was unsparing in his critique: “Draw, Antonio. Draw and don’t waste time.” I always thought this was pretty good advice, regardless of one’s artistic pursuit. I interpret this as not wasting time on projects you don’t believe in or things you aren’t truly passionate about. There’s a myth of the writer sitting down and having it all pour out of them in one sitting but the truth is it’s work like any other. So you just have to do it and, no, it won’t always be perfect, but you can’t get to the great ideas if you don’t slog through the bad ones first.

What are you currently reading? What book has been most influential on your life or on you as a writer?

I usually read a lot of different things at once, so right now I’m reading a biography on Edward Albee, short stories by John Updike, and “Passing” by Nella Larsen. I’d say there hasn’t been one book which is influential but my influences are varied because I’ve studied theatre and film as well as literature. The influential writers are some of the usual suspects – Shakespeare, Chekhov – with some modern writers – John Irving, Gabriel Garcia Marquez – thrown in. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Roxane Gay. I love seeing what other writers are doing, regardless of what genre or the particular form.

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