I promised you, dear readers, more EBCP (my series of interviews with Extremely Brilliant Creative People) and now we’re back with an awesome bang! Tony Quick is an amazing writer who I’ve been lucky enough to work with, read the work of, and talk to about writing. His writing excites me because it feels like he’s doing something new and never standing still—I’ve yet to read a piece by him that feels the same. Also, and more importantly, he manages to create worlds that feel both excitingly new as well as completely lived in.
I think his answers to these questions help to reveal just why exactly he is such a gifted writer. And I hope you, Dear Readers, will check out the links to his work and website which can be found below the interview so that you, too, can become quick fans of Quick (I apologize, but there was no way I wasn’t saying it).
- When did you begin writing and why?
I started writing when I was six or seven years old. I’d take sheets of paper, fold and staple them to make little booklets, then write stories heavily inspired by the Arthur and Magic School Bus series. I’ve never wanted to be anything but a writer and thankfully, as I’ve grown older my writing has matured with me.
Now why exactly I started writing is a harder question to answer. I was just as awkward as a child as I am as an adult so I suppose writing was a release valve on my imagination and a way to use up the mental space most people set aside for social cues and remembering people’s names.
- Describe how you approach an idea for something to write.
Often, I’ll get a visual in my head that won’t leave me alone—a character, a setting, a situation playing out—and let that churn in my mind. That means daydreaming, spinning out scenarios, and letting the idea grow until I have something to harvest. From there, it’s a matter of sketching and outlining (I’m a firm believer of plotting on paper before writing the actual prose. Even if I veer off script, having a road map saves me a lot of time that would otherwise be spent wandering in the boondocks).
Music also plays a role in transitioning from idea to narrative. When I find a soundtrack that suits a story, it acts as an emotional primer that sets me in the scene and I can use it to return to a similar state of mind to the one I possessed during my daydreams or planning process.
- You’re currently working on a novel. What has that experience been like? Can you tell us a little about the book?
I’ve been working on a novel titled Scarecrow and Locust about three young people—Hugo, Phoebe, and Demetre—who live in a famine-ravished world after a plague decimates the planet’s crops. Desperate to survive, the three decide to assemble a team and pull heists against Scarecrow, the private military corporation that traffics what little food there is through Baltimore’s ports. As you might imagine, the situation quickly gets out of hand. Their group gets caught up in a war between the Scarecrows and the Ravens criminal gang in a struggle for Baltimore’s future.
Writing a novel is an arduous, backbreaking ordeal. Scarecrow and Locust began as a terrible short story that Rick Bass politely described as “Confederacy of Dunces-esque.” Not quite what I was going for. Renovating that original botched story into a serious first draft, then rewriting that from scratch took persistence, faith, and sixteen months of my life. That’s what writing a novel takes: tenacity, trust, and time.
Support also helps. I’m fortunate enough to have fantastic first readers such as yourself and Stefanie Brook Trout (a remarkable writer who I’m convinced will become a future favorite to scores of readers when she makes her debut). Having two talented writers tell me I’m not crazy for playing Ahab with this particular whale has been instrumental in keeping me afloat.
- You also write poetry. Did you come to one genre before the other? What sort of differences do you find between your writing process for these two forms? Do you prefer one over the other?
When I first came to study at Iowa State University, I kept a yellow post-it note over my desk that read “Fiction First” because I wanted to remember that my commitment to story came above all else. But poetry has always been lurking in my background. I had the opportunity to study with poets Karen Anderson and Jeff Coleman as an undergraduate at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and during my brief stint at Iowa State, I took a poetry workshop that grew my appreciation for the form.
Studying with Debra Marquart, I realized how useful examining the minutiae of language and the constraints of writing poems on such a small canvas helped my prose. I also realized how much I enjoy engaging in wordplay and manipulating structure in ways that wouldn’t quite fly with straightforward prose. And they can cross feed one another. All my poems have a narrative weaved into them and my short story “The Dictator’s Daughter” was first written as a sci-fi poem.
I’d highly recommend anyone that’s interested in strengthening their prose seriously consider studying and writing poetry. Trust me.
- Could you describe what you consider your overall style?
Honestly, I’m not sure yet myself. I’m early enough in my writing career that I’m still experimenting with different approaches and molding my style. The problem with evaluating one’s own writing is that you’re likely to project what you hope your style is rather than what it actually is. (You’ve read more of my writing than most. I’m curious to hear your description of my style.)
- We’ve had a few conversations about “Genre” vs. “Literature.” Can you talk about your feelings on that debate?
There are some writers and editors who prefer to segregate between capital “L” literature and small “g” genre. And there are some on the other side of the fence who love their genre fiction but won’t read any works that lack speculative elements. But I think it’s important to remember these prejudices, like most, are constructions without any real bearing. Many literary classics—Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Hamlet—have speculative elements. This need to divide and subdivide seems to speak more about those who take part than the content of the work itself. The quality of writing is what matters in the end, regardless of whether the protagonist is a 19th century ghost in Louisiana, a middle aged academic battling alcoholism and age, or a 22nd century detective locked in orbit.
- What is one thing you think every writer should know?
Persistence. Persistence. Persistence. Returning to the keyboard day after day, soldiering forward when the words aren’t flowing, and then honestly assessing what can be used in the next iteration and what must go requires tenacity. Especially when it comes to novels. Short stories are flings—fun, exciting, and meant to come to an end after a few weeks or months. Novels are relationships, commitments that last for years. That means work, adaptability, and compromise.
Don’t quit. Soldier on. To me, the difference between a capital “W” writer and someone who just likes to write is the willingness to continue putting down words even when it doesn’t seem fun, even when rejection letters are piling up. There’s this line in John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire that I always come back to. “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”
- Things you’d most like people to get out of your writing.
Entertainment, above all else. I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember and my favorite books are those that I have to put down while I’m reading them to say “Holy shit!” and digest the latest development before continuing on. I feel like a shill for Big Library saying this but reading should be fun! And I don’t necessarily believe that entertainment comes at the expense of character development, theme, or any other element of craft.
Prose writers are competing with the golden age of television, so-so cinema, and the omnipresent world wide web. Rather than complain about potential readers opting into these diversions, we need to make sure we’re creating content worthy of competition with these entertainment juggernauts. In a non-stop world we’re asking people to set aside time to read our words and it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re giving them a good time in exchange. When someone reads a Tony Quick story, I want them to take their next steps barefoot because I’ve knocked their proverbial socks off.
9. In some of the writing of yours that I’ve read, there has been some dealings with ecology and environmental issues. When/how did this become a part of your work?
Ecological issues began to feature in my writing after I began to study at Iowa State University. The MFA program has an environmental focus and though I decided to leave the program, I was still interested in writing about some of the potential challenges that come when man clashes (or cooperates) with the nature.
That said, I’m not interested in using my fiction as a soap box or political treatise. The pandemic in Scarecrow and Locust, for example, is the result of a mutating version of modern day wheat stem rust. As a fiction writer, I’m less interested in writing about how mono-cropping and the lack of diversity in agriculture makes us more susceptible to this particular brand of ecological devastation than speculating on how characters might react and adapt in the midst of that disaster. I trust my readers to negotiate their own interpretations.
10. Writer or writers you’d most like to meet.
11. Things you are most proud of in your writing?
“When your characters are stuck in a tree, start throwing rocks.”
I don’t know which writer is responsible for that line but it’s advice I try to follow as best I can. The problem is that my characters become more tangible and dear to me the longer I’m with them and scuffing them up mentally and physically as the story progresses wrenches my heart.
Hard as that can be, there is something gratifying in sculpting characters that feel—to me at least—like real people that I worry for and fret over even as I’m putting them in harm’s way. Kind of a bizarre thing to be most proud of, huh?
12. Questions you wished I would have asked?
I’m actually impressed by how thorough you’ve been so this is a hard question. Maybe a question about what I’m reading right now. I’m cycling between Plot & Structure, a craft book by James Scott Bell and Women Destroy Science Fiction, a gargantuan 400 page special issue of Lightspeed Magazine featuring female authors. I’d particularly recommend “A Burglary, Addressed By A Young lady” by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall and “A Guide to Grief” by Emily Fox.
13. The most difficult thing you find about writing in ten words or less.
Can I answer in haiku form?
The hardest part of
Writing words on the keyboard
Is the lack of ducks.
14. What is up next in the world of Tony Quick?
I’m planning on writing some new short stories and editing this second draft of Scarecrow and Locust. I’m beginning to research literary agents for later down the road when I’m ready to send out queries. I’ve also marked out a couple of days for crossing my fingers and picking four leaf clovers because, you know, better to be lucky than good.
Check out some of Tony’s writing here: “The Dictator’s Daughter” (in Devilfish Review)
To find out more about Tony, visit his website here
Tony Quick is an African American fiction writer and poet, born in Baltimore, Maryland and raised in nearby Prince George’s County. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and has held various positions, from undergraduate English instructor, to accounting assistant, to fiction editor for Iowa State University’s literary magazine, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. His fiction has appeared in the quarterly speculative online magazine, Devilfish Review and his poetry is featured in Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland.