Douglas Sovern Interview with Amy Burns, Managing Editor at Mulberry Fork Review
Douglas Sovern is an award-winning political and investigative reporter for KCBS Radio, San Francisco. He worked previously at the New York Times and the Associated Press.
He also wrote the groundbreaking Twitter novel TweetHeart. His short stories have appeared in Narrative, Sand Hill Review, Gemini, Crack The Spine, and many others, and have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and the Best of the West anthology. Narrative named his story “Indira” one of its Top Five Stories of 2013-14.
Doug is also a songwriter and bassist. He graduated from Brown University and lives in Oakland with his wife and twins.
Read his latest Mulberry Fork Review short story, ‘Where We’ll Hide When the Nazis Come’ in Issue 3, Volume 3.
Amy Burns, Managing Editor: Talk to me, Doug! I’ve read your bio. You’re a multi-award winning political journalist, a political reporter with KCBS San Francisco also covering special features and investigations, a writer, a musician, sports enthusiast, and a father of twins. I know many writers struggle to find a peaceful moment to put pen to paper after they’ve met their work and familial obligations but you seem to have cracked the code. What advice can you offer?
Doug: Hmm, whatever code you think I cracked, cracked in half when my twins were born ten months ago. My writing output has fallen off dramatically. However, I do have newfound diapering and bottle-holding skills that were heretofore dormant. You can’t have it all, you know. I’ve only finished two short stories since the babies were born. I was much more prolific before that. But they are giving me more happiness than anything else ever has, so I don’t hold it against them. I guess the answer is that I do have a lot of energy, but it took me many years to discover the discipline to actually turn it into productivity. I was always a night owl. I discovered the wonder of early morning writing. An hour or two just after waking is my sweet spot. The veil between conscious and subconscious is thinner, and the ideas and words just flow. So I made a commitment to get up early and get some writing done. Just get the butt in the seat, and do it. That said, that time is now occupied most mornings by baby duties, which means I need to learn a new routine, or figure out how to transfer that morning creativity back to my old night owl self.
Amy: When you do find time to work on fiction, how do you begin? Do you follow a ritual or is it more jump in at the deep end and start swimming?
Doug: As I said, I try to carve out some time in the morning. I have a very supportive wife, and if she can give me a couple of mornings a week to focus on my fiction, I can keep the pages coming. No ritual – I just sit down and write! I have a great home office writing space. I can’t work in cafes or somewhere like that. I need to get up and act scenes out, say the dialogue out loud to see how it sounds, make sure things work. I don’t think the other patrons would appreciate that at a cafe or shared writing space.
Amy: Do you find the proposition of sitting down to a short story different than say sitting down to political article? Does it stimulate different ‘creative buds’ so to speak?
Doug: Absolutely. Completely different animals. My writing for work is fact-based and comes after doing interviews and gathering information. I’ve been reporting for 30 years now, so it’s second nature. The biggest challenge is finding new ways to tell stories, avoiding the same old habits and writing crutches. Pursuing fiction has actually made me a much better storyteller on the radio. My news writing has gotten more creative and interesting, I think. Writing fiction does come from a different place. I’m not constrained by reality. I can make it all up and have the characters do whatever I want. I can turn off the facts and let my imagination run wild. It satisfies a different creative impulse. There’s an itch that has to be scratched, either by working on a story or a poem, or making music. I do find that it’s usually one or the other. When I’m writing a lot, I’m not playing or composing as much, and vice versa.
Amy: Some might think that trying to inhabit the worlds of political journalism, music, and fiction might jar but do you find that there is actually a ‘sweet spot’ where these worlds coalesce and compliment one another?
Doug: Each of those disciplines informs and improves the others. I like to think there’s a rhythm and flow to my radio work that wouldn’t be there if I weren’t a musician (or at least I’ve been told there is). I use music and a lot of natural sound in my radio pieces. My day job is fascinating and different every day, and I’m always drawing upon things I see and people I meet for my short stories. Ideas come from all over the place and intermingle. I build characters who are often amalgams of various people I’ve encountered through work. I’m lucky to have a job that brings me rich life experience, so I have an infinite supply of real-life material I can draw upon in my fiction writing. And the same is true for my lyrics, although they tend to be more intimate and personal.
Amy: As a political reporter I am sure you’ve traveled the world which, no doubt, provides rich material for your fiction, but I am interested in your early travels. I notice you were born in New York and raised in Manhattan and Wisconsin. That’s quite a change if indeed you exchanged the city for the Midwest and America’s Dairyland. Did this early move influence your desire to write and fuel your imagination?
Doug: Yes, I was born in New York City, then lived in New Jersey, briefly in Virginia, and spent most of my grade school years in Wisconsin. We moved back to Manhattan when I was in sixth grade. Wisconsin is a wonderful place for a kid to grow up, or at least it was in the Sixties. Plenty of room to roam, cows to meet, cheese and cabbage to eat. Biking is huge in Wisconsin and that’s where my cycling addiction was born, as well as my fanatical loyalty to the Green Bay Packers. Wisconsin is also where I began writing. I wrote a novella when I was nine, and I published my first poems in a local anthology when I was ten. I kept writing when I moved back to New York, but eventually drifted more into journalism and then really took up music. It wasn’t until just three years ago that I picked up creative writing again, after a hiatus of decades.
Amy: Have you noticed a change in your writing perspective since your children were born? I know that some new parents find their creative spheres dominated by a totally different range of topics once children come into their lives.
Doug: Well, twins figure in the first story I finished after they came into the world, and the protagonist in a new story I just started is a young father facing the strains parenthood can put on a marriage (I’m happy to report it is not at all autobiographical!). When we write, we pull together threads from so many places in our lives, and when your life is taken over by something as profound and all-encompassing as having babies, it can’t help but surface in your writing. So the subject matter is changing somewhat, but I think the prevailing themes remain the same.
Amy: As a musician do you find that the rhythm of a piece of prose is particularly important to you? I often encourage people to read their work aloud so that such elements become more apparent. It would be interesting to hear if you have similar practices.
Doug: As noted above…Yes! Most definitely. I’m a bass player, so I’m all about rhythm (you could say I’m all about that bass, but I’d rather you didn’t). To me, pacing and rhythm and dynamics and modulation are critical to a successful story, just as they are to music. And yes, I always read dialogue aloud, in particular. Not always the rest of the story, unless I have to give a reading somewhere. I always read my radio stories out loud, too, to time them and see how they sound. I’m always surprised how many people in the radio business don’t do that. For one thing, you read much more quickly in your head than you do out loud, when your tongue has to do all that work, so if you don’t read aloud, you’ll find the story takes longer than you thought (that’s true in both journalism and fiction). But I also want to make sure that verbal punctuation points are working, that a piece has the punch I’m seeking, and that’s also true in both kinds of writing.
Amy: Forgive me for drawing a correlation where none may exist but I would regret it if I didn’t ask. So… Hunter S. Thompson? I am fascinated by the tightrope he walked between fact and fiction. Gonzo journalism. How telling a lie helped him tell the truth… Are you influenced by his work?
Doug: I hadn’t thought of that, but yes, I absolutely devoured all his books as a teenager. He was one of my journalistic heroes. A true pioneer, along with Tom Wolfe. I don’t think I come close to having his edge, but I loved his approach to politics, in particular. I don’t tend to put as much of myself in my nonfiction as he did. I’d rather have the story be about the people in it, not about me. I also don’t do nearly as many drugs, unless you count Advil.
Speaking of influences, who does end up on your list of literary favorites?
Nice segue! Sinclair Lewis is one of my role models. He was a successful newspaperman before switching to fiction and winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel. I admire his satirical skill. He’s fallen out of favor and is not well-regarded anymore, probably because he brought his journalistic style to his novels, but maybe that’s why I like him. I also grew up reading a lot of Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway and J.D. Salinger, and some people see those influences in my work. I love the short stories of Alice Munro and Eudora Welty, but who doesn’t? I read more short stories than novels these days, since that’s what I’m writing, and I am especially fond of Junot Diaz, George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, William Trevor and Nathan Englander. And as a child and teenager, I was obsessed with African American literature and devoured everything I could get my hands on, from James Baldwin and Richard Wright to Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. I was also a massive fan of William Blake.
Amy: Shall we close with one of those ridiculous questions that play on a favorite author? So, if you could have dinner with one of your fav authors – who would it be, where would you meet, what would you eat, and come on… what’s one question you’d ask???
Doug: Hmmm. I am very fortunate in that I know many wonderful authors, so I actually have eaten dinner with some, and we don’t tend to talk about writing very much. I love being outdoors, so it would be nice to hang out on Walden Pond with Thoreau and suck the marrow out of life together. Perhaps some grog with Christopher Marlowe and ask him who was better, he or Shakespeare (or were they in fact, one and the same?). If you’re talking about living writers…I’d like to have some good deli with Woody Allen, maybe at Katz’s or Barney Greengrass. I’ll throw my diet to the wind and devour some hot pastrami, and ask him the key to being not only prolific, but consistently extraordinary.