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Ted Chiles: The Accidental Novelist?

An Interview of Ted Chiles

by Christine Casey Logsdon

"I like microeconomics, which is about a person who has to make a decision and then they are faced with constraints of income and circumstances and then how do you make the best choice? I think that’s fabulous training for being a writer, because that’s all writing is. A character is faced with constraints, and they have to make a choice. If they weren’t constrained, they would just do whatever they want, and that’d be boring as Hell.” –Ted Chiles

Ted Chiles contributed “The Incidence at the Church in Alabama,” “An Unexpected Talent,” and “Lighter Than Thee” to Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, which is available on Amazon here. He and his wife, Chella, have lived in Santa Barbara, CA for the last 17 years, but have strong roots in the American South. “The Incidence at the Church in Alabama" is a flash fiction piece about longstanding tensions in a ladies church group, leading to, what else?, a knife fight. Malice simmers among the sweet potato casserole and okra, highlighting Ted's ability to use sophisticated, well-crafted language to tell darkly humorous stories. CL: Tell me about “The Incidence at the Church in Alabama,” which happens to be about two women, and which I found to be incredibly authentic. Ted: (laughs) It’s about an incident in Alabama that happened in my father’s hometown, which is also my wife’s hometown, Albertville, Alabama, on top of Sand Mountain. I embellished it completely, but the result is that one of the women, one who picked up a knife, was kicked out of the church. My sister-in-law thought that the woman didn’t really threaten to cut her, so my sister-in-law took her up as a cause and I heard a lot about this. I knew some of the people involved, one of whom has since passed away. I didn’t know the person who picked up the knife. But it’s within my experience. CL: So you lived in Alabama? Ted: For 12 years. I taught at Auburn University in Montgomery. My wife, Chella, taught at Huntington College. That’s how we met. But as it turns out she was very good friends with my cousins, had grown up three doors down from them and two doors down from where my grandmother lived at the end of her life. She probably met me when we were young, but we don’t have any memory of it. CL: Where are you from originally? Ted: Originally I’m from Akron, Ohio—rubber capital. I lived there until I went away to college. After I graduated college I started a PhD program in Economics at Rice University in Houston—I lasted a year, they just kicked my butt. I was unprepared for the work required. After I received an MA in Economics from the University of Akron, I got a teaching gig in Bradford, PA, the home of Zippo lighters and Case knives. When I was there, my college said they’d put me on tenure track if I’d go get a PhD, so I commuted from Bradford to Penn State for a couple of years. CL: I was raised the South, myself. Your story rang true on every level. Ted: Thank you. I’m very lucky in that my wife’s has a PhD in British and American literature. When she was at Santa Barbara City College, she got an MFA in poetry. She’s much more published than I am. She’s published tons of poetry. She’s published like eight chapbooks. She’s published a novella. I’ve got a great first reader—and I’m her first reader, so it works out. CL: What motivated you to get your MFA? Ted: Part of my desire for the MFA program was that I’d started a novel and I was kind of stuck. I’d taken a ton of short-story workshops and flash fiction workshops, because I'm a nerd. What do nerds do when they want to learn something? They go to class. I did the Southern California Writers Conference and met Marla Miller. I said, “My wife thinks I have a good voice, but she’s my wife. Maybe she’s just being nice to me. What do you think?” Marla says, “Oh, no, you’ve got a voice.” She suggested that I try the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I went to it for three years, and I really enjoyed it. I particularly enjoyed the pirate workshops, but initially I went in for non-fiction. I wanted to be a humorist writing about my golf game. When I said “golf,” people heard “goth,” and imagined I was going to write about people in black with piercings. No. Golf. The reason I got into writing was, I was playing golf with my friends at Ojai, and I got the shanks. I couldn’t get rid of them. I would go to the driving range and try these different tricks you use. My wife, who believes in journaling, said, “Why don’t you write about it?” So I did, then I forgot about it and pulled it down a few weeks later and edited it. Did some rewrites. We were driving cross-country and at my friend Kevin’s, a tennis and golf buddy from high school, probably my best friend. Chella found this on my computer and said, “What is this?” and I said, “It’s what you told me to write.” Then she asked if she could read it and I said, “Sure.” Then she said, “Can I read it out loud?” and I said, “Okay,” at which point Kevin laughed so hard that he fell out of his chair. So I decided that I was going to become a golf writer. CL: And this from the guy who doesn’t like writing non-fiction? Ted: I started writing these little columns about my golf game and golf. Chella suggested that I attend the Southern California Writing Workshop and see what people think. I got some positive reinforcement, so I did it again. The first year I went to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, I did it at Westmont. I was in the non-fiction, comedic world. Between the first and the second Santa Barbara Writers Conference, I decided I wanted to write fiction. I used to say, “Fiction is easy, you just make shit up.” I regret ever having said that. (laughs) One of my first stories was called "The Kims," based on the zero sum game theory; you know, if one person wins the other loses. They were real estate agents, and whenever one sold a house, that person got taller and the other got shorter. It’s interesting—there was a real moment there for me. I sent the story to a very glossy magazine having a contest, Canteen I think. The deadline passed and I didn’t hear anything, so I submitted to something called "Anemone Sidecar." It was accepted an hour and a half later. The editor was in the office, doing an e-bay auction. She read it right when it came in, and accepted it immediately. Then Canteen wrote back and said they’d like to publish my story, but they were only going to publish if they didn’t mention it was published online. I thought about it and said, “No, I can’t do that.” What’s that old saying? You dance with the person you brought to the prom? So I said no, and Canteen published it anyway. One time in my life I did the moral thing, and it worked out. So I went to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference for two years at Westmont, then they kicked us out, probably because of the cigarette butts and wine bottles. The third year was at Fess Parker. I took the story, "The Kims" and a story called "Knife" that I’d taken the year before. I did Shelly Lowenkopf’s pirate workshop, and Katharine Ryan-Hyde’s workshop. I read a story called "Diminishing," and it’s based on the diminishing margin of utility, that the more you do something, the less value it has to you on the margin. I’ve never published this one. In Katharine Ryan-Hyde’s workshop, after I’d read about half of it, she said, “Wow. That’s literary, but I don’t mean that in a bad way.” That really struck me as odd. I’m married to somebody with a PhD in literature. I was beginning to have literary pretentions. I wanted to write literary fiction. I’d gone to a Tom Jenks workshop. He used to work at the Paris Review, and he’s edited most of the major literary figures in America. I wanted my fiction to be not just a good story, but I wanted the language to have a certain quality. I’d also already started going to the Tinhouse Writers’ Workshop because Amy Bender was up there. That’s when I decided maybe I needed to get an MFA. CL: Did you consider your writing to be dark? The nature of life and death isn’t dark, is it? Ted: My guilty pleasure is romantic comedies. Nice, happy endings: boy meets girl, they hate each other, all of a sudden they fall in love, you get a happy ending. Then on one extreme you have the John Irving approach to a novel where you have quirky characters, he makes you fall in love with them, then he does horrible things to them for 300 pages. That’s my take on him and his work. After Hotel New Hampshire, I stopped reading him. Since I didn’t come from a literary background, I didn’t read a lot of literary fiction. I read non-fiction, I read a lot of mysteries, I read Stephen King. So when I came into that world, it just seemed that the difference between a movie and a film is the ending. Do we get a happy ending? Do we get a realistic ending? What’s a realistic ending? The person dies, and the survivor finds a way to deal with the grief, vs. the miracle cure? CL: I wish I could remember the attribution, but one of the most charming things I’ve read about writing in the last year or two is this: “People overthink the difference between commercial and literary fiction, and it’s simple. The character always wants something. In commercial fiction, they get what they want. In literary fiction, they don’t.” (laughing) Ted: That’s not bad. I once asked an agent at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, from Harper’s (could have been The Atlantic), “What’s literary?” She said, “You look at the elements of what fiction does: there’s a style, there’s a story, there’s the meaning, characterization, and plot. Any good writing has to do all those things. Literary fiction has to take one of those things and elevate it above what’s necessary for it to work as a story. So, deep characterization—a deeper understanding of how the character became a character, or elevating the prose in some way….” That made sense to me, actually. CL: What do you like most about writing groups? Ted: I honestly think that every writer subconsciously knows the weak parts of their work, but they try to use some smoke and mirrors to fool themselves and the reader. If you have a good writing group, somebody’s going to see it. Someone’s going to point out, “No, this doesn’t work.” Even if it’s someone you don’t like, or whose work isn’t that great. They might be the person whose one-sentence comment gives you the new ending that makes the story work. I literally had workshopped a story with some really good people, and this one person’s one-sentence comment helped me find the ending and I got the work published. CL: How often do you write? Are you driven to it? Ted: When I was getting my MFA, I wrote on a religious schedule of so many hours a day. Now, I’m much more relaxed. Lately I’ve been working on a screenplay that I’ve adapted from a play based on my wife’s novella. We’re sending the play out; it was a semifinalist for a reading at the Gary Marshall theater in LA. My novella has been a semi-finalist in a bunch of contests. CL: Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked about? Ted: The only thing I would add is… occasionally you run into writers who don’t read. Honestly, I’m a nerd and I learn well in a classroom situation. I don’t think it’s necessary to go get an MFA. But if you’re going to be a writer, quit going to movies and read more. If you want to be a screenwriter, watch every damn movie you can. Now that I’m writing plays, I go to every play I can.

Christine Casey Logsdon earned her degree in English Literature from UCSB in 1991, and owns and manages a technical consulting company. She has lived in Santa Barbara with her husband and extended family for decades, and edits both fiction and non-fiction. Christine writes fiction of all lengths, and is currently editing her contemporary Southern novel and a dramatic suspense novel. Ted Chiles came to creative writing after moving to California in 2003. With a Ph.D. in Economics, he taught Economics at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In 2013, he completed an MFA in fiction from Spalding University. Chiles' fiction has been published in print and online and consists of short stories and flash fiction. His style varies from realism to magical realism to speculative fiction. He also has published creative nonfiction, adapted a novella for the stage, and written two ten-minute plays, one of which was produced in Santa Barbara.

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