BROWSE BY:     Title Number Subject Creator Digital Content

Interview with Tim Bass, December 6, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

pdf icon Get PDF Version
Interview with Tim Bass, December 6, 2007
December 6, 2007
Tim Bass is a former news reporter and a full-time instructor in UNCW's MFA program, as well as being one of its first graduates. In this interview he discusses the creation of UNCW's MFA program and its growth and changes, his own writing process, and the differences between crafting fiction and nonfiction.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Bass, Tim Interviewer:  Diesenhaus, Doug Date of Interview:  12/6/2007 Series:  SENC Writers Length  80 minutes


Diesenhaus: I'm Doug Diesenhaus and today December 6, 2007. I'll be interviewing Tim Bass for the Randall Library Oral History project on creative writers. And I think usually the best place that I start is asking you how you got started writing? How you've come to this life?

Bass: Well it's a little more of a complicated story in my case. If you want to go back to the beginning of how anybody started writing I can take you all the way back to First Grade. But for me writing was very much a part of my school experience, elementary school, yes, but also in earnest actually in middle school when I started writing for the school newspaper. And I was interested at that time in sports writing and actually that's what I did for my middle school years and then into high school I was a sports writer, became a photographer. The whole thing ended up working together and I ended up going to college and studying journalism. It was I saw of being able to make a living while writing. I left college and went into newspapers and worked as a journalist for 10 or 12 years primarily as a news reporter covering anything from the police beat to courts to farming to education to business, a real mixed bag. I was a photographer for a little while but primarily I was a newspaper reporter. And after a dozen years or so of this I felt tired of it, wanted to write creatively. Was not able to do that because I was writing constantly for the newspaper and by the time I would finish at the end of the day there was really nothing left for me and I decided to go back to school, something I'd never considered doing. But decided finally to go back to school and take a course or two as it would discipline myself. I figured if someone else expected me to write then I would be more likely to produce. So I was still a full-time newspaper reporter and went back to school and started taking courses, and quickly saw that it was almost impossible to do both decently. And so I decided that if I was ever going to finish I needed back to school, grad school full-time which is what I ended up doing. I wanted the courses to wind up adding up to something too. So back to school; focused on primarily on non-fiction. It was a way of taking my journalism experience into more of a creative realm. And I also focused a lot on fiction writing too. So now I got into teaching while in grad school and then just stayed there. I was a little like a stray dog that wandered up and wouldn't leave. And after a while they just figured they'd better take me in is kind of what they did, and I haven't left since. And I teach non-fiction and fiction to undergrads.

Diesenhaus: I want to come back to the grad school part, just chronologically go back a little bit to where you're talking about, like, middle School and elementary.

Bass: Yeah.

Diesenhaus: I wonder if you could talk a bit more how the writing interested you or if you were doing a lot of reading at the time that kind of spurred along that interest?

Bass: I wasn't doing much reading. I was a product of the North Carolina public school system and I was pretty lazy, unimaginative and I lacked industry of any kind. But I was pretty crazy for reading the newspaper. I loved sports. I loved following sports, and at my house we always got the daily newspaper. It was the News and Observer in Raleigh and I'm from North Carolina. And so I'd read the newspaper every morning at breakfast I'd always read the sports section. And that interested me and that whole life interested me. I wasn't much of an athlete. I loved playing sports. I wasn't very good at it but this was a way of staying close to sports and being able to do what I could do which was to write about sports. I loved knowing the games. I loved knowing the sports and the ins and outs. And you what really started there when I had the opportunity finally to write for a legitimate publication, which is what my middle school newspaper was at the time I quickly chose to write sports. And I essentially just mimicked the style, the tone, that I was reading in the newspaper and continued that from middle school into high school, continued to write sports. I believe throughout-- as I recall throughout most of my high school years I wrote for the school and newspaper as a sports writer and at one time I thought I would go on to write sports professionally. But I ended up-- it's odd that my interest in sports waned just as my interest in general news began to crank up. So that's what I ended doing and never was a sports reporter, and probably, ultimately wouldn't have made a very good one. But that was sort of the genesis of it was working in middle school and just getting encouragement from teachers. Also I had some friends who were interested in the school newspapers and so I worked with them in middle school and high school, worked on the yearbook. It was all formulative journalism for me. It was a way of learning to develop a craft, never really developing it much during those years. Everybody was green and it was student journalism that was pretty rough. But when I went to college I was serious about journalism and wanted to focus on it and rode that through my undergrad years.

Diesenhaus: In either the earlier years or college, you mentioned, teachers or advisers, was there anybody in particular, any particular advice that was kind of especially supportive of what you're trying to do?

Bass: No. It wasn't much. No, no, no I don't want to imply that people were not encouraging. They were very encouraging because it gave me the opportunity to write and they didn't yank that chance away from me. But these were teachers in public schools who were overworked, of course, the cliché is overworked and underpaid; I'm sure they were. But this was extra duty for them and I pity the poor souls who have to deal with a bunch of immature, green, wise guys like me and my friends who were-- who thought we knew what we were doing. The main thing they did was to tolerate me and not run me off. It really became because I got the opportunity and because I followed through with it in middle school I got to be a little better at it in high school. And what happened was that people gave me tremendous opportunities. There was a lot of latitude. Not that many people wanted to do this. Everybody wanted to play football or basketball. Everybody wanted to do that stuff. Not that many people wanted to be on the school newspaper, The Mirror, my high school newspaper was called. And so there were great opportunities and the greatest encouragement I got was that people allowed me to do what I really wanted to do and frankly to be bad at it, which I was for those years. I did have a photography instructor who was the math teacher at my high school named Dolph Santez [ph?]. He was over here from the Philippines, quite a talented photographer who encouraged me and encouraged two of my closet friends in particular in our high school. He encouraged many people but the three of us in particular to take a camera and go out and explore the campus, take as many pictures as we could, and just document everything. And we got to be very serious at it. And he was an incredibly patient guy who gave us a lot of independence. So I think we thought we were a big deal even though we really weren't. But he allowed us to learn; he cut us loose in a dark room back we were mixing our own chemicals and rolling our own film. And it was all fairly dirty work and he allowed us to go in there and spend hour upon hour. I remember having a key to certain classrooms or certainly to the dark room and we could spend day and night up there if we wanted to, and we did. And we learned by making an awful lot of bad prints, and after awhile we got better at it. And he was tremendously encouraging just by allowing us-- he bought us equipment, and he allowed us free access to anything we wanted in that dark room and with that system to use it anyway we wanted. And he was a serious influence on me as a journalist and also many teachers were encouraging to me. I don't mean to imply they weren't. But I don't remember anybody pulling me aside and giving me the golden nugget of information at some point and the heavens opened up and suddenly I thought, "I must go forth and be a journalist." It didn't really work that way. It was a fairly unromantic journey for me. But I loved it. I mean I had a great time. And nobody ever really stood in the way. And this is what I liked about school journalism. The same is true at UNCW. There's tremendous opportunities for students who just want to go over to The Seahawk, or the Atlantis Literary magazine. And just join in. They can be leaders in no time and they can learn a tremendous amount. And those who do I see really do benefit quite a lot.

Diesenhaus: When you talked about how everyone wanted to play football I wonder if that's kind of the flip side of the documenting of it. Do you have a sense of being an other, or being outside of that world, jock world? And how did that work for you?

Bass: Yes, it was an odd place, kind of outside and inside at the same time. Because we were photographers for the high school yearbook is where we ended up, maybe for the newspaper but particularly for the high school yearbook we took so many pictures. Because we had that role in high school we had access to the sidelines just as the real press photographers do these days. So we had this-- my friends and I had this kind of strange relationship with athletics in that in our high school we literally stood between the action on the field and the fans in the stand. So we did feel very much like 'others'. We were our own community. Our banter and our whole lives revolved around our Pentax and Nikon cameras, Canon. And we talked equipment and that was our sport. It was a very small team that's for sure. There were the three of us I remember and then there were maybe four or five younger photographers who were coming along. But we were very much the 'other' because our job was-- I remember seeing in fact it's an interesting question because I can remember seeing most of high school through a camera view finder. Much of it was up close too because we had those zoom lenses and telephotos. We could bring the world up close. But I remember most of my high school framed through the 35 millimeter dimensions because we did feel that we needed to document. The first day of school was big and then we would stay with certainly sports but also student activities. And we'd try to use the cameras to flirt with girls and all of the sad and pathetic things that high school students do. So yes, we were 'others'. And I guess it was cool probably only to us ultimately but we thought it was cool. And here I am at my age now 30-plus years later still talking about it so I guess I'm dorky enough that it matters to me somehow still. But it was formative for me and it defined by high school years. And that really-- I didn't have this miserable experience in high school and then ended up going to college to kind of find myself. I loved high school and I loved middle school and elementary school. And college was very much a continuation of that. It was just different because it was not in my hometown with my group of friends. But those years and writing stories and doing interviews with people in my high school, taking pictures of people, working in the dark room, working with my friends and the newspaper staff and the yearbook staff really made a difference to me and helped me understand a lot about communication, a lot about journalism. And I think, at least I hope on one level or another about art. I still can't walk around on any given day without thinking of-- I'm seeing pictures all around wishing I had a camera over my shoulder.

Diesenhaus: Well that sort of was a question I was thinking about was that did you either then or now looking back did you feel like you were let's say just documenting fact or do you feel like you're telling a story or a narrative by the types of pictures you were taking? I was interested especially when you said that's how you remember it from a frame. Did you have any thoughts or do you know?

Bass: I never thought of it consciously as telling one continuous story, and I think if it's anyone's story it's probably my own, because it was my own view of where I chose to point the camera and when I chose to press the shutter was completely of my own doing. We did feel as a group we had a stated effort to try to document a school year and that's what a yearbook-- I don't know that high schools do the yearbook anymore. And our high school way back in the '70s this is a big deal, and so as photographers we did try to tell the story of a year as opposed to any other year. And of course what was different about that year was the people and it's always a people story. That certainly figures into my writing these days because all stories ultimately no matter what you're writing about should be about people in order to make them interesting. You can make anything interesting if you can make it a people story. But yes I think we would, event by event we would try to document that night that football game, that homecoming, whatever the situation might have been. But we were trying to tell certain stories of this school and this year. The issue was whether other people felt we were telling the same story they experienced and that's virtually impossible to determine. But yes it is a form of storytelling if you do a good job of it. Now it was also still unrefined and aimless and still driven by hormones and stupidity and every aimless distraction that any high school adolescent would encounter. So it's errant in so many ways and totally my fault or at least for my part in it. My buddies can pay for their own freight.

Diesenhaus: In the same way especially maybe a little bit the sports writing although also when you switched to more news, did you try to tell people interest or larger stories in the type of journalism where maybe other people might have just been doing fact-based reporting or scores. Were you trying to bring life to the stories as well?

Bass: That changed-- it eventually became that and that changed because newspapers changed. They're still changing and I think they'll forever be changing. But toward the end of my reporting years this would be late '80s or early '90s newspapers were trying, newspapers were always trying to make themselves irrelevant even though they're totally relevant and essential in a free society. And I don't think they'll ever go the way of the dinosaur in the way that a lot of people think they will. But by that time in my own reporting career newspapers were trying to reinvent themselves. It was a constant process, and so the writing changed and there was a lot of emphasis on telling a compelling story. And notice that I think that a lot of people who aren't familiar with newspapers will call a piece in a newspaper they'll call it an article, which sounds fairly flat and fairly general. But within the newspaper business everybody calls them stories. It's a newspaper story and so just using the word means that inherently these items are viewed as someone's story, a story about something. It's a story-- it's not just an artifact or a recitation of facts or a court reporter's transcript that says this person said something and then this person said something. It was our job to try to make this very often tedious and boring but perhaps meeting make sense and resonate with people. And there is drama in everyday life. And we often have to look at it. I think after you do it for awhile and you understand what it's like to go to a school board meeting that lasts for 3.5 hours and you can just go back and basically reprint the minutes. You decide that you don't want to do that. You want to challenge yourself to do something more important. And you also want people to read it. There's no small ego in these papers. But writing in general you want people to read it. You don't want to just see it printed. That's one thing, but if no one reads it then what good is it to be in print? So we did try to find narrative. We did try to find hooks and there was a lot of anecdotal leads to stories that we tried to start with farmer Jones standing out in his tobacco field. And that might ultimately be a story about regulating the tobacco industry, or about drought, or about that year's prices, or about a blue mold disease in tobacco. But you want to start with the person and try to put your readers in a certain place at a certain time so that they can kind of go with you to experience what you experience as the reporter. It's not easy to do because newspapers are all limited by space. But when you do it right, and if you can do it briefly, it's a lot closer to an art form than it is to a science. There are days when it's just rote, shoveling coal into the machine to keep the thing going. But when you really have time, and there are a couple of newspapers that afforded us a little more time to write. There were some good writers in newspapers and you wanted to try to run with the best of them. And most days I didn't but it certainly was something to aspire to. It was a good competitive atmosphere and a lot of really talented people.

Diesenhaus: Can you mention the space limitations and originally you mentioned time limitations and I wonder when you wanted to move to a more creative side of writing, was there something about the newspaper world visit that you became a bit exhausted with it? Or are there other ways in which it somehow felt limited in some way that you wanted to move onto something else?

Bass: It was limited in a lot of ways. Newspaper people are nomadic folks so I moved around all within North Carolina. I worked from several papers from non-dailies and dailies. And by the time I was at my last job I was, I'd done it enough that I knew the routine. I had a six o'clock deadline and I remember many days starting my story at 5:30 in the afternoon, 30 minutes before the deadline that had to be in the next day's paper. And I think I was. And I would get it done. It wasn't that I wasn't doing the job and I recognized myself, I was being too casual about it. I was burning out and had the good sense to recognize that it was happening. I think that's what enabled me to look around at other opportunities, which is how I ended up going back to school. This is at 35 years old when I made a mid career change. I never thought that anything could pay less than journalism. Then I went to teaching, writing, and so I found out there's one notch lower than journalism and I went to it. But I did feel limited. There was the idea of the sameness. I was a business report by this time. It was not a beat I enjoyed at all, and I found there was a sameness to the work everyday. The newspaper I was working at was I thought quite production driven and so I didn't have as much freedom to write in a way that I felt I wanted to and needed to. It wasn't their fault. It was their company; it wasn't mine. And so I thought if I don't get out of here I'll never write short stories. I'll never write short, even non-fiction in a way I want to. Because I came to decide that I was always using somebody else's words. It was always an interview that I had conducted. I enjoyed the work a lot but by the time it was over they could easily plug somebody else into my seat, and really never miss me. It was just such a limited-- there's that word again, opportunity to develop a voice in newspapers. And I understand that because you're writing for a mass audience and you're not writing to develop your own voice. It's not what it's supposed to be about. If you're a columnist that's one thing but I wasn't a columnist. So yeah I did feel the limits, I want to say artistically, and that's maybe too high-minded an adverb for newspapers on a given day. But I wasn't growing and I wasn't growing journalistically. And creatively I saw myself-- I guess I was on the precipice of this midlife crisis where I actually could sit at my desk and think, "I'm thirty-five now. If I'm not careful I'll look up and I'll be sixty-five, and I'll still be sitting at this desk, and I'll still be writing this story." Essentially the same story, gas prices, chicken price, whatever price of anything-- is it up, is it down. It's going to be the same story over and over 80,000 times. If I'm not careful I'll be that person. Now there are people who do that and I have a lot of respect for them and they devote their careers to it-- that's fine. I had this issue where I had to ask myself, "Was that for me?" Because I could have stayed in it; I could have stayed comfortable. And for me it was more about the kind of writing I felt I wanted to do and needed to do, and if I didn't get out of there and discipline myself, and have someone expect some deadlines to be met then it simply never would have happened. And that's been many years ago and I still feel today that would have, in fact, been the case had I not done something about it. So yes everything has its limits. I mean teaching has its limits, writing on your own, all of that has its limits too. Everything had its drawbacks but I dealt with that particularly in newspapers. And I was single at the time and I figured I could make that move, and if it was not a good thing essentially I'd be hurting myself only. So I could do it with probably fewer repercussions at that point in my life than I would have had a waited for awhile longer. I think that decision would have just been tougher down the road.

Diesenhaus: I know a little bit about the MFA world now or the past five years or so. I wonder what was it like then and then also how did people respond when you might have told them that's what you were doing. You said you were single but like your family, your friends. How did they-- did they understand it? Did they know what a MFA was or that kind of thing?

Bass: Well I didn't know what an MFA was let alone anybody I was trying to sell the idea to. On one level my family has never really related that much to what I do. I mean we're working background and people always think what are you going to do for a job and there needs to be kind of security. But when I went back to school, and my MFA is from here at UNCW. So when I enrolled in the program I enrolled initially-- there wasn't an MFA program. I enrolled in the MA program in the English department. There was no creative writing program at all. In fact there was only, as I recall, there was only one creative writer and it was Philip Gerard who was fairly new here at the time but had been here for a couple of years. And I didn't know him, had never met him, didn't come here for any reason other than I wanted to write creatively. And at the time the MA program in the English department allowed students to write a creative thesis. So that was going to be my plan, and it happened to be the plan of about five or six more people who came in around the same time I did, and none of us knew each other. So I didn't know anything about MFA programs. I didn't really care anything about a graduate degree. I just wanted to write. I got here and I was here about a year and I was making, I was working full-time at the newspaper while I was in school part-time. And I saw I've got to go to school full-time if I'm ever going to finish. And I'm basically done with newspapers anyway. Now is the time to make this change. I jumped into the MA program-- it was almost like a moving train and they slowed down just enough to let me grab hold. Because I was-- don't have a sparkling academic background. The GRE was one of the worst experiences of my life, and I had never aspired to a degree beyond the Bachelor's degree in journalism. So I managed to get a couple of courses in the MA program and Brooks Dodson -- he was a graduate coordinator for the English department at the time was wonderfully supportive and receptive, and understanding and forgiving, and allowed me to continue to take classes. And essentially they allowed me the opportunity to prove myself. And along the way I remember being in Dr. Dodson's office one day and he brought Philip in. I don't think I'd ever met Philip and he brought him in to talk to me about creative writing and Philippe said we're starting this MFA program. And it's going to be all current MA students who want to do creative thesis are going to be grandfathered into the MFA program so that they had a nucleus of students for their first year. And that was for me. I could clearly see that that, a total program dedicated to creative writing was beyond my dreams when I came here. It was already in the works and I didn't know this. And so I happened to be, talk about the right place at the right time, I was here and my friends were too. And by this time there were probably seven, eight of us as I remember who all moved into that program. I couldn't get in today on the strength of my own writing I'd be rejected out of hand very quickly in any genre. But I was lucky enough that they brought me in and we, my friends were a small group of that early MFA experience and we were the guinea pigs, I suppose, but I also suppose the program was our guinea pig too. We all learned together and I ended up being-- I had the privilege of being-- I was the first non-fiction graduate in the MFA program. There were a few fiction writers before me but I was the first non-fiction graduate. So yeah people didn't always understand what an MFA was or even to this day they just know it's a Masters in Creative Writing and basically that's it. My family really doesn't care. They care about me and they want me to be happy and they want me to be productive, degree or no degree, program or no program doesn't mean that much to them. I think if I had gone to law school, heaven forbid, or to med school I think that has a lot more of a tangible resonance in the community for a lot of or my small community in North Carolina anyway. I think people understand what you're doing there. But when you say you're going to get an MFA in creative writing focusing in creative non-fiction you might as well tell them that you're going to run a summer camp for tuba players or something. It doesn't mean a lot more to them that. And maybe they're right; I don't know.

Diesenhaus: And did you start teaching immediately when you graduated, like '98 was that the right or did you --?

Bass: I was teaching before that. This goes back to Brooks Dodson in the MA program; I was a part-time student my first year and I asked for a teaching assistantship not knowing what that was either. I had no idea what it was. I said, "Sure I'd like one please." It was just as if they were passing around M&Ms or something and I wanted to take one out of the bowl. So I applied for a teaching assistantship and Brooks Dodson called me at work. I remember being in the newsroom one summer and he said, "Are you sure you want to be a teaching assistant?" And I said, "Yeah I'd love that." And he said, "Okay well you've got it." And I remember hanging the phone up thinking, "Uh, oh, I think I've got a decision to make here because I was thinking that at first when I first asked for it that a TA could be a couple of hours a day in time. But I understood later that the time requirements were much greater than that. And so I went into my second year of grad school, my first full-time year of grad school as a mid-career change, brand new TA, observing TA, at 35, 36 years old. And I remember going into a Tuesday/Thursday 8 AM English 101 class and sitting in a little desk thinking, "What I have gotten myself into?" But I began that way in teaching and so I taught as a TA for three years-- actually I think I somehow managed to bumble a fourth year out of it. And then graduated and taught part-time until I became a full-time instructor.

Diesenhaus: And given that you have been here since the very beginning of the MFA world I wonder is there a certain way that's changed or evolved over time? Clearly the change from the MA to the MFA, but other ways that the program has taken on certain characteristics?

Bass: Oh yeah it's changed enormously and for the better. What I've been lucky enough to see is a vision that Philip had many years ago and he's a very organized thinker and he can tell you-- he had a vision for this program and he was telling us even then what he wanted to do. The first and most important component was that he wanted to be different than other non, other MFA programs by allowing non-fiction to have what he calls an 'equal seat at the table'. And I have seen him follow through on that and I have seen this department, this university follows through on that ideal. And I'm very pleased about that. I've personally benefited from that. But it's grown in a lot of ways. Creative writing has gone from being an individual in the English department to a program in the English department, to a department free standing and full on its own separate from English altogether. I've seen the university step in with very generous funding, the inclusion of visiting writers. That was not part of my experience. Bob Reese came a time or two when I was in grad school and was wonderful, but beyond that we didn't have regular visiting writers. So the funding has been there, the increased hiring has come along. And we've seen, we have a full complement of faculty in poetry, fiction and non-fiction, these days. Plus, and this is the biggest change, that I've seen it's become a professional, fully functional department, yes, and along with that the writing community and this is you folks. This is MFA students have grown in number from that small group of my friends and I in the mid-'90s, late '90s to a group of 60 to 70 MFA students now who are incredibly talented writers. I'm not fully joking when I say I couldn't get in today. I see, I've seen the applications and I see the strength of the writers and it's a very highly competitive situation, one in ten enrolls, one in ten applicants. That's a very serious odds and so it's an incredibly talented group of students who come seeking what I believe I was seeking when I came here, which is the opportunity to write, some structure, some expectations, yes, certainly instruction and all of that. But what you really want is you want to be around a group of people who feed on the same energy that you do. And I think that that is the one thing that I've seen this program do highly successfully and it's continuing to. Which is to develop that writing community, and I think that is, that's the sugar that all applicants really want when they come here. And I think it's the best we offer and I've seen that really gain a lot of rolling thunder over the past few years. And the strength, the creative strength of this program rests, in my opinion, primarily with the MFA students and the BFA students. Because you have us outnumbered and certainly out-talented, I think, on good days. But I believe that the real life of the program rests with the students, and I've been fortunate to watch that happen. I've seen several hundred students come through this program and I'm always amazed at the creative power of this program. I'm not sure that the Wilmington community fully understands it yet. I think it's getting more acquainted with it and it's exciting to me to watch this program make as much as noise as it does in the sense of, yes the publications of books from alums but also the very talented day-to-day writing, conversation, teaching, scholarship being done by any number of people any day of the week. We're very happy about that, really proud of that. That is my part of the state too; I'm from southeastern North Carolina. There's nothing else like this. I know this region; there's nothing else like this anywhere close to here. And nothing actually quite like it-- this is not saying anything about any other MFA programs, but nothing else quite like it elsewhere in the state. It's a good program for you to be associated with and for other people, and I'm proud to be associated with it too. I've seen tremendous changes almost all of them for the better over the years.

Diesenhaus: I want to talk a little bit more about your writing but I think it also relates to teaching. And am I correct that you write both fiction and non-fiction--

Bass: Correct.

Diesenhaus: And also teach both?

Bass: Both genres, yes.

Diesenhaus: I wonder just if your approach in either of those, teaching or writing, is your approach different? Do you have any preferences or sort of inclinations that you do it differently for either one?

Bass: No, they're both narrative driven. It's what I love about creative non-fiction. We struggle with this a lot in our undergrad classes where students want to tease out the many possibilities for creative non-fiction and inevitably that devolves into some discussion about how much they can make up in their creative non-fiction. And by now I'm tired of having the conversation because it ends up being this huge tug of war between the students and me as to how much lying they can do in creative non-fiction when I'm saying that to them constantly the creative part of non-fiction allows them to write a compelling story that is true rather than a textbook that's just marching gray armies of ink across the pages and it just makes you glaze over because it's nothing but a recitation of facts. It's the fictional elements of storytelling that is those devices that we all see, use, and read in the best novels, in the best short stories, that allows the creative non-fiction writer to draw the readers in and to capture the reader's imagination in every bit as a compelling a way as Gatsby does or Cormack McCarthy or etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. So I don't approach them any differently. I want to know is there a good story or not? In my view anything can make a good non-fiction story. My students always agree with me on this. They think has to be inherently exciting to be worth writing about, but we all know you that you could take the story of this table here and make it a fascinating story depending on how you want to approach it. So I look for first of all is it a good story and then what's the best way of telling that story and that's sense fiction and non-fiction writing really doesn't-- there's no distinction for me between the two. In terms of adhering to the material I come from a journalism background so I'm very old school in my treatment of information. I think you have to be strictly honest about saying if this is a non-fiction piece then it needs to be non-fiction. You don't need to say, "Well it has a little bit of fiction in it, but it's still mainly non-fiction." It needs to be true and with fiction you can just blow the doors open and write about what you want. These days I don't go through periods of writing about one thing or the other. I go through phases of focusing more on non-fiction for awhile and trying to work on a project, and then more on fiction for awhile and work on a project. And I've been writing more fiction recently but it's strange that just this week I had a little more time to write than I've had, quite a bit more time to write than I've had recently. And so I cranked the computer up and what's the first thing I do is start writing a non-fiction piece that I hadn't planned to write. It was an idea that had been buzzing around in my brain. I didn't have time to write it. I had another project in fiction that I really needed to focus on so I ended up doing a lot working on non-fiction. Turn me loose in a video store I'll go to the documentaries. Turn me loose in a bookstore I'll end up looking at history or memoir or biography. I'll end up in the non-fiction section. The journalist in me is always going to drive me in that direction. At the same time I have to say I think these days for me fiction writing is more difficult because it almost has something to do with that freedom. You can write about anything you want; you can make up everything. And it's as if someone is handing me water, and I'm supposed to hold that. Because it's very difficult for me to ferret out the story and write it in a way that I find compelling, and to be able to manage it and control all the various elements, and build the structure so it holds this up, and have the reader hooked throughout. Non-fiction lends itself, a structure very often lends itself to you as a writer because you have those facts to depend on. Yes you can move the pieces around but you've been given what I think is fairly firm raw material to work with. With fiction it's all got to, really should come whole cloth from your own imagination. I don't write veiled fiction. I don't write fiction that's basically non-fiction and I've tweaked it a little to fictionalize it. My fiction has moved farther and farther away from my own experience, and as a result I find myself spending vast amounts of time trying to imagine, the interior lines of characters, the motivations of characters, and the logical next move of characters so that they seem real on the page and plausible in addition to possible. And I struggle very often with the issue that in the midst of all that they've got to be compelling; they've got to be interesting. And there are days when that works better for me than it does on other days.

Diesenhaus: What you're saying about facing the freedom of fiction I think I keep hearing different opinions about the same ideas. Some people love the freedom of that. Just the other day someone was talking about the freedom which I think you're also saying of the non-fiction here, the truth, kind of getting freedom from that. So it's just really curious to me because it seems like people it's the same set of ideas but people have very different reactions to it.

Bass: With the non-fiction?

Diesenhaus: Well for instance the person I spoke before finds fiction easier but then she also finds a freedom in the confines of the truth so it opens up in that way. So it's just where you come from, the world in which you come from dictates how you're going to relate to it. It's almost ironic in that you came out of this super fact-based world but when you're open to fiction where there's sort of no rules you are not so. It's more of, I don't want to say intimidating, but you kind of run up against it.

Bass: Yes, intimidating is not too strong a word. It does feel that way at times. This is the quintessential version of staring at the blank page. It's not only blank in that-- I write directly on the computer, compose on the keyboard so I'm staring at a blank screen. But also there is no material that I'm pulling from. I spend a lot of time as a result of that with stories in incubation. I walk around with a story inside my mind for a long time before, for one reason or another, I feel that it's the right story to write now. And as a result of that there are a lot of stories that get shoved aside. I like that process because I don't think that, and I've told students this, just any story isn't worth writing. You've got to figure out 'the story' to write, which is the one that you need to tell now. Which story needs to be told? And so I try to make that decision so I'm not wasting my time writing toward a dead end. But at the same time once I print that computer up it's my own devices that have to bring in with fiction. I have to bring everything forward and pour it onto the page but I've got to make something out of nothing. And it's not slight of hand; this is magic. And it's difficult to do that. With non-fiction you're doing an interview, you're doing research. When you're doing it you can almost see-- I tell students the story kind of writes itself. You can almost see this is where this is going to fit. This is how this is going to work. You can almost tell that at the time you're doing the interview, the time you're doing the research. With fiction you're got to figure out where I began and what logically takes place from here because I don't even know perhaps exactly what the story is. The story may develop in the midst of the writing. With non-fiction again I think those pieces are firmer. That's not to say its easy then but at least you have tangible shapes that you can hold in your hand and move around. With fiction you've got to create the shapes before you can pick them up so I think the tasks are both difficult, equally difficult, but they're just entirely different.

Diesenhaus: You talked about having to store your different story ideas in your head. Either for non-fiction or fiction can you a bit more about how you've come to those ideas? Is it things in the news or from the culture for non-fiction certain stories or ideas are the same, certain things spur you to fictional ideas as well?

Bass: It's very often issues from culture and issues from the news, because I was a newspaper reporter and grew up reading the newspaper. I still do it. I read the newspaper this morning. I'm geeky enough that I wake up to MPR in the morning, and it's running throughout most of my routine. I think it's important to stay current on what's happening in the world. I don't do that out of some kind of duty to citizenship. I do that because I'm curious, I guess I'm nosy enough that I want to know what's going on. And as a result of that ideas sometimes are going to stay with and story ideas come from that. I don't read the newspaper looking for story ideas. What happens is that something sort of bubbles up. It's all just in my mind sort of a sea of mud and every now and then something kind of manages to claw its way up to the surface and I'm able to see, well that's a possibility of an idea. I've also gotten ideas from students. Students are great to talk to and undergrads. This is not a knock against grad students but undergrads can be so irreverent and so free ranging in their discussions in workshops that we'll see a piece that very often has another lane but it kind of misses the mark. And students in class will very often talk about other possibilities for the story. And out of that comes some story ideas of my own that I think that's-- I'm not stealing his idea but that makes me think of something else in my own writing that I might want to do. So being around students is a tremendous asset because story ideas constantly float around. And very often it's, in my opinion, it's the stories that most other students want to discard and say, "Oh that's boring. Oh that makes it a challenge to make that into an interesting story." That's one I'd want to pick as the one that is the piece that nobody else really wanted to touch because they felt there was no hope for it. I see that as a kind of a challenge. So I get ideas that way. Some of them have just been banging around in my mind for a long time and also in the newspaper business I've seen topics that seem compelling for one reason or another but they seem underplayed or overlooked and I think that that's from a marketing perspective I think that's what would make that an interesting and readable story.

Diesenhaus: And particularly on the non-fiction side when you're working through an idea how does your research process develop and do you research a lot or read? If you get hooked on something start reading more about it and then eventually come into the writing? Or is it fluid?

Bass: It's more fluid than that. I think I'm still as undisciplined as I ever was and still as aimless as I was probably in those days at high school. I'll often start with personal writing but I don't have a big body of work in memoir because I don't find my own life all that interesting to write about. I don't think it can pull that much freight. But often I'll start with some personal writing and I'll see the possibilities and I'll think, "I need to research this a little bit more. I need to know more about this aspect of what I'm writing about." And then that will lead me to do research so that the piece I'm writing will not just sound more informed but be more informed. And also it will make it broader than just a piece of writing about me. And in that sense I think if it's a good piece it takes on more of the elements, more universal elements, becomes more of a personal essay than it is a piece of memoir. And I struggle at times between the distinctions between essay and memoir. But I try to keep it away from just a mirror gazing about myself because as taken with myself as I might be I hope that I'm self-aware enough to know that I'm not as interesting as I think I am. And I don't want to fool myself into believing that other people would find me fascinating to read about. But I can take something small about myself and see if I can broaden it to a larger discussion and that's since I think it could relate to someone else. So I'll do research to inform myself, and the reporter in me constantly sees gaps in my understanding. I need to make this more authoritative. I need to know what I'm talking about here. There's got to be examples. And with research being as easy to get these days as it is there's no reason not to do it. It's not a complicated process. The last thing I want to do is to come off sounding like a poorly informed buffoon I guess as opposed to a well informed buffoon. I don't want to be either one of those but especially a poorly informed buffoon. I don't want to write a piece and have someone see through it immediately. I want to make them work a little before they see it through it at least. But anyhow I want to add something then. I want to know what I'm talking about before I go off playing the authority. And that's total newspapers, you can't endeavor to write about a complicated subject in the newspaper if you haven't done some research. You'd be amazed at the number of students who want to come in and be the authority in a story and they really haven't done any reading on it. And it shows and students will very often point that out and it's true. So I don't want to commit the same kind of crime in my own writing. That's the practicing what you preach part.

Diesenhaus: And from the process side I think a couple of times you've mentioned when you sit down at the computer is it a specific kind of time and place each day? Are you, aside from things that you might be working on are you bringing materials like notes to the process of it?

Bass: Yes to all of that. It's the same place. I have a writing desk. I have a room dedicated for my writing, and I like these kinds of questions because I'm interested in writer's habits because I'm always trying to steal ideas from writers in ways to make myself more productive. But I need a quiet space and I also need freedom to concentrate. So it's the same place every time I write. I virtually never write anything creative in my office. That's email only space. The creative work I do is at home. I don't have the Internet at home so there's not that distraction. So it's almost like I have a-- in essence I have a workspace at the university, then I have a creative space at home. I write in the mornings, very early in the mornings. My clock shifted as I got older. When I was younger I could stay up all night and write into the wee hours. Now I just want to go to bed and I don't mind getting up very early, and this morning I was up before six. I was making coffee and looking forward to going up and writing, which is what I did. That's not every day that I'm able to do that because of my schedule, but yes, same place, usually the same time. If I want more writing time the only answer these days is to get up earlier and there's a limit to that for me. And yes I bring more and more notes to the process. I did a very small piece over the summer and I found myself-- I was out of town when I went on this little excursion, and I found myself trying to gather string, keep as much information as I could because I don't believe that we can just remember everything. And because I had the notes with me when I came back, and I did write it, I was able to just pour through the notes and write specific names, specific street names, building names. There was a cemetery involved, almost distances, and the kind of factual information that I though added layers of detail to the piece that otherwise would have clearly appeared that I was guesstimating and glossing over and fudging. It's pretty easy to see when somebody hasn't done their homework, so I wanted to do that. I ended up bringing notes back for that. I do that more and more because I understand the utility of the notes for the writing process. Instead of saying, "Gee, I wish I'd written that down at the time," now I'm more inclined to say, "Let me write it down. If I don't need, no big deal, but if I need it I've got it." So a notebook stays in my car all the time. There's always something to write with fairly close by if I need to jot something down. I do depend on that heavily. And in my old age it makes a huge difference.

Diesenhaus: I think I just have a few more questions. It's coming to the end of this tape. Just maybe about 10 to 15 minutes more to go?

Bass: Sure.

Diesenhaus: Everything going okay?

(tape change)

Diesenhaus: So this is the beginning of Tape 2 and following up from where you left off I just wanted to ask-a question I've been trying to ask everyone although sometimes I miss out. But either in your office or your home space I've heard that there's writers who want to face the window and then writers the other side of having your back to the window, and I wondered if you have a window and if you fit that model at all?

Bass: Well I'm going to make your life miserable here. I do have a window and my, I have an L-shaped desk that actually faces neither toward or away from the window. If I sit the window is directly on right side. So it comes in sideways and the only reason that it's that way-- I know the rule you're talking about and I don't follow that one way or the other. Because I spend a lot of time at my desk with my arms crossed looking either out the window, or at the wall, or at the ceiling because especially in fiction I'm trying to think full time. So it doesn't really matter-- it's not that I'm distracted by anything. I'm just trying to come up with something and I can look out a window and I'm obtuse enough that I can look out a window and not see anything out there. But the desk is turned in that direction because it's a glass topped desk and I was getting glare when it was facing the window so I had to turn it sideways for a little less glare but that's the only reason that it's that way. So in terms of one or the other, I'm neither, but both.

Diesenhaus: Yes I think I'm running into that. With Robert Siegel we were in his office and there was no window. And then probably the laptop helps. Sometimes people are not necessarily only in one place doing their work.

Bass: Yes I have a desktop but you're right if it were a laptop then mobility becomes completely the rule. For me it's a desktop. It's a fixed space with a window to my right, and I keep the blinds closed. That helps because it's less glare but oddly one of the blinds is broken so I can see out the little gap out there if I want to. So it's the best and worst of both worlds with no real firm answer to that.

Diesenhaus: The only other process question I wanted to ask is given how you described early mornings are you aiming for a quota or certain page length or word length or just whatever happens in the time you have?

Bass: Yes it's whatever happens during the time that I can get something accomplished. I learned a long time ago that with a busy schedule, and an early schedule there are days that I have to allow myself to be satisfied with a paragraph especially if it's a good paragraph. I can live with that. There are days when I can crank out a lot more and I'm never aiming for a specific quota, word count, page length or anything. I don't have the luxury to be able to sit there and accomplish that if I haven't finished it within a, by the time I've gotten to the bottom of my mug of coffee. The clock dictates my productivity more than any kind of quota.

Diesenhaus: I think just as an aside that's like a theorem that's sort of been developing. The people who may have had a different life and have to come writing a little bit later in their life, and for various reasons may not have as many other types of obligations or maybe were tired they use some of those things to get their writing out. Whereas people who, for instance are teachers, or have very busy family lives do what they can in very small periods.

Bass: Sure.

Diesenhaus: And it kind of changes the whole outlook on it.

Bass: Yes the requirements are just different depending on responsibilities for that day. In grad school I did this project on Tom Wolfe and the research I had on him at the time-- I don't know if he's still doing this-- but the research I had said that he would do, of course incredible amounts of research, but when he was ready to write finally he would write and set himself a quota of ten pages a day. And I'm thinking, "My Lord in a month he's gotten 300 manuscript pages. That's phenomenal." But he's a prolific writer and that's the way to do it. But also if you're Tom Wolfe you can allow yourself-- you have the luxury to be able to stay home and write ten pages a day because that is your job. He doesn't have to get up and meet a 9:30 undergrad fiction workshop and try to workshop three stories in an hour and fifteen minutes and direct traffic, and then go to a committee meeting and then go to the next class and direct more traffic. It doesn't work that way in his life.

Diesenhaus: I think related to that and you've made mention of this yourself talking about your family life and kind of the cultural world that you came from, I wonder if socially or other things when people might ask what you do a) do you say a writer or do you say it's for instance professor. And if you do say writer what's the reaction you get from the world?

Bass: Yeah I know what you're talking about and I deal with that a lot. And I think that-- I could tell you that when I'm asked what I do, I say teacher. And it's sort of my not-so-clever way of not getting into the inevitable conversation, which happens anyway because they say, "Oh what do you teach or where do you teach?" "I teach at the university; I teach creative writing." "Oh," and then suddenly I'm into the conversation as if I had said writer from the beginning. And people will say, "Well what do you write?" And I'll say-- this usually ends the conversation by the way, I usually say, "I write fiction and non-fiction." And that's basically as far as it goes because a lot of times people will say, "Well what kind of stories do you write?" And I'm thinking, "Well what were you talking about? Do I write teddy bear stories? Do I write snake stories? I don't know what you're talking about. What kind of stories? My stories aren't a kind. They're short stories or long fiction or non-fiction. They may be essays. They may be long non-fiction. People want you to write a kind of story in the sense that they want you to play a kind of music. I try to avoid the conversation and never yet have I managed to avoid the conversation by saying that I'm a teacher. Invariably I'll end up talking about my writing and invariably that part of the conversation will end any hope for a friendship.

Diesenhaus: Well that's four for four. Four teachers I've asked that question and they've answered exactly the same way. And so I just want one more question and that's an overly broad one especially in your role as a teacher. Do you have any advice for other writers especially focusing on younger, people in the BFA or the MFA program or people who are new to pursuing writing?

Bass: Yes and I've told this to a class just yesterday, in fact. There's so many pieces of advice and I try to give so many that my students very often glaze over because they're sick of hearing the advice. But it's also very front brain stuff, and it's one of the things that I think a lot of writers tend to overlook, which is the fundamental importance of reading to writing. I tell my students to read more. Very often they're not reading much. Well they're busy; they're lazy; they're undisciplined. They're all the things I am and so they're very often not reading good material. They're not reading enough, and reading will make them better writers. Reading a lot will make them better writers. It will make them better grammarians. It will make them better imaginative or more imaginative in their writing. It will make them better at controlling the material. It will give them a better idea of what the story is. Read a lot, write a lot. You've got to give yourself a chance to be bad for while. I had a grad school professor who essentially said that to us. He said, "You just have to go in and suck for so long." And that was hard to hear that night in a workshop but it stayed with me for many years since then because he's right. Because I may be bad but it gives me hope that if I get it, kind of write that out of my system, I'll be better. And that by the way is a fairly lowbrow way of saying, "Find your voice." It's the same kind of thing. So read a lot; write a lot. Another piece advice I would say I would have too is that I don't think that, and I'm committing that sin, this sin right here, right now, which is to sit around and talk about being a writer. I think a lot of people want to talk about being a writer and not enough people are really writing. And the important thing is to crank up the machine, in my case the computer, get your notebook out or whatever it is, and just write. And even if it you think its bad-- my students are really tough on themselves. "This is terrible. I hate this piece of writing. This story is awful. It's the worst thing I've written. I just want to write something else." They're really tough on themselves and the writing is not bad. In many cases it's brilliant. But you've got to allow yourself the opportunity just to go in there and write through a lot of that angst and work that out of your system. It's great because I think we all have a certain amount of that and if we just do what's necessary, in this case writing to knead that out of our nervous system and get it out or exhale it, and get rid of it then we're all going to be better writers because of it. But in terms of a magical piece of golden advice that I can, you know, take out the brass scroll and open it up and say, "Here is the grand secret to being the best writer on earth," doesn't exist. It's all dumber than that. Read a lot; write a lot; allow yourself time to be bad; and don't beat yourself up too much because we're all bad on many days. For me most days, but when it's good it feels great and that's what makes all the bad days worth it.

Diesenhaus: Thanks very much.

Bass: Thank you. This has been fun.

UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database
Found in:
Randall Library | UNCW Archives and Special Collections | Online Database | Contact Us | Admin Login
Powered by Archon Version 3.21 rev-1
Copyright ©2012 The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign