On The Wind, It Swirls, Writing Process, and Characters Talking to Each Other
An Interview with Dan Crawley
Valerie Fox: The voices of your often vulnerable narrators in The Wind, It Swirls (Cowboy Jamboree Press, 2021) are entrancing. The trouble these characters are in is often very serious—and sometimes we sense a potential to get out of this trouble, sometimes not. I’m thinking of “Into the Den of God,” “Gone, Gone, Gone” and so many more. How does voice play into your process? Do your stories start there? Or do they develop with arc, metaphors, conflicts etc. Perhaps you can tell us about the development of one or more of the stories in this collection?
Dan Crawley: Thank you so much for your kind words about this collection!
Yes, voice is an important tool in my writing. When initially thinking about the story of the boys waiting for God in a dad’s den, the dialogue of the characters were foremost in my mind. In fact, it was Paul Derrick’s voice, his begging, that was one of the first lines I mulled over, playing out the scene again and again. The imagery of a dark room full of lit candles also was a spark for this story. The arc, figurative language, and conflicts slowly filled in around this dialogue moment, the details in the scene. Usually, character dialogue and a strong image are how most of my stories start.
“Gone, Gone, Gone” first began with the image of the wreck on a snowy highway. I obsessed about this scene, the details, for weeks. The dialogue, the whole tone of the piece, grew out of this depiction.
VF: I see that, how the stories are grounded in a “depiction,” as you put it. I appreciate the theatricality and visual acumen.
Just wondering, but are you presently working on or thinking about adapting for theater? I can imagine you adapting, for instance, “Bio Dad” or “A Godly Man,” or other stories connected by themes or concerns. I notice the people on the other sides of doors, for instance. I guess I’m imagining a few in a set, though I don’t doubt you could work with one story alone and fashion it into a play.
DC: It is wild that you bring up the theater. When I first started writing at 18, I thought I was going to be a playwright. I love characters talking to each other to not only reveal themselves but also the conflicts of the story, and so the very first pieces I wrote were one-act plays. During my undergrad, I took a one-year seminar in screenwriting from a big Hollywood screenwriter and director. My odds of launching a play in a theater, even a regional one, was pretty much nil. And selling a movie script outside of L.A. seemed unrealistic. Getting stories published was more doable for my writing. The stories you mention, plus many more, always started as little plays in my mind. I act out all the character parts continuously until I’m ready to get the story on the page. It would be so cool to see some of the stories you mention and others arrive on a stage someday!
VF: Switching topics, can you share a little about your teaching. When you teach, what are a few ideas, principles, or models that you like to share? What do you get out of teaching for your own writing life?
Fiction to me has been a practice of exorcism, in a way.
DC: First weeks of the workshop, we read different examples of stories to talk about character, conflict, figurative language use, how to write toward a resolution. Specifically, I stress the importance of character-driven writing in all my workshops. Knowing a character’s intention, or the want, to kick start any story is a great way for writing students to begin. Then a conflict gets in the way of a want, and so forth. Also, I see workshops as collaborative effort. Everyone brings in their attempts and we all work together to come up with ideas for revisions. This process is the best part of teaching fiction.
And, the workshops I’ve led over the years have enhanced my own writing. Assisting others with their stories is a wonderful exercise for my own decision making for my stories.
VF: In a related question, have you had influential mentors that guided you in some particular ways?
DC: When I was writing longer stories, the likes of Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Richard Yates, Charles Baxter, and John Fante influenced me most. And as I entered into the flash fiction world, I found numerous writers that have influenced my own writing greatly, right up to this day.
Then there are these four: Kathy Fish, Meg Pokrass, Francine Witte, and Kim Chinquee. These four storytellers are masters of the form, and I’ve studied closely their work, analyzing right down to their word choices, trying to gain a deep understanding of their craft. These four are my writing teachers, above all.
VF: I really appreciate how in reading your stories we share in the gradual realizations with the characters. At the same time, the clues you give, given as they are through dialogue and metaphor, are subtle. I’m thinking about Lilly saying “What am I doing?” (which can be read in more than one way) in “The Other Cyclist” and how that works so well with the story’s title to change the trajectory and to get us going deeper. How are elements like title and metaphor important in your work?
DC: Like voice, I’m a very big fan of figurative language, metaphors specifically. And trying to be subtle, and let the reader participate with the story on the page. But I think to come up with a description that can resonate with a reader is a real challenge for me, but a joyful challenge. Regarding titles, in all honesty, they are a bear for me. I usually wait until I’ve got a few drafts under my belt before thinking about what to call a given piece.
But I do think titles can add flavor to a story’s intent, if not point the reader in the right direction. I tend to grab significant word choices from the story to play as a signpost, too.
VF: That’s a lovely phrase, “joyful challenge” and also your use of the sign-post and guiding metaphors stands out. It’s a positive way to think about audience, really. In terms of audience, and the readers’ tastes, do you notice anything “in the air” lately? Does this kind of thing influence you?
DC: Not really. I am influenced by how writers are crafting their stories, though, especially those writing micros. The content of my stories usually come from a place that really happened to me, then the fictionalizing happens, the skewing of facts into interesting character wants borne from the conflicts that arise. I guess I’m the only audience I’m thinking about while writing a piece. I do like how writers take the prevailing ideas in the air and place an original spin on them. Cathy Ulrich and Pat Foran are geniuses with this kind of inventive storytelling.
VF: Can you speak with us a little about what you’re working on now?
DC: I’m working on new stories all the time. Mostly flash fiction and micros. I love micros. I love working on a very tiny story, finally making it work. I’m slowly working on a new novella-in-flash, too.
I’m so excited about my flash fiction collection Blur coming out later this year! I am proud of this little book, and looking forward to everyone reading it.
VF: Your characters are often seeking connection in a society that doesn’t make this easy. Obstacles can me emotional, financial, etc. This feels so important, and it’s a theme that cuts across those boundaries (class, education, etc.). If this is something you think about, could you talk about that?
DC: This is an awesome question, Valerie. And I’m glad you mention the conflicts many of my characters face, the theme of most of my writing. My family struggled with financial hardships when I was younger, creating highly emotional distress for everyone, sometimes for months on end. To live through moments of instability, like the loss of a home to foreclosure, is a shock wave. It still affects my siblings and me today. So fiction to me has been a practice of exorcism, in a way. I know I will continue to detail characters’ struggles because I think it is important not only for my own well-being to “get it out” (for lack of better words) but it is a universal conflict that I think is essential to highlight in the human condition. And even if many have not been through what I have, or have experienced worse, the universality of these struggles will always ring true.
VF: Thank you so much for sharing these insights with NFFR, Dan.
Dan Crawley is the author of Straight Down the Road (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2019), The Wind, It Swirls (Cowboy Jamboree Press, 2021), and Blur (Cowboy Jamboree Press, 2023). His writing appears in numerous journals and anthologies, including JMWW, Lost Balloon, North American Review, SmokeLong Quarterly: The Best of the First Ten Years 2003-2013, Wigleaf, Quarterly West, and Atticus Review. He is a recipient of an Arizona Commission on the Arts creative writing fellowship. Also, he has multiple nominations for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net, Best Microfiction, and a Pushcart Prize. He has been teaching creative writing, composition, and literature courses for 27 years at a number of community colleges and universities throughout the Southwest. And for three years, he was a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University, leading fiction workshops at all levels.