Friday, January 1, 2016

Mark David Gerson: A Writer's Life Revisited

This is an updated version of an interview that originally appeared on Jean Vallesteros's Book Nerd blog a few years ago. Read the original and related material here

Book Nerd: What inspired you to pen your first novel? Where did you get your ideas for The MoonQuest?

Mark David Gerson: I have written about the birth of The MoonQuest in my Acts of Surrender memoirIn short, though, I had no plans to write a MoonQuest, nor did I have a conscious desire to write a fantasy novel, let alone a trilogy. The MoonQuest birthed itself during a Toronto writing workshop I was facilitating when, in an unprecedented in-the-moment inspiration, I did the same exercise I had presented to participants. What I wrote that evening became the opening scene of the first draft of a novel I knew nothing about. From there, I just kept writing, discovering the story as I went along, until I was done. The StarQuest and SunQuest stories emerged similarly.


BN: What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?


MDG: An open heart and mind and a willingness to surrender to your story and travel wherever it takes you (and to break all the rules getting there).


BN: How long have you been writing?

MDG: Perhaps the better question would be, "How long did I resist writing?" I often joke that my Muse tricked me into writing, given that for most of my early life, I resisted anything remotely creative. My first jobs out of university were in public relations, where I had to write, even if what I wrote at first was largely formulaic. However, that experience gave me the confidence to try my hand at freelance work and, before I knew it, I was a full-time (self-taught) freelance writer and editor, doing mostly magazine, newspaper, corporate and government work. However, it wasn’t until my early 30s, when the double-whammy of a creative and spiritual awakening knocked me over the head that I began to explore more creative avenues. And it wasn’t until I was 39 that The MoonQuest, my first foray into serious creative writing, began to have its way with me. I’ve been hooked ever since.


BN: What is The MoonQuest about?

MDG: Imagine a land where storytelling is banned, where storytellers have been put to death, where dreams and visions are outlawed, where imagination has been stripped from the land and its people. This is the Q’ntana of The MoonQuest, a land where, as Toshar, the main character, puts it, "'once upon a time' is a forbidden phrase and fact is the only legal tender." In this land, legend has it, the moon has been so saddened by the silence and tyranny that she has cried tears that have extinguished her light. As a result, the moon has not been seen for many generations. The MoonQuest, then, is the journey undertaken by a reluctant Toshar and his three companions to restore story and vision to the land and to rekindle the light of the moon. Check out the book trailer on YouTube.


BN: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing? Did you learn anything from writing The MoonQuest and what was it?

MDG: When I begin a project, I rarely know the story in advance. When I began The MoonQuest, for example, I knew nothing about it, except what emerged in each day’s writing. I didn’t have a title until about halfway through and I had no idea of the ending until about two-thirds of the way through. It was an experience in surrender: in surrendering unconditional control to my Muse and to the story. And it was tough! It was tough to keep writing with no plot, no outline and not even the remotest clue where the story was taking me. But it taught me how to get out of the way and let the story have its way with me. That’s still how I write — regardless of the form, genre or project. I now do it with much less resistance than I did it on The MoonQuest. But it’s still, sometimes, the most challenging aspect of the work...even as it’s also the most exhilarating and is, for me, the key to the magic!


BN: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

MDG: I’d probably have to say Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time. I didn’t discover A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels until I was an adult, when I also discovered, through her nonfiction writings, L’Engle’s deep spirituality, one that informed her creativity and her life. While L’Engle’s spirituality found its expression through the Episcopal Church and mine is largely unstructured, she was a profound influence on my writing and my life. In a sense, she already was a mentor without me knowing it. Now, if she were still alive, I’d like to thank her for that.


BN: What is your work schedule like when you're writing?

MDG: For the most part, I don’t believe in fixed routines. Rather, I operate intuitively — in my writing and in my life. I’m not one of those people who writes at the same time every day or who believes that you should sit down to write regardless of how you feel. While other coaches and instructors recommend applying a regular routine to creative production, that method never works for me for very long. Rather, I remain as in-the-moment as I can and follow wherever the inspiration leads me — in my life as well as in my writing. That way of living and writing is both exhilarating and, at times, terrifying. But it does keep things in an organic balance!


BN: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating The MoonQuest?

MDG: Three things, I suppose. The first was that I was actually creative. The second, that the methods I had been teaching (what I call "writing on the Muse Stream": writing nonstop, without thinking, without worrying about where the story was going) actually worked on something as long as a novel. And the third, related to the second, that the story was, truly, way smarter than I was!


BN: How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?

MDG: I have 12 books out: the three books in The Q'ntana Trilogy (The MoonQuestThe StarQuest and SunQuest), five books for writers, including the award-winning The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write, two memoirs, the inspirational Book of Messages and my latest, a novel called Sara's Year. Plus, I have a Sara's Year sequel in progress. (As well, I have adapted the three Q'ntana stories for the screen.) But asking which is my favorite would be like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. Each is meaningful to me in particular ways and each is a favorite for particular reasons! 


BN: What were your feelings when  you first saw the cover of of your first published book?

MDG: When I opened the FedEx envelope and pulled out my advance copy of The MoonQuest, I burst into tears. I didn’t expect to have that same reaction with my second book, The Voice of the Muse....but I did!


BN: If you gave some of your characters an opportunity to speak for themselves, what would they say?

MDG: What took you so long to get our story out??!? Seriously, I spoke to my characters while writing all three books in the fantasy trilogy. It was some of those conversations that led to some of the most surprising (to me) and powerful scenes in the books.


BN: Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of The MoonQuest?

MDG: I would invite readers not only to look at the book from the outside, as readers, but to look at the journey the main characters undertake in the book through the lens of their own life experience. In other words, where does The MoonQuest speak to you, personally, in your life? In addition, I have a Reader's Guide to The MoonQuest, available free from my website.


BN: Who is your favorite character in The MoonQuest, and why?

MDG: I’ll answer this question as long as you don’t reveal my answer to the book’s main characters! My two favorite characters, I think, are the two quirkiest...the ones that always make me smile and sometimes make me laugh out loud: the Ferryman (he’s so minor that he has no name) and Pryma, a giant, one-eyed turtle-like creature, who makes a return appearance in The SunQuest.


BN: What was your favorite chapter to write and why?

MDG: Given that the first draft of The MoonQuest was one 400-page chapter, that one’s impossible to answer! As I mentioned earlier, I had no idea what the story was or where it was taking me, so I just kept writing, with no chapter breaks, until the first draft was done. I only added chapter and section breaks in later drafts. I did include chapter breaks in the first draft of The StarQuest and The SunQuest. Although they felt arbitrary at the time, my intuitive sensings must have been fairly accurate as most of those chapter breaks have changed.


BN: Can you see yourself in any of your characters?

MDG: Authors who claim that they don’t see aspects of themselves in all their characters are either lying, blind or woefully un-self-aware. I am in all my characters, even (I hate to admit) the nastiest! In The MoonQuest, though, the character I most identify with is Toshar, the main character whose first-person account the story is. This young man who discovers his stories and his storytelling ability through his MoonQuest journey was very much a metaphor for the creative deepening that writing the book represented for me at that time in my life.


BN: Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?

MDG: I haven’t had that experience with a review. But I have had it with reader comments. Two experiences in particular were surprising, and gratifying. In the first, a reader told me why the most difficult scenes in the book supported the story’s theme. Those were scenes that had been challenging for me to write, were often challenging for readers to read and, although I intuitively knew they belonged in the book, I couldn’t explain why. In the second instance, a reader brought up a theme that I hadn’t known was there but that made perfect sense to me once he mentioned it. Truly, my books are smarter than I am!


BN: Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.

MDG: Although winning awards and getting great reviews for both books have been tremendously gratifying and validating, and although having a film producer primed to turn my books into movies is fabulously exciting, what’s most rewarding is when individual readers tell me how one or both of my books has affected them and, in some cases, changed their lives. This moving video, for example, was sent to me by one of my readers.


BN: What are your current projects?

MDG: As I mentioned earlier, I'm working on a sequel to Sara's Year, tentatively titled After Sara's Year. It wasn't a book I planned to write, but so many Sara's Year readers asked for a sequel that I felt I had to give it try. Now, I'm excited to be discovering aspects of the original story and its characters that I didn't know when writing Sara's Year. 


BN: If you couldn’t be an author, what would your ideal career be?

MDG: My secret ambition would be to be a singer! More realistically, I’m also an artist and photographer and would be quite happy devoting more time to those creative pursuits. You can see some of my art and photography on my fine art website, as well as on Instagram.


BN: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

MDG: This is for all writers, not just aspiring ones! Trust the story, even if you don’t yet know what it is. Trust your innate creativity. Take it word by word and allow your pen or the keyboard to spell out the story for you. Allow yourself to be the passenger on your creative journey, not the driver. And, of course, get a copies of my books! Seriously, if you can begin to believe that your story always knows best, you’ll never go wrong.


BN: Where is your favorite place to read/write?

MDG: I’m a bit of a café freak. I love reading and writing at Starbucks (as my Facebook friends/followers have discovered)!


BN: One of your favorite quotes?

MDG: From The MoonQuest: “You either trust or you do not. There is no halfway in between.”


BN: Where can your readers stalk you?

MDG: I'm easily stalkable in all the usual places! lol
The best place to contact me is either via my website or Facebook, or by leaving comments on my blog.  I’m also on Google+ . FYI: I do my best to respond to all comments and queries...but sometimes it’s just not possible. But I read and appreciate them all.

1 comment:

suzzy said...

Hi Mark, I just read your blog about writing from the sub-conscious mind. I'd like to add that in order to fully realize this awareness, you have to even let go of writing itself and let you soul bring you back to it, if that's the best direction for you to travel.