Raymond Obstfeld is The Man when it comes to fiction writing. A well-respected novelist with 28 titles in just about every genre imaginable to his credit, many screenplays and adaptations, works of non-fiction, and magazine articles as a contributing editor for Writer’s Digest, he also finds time to teach creative writing at Orange Coast College.
But it was his self-help book for fiction writers FICTION FIRST AID: INSTANT REMEDIES FOR NOVELS, and the followup NOVELISTS ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO CRAFTING SCENES that made us eager to interview him. Both books should enjoy a prominent place on the writer’s bookshelf. FICTION FIRST AID is one of the most useful books I’ve found because it helps diagnose the problems lurking in your MS immediately…. and offers lucid solutions for how to fix them.
We are pleased to present our interview with Raymond Obstfeld.
Q: Tell us how you started your career in the notoriously tough world of writing novels.
RO: I started as a poet. My first published book, The Cat with Half a Face, was a collection of poetry. In graduate school, I continued to focus on poetry, though I dabbled in fiction and screenplays. Generally, the poets were at war with the fiction writers. Poets thought the fiction writers were sellouts who wrote fiction because they didn’t have the brains or talent for poetry. Fiction writers thought the poets were elitist snobs. They were both right.
My literary studies were so time-consuming that I often spent twelve hours a day studying and writing papers. Then, about midnight, I started working on a novel for relaxation. I chose a genre far from everything I was studying—a mystery novel. It was love at first sight.
When I finished my novel, I took it to a literary agent (Elizabeth Pomada of the Pomada/Larsen Agency) I found in the phone book and dropped it on her front door. I couldn’t afford the postage. She called me up a week later and told me she loved it and would represent me. Three years later she sold it as part of a four-book deal.
Q: You teach fiction-writing at Orange Coast College in California. What drew you to teaching and what keeps you there?
RO: Writing is such a solitary activity that your judgment—about writing as well as about people—can become insulated, which makes for a bad writer and a boring human being. Interacting with students keeps my mind sharp (I think). When I first started teaching college, I was only 24 and thought it was a temporary gig until the big publishing bucks started pouring in. However, even when I was able to afford to quit teaching, I discovered—to my shock—that I loved teaching too much to quit.
Q: You’ve written 28 novels under a variety of names in a variety of genres. Why did you choose to do this instead of concentrating on building a readership under your own name?
RO: I don’t advise new writers to follow my career path because it’s not really the best way to run a career. But I never had a clear plan. I just wrote whatever interested me or whatever I thought would be a challenge. I tried spy novels, Westerns, mysteries—anything I wanted. I used some pseudonyms (Pike Bishop, Carl Stevens, Jason Frost, etc.). I did the same in non-fiction, writing books about religion, animal behavior, biographies. Then I decided to return to literary fiction, but I’d written so much different stuff that I changed my name to Laramie Dunaway and wrote from a woman’s pov. In fact, at first I didn’t even tell my agent (Sandy Watt) who I was until after she’d read the book and agreed to represent it. We sold it to Warner and didn’t tell them I was a man until they’d published a couple Dunaway novels (which for some unknown reason were bestsellers in England).
Last year I was contacted by basketball icon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and together we wrote On the Shoulders of Giants about the influence of the Harlem Renaissance on him. Right now I’m writing a book with Antwone Fisher (whose biopic was directed by Denzel Washington).
Q: We’ve interviewed many writers, and your books FICTION FIRST AID and THE NOVELIST’S ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO CRAFTING SCENES are consistently mentioned as the most helpful how-to books for writers. One of the things we love about both is that you don’t assume that the reader knows anything about craft. The books start with the most basic of questions (e.g. what’s a plot?) and you break the elements down from there. What prompted you to write books from a beginner’s perspective?
RO: I just put in the kind of stuff I teach my students. Oddly, between novels I forget how to write them and feel like a beginner myself each time. Everything in those books helps me, so I thought it might help others.
Q: You’ve written screenplays and use movies as examples in your craft books. Do you recommend that novelists study the craft of screenplays to help them improve their writing?
RO: Absolutely. And plays. And poems. Each teaches a different skill. Poetry teaches you the importance of word choice. The perfect word. Plays and scripts teach you about structure and using dialogue to tell the story.
Q: Writers have lots of excuses not to write. But with 27 titles to your credit, obviously that’s not a problem for you. What advice can you offer aspiring writers to help them overcome their fears and just get on with the work?
RO: My secret is that I know when I sit down to write that whatever comes out will be crap. It will probably be crap the second and third drafts. It only starts to resemble something less craplike after A LOT of rewriting. But, to me, that’s the fun part. So, I don’t beat myself up for writing badly; I just work on it until it’s better.
I will admit that every book I’ve ever started I’ve wanted to quit. I always come to a point where I say I can’t write it anymore, give back the money, let me go to bed and pull the covers over my head. But I just sit down, keep writing, and eventually it’s done.
Q: What’s the most common problem you see newbie writers make?
RO: They don’t rewrite enough. They are often content with a few drafts. They aren’t aware that this is a competitive art/business. There are a lot of writers out there. Fortunately for me, many of them stop after a couple drafts. I don’t. That’s my edge. I’m in no hurry to finish, not like I used to be (which is why my early work is so sketchy).
Q: Your most recent release is a book you co-wrote with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS: MY JOURNEY THROUGH HARLEM’S RENAISSANCE. It’s part historical, part memoir. How did you get involved with the project and what was it like working with a basketball legend?
RO: His manager came to me about working on a documentary (which I did). I suggested right away that we should also write a book. Working with Kareem is a dream. He’s smart, articulate, kind and an excellent writer himself.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve gotten about writing fiction? The worst?
RO: The best advice came from a teacher in grad school: I was stuck on a script and he said, “Just finish it.” That was like a holy revelation: Yeah, just quit being so melodramatic and just write. I’ve thought about that ever since.
Q: What are your upcoming projects?
RO: I’m writing a book with Antwone Fisher and Kareem and I are writing a few other books together. I’m also working on a TV series and a movie.
ANATOMY LESSON is available at all online retailers. Do yourselves a favor, and pick up a copy of FICTION FIRST AID while you are at it. You won’t be sorry.