After he retired from television, Ron turned his attention to a new frontier: writing for print. His first effort, On Harrisonville Avenue, was an amusing memoir about his own youth in a mill town on the Ohio River. His first novel, Cottonwood Pass, delved into the world of suspense and global politics with a story set in Colorado. I particularly enjoyed the imagination behind his third book, Great Heats, historic fiction set 1,000 years ago among the mounds and earthworks of what is now Southern Ohio.
Ron's most recent novel, Locusts and Wild Honey, is a captivating novel of interwoven short stories, featuring a ghost, a witch, and a curse that follows generations of the Porter family. Something wicked this way comes and Ron handles it all with skill and insight.
Finally, I'm thrilled to learn that Ron's short story, "The Friday Night Dance," will be included in Every River on Earth: Writing from Appalachian Ohio. Edited by Neil Carpathios, this anthology of poetry and stories features the work of forty Ohio writers, including Donald Ray Pollock. Watch for it in January 2015. (Another Ron Giles short story, "The Prey," is featured in Chester County Fiction, the well-received anthology from Oermead Press.)
A teacher and historian. A television veteran and interactive-TV pioneer. A singer and member of The Hymn Society. A writer. Ron Giles brings his talents and interests to his fiction. And I'm so glad he took the time to visit the blog today with this fascinating Q&A about the creative life.
The decision to try writing a book came to me late in life—in 2007. Retirement had been forced on me in 2001 with the 9/11 attacks. After that tragedy, corporations retrenched and became conservative with their spending, not using Television Consultants as they once had. With no work on the horizon, my wife and I began traveling in the US, and while in Northern California, I picked up a John Steinbeck novella, Cannery Row, at the Monterrey Airport. Steinbeck’s writing had spoken to me as a college student and years later, I fell gladly and comfortably back into his characterizations, descriptions, and dialogue woven around a good story.
While reading Cannery Row, at age 65, I decided to try my hand at writing a book.
I make the book distinction because during my 35-year television career, I had written many intros/outros, commercials and public service announcements—short form, compact communications—and with our church program, "Hymns and Their Stories"—I was writing three-minute histories of a hymn’s creation—but I had never, on my own, set out to write something with characters and a plot that takes place over days, weeks, or years. I brushed up on the principles of writing and took a Great Courses study from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, sat down and began. The book was to be a murder mystery, set in my hometown during the 1950s. The planning, flexibility, and fluidity necessary to manage writing such a plot quickly revealed itself and I threw that idea away and settled instead on writing a memoir set in 1955 when I was thirteen.
Who or what inspired you as a kid or teenager?
I found the life of Christ an engrossing and inspiring story then and still do today. The rapid move from being acclaimed as the Messiah to being executed in a horrible way was tragic. Yet the grace with which Christ faced the inevitable was stirring and admirable. I still marvel at it.
As a twelve year old, when I began reading literature, I started with Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I was reading it over an RC Cola at the local restaurant hangout, when a town character, Doug, approached me and asked if I had read any American authors. After thinking about it, and answering negatively, he led me outside to his car, a 1948 Hudson, in which some people believed he lived, sleeping on the front seat, because the back seat was taken with his “library” as he called it – hundreds of books, organized in some way that only he understood, with cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other, bulging with paperbacks and hard covers . He reached a long arm in and pulled out a hardback edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. “Read this,” he commanded. “It will change your life.” I finished the Hardy novel and then read Twain. The clash of the Victorian style with Twain’s vernacular and profane style was glorious, and, Doug was right—the racial and social attitudes confronted by Huck rattled the teenage world I was sure that I understood, until then.
What creative work most recently inspired you?
I recently finished Absence of Mind by Marilynne Robinson—a 130-page exploration of the conflict between science and religion. A novelist with a Pulitzer Prize and a Hemingway Award, she shines her considerable intellect and vocabulary on the place of “mind” in a biological being.
In moments of self-doubt, how do you push through?
Doubt about the path that I have started down, or having written myself into a corner, or not having any words come to me are all things that happen to me. To get out of this, I force myself to write, even though my instinct is to keep my hands away from a keyboard. I might (probably will) throw away what I write during this time, but the act of writing focuses me on what I should be doing, even though the words might be wrong or I spend too many words “telling” the story rather than using dialog to advance the plot.
Have you ever abandoned a creative project?
I have a “whodunit” puzzler synopsis that I set down on two or three pages of paper and then stopped because I had not completely graphed out the twists and turns of the plot; I have never rekindled the desire to return and pick it back up. It involved the discovery of four Homo sapiens skeletons in a lava tube located among the Deccan Traps of India and the suspicious deaths of each explorer on the team who made the discovery. Hmmmm.
Which of your works comes closest to the way you heard/saw it in your head?
My third book, Great Heats, was pretty much how I envisioned it. I had grown up in an area of Ohio where the Adena/Hopewell people from the pre-historic period of this continent left evidence of their life and their art. In my hometown today is a horseshoe-shaped mound that they built 2000 years ago. The rims of the Horseshoe Mound are eight feet high and it is 75 feet long at the “U.” In all the years while growing up that I saw the mounds and their ceremonial pipes, I only saw objects. But one day in 2008, while visiting the Hopewell National Park (it used to be called “Mound City”) in Chillicothe, Ohio, I asked myself about the lives of the people that built the mounds and fashioned the ceremonial objects —their triumphs, their joys, their adversities. It wasn’t long afterwards that an outline emerged.
What was the best creative advice you ever received?
As a singer, the best advice I ever received was that “the text is more important than the note you are singing.” The 1893 poetry of Katharine Lee Bates marries well with the Samuel Ward melody, but the words are what make the melody meaningful:
"O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain! America! America!"
My favorite fictional character or hero is ...
James Bond is my favorite. The guy is handsome, witty, knows about guns, cocktails, fast cars, electronic gadgets, and most of all, he is an expert with women—clearly a fictional character.
The last film or TV show I enjoyed was ...
The Monuments Men. The movie has an all-star cast (I confess to being a Bill Murray fan) and I loved that the director (George Clooney) used his father, Nick Clooney, in the final scene as an aged version of the character George Clooney played.
The next book on my reading pile is ...
Dark History of the Popes: Vice, Murder and Corruption in the Vatican by Brenda Ralph Lewis, an author with 25 books out covering an eclectic range of subjects, including poisonous snakes, reptiles, solitaire, the Royals and now the Popes. It’s a progression, no?
The book I really should have read by now is ...
The Bible. I have read selected books but not the whole volume cover-to-cover. I prefer the King James Version (1611). The committee which James I put together were scholars in various languages who were divided further into committees to provide the definitive translation of ancient documents. The translations also had to read well out loud, since most common people could not read for themselves. Before a sub-committee’s work was accepted, it had to be read aloud to the full committee and approved. Even today, the King James Version is musical and it is always a pleasure to read the 400 year old document.
Does The Great American Novel exist (yet)? If so, what is it?
Yes. And there are many of them – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, Blue Highways, and several others that you are probably thinking about now, each born of the era in which they were created while speaking to us today, standing strong as examples of the writer’s craft.
What creative work might we be surprised to find on your shelf, iPod, or DVR?
Outfoxed: Marvin Davis, Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch and the Inside Story of America's Fourth Television Network by Ben Block. I bought the book after Diane von Furstenberg’s first appearance on QVC, during which I met her friend, Barry Diller, in the Green Room. I meant to read it to check out Diller’s management style and to confirm or dispel stories about him. He was on the prowl then, looking to acquire an interest in something to run. Most thought it was Paramount Motion Pictures, while the whispered rumors in the Boardroom at QVC were that it might be us that he was targeting. I never got around to reading Outfoxed; probably should have read it then— don’t care now.
In addition to writing, how do you express your creativity?
I am blessed to have a solo singing voice and doubly blessed to have married a gifted pianist. (Joan is also very knowledgeable of the rules of grammar, which I regularly violate in the rush and excitement of setting words down on paper, so she is my Senior Editor.) In 1997, we designed “Hymns and Their Stories,” a church program where I tell the story of a familiar hymn’s creation and then we present an interesting musical arrangement of the hymn that mostly involves the congregation, but sometimes is a solo. Now in our 17th year, we have appeared at churches in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The most difficult thing about the life of a creative is ...
For me, the most problematic part has always been the discipline to sit down and just do it. In my television career, with music, and with writing, a deadline has to crowd in on me to make me stop doing other things and concentrate on the open project. I have a lovely and spacious house, but there are always things calling out to me—paint me, wash me, scrub me, water me, clean me, replace me, sing me, answer me, pay me—so I go to one of several local restaurants with wi-fi, egg whites and an atmosphere where I can work without paying attention to the distractions.
How has your passion for history informed your fiction?
History was my first academic love, and I taught American History at the eighth grade level for three years before changing careers to television production. In my writing, there is always a back-beat of history to the story, whether political, economic, religious or geographic because the characters, in my view, are intertwined with the forces of history. Charles Beard, the influential historian of the first half of the 20th Century was asked if would write a book about the Lessons of History. Beard replied that he didn’t need to write a book because he could summarize the lessons of history in four sentences:
1. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power.
2. The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.
3. The bee fertilizes the flower it robs.
4. When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.
Makes great fodder for characters, plots and storylines, don’t you think?