A commercial pilot and former official at the Federal Aviation Administration, Phyllis Anne Duncan now pursues her writing full time from her home in the Shenandoah Valley. Phyllis has written short stories, feature articles, and book reviews for both print and online publications. She is currently working on several works of fiction, including her “opus magnum” A Perfect Hatred, a trilogy about an act of domestic terrorism in America. The books in the proposed trilogy are End Times, Downward Spiral, and Collateral Damage
Melissa P. Gay, author of the blog This Common Reader, talked to Phyllis about her writing process in June 2012.
When did you discover you were a writer?
I never really understood the little stories I wrote with my list of spelling words I was writing until I was in high school. To me, writing meant a full-length book, not little drabbles that I scribbled. Then my ninth-grade English teacher caught me writing stories in class and took my notebook. She later gave it back to me and told me to keep it up because I was a writer.
When did you begin writing and what or who influenced you?
I started writing novel-length stories in high school, and thank goodness none of them survive! I loved sweeping novels like Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak and tried to imitate him. Sometimes imitation isn’t the sincerest form of flattery.
My reading tastes are eclectic, so I’ve been influenced by classical, modern, and post-modern authors. My current influences are writers of speculative fiction, like Margaret Atwood and Harlan Ellison, because I like writing that centers around “what if” and has a twist.
Who is your favorite author or what is your favorite book? What are you currently reading?
My favorite author, right now, is Margaret Atwood, and my favorite book of hers is The Handmaid’s Tale. But I have many favorite authors and many favorite books. The list has grown and shrunk over the years. I’ll re-read something by Jane Austen, and she’ll hold the top spot for a while; then, I’ll read a current book, and that author will wind up on my list. And the authors on that list are as eclectic as my reading tastes and cover the gamut of literary genres.
I always have more than one book going at a time. Right now, I’m reading five: The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, 11/22/63 by Stephen King, A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin (I met him many years ago, pre-beard, when he was a straight sci-fi writer; interesting guy), Drift by Rachel Maddow, and The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.
Do you have a job other than your writing activities?
Not any more, unless you count spoiling grandchildren. I retired from the federal government two and half years ago to concentrate on my personal writing. I was a technical writer for the government, producing technical manuals and long, boring reports for Congress in hopelessly bureaucratic language. But I did manage to write a lot of short stories and the bones of a couple of novels while holding down a full-time job.
I feel I’m much more creative now. My energy isn’t sapped by writing all day at work. I still consider my writing work, but I’m doing it for me now.
What kind of writing do you do, and why did you choose that topic or genre?
I think you could call my novels current event/political thrillers, though the term “thriller” is disdained by many. If I call it “espionage fiction,” people think I write pot boilers like Ludlum or Cussler. Instead, I approach my fiction from a literary bent and try to model myself after Le Carre or Alan Furst, to show intelligence work as a job. I take a recent event, say, a series of murders of government officials in Serbia, think about the political implications behind it, and my imagination takes over.
I don’t know that I chose that genre; I think it chose me. I thought I was going to write quaint, Miss Marple-type murder mysteries, but these shadowy spies tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Here’s what you need to do.”
My short stories range from straight literary fiction to speculative fiction with a hint of science fiction. I also write non-fiction feature stories for a couple of on-line magazines and my local newspaper, which fulfills my childhood Lois Lane/Brenda Starr fixation.
Explain your writing process. What tricks and techniques help you be both creative and productive ?
When an idea strikes, I write down scenes as they come to me. They end up being wildly disconnected, so the next step is writing the transitions and filling the plot holes. I’ve never been much of an outliner, but I suppose you could call that process a “fat” outline.
Sometimes, a scene or a transition piece comes to me when I’m nowhere near the computer, so I always keep a notebook with me. Even then, they’re not sketches or notes; they’re fully developed scenes, with descriptions and dialogue, the whole thing. I’ve filled up a lot of notebooks.
If I get bogged down, I move on to another section of the work or break off and work on a short story, anything to clear the RAM. I don’t give in to “writer’s block” anymore. If I’m obstructed on one piece, I move to another or start a new short story, and that seems to move the blocks away for me. On occasion, I’ll use a prompt from some source to either create something new or to help me push through a stubborn scene.
I do some writing or revising every day, and that trains the brain to be cooperative when I want or need to create. Being consistent in the physical act of writing is critical to my process.
Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring authors?
It sounds like a cliché, but you can’t be an author unless you write. Write without censoring yourself; you’ll fix it in the revision process. Write what you know, but give a stab at writing what you don’t know. You’ll learn something, and how to research is just part of it. Don’t give up on yourself, believe in yourself, and remember that editors are there to help you. Just keep writing.