My guest this week is Terry Persun, a novelist, poet, and marketing strategist. Among the six novels he has published is Sweet Song, which I read recently and give a five-star rating. I thoroughly enjoyed Terry’s writing style, use of language and the emotional impact of this story.
In Sweet Song, a post Civil War novel about Leon, a young mulatto man whose family worked on a Pennsylvania farm, we sense his fears as well as his pleasures when he leaves home and begins to pass as white. This is a story we all own, one that concerns our differences, how others see us, and how we know ourselves to be. Sometimes raw and sometimes tender, the story of Leon’s discovery of himself will stay with the reader for a very long time.
Terry, you are quite a versatile writer. You’ve written poetry, coming-of-age novels, sci-fi, and non-fiction. What genre do you prefer? Is one easier than another to write?
Heidi, that’s great question, and one that no one has asked before. It makes me think about what I do in a new way. Honestly, I try to write what feels the most urgent to get out at the moment. Having said that, a novel takes a lot more time than a poem or short story, but it still has to have that sense of urgency or I can’t write it. To answer the question outright, I’d have to say that I don’t prefer any particular genre. I believe that we all have multiple interests and that we should explore them. I mean, I read sci-fi and fantasy, literary, historical fiction, non-fiction of all types, etc., so why not write in those same genres? It’s fun to explore them all, and it keeps me interested as well.
Do you think writing in different genres keeps your writing fresh?
Absolutely. It’s been said about poets that their job is to make connections where there doesn’t appear to be any. If we transfer this same understanding to fiction, it actually supports that we express ourselves in multiple genres. Although some authors can put out novel after novel in the same genre and continue to be fresh, I feel that there are many more who merely repeat themselves. Writing in different genres, for me, keeps me fresh and interested. I hope my readers feel the same way.
When did you become a writer? Is this your background?
I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, but didn’t get serious about it until I was out of engineering school and working in the technology business. All through college I wrote poetry and short stories and began to publish in small magazines, but after college is when I began to work on my first novel. Not doing as well as I thought I would (you only notice how hard it is to write a novel when you read great works and yours can’t compare), I started taking classes in writing, reading books on how to write, and getting “reliable” critiques from professors and editors. Eventually, I got my MA in Creative Writing as well. From there, it’s just write, write, write.
Did your own writing experiences teach you marketing strategy?
I learned marketing from my day job. I worked as an engineer, then as a magazine editor in the engineering business, then moved into marketing and sales. Just like my writing situation, I didn’t know a lot and took classes and studied with other marketing people along the way. If you work hard, study hard, and never give up, you can learn anything.
What inspired you to write Sweet Song?
A dream. A past life experience. Interest in the subject matter. Something inside me that wouldn’t let go until I wrote it. It’s difficult to know what came first, but when I started, I knew it was the right book to write at the time.
Do you try to write “character-driven” or “plot-driven” novels and why?
Character driven novels—always. The reason is that I can’t even begin a novel until I know who it’s about. No matter what idea comes to mind, it doesn’t seem to mean much to me until I know how it affects someone’s life. I guess I’m always wondering how people get through life, and life’s problems, and this is why I focus on the character. I want to know how they think and feel and how they resolve issues. On one level, I believe writing has helped me cope with my own life’s ups and downs. For example, I’ve been through divorce, a child’s death, moving, cancer, job loss, you name it…
What inspires you to write?
Waking in the morning. Looking at a sunset. Wondering how people live. Watching people diving on the highway, sitting in a restaurant, waiting for their children. I’m always wondering how other people live and what their hopes and dreams are, what do they struggle against. I can drive past a house in the country and wonder what it’s like to live in that house, on that country road, for your whole life – no travel, no vacations. I can create a world from that idea…but I need to have a character to follow.
Who are some authors who have inspired you?
Robert Penn Warren (poetry and fiction), James Salter (fiction), William Stafford (poetry), WS Merwin (poetry), Steve Yarbrough (fiction). I could go on and on.
Marketing is difficult for many creatives. What do you advise today’s writers who have to “do it all”: to wear the creative hat and then put on the salesman’s hat?
That’s one of the most difficult things for any of us to do. It always helps when you have friends and family who are willing to “talk you up,” but that’s tough for others as well. So, look yourself in the mirror and say, “It’s okay to talk about myself as long as someone asks and I’m honest and brief.” That seems to help me. Marketing is something that’s necessary, but it doesn’t have to be difficult or stressful. Just do what you can. One way I get my material out is to write articles for other magazines, do interviews like this one, and blog when I get the opportunity.
Terry Persun has published six novels, Sweet Song, Cathedral of Dreams, Deception Creek, Giver of Gifts, Wolf’s Rite (Winner: Star of Washington Award and ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year finalist), and The Witness Tree. He has six poetry chapbooks and three book-length poetry collections: Glimpses: Poetry and Art, Every Leaf, and Barn Tarot.. He has also written a non-fiction book, Guidebook for Working With Small Independent Publishers.