By Dawn Virnig
Gary McBride, the 2015 President of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop, has deep roots in Colorado. But that hasn’t stopped him from exploring over a third of the world’s countries—so far. He’s also an accomplished essayist and playwright, and is expanding his boundaries to other literary genres—he’s currently working on a thriller, The Wildcat, which won second place in the 2015 Zebulon Contest. For more information about Gary, please visit him at www.garyalanmcbride.com.
Gary, you’re a third-generation Coloradan, but you’ve been to more than 70 different countries around the world, and counting. What was your favorite country?
My favorite country is this one, right here. It took me living abroad for over a decade to realize that I’m helplessly, hopelessly American, through and through. We Americans have a unique way of looking at the world, of looking at our lives, that I’ve never found anywhere else. We believe that our options, our possibilities, are limitless, and as easily interchangeable as McDonalds. Change religion? No problem. Move to a new city, make new friends, re-invent yourself? Done, done, and done. You want fries with that?
If you don’t get the chance to travel, to live abroad, then you won’t realize that in other countries, it’s just not possible to act like that. An anthropologist friend once called it having a “limited repertoire of options,” and that’s an accurate description for every culture I’ve seen. Of course, it’s true for us, too, but most of us don’t realize it. And that’s what I love about America: our glorious naïveté. We think we’re gonna change the world. I love the energy.
Of course, other countries have their charms. I love the richness of the cultures of China, India, Turkey. Best countries to hang out and eat, in order: Thailand, Italy, Japan, France. Up and coming foodie destinations: Peru and New Zealand. Best beer/chocolate: Belgium. Best ancient music/modern dance scene: Netherlands. Best hiking: Nepal. Awesome wildlife: Tanzania. More beautiful than the photographs: Bali and Tahiti. Just like the architectural model: Singapore. Best theater, center of the universe, and my all-around favorite city on earth: London. My mecca is the Olivier Theatre at the NT. Do whatever it takes to get there.
What do you like about Colorado that keeps you here (besides your wife and 2 cats)?
I grew up in Colorado with lots of sun, thinking that was normal. If I don’t have it, I crave it. But I’m bored at the tropics. Too few seasons leave me restless, craving the annual drama of death and rebirth. Colorado’s got it all, and now, thanks to climate change, we have more water for the plants, too. Bonus.
You’re a musician and a writer. Has either one of those influenced the other? How?
Art is all about breathing life into inanimate things. If you’re a painter, your tools are color and form. Writers and musicians are similar: we start with either notes or words, but both forms depend upon rhythm for their life. Rhythm is essential across all the arts, actually. Stress, cadence, shape, direction—these things are way more important than the actual medium, the instrument, or the language. I believe one can use literally anything as source material, and, if it’s cadenced properly, those words can be formed into something recognizable, something real, and alive, and vital. That’s the job of poets everywhere, I suppose – to push those boundaries.
How have all of your travels informed you as a writer? What lessons wouldn’t you have gotten otherwise? Are there any countries you wish you hadn’t visited (and maybe things you wish you wouldn’t have learned)?
I have no regrets about any of my travels. In fact, that’s sort of my mantra. As much effort as it takes to save, and plan, and execute a trip, and even with all the things that can and will go wrong, getting out is always – always, I tell you – better than sitting at home. I recommend travel for everyone. Going outside our comfort zone is really the only way we grow.
As a writer, travel has benefited me by allowing me to observe my own culture from the outside, and get a taste of other value systems and life choices. I feel that my travels have given me an enormous advantage, not just from my amplified perspective of what we do and how we express it, but the places I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, and the stories I can tell. Those combinations of materials I have available to my writing are limitless.
That said, I’m not sure I really needed to go to Brunei, although there was an interesting Churchill museum in Bandar Seri Begawan. I have a very short bucket list of places I’ve not yet been that I must go see. Five, to be exact. But there are hundreds of places I’d love to visit again.
What has influenced you as a writer? Why do you write what you do (i.e. mainly fiction)?
I write to tell the truth, and I want to share what fascinates me. The best medium for me to do that is fiction. Eco, Franzen, and Doerr give me hope that this is possible.
You’ve written multiple essays and plays, but you’re currently working on your first novel, “The Wildcat,” a thriller. How is writing a novel different from writing a play?
A movie is built around images; a play is built around dialogue; a novel is built around ideas. I’ve written a screenplay and a few plays. What thrills me about the novel is that I don’t have to worry about how expensive it would be to film my scenes, or how few set changes I can get away with on stage to tell my story and still give my characters life. With my novel I’m the director, the cameraman, the producer, the editor, the location manager, the sound designer, set designer, light designer, the costumer, the choreographer, the best boy, and all the actors at once. What a rush!
Can you give us a logline of “The Wildcat?” Maybe a back-of-book overview/teaser?
Witnessing a kidnapping thrusts Rita into the fray of political maneuvering, ethnic struggles, and warring corporations. Oil is the prize, but for Rita it’s personal. Can she save a life and rescue her country from disaster?
What is your biggest challenge in tackling a thriller? What advice do you have for other writers who want to try writing a thriller?
I feel a little queasy answering this question, because I’m still trying to write a thriller myself. I really should defer and wait until I’ve sent my story out into the world to see if I’m successful or not. But I can tell you about my goals when I write, and then perhaps we can circle back in a few years to see how close I’ve come to hitting my mark.
If my characters run into trouble, and believe me, they do, I want to make their peril, their choices, super possible, believable, unquestionable, real. I really hope I can hook readers with my characters, and in turn it’s my responsibility to be consistent and true with their lives, their arcs. Even though I’m putting my characters into very precise situations. I never want my readers to sense the ugly gears of the grinding plot, but instead I want them to be zapped by the drama. If I can do that, then this story will thrill. I guarantee it.
You hosted a Literary Salon on in March for the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. What did you focus on?
I’m really interested in the challenges of writing in the first person, present tense. Of course, it’s an immediate, intimate choice, and I’m hoping that it will pay off for me in my novel, but foreshadowing becomes a real challenge since my narrator can’t see anything into the future beyond the end of her nose.
The Flatirons Literary Review has recently published my short story, “Oppa,” which I also wrote in first person, present tense. I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess. So for my salon, I discussed foreshadowing techniques, and to illustrate I used excerpts from both “Oppa” and “The Wildcat.”
You are currently President of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. Has taking on this mantle had any unexpected benefits? Why did you join BWW in the first place?
Being President of the BWW has given me more reasons to meet even more writers in the local community, and that, I can tell you, is a great thing! Plus, I’ve taken to calling myself ‘El Jefe’, which annoys no one, especially not my wife. No, not at all.
I found BWW through meetup.com, which is a wonderful resource. I had decided that I wanted to become a writer, but, of course, I had no idea how to do that. Attending a few of the public meetings, and taking note of what not only the speaker, but the other authors were talking about, started to give me an idea of what was really required to make my dream a reality. It comes down to a helluva lot of hard work, and I’m down with that.
I think the BWW is a fantastic resource for budding writers, such as myself, and for more established authors, because it’s an inclusive community. It’s got an easy-going feel, without ego. Through BWW I’ve met many authors, screenwriters, playwrights, essayists, bloggers, memoirists, who have helped me directly, and I’m eager to give back and assist others however I can.
What’s your biggest challenge in writing and how have you gone about overcoming it?
Basically, I don’t know what I’m doing. Every day. But I trust that deep down, I really really want to complete whatever I’m working on, so I follow my intuition and tackle what it will have me do, until I realize that it’s time to do something else. And then I chase that rabbit. And so on.
Of course I have plans, and goals, and schedules, and huge blind spots and dead-ends. Luckily there’s a community of people, called the Boulder Writers’ Workshop, who I have come to know better over the past year, and who, collectively, seem to know how to get out of these binds. I listen. And I learn.
And then I go back to not knowing what I’m doing. Every day.
What is your favorite part of writing?
That’s easy. The actual writing, or typing, because I use a computer. I enjoy watching the words pop onto the screen, straight out of my head.
I also enjoy working through a problem, like uncovering a character’s motivation in a scene, or weaving two story threads together. I’ll sleep on those, turning them over and over until they come together just right. Then I get to watch the words form on the screen again. Bliss.
I like the person I am when I’m regularly writing. That guy is bubbling with ideas, and is fun to be around. The other guy is a grouch.
What is your writing process? Do you have a routine?
I wish I were free to write for the same three to four hours every day. But my schedule is so nutty that I have to grab time when I can. It’s a challenge.
As for my process, I haven’t produced enough work yet to spot a trend. Every story has its own way of making itself known to me. Sometimes it’s an image, a sound, a gesture, a feeling, that is so powerful that it rocks my world, and I have to write about it. Other times it’s an event, a person, a situation that triggers the idea.
Mozart used to say that he could imagine an entire symphony as a moment in time – a single inspiration. I know what he meant – that essence of the whole, distilled into a single idea. I get these, but I’m not as skilled as Mozart at the execution. So I’ll try to write what I’ve imagined, but of course I get it wrong, take a different turn, discover something else, and, after a while, take a break and scratch my head, wondering, How did I get here?
Then I’ll look back at what I’ve written, and I see it, buried under my original idea, peeking out here and there: a better idea. And a better way to express it, and a new set of scenes, and, well you get the picture.
Are you a panster or a plotter? Explain.
What I described above is classic panster. I also take great pride in my plotting and multi-threading abilities, but those come later. I tend to back-construct form onto what I have, deciding organically what organizing structure makes the most sense. I’m afraid that if I were to start with a plot, a pre-fab chapter list, a structure, out of that would come something sterile, stillborn, without soul. By chasing the ruby of the Mozartean flash, I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I will protect the flame of my passion, and keep that fire alive. The result is never what I originally intended – it’s usually better.
How have you gone about improving your craft?
I know I have so much to learn, and only so far I can go by myself. I’ve got a great coach, Lori DeBoer. I’ve got the Boulder Writers’ Workshop for advice, insight, feedback, and moral support. I enjoy reading blogs and books by writers on writing, too. There are patterns and techniques everywhere, and I love finding new ones.
I don’t know who first said this, but I believe it gets to the core of perfecting the craft. It’s something like, “If someone reads your work and tells you something is wrong, they’re almost always right. But if they tell you how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong.” I take that to mean: Your writing doesn’t amount to jack if no one gets what you’re trying to say, and I’m not talking grammar or punctuation. So it’s important to solicit feedback, and find out if you’re close to hitting your emotional mark, your intellectual mark. But when you come up short, and there will always be flaws that need to be addressed, the only person in the world who can fix those flaws is you.
It has to be you. You’re the writer.
What’s your best piece of writing advice?
Stephen King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I can’t improve on that.
Congratulations on winning second place in the Zebulon Awards given out by the Pike’s Peak Writers. Can you tell us how you happened to enter that contest and what it means to you as a writer to have done so well in such a competitive contest?
I’m writing as fast as I can, trying to expand the corpus of my work before I turn to dust. I’ve started taking fiction seriously rather late in life, and I realize that I’ve got a limited runway to get this tub full of ideas airborne, so I’ve decided to enter local contests to see if I can measure up to what’s out there. Of course, I understand the amount of randomness in these things, but because I’m trying to build my resume so that I can attract an agent and a publisher and a readership, I’m putting myself out there, in as many different ways as I can think of. I’ve composed pieces to read at poetry jams, I’m studying improv theater, I’m volunteering as President of the BWW and connecting with as many writers as possible. I’m trying to give myself as good a chance to succeed as I can.
Taking a prize at Pike’s Peak is a tremendous shot in the arm, at this stage in my career. And by shot in the arm, I mean an inoculation against self-doubt, every writer’s worst infectious disease. A friend or colleague telling me they liked something I wrote can be a vitamin pill, keeping the self-doubt at bay for a day or a week. This prize? This oughtta keep me virus-free at least through my next few revisions, and the next batch of rejection letters.
Thank you, Pikes Peak Writers, for sponsoring this contest and hosting the writers conference. I’m looking forward to attending in April.
Dawn Virnig won first place in the Zebulon Contest for her romantic thriller, The American. She has lived in Minnesota, Texas, and Kentucky and recently relocated (back to) Colorado. In addition to writing (and reading), she enjoys running and yoga. You can find her at themousessoapbox.wordpress.com