Cobalt: At what stage – particularly in the writing of Kiss Me, Stranger – did the illustrations come in? What role do they play in the development of your writing?
Ron Tanner: I was doing illustrations for a draft of From Animal House to Our House when it occurred to me that I could do illustrations for Kiss Me, Stranger. I decided that illustrations would give Kiss Me, Stranger an edge – and they would make sense, be organic to the book, because the illustrations would be from the 14 children in the story. As for Animal House, it had to have illustrations because there are so many visuals to reference in a book about old house renovation.
Cobalt: In Kiss Me, Stranger, you destroy the world. Then, in From Animal House to Our House, you build a home from the ruins. How have the experiences of writing these two books differed?
Tanner: One is a fantasy; the other is a dream come true. But both are about holding things together when times are tough. Not that I’ve had a hard life, but I have learned that one of life’s lessons is to persevere. As the Brits used to say, we must carry on. The impossible situation of From Animal House to Our House is a kind of war or besiegement.
Writing that book was tougher because it’s a memoir and a chronicle. I had to get things right, or as right as I could, and make a very messy situation sensible. That’s the challenge of writing nonfiction: life is very, very messy. You can clean it up in fiction, that is, make a lean, focused story. Much harder to do in nonfiction. And mostly you do it (in nonfiction) by leaving things out.
Cobalt: I also find that the illustrations of your backyard remind me of what I imagine Penelope’s backyard in Kiss Me, Stranger to look like. As if large objects could suddenly emerge from the surface. And the row houses you illustrated are much like those that Baltimore is famous for. How have your surroundings informed your creative work?
Tanner: Place matters. It just so happens that I wrote the first draft of Kiss Me, Stranger when I was subletting a seedy apartment after my wife at the time had left the marriage. I was devastated and living in devastatingly depressing surroundings. And, yes, I used Baltimore as a model of the city in that book.
From Animal House to Our House I wrote in the very house the book celebrates. Obviously, this old house is deep in my bones, to the extent that I could have written about it even if I were living in, say, Antarctica.
Cobalt: Has From Animal House to Our House, been in the works as long as the house has? That is to say: did you have the intention of chronicling the “love story” from the outset?
Tanner: I did not think to write this book until more than one friend suggested it. Then it made sense. As soon as I started writing it, about 6 years ago, I knew it had to be a love story because that’s what the house is all about – I bought the wrecked frat house because Jill really wanted it and I really wanted her. We love old houses and renovated this house as an expression of love, which is why we call our website Houselove.
Cobalt: It seems that writing From Animal House to Our House has given you a chance to double-dip in your passions. What is your favorite experience related to the publishing of this book?
Tanner: I’m now on a 66-city tour for the book. I’m traveling all over the country and meeting with preservationists and historic neighborhood associations, so I get to inhabit my role as a DIY expert (I’ve just become a licensed home inspector). That’s a blast because, on the one hand, it’s something completely different for the professorial me and, on the other, it centers me in my passion for teaching – I love to impart information and help people get smarter.
Cobalt: Finally, you and I have discussed the many ways that different creative writing programs prepare their students for life as a writer. What do you think, as an educator, is the most important tool not being taught in the traditional writing programs?
Tanner: Survival skills. Very few graduate writing programs are taking the time to orient their students to the full-spectrum life as a writer. As a result, many MFA grads enter the world thinking that they are going to make money writing fiction or the writing world at that.
First, students should know that the world needs writers – all kinds of writers in all kinds of fields. Writing is a highly valuable and highly valued skill. If you want to make a living writing, then consider the full spectrum: everything from technical writing to public relations. If you want a teaching job in a university, get a Ph.D. and/or publish really, really well.
Second, plenty of writers do other things than teaching. I don’t think this message gets transmitted clearly in grad school – mainly because the fledgling writer’s primary role model is the writer-as-teacher. My hope is that people go into teaching because they love teaching, not because they’re simply trying to make ends meet and like the flexible schedule.
Third, writers need to know technology – the more, the better – because everything nowadays having to do with writing is heavily entwined with technology. Today’s writer needs a website, for example, and a blog and should know how to format emails as e-flyers and, dare I say it, format their manuscripts as e-books. Fight this change, if you feel you must, but those who fight it will get left behind.
Or, rather, those who fight this change will end up paying somebody else to do these things for them. I believe in being wholly self-reliant and I encourage my students to be the same so that they have maximum flexibility, which will likely lead to more opportunity. That’s the message I’d like grad programs to impart: we increase our opportunities by increasing the scope of our writing, the kind of work we might like to do, and the kinds of things we are able to do with technology.
About Ron: Ron Tanner’s awards for writing include a Faulkner Society gold medal, a Pushcart Prize, a New Letters Award, a Best of the Web Award, and many others. He has won fellowships from the Copernicus Society, Sewanee Writers Conference, and the Maryland Arts Council, to name a few, and his stories and essays have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including The Iowa Review, West Branch, and the Massachusetts Review.
His books include A Bed of Nails (stories), Kiss Me Stranger (illustrated novel), and From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story (memoir). He teaches writing at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland, and directs the Marshall Islands Story Project (mistories.org). He and his wife, Jill, live in a former fraternity house that they saved from ruin and renovated to its former Victorian glory. You can find out more about the house at www.houselove.org