Writers on Writing: Joshua Isard

Conquistador of the Useless book cover

JOSHUA ISARD is an Assistant Professor and Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Arcadia University. He has published numerous short stories and his first novel, Conquistador of the Useless, was published in 2013.  

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

JOSHUA: Mostly real life experiences. I can’t say that’s new for a writer or anything, but it’s true. Sometimes it’s the mundane, like suburban living, sometimes it’s more exciting things like travel. But my stories always have a kernel of something real, and then expand into a fictional world as I write.

So, I wouldn’t say I write autobiographical fiction, as much as to say that my fiction sprouts from my real life.

ANGELA: Why do you write in the contemporary/minimalist/realist genre?

JOSHUA: Well, I didn’t always. I tried for a much more mandarine prose when I was in grad school, and it didn’t work out. Then in my mid twenties I started discovering contemporary minimalists like Amy Hempel, Marc Richard, and Tom Spanbauer, and something about the way they told a story really resonated with me. I tried it out and realized that a sort of minimalism suited the stories I wanted to tell, and I’ve gone with it ever since.

I think that’s the important thing, finding the style that suits your stories. When those two elements are in harmony, they end up informing each other to produce cohesive fiction.

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

JOSHUA: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I’m in this stage of reading tons of books set in Japan because I’m teaching a course about it next semester. So, it’s been all Japan all the time, with only a few breaks, since June or so. I love it, I’m fascinated by Japan and the way Western culture relates to it.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

JOSHUA: I’m glad you phrased is as “one of,” because who can choose just one as the top?

I’ll go with Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s been a heavy influence on my current project, and the way he imbues such a dark situation with humor is just incredible.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?

JOSHUA: I use a lot of em-dashes. I think that’s the best piece of punctuation, and can represent several things based on context, like offsetting sort of parenthetical phrases, and joining two independent clauses in a far more intuitive way than a semicolon (I hate semicolons).

Lots of writers forget how useful punctuation is, and the ranges of uses that still fall within correct grammar. I like stretching punctuation use to its limits.

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

JOSHUA: I go to Starbucks, sit my but in the chair, and write. I also listen to music, but otherwise, that’s it. I think people fetishize the writing process far too much, all it involves is getting in front of a computer or piece of paper and writing. There is no muse, and no magic amount of coffee that makes one able to write. It’s all the will to sit down and do it.

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

JOSHUA: I try to write every day, but that never happens. On average, five days a week, maybe?

And I make sure to get in a few hours each session. I think sustained time works much better for me than small snippets. But, that’s just me and what seems to get me producing the best work. For whatever reason, I think my writing’s better in the second hour than the first of a writing session.

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

JOSHUA: You hope this happens, but it doesn’t always for me. It took nine months after my novel was published before I started a new one, and I hardly wrote anything in that time. I definitely need to be more disciplined in thinking ahead and making sure I have another project in mind when I finish the one in progress.

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

JOSHUA: Again, I don’t always have that luxury. But I think that if I do find myself with an idea ready to go, I wouldn’t want time off before starting it.

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

JOSHUA: I don’t believe in it. Not having a story to write isn’t writer’s block, it’s my own lack of discipline in thinking about a new project. Writer’s block really means the writer thinks everything he or she comes up with is terrible. To which I say, so what? Most of the time you have to write something terrible to get to something good, so just write some bad pages.

I think that if we stop using terms like “the muse,” or “writer’s block,” more people would write more good stories. Those ideas are nothing more than excuses, taking the agency away from the writer. If you’re not writing, it’s your fault—don’t try and blame anyone or anything else. When I was unproductive for nine months, that was on me, and I own up to it. Doing so will help prevent me from not doing that again.

Connecting and keeping up with Joshua Isard

Interview conducted in August 2014.

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