William Trent Pancoast
William Trent Pancoast’s novels include WILDCAT (2010) and CRASHING (1983). His fiction has recently appeared in Steel Toe Review, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Revolver, Monkeybicycle, and Night Train. Pancoast retired in 2007 from the auto industry after thirty years as a die maker and union newspaper editor. Born in 1949, the author lives in Ontario, Ohio. He has a BA in English from the Ohio State University.
How many stages are there in the writer’s journey and where are you on that path?
Writing has always felt the same to me, from the first story over fifty years ago to the one I finished last week. My first real story was for a seventh grade assignment—write a fifteen hundred word story. I had Attention Deficit Disorder and my MO with any homework was to get it done, breeze through it so I could daydream or sleep, just have my time for myself. So I plunged into the writing to get it out of the way and a strange thing happened—this was hard work, this writing was hard to do. But I had to do it—that was the rest of the MO—homework had to be done and then my parents could live with my not-so-good grades and leave me alone. I wrestled that story. I plotted and revised and cussed it and ended up with a little piece of writing that everyone understood and liked. And I had an A grade.
The stages for me have been in the recognition of my work. There was never any doubt that I could and would write stories and novels, but without a place to publish the work, did the writing even exist? I had written a few decent stories when I turned to novels. In 1975 I finished Valley Real Estate, and in 1979 I finished Crashing–both 80,000-word novels. I had no success in getting the attention of agents or publishers. The car factory ate me about that time, and for a lot of years I went to work and came home and drank beer and then went back to work.
The last few years have been fun for me. During that time I have been able to get my writing in front of a lot of people. Publication, invitations to writers conferences, and the opportunity to introduce myself to a lot of good people have been gratifying for me. If where I’m at right now would be the final stage, that would be okay. But I’ve got a lot of projects underway, including a collection of stories I’m just now ready to try and find a home for. I hope folks stick with me long enough to see what I have written and what I am writing.
What single piece of work, published or unpublished, are you most proud of?
WILDCAT, my novel published in 2010, is my favorite. It has been embraced by working folks as an honest portrayal of them and their work. Some folks here will find it interesting that the United Auto Workers Union has banned my book from its Walter and May Reuther Education Center in Michigan, ostensibly for use of the F-bomb in portraying factory language. The book is banned from the UAW library, the book store, and from use at any UAW educational conferences.
What are you currently struggling with or trying to master? Some aspect of craft, say, or some area of publishing or finding an agent.
In the last year, I have written almost exclusively in first person. That has been fun and I think I’ve finally got the hang of it. One thing I have realized, and it may have been present for 50 years, is that my story writing is about simply trying to share my feelings about human beings, characters, with the reader. To accomplish that, I need to control the tone of the entire story and that lends itself to a comparison of writing to music, as I correct and revise by making sure there are not any sour notes.
And, of course, I need an agent. We all need agents. The world needs at least another 1313 agents.
Can you give us a short list of tips, a lesson on craft, or a writing exercise of some kind?
Pretend you have ADD and just write like crazy.
Seriously, what I mentioned above—tone. Make sure to make the tone consistent. Use your musical ability to revise your work.
One other thing: write, and especially revise, like you are the last editor who will ever see your writing.
And just in case you forget–never give up.
Who have been your teachers?
The best instruction I ever had in writing came from Moulton DeWalt, my advanced composition teacher in high school. What little I know about high-end grammar and correct language usage comes from his class. My best learning experience was delivered to me courtesy of Merritt Clifton, editor of Samisdat in the seventies and eighties. He wrote me a long letter trashing the manuscript of my novel Crashing. I was mad for quite awhile; then I set about the hard work of revising and rewriting. He taught me to hone my work, to write like I was the one who had to clean up the mess prior to publication. The teacher who really lit the fire for my writing was Poet Jim Reiss. The only college creative writing course I ever had was a two-hour-credit gig with him in 1969 at Miami University. He loved my little stories and made me believe I could be a writer. I never knew whether to thank him or cuss him for that. Now I do know: thanks, Jim Reiss.
I also consider editors who have liked my writing and accepted it for publication as teachers: they condoned and encouraged the writing path I was on by that publication. At the top of that list is Rusty Barnes, editor and co-founder of Night Train and the proprietor of Fried Chicken and Coffee. Dave Elsila, longtime editor of the UAW’s Solidarity magazine, always helped me on the path by appreciating and publishing my work.
Just as important as the above teachers are the writers whose writing has shown the way—Don Pollock, William Gay and Cormac McCarthy lately. D. H. Lawrence, John Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, and Ken Kesey in the past, to name a few.
Josephine Humphries once said she sacrificed friendships and soccer matches so that she could write. What have you lost or sacrificed in order to write?
This is difficult to answer since I have always felt like a writer, an outsider, even at an early age, and my entire life is therefore seen through the prism of writing. In that sense, I consider the propensity to write to be a genetic affliction and recently wrote in an autobiographical novella, “What did my writing cost me? Or I think a more honest way to phrase the question: what did my birth as a writer cost me? This distinction is important, I think, because a writer is no more responsible for his genetic urges than a gay person. To suppress is to distort and torture, and to suppress completely is to kill the human being that is the writer.”
So it is complicated. My writing has been at the center of some very bad things that have happened to me. I wanted it all. I was the twenty hour a day man, like my narrator in Oxford Town. I could work full time and do my student teaching at the same time. I could take a machinist’s job with no machine shop experience. I did not do prerequisites. There came a day when I found myself completely isolated with my typewriter and a ream of paper. This was 1979, the year I wrote Crashing. As the circle took shape, after doing the writing to be alive, the writing ultimately became the way to stay alive.
My writing never came easy, never came without a price. I had to mostly back away from writing fiction for many years when I was a labor newspaper editor, but I always produced some stories, kept the ember alive, knowing that writing of any form would keep me sharp enough to do the fiction again.
The finish line for me and my writing is in sight because of my age. The last several years have been gratifying. I have found some readership through publication of Wildcat and my recent stories (five so far this year). I like the novel I published in 2010 because the people it is about get it and appreciate it. It is an honest, unpretentious book—working class writing for the working class.
My writing has stopped charging me admission.
Looking back, what mistakes have you made?
I’m pretty sure I’ve made a nuisance of myself a few times on Facebook. I don’t know. It’s always been go toward whatever daylight there is. I would say I should have had a more disciplined approach to seeking an agent and publisher. And that is probably still true.
I should have gone to some writing conferences perhaps. But I wouldn’t have even known where to go. I always love the discussions about MFA programs and degrees. My two cents’ worth is that the contacts made in MFA programs look to me to be very valuable.
What do you wish someone had told you?
I wish someone had told me early on that we need to love all our characters, like God loves all his children. That doesn’t mean that some characters aren’t flaming assholes. It’s an acknowledgement of the need for love in all humans–that folks, and our characters, generally have done the best they can.
What scares you about the road ahead?
Nothing about my writing world really scares me. I’ve been writing for 50 years with little recognition. Right now is just plain fun for me.
As for the future, all I need to do is look around and I will see at least one human I empathize with, and whose story I need to tell, whose life is deserving of vindication and tribute.
If you could write your own obituary, what would you want it to say?
What a question. I have been lately thinking about writing my own obituary. I was 64 on May 9 so I’m closer to needing one than most of the readers here. It would have to say that I did my best to be a good father and husband. It would also have to say that I was a writer for over 50 years, that I left some scattered published writing, including three books and a bunch of stories (hopefully it will say a “collection”). One important part of my obituary would be that there would be free books by the author for anyone who wanted them at the funeral. It would say that my ashes were to be scattered on Gull Island Shoal on Lake Erie and that I would forever haunt anyone who did not accomplish that last task.
May 20, 2013 9:04 PM EDTI’ve enjoyed getting to know you and your work, Bill. Those stories WILL be gathered into a collection, believe that! I love your answer, “That doesn’t mean that some characters aren’t flaming assholes. It’s an acknowledgement of the need for love in all humans–that folks, and our characters, generally have done the best they can.”– Jason Kaufman
May 21, 2013 8:56 AM EDTThanks, Jason. I appreciate your optimism! My comment could easily be summed up in three words: “Child of God.”– Bill
May 21, 2013 11:20 AM EDTBill, your work is a strongly written, powerful statement from a perspective that is not often represented. It is not a political polemic, but a genuine experience from the point of view of humans we can identify with. But it’s not familiar or hackneyed, it’s new. I always look forward to reading your next story. Please keep sharing your work.– Jennifer Hurst
May 21, 2013 11:51 AM EDTBill : I have enjoyed Your writing skills. Your down to earth style may have offended some but real life always offends some body.To be politically correct is not always real life. The ideals you stand for are simple and sincere . You proved that when you stopped teaching because Administrators insisted You concentrate on a percentage of failures rather than success of students . those same standards are reflected in your books. Keep up the great work !– William Cameron
May 21, 2013 11:57 AM EDTYou said it, my friend: “I have always felt like a writer, an outsider, even at an early age, and my entire life is therefore seen through the prism of writing. In that sense, I consider the propensity to write to be a genetic affliction . . . a writer is no more responsible for his genetic urges than a gay person. To suppress is to distort and torture, and to suppress completely is to kill the human being that is the writer.”
Yes. that is a perfect description/definition that fits me just fine. Thank you.– Ginger Hamilton
May 21, 2013 12:15 PM EDTOl’ Lester Ballard did try the best he could to love! Or tried the only way he knew how. Disturbing. Is that what happens when a whole community heaps their darkness on one man’s shoulders. My mom’s started raising chickens, and poor Wanda is at the bottom of the pecking order. She makes me think of Child of God.– Jason Kaufman
May 21, 2013 12:33 PM EDTGinger, I hoped that statement would ring true. Thanks for validating it for me! Thanks much, Jennifer! You have been a true friend to me and my writing. William, thanks for your compliments!– Bill
May 22, 2013 7:43 AM EDT“I wish someone had told me early on that we need to love all our characters, like God loves all his children. That doesn’t mean that some characters aren’t flaming assholes. It’s an acknowledgement of the need for love in all humans–that folks, and our characters, generally have done the best they can.”
Especially love this, Bill, as well as what you say about empathy. So very true. Thank you for sharing your writer’s journey with us.
And thanks to all your fans for stopping by to say hello. Much appreciated.– Sheryl Monks
May 22, 2013 9:52 AM EDTI hope you have more writing years left in you than you predict, Bill. This interview alone proves that you have plenty more to contribute.– Alison
May 23, 2013 6:37 PM EDTThank you, Sheryl. I appreciate being included in your Writer’s Journey series. Alison, I’m hard at work. Thanks.– Bill
May 27, 2013 4:15 PM EDTI love that WILDCAT has been banned in the places you named. Says a lot.– Laura