Today I’m pleased to post an interview with Ron Tanner, President of the Board of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), the professional organization for creative writers around the world. Ron is a writer and teacher of writing, as you might expect, whose work has appeared in journals such as New Letters, Iowa Review, Massachusetts Review, and Story Quarterly and in the anthologies Best of the West (W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), The Pushcart Prize XIV (Pushcart Press, 1990), and 20 Under 30 (Scribner, 1986). His 2003 collectionA Bed of Nails (BkMk Press) was selected by Janet Burroway for the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction.
I met Ron through MySpace a while back and was intrigued by the variety of his interests, from playing drums professionally to old-house rehabbing to recording oral narratives in the Marshall Islands. (I offered to let him fly me out to the islands to help, but he declined.) He graciously agreed to this interview even as he readies for the upcoming AWP conference in Chicago.
Welcome, Ron. Tell me, how’s a drummer in the Nevada casino circuit who tunes his bottom tom-tom  lower in pitch than normal rise to power as head of the board of a professional organization for writers, with 30,000 individual members and 475 institutions?
The AWP board is composed of writers in mid-career who have had considerable administrative experience. The board’s charge is to advance AWP’s mission to help writers and writing programs. A few years ago, as I surveyed the horizon and considered when I’d step down as chair of my department, I thought I might lend a hand at AWP. So I ran and was elected to the AWP Board. From there, I worked my way up to the presidency by taking on increasing responsibility. It worked out great because I became president just as I ended my nine-year chairmanship of my department.
In the past it’s certainly been a kind of cliché that writers would have the sort of varied resume that you (and I) have. But on your website  you give a lot of free, good advice to aspiring writers, and you seem to focus on young people and the choice to do (or not) an MFA. What about all the older writers who, like your friend, “made a meager living, burned up a couple of marriages, and then, when he was 43, surprisingly, miraculously…sold his novel ”? I guess I’m wondering how you reconcile your own meandering path with that of the early professionalization represented by the AWP.
The early professionalization we see among our younger colleagues in writing is a product of American mainstream culture, which has increasingly emphasized specialization and professionalization. That’s why so many undergrads (prodded by their well-meaning but ill-advised parents) think that an undergrad degree should lead to a profession. Actually, an undergrad degree should make you ready for the world. Period. That is, it should make you a more thoughtful, articulate, and humane individual. Most History majors don’t become historians, right? Most Philosophy majors don’t become philosophers. Most English majors don’t become English.
It’s true that grad school is mainly about professionalization. That doesn’t mean that any grad program, like the M.F.A, can guarantee a job. It simply guarantees that it will help students approach the field in a professional manner. It is then up to the students to make the most of their talents and opportunities.
I must admit I am envious of how many writers get so early a start nowadays—and the many great programs and contests and opportunities available to them. AWP reflects this new, enriched world of writing and we’re certainly happy to help any writer get a chance, no matter what his or her age or background. It just so happens that more writers are getting an early start because the resources are in place to make that possible. That simply wasn’t the case when you and I started.
That said, I worry about a careerist mentality—or pressure—that compels younger writers to feel hounded and older writers to feel discouraged.
Have you noticed increasing numbers of artists crossing forms recently? That is, drummers who write, writers who paint, sculptors who do interpretive dance? I seem to have, though I can’t vouch for their proficiency in more than one form.
Yes, I agree, it seems we’re seeing more interdisciplinarity among artists, probably because art is increasingly a multimedia enterprise. I’ve started illustrating some of my writing, for example. I’m not much of an artist but am competent enough to have fun at it. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but the publishing world didn’t welcome. Now there’s room for illustrated novels, thanks to the rising popularity of manga and graphic novels. It’s all a product of an increasingly technologized global culture.
What can the AWP  do for the likes of us? As you know, I'm a member, but with those dues I could buy my little boys new pirate outfits with swords sturdy enough to run me through.
AWP is the nation’s primary advocate for writers of all kinds, both in and outside the academy. The AWP Chronicle, published six times a year, keeps the membership in touch with issues in the field, especially issues in teaching. The AWP job list is a comprehensive catalogue of academic and non-academic openings, which we update every few months, as a service to our members. The AWP website is more than 1,000 pages deep. It has forums, links, and articles about writing and the writing scene. It contains the 40-year archive of Chronicle articles, for example.
The AWP award series, which now offers $2,000 to each winner, publishes a novel, a collection of short stories, a book of poetry, and a book of nonfiction every year. The Intro Award series publishes student writing. The AWP online Guide to Writing Programs is free and a tremendous resources to students and program directors, offering a survey of every writing program in the country. The AWP conference brings together 8,000 writers to share their work and discuss their interests and ideas. And AWP is a vigorous lobbyist for writing in the schools, high standards in teaching, and the rights of faculty.
What about adjunct faculty? I know a guy….
AWP is a staunch advocate for better treatment of adjunct faculty. In the main, adjunct faculty are being exploited because they work long hours for less pay and have no job security and few rights or privileges. A recent AAUP study shows that, nationally, tenure-track hires now comprise only 37% of full-time faculty at colleges and universities, whereas in the 1970s tenure-track hires comprised 57% of the faculty. Nationally, part-time hires now comprise 65% of higher-ed faculty.
AWP understands that colleges and universities are having a tough time and we’re sympathetic to their dilemma. But we don’t believe that increasing the number of adjunct hires is the answer.
Considering how writers act when they’re around each other, is there really any call for us to get together en masse at yearly AWP conventions?
Writers should spend more time, not less, in each other’s company. Networking—in the best sense of the word—is vitally important for us. We need to compare notes and talk about issues and ideas that inform our lives as writers. We learn from each other. Also we need the good company. In short, we need to share quality time in a mutually-supportive community of like-minded peers. Most participants of the conference feel that it has been an invigorating and illuminating experience, and many feel that once a year is not enough.
I wish. We have an incredibly accomplished staff that does all the heavy-lifting at the annual AWP conference. But they are overworked, and so increasingly we Board members have taken on duties to help them. Mostly we’re responsible for meeting and greeting guest speakers and ensuring that the hundreds of panels get underway on time and in good order. That means that our time is mostly booked every day and night. So I don’t get much opportunity to unwind or hang out at the conference. But I enjoy helping make it run well.
Until recently you were chair of the Writing Department at Loyola University . With all this admin duty, you still find time to teach?
I was chair for nine years, taking the department through three changes of identity. I just stepped down this year, as I took on the presidency of AWP. Being chair was eye-opening and educational in more ways than I have time to articulate. Anyone who becomes an administrator learns fairly quickly that the world is a complicated place—much more complicated than many faculty want to believe. Issues of funding, for example. Resources always remain finite even as our dreams entertain the infinite.
I think you just wrote the title for a new story: “The Dreaming Chair Entertains the Infinite.”
Being an administrator in a university is not so different from being a politician. There are competing constituencies to contend with and wildly varying expectations to negotiate. I learned a lot.
As for teaching, I didn’t do much—one course per semester. Now I’m teaching three a semester. Administrative work is necessary and can do much good. But, on a day-to-day basis, teaching has it beat hands-down.
Tell us about your Marshall Islands Project. I’m interested that you mention a novel on the MI in your bio for Bed of Nails, published in 2003, but the grant year for the MI project seems to have been 2007. How did your interest in writing about that place predate your project visit?
I lived in the Marshall Islands as a teenager. It changed my life. My father, along with a crowd of other engineers, programmers and physicists, worked for the military at their top-secret missile research center in the Marshall Islands. The missile test site is still going, on an island called Kwajalein. There’s plenty about it  on the Internet, if anybody cares to look.
When I lived there, I was struck by the cultural divide between Americans and Marshallese. They lived on one island, we on another. Over the years, I thought a lot about them and how they have been treated by global powers, handed from the Spanish to the Germans, then to the Japanese and finally to the Americans. The Marshallese didn’t get their independence until 1986.
I visited the Marshalls in the 1990s and did some research for a novel, which took me 10 years to write. It’s a complicated topic, American influence in the Marshall Islands. Don’t forget, we conducted 67 nuclear tests out there from 1946-58.
Like people of most developing countries, they have a lot of challenges. The average life expectancy is 60 years; one out of three adults has diabetes; the average age of the population is 18 years—it used to be 16. That’s why I called my novel “A Nation of Children.”
I’m no scientist, no engineer—I didn’t see what I could do to help in the Marshalls. But then I said to myself, I’m a writer, I can teach writing to just about anybody. That might be helpful. And I know how to build websites. That might be helpful too. So I came up with the idea to teach Marshallese college students how to gather stories from their elders and post these on a website that the students would build. It took a while to find funding, but eventually I won a grant from the National Park Service, which supports cultural preservation in the Marshall Islands.
I had to put my life on hold and leave my wife and my university for a semester. But it was worth it. The students and I interviewed 28 Marshallese elders and preserved their stories on the Story Project website, which is now complete except for the translations, which are still coming in. The Story Project site  is a twenty-first century model of cultural preservation, everything digitized and universally accessible. This is especially important given that predictions put the Marshall Islands under water within 50 years.
Is the novel done? Are you shopping it? And what of the memoir mentioned on your bio at Loyola, the one about the house?
My novel about the Marshall Islands needs revision, a bit more plot one publisher tells me. I’ve finished another novel, about Baltimore, which also needs revision before I let my agent see it. The memoir—called “Renovation: A Love Story”—is the story of my girlfriend (now my wife) and I buying an abandoned frat house and bringing it back from the brink of ruin. A feature about it appeared in THIS OLD HOUSE magazine in January 2008, and then the magazine put the story on the Internet, where it was one of the most-read house stories for three weeks. All told, about 1.5 million people saw the story. We got tons of email. My agent is trying to sell that book. Also I’ve just put together a second collection of stories, which I’m sending around.
You live in, love, and pour your vital energies into some Baltimorean version of Animal House ?
Everybody told us we were crazy to take on a 4500 square-foot wreck of a house, especially since we knew nothing about doing that kind of work. But it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And Jill and I are crazy about old houses. I built a website to showcase all we did with the house . It was an adventure.
Let me turn to your published work. The Mid-American Review  calls your collection of stories, A Bed of Nails , “an exercise in eclecticism,” in part because it “could, basically, be cut into two different parts: stories, and the stories from the futuristic revolutionary war.” Janet Burroway, who chose it for the G.S. Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, says, “At first I felt that this was actually two collections, one concerned with life as we know it and one as we fear it will be—but came to believe the worlds are perfectly married ….” How did you intend it all to work?
It took me years to make that collection sensible. It nearly won a number of contests, including the Flannery O’Connor. But editors kept telling me that the collection didn’t “hang together.” I thought, Who said a collection must hang together? It’s a collection! Nowadays publishers feel such pressure to package the goods with a single theme. It’s about marketing, not the writing.
I must have re-arranged the stories half a dozen times. Finally, I interspersed the revolutionary militia stories throughout because I realized that, in a collection, most readers would appreciate that other-world in incremental doses. Then, as you proceed through the book, that other-worldly vision grows and gain clarity. Most readers have responded well to that. I was grateful that Ms. Burroway understood what I was trying to do, as did the Towson Literature Prize committee, which gave the book an award.
As I read I thought of a similar split in the stories of T.C. Boyle—call it realism versus fabulism. But you seem to offer less possible salvation than he does, even more uncertainty for the characters’ futures. Your stories suggest a kind of terminal illness of human bodies, bodies politic, of the spirit, of the environment. Yet you seem like an engaged, even sunny guy. Is there anything to say about worldview as it represents in fiction as opposed to who we are when we walk around?
I find few writers bleaker than the brilliant but apparently nihilistic Mr. Boyle. The revolutionary militia stories you refer to were actually chapters from an illustrated novel, “Kiss Me, Stranger,” which I finished recently and am shopping around. The book is more hopeful than the individual stories suggest. Granted, there’s no happy ending. But that’s what makes life interesting. At bottom, “Kiss Me, Stranger” is about survival. We do prevail, though by fits and starts.
Your sympathies seem to lie with those who are lonely, alone, those who know that others have an advantage over them. Again, they seemed trapped.
Yeah, we’re a lonely lot, I’m afraid. That’s why community matters. We do our best work in community, though it’s difficult for many of us to find one or to fit into one. I wouldn’t characterize the problem as a “trap” so much as a dilemma. The dilemma creates friction or tension and our efforts to deal with this create movement in our lives—that’s why it’s good material for stories.
The stories in Bed of Nails have many cultural referents: Ruth, Cassandra, Hermes, Mussolini. The futuristic stories in particular seem wistful of some past we readers know, but because the stories are set in destroyed worlds where context has been obliterated, the cultural references seem like little more than shiny bits in a dump. The characters are always picking garbage, ferrying garbage to sea for dumping, trying to recycle and make do with their lots. One could read a story such as “Garbage” or lines such as, “I fear their disappointment when they realize we’re going nowhere” as self-referential. What role do you think art/writing itself plays in stories about a world where mere existence is about all the characters can manage?
Most of us are not heroes. Most of us spend the greater part of our lives holding things together and, if we’re lucky, making some advances. We’re so thoroughly distracted by the landfill of pop culture, it’s remarkable we get anything done. Americans produce a lot of garbage, both literally and figuratively. Too much garbage. As a teacher, you know how difficult it is keeping students focused on the things that matter. But that difficulty extends to grown-ups too. I’ve never seen grown-ups so busy, so distracted.
Art takes a measure of this distraction, clarifies it, and gives us some distance from the white noise, however briefly. Sometimes it’s enough (in art) to clarify the challenge of living in the twenty-first century and to show how some of us are dealing with it. That doesn’t mean we’re “winning” or rescuing children from burning buildings. Still, there is value in seeing others resist the seductive distractions of our culture. There is value too in seeing others (in stories and novels) making advances against overwhelming odds.
Who else do you read and admire? That cultural mashup in your stories—“Fly Me to the Moon,” the shoes of Imelda Marcos (sort of), the slogan “Yield to the Young” that’s reminiscent of, say, the Khmer Rouge—reminds me of Barthelme, for instance.
As a younger writer, I greatly admired Donald Barthelme and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., so they certainly had an influence. Also Don DeLillo, especially in White Noise, which I think resides among the great American novels.
You've mentioned two novels, a new collection of stories, and a memoir that you’re shopping or readying to do so. What are you working on now?
The Baltimore novel. I’ll revise that one this year and see what happens. Having lived in the city for 16 years, I feel ready to give it a try in fiction.
Thanks very much, Ron!
For more information, check out one of Ron’s websites, or contact him at rtanner@Loyola.edu .