I asked him if he’d be willing to participate in a Q&A for Eudaemonia and he generously agreed to indulge my questions.
I shamelessly lifted the following information on Billy’s background and work from his ghostwriting site.
“Through the years, I have built a rapport with various agents and editors at major publishers and firms while submitting my work. These generous people at Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and McIntosh & Otis, to name a few, helped me shape my work into publishable form. Subsequently, I published Rimsky Rises (young adult novel) and Salamander Illusions (literary fiction) with Word Wrangler Publishing. I also published The Erotic Manifesto (an indictment of
's selling of sex in the marketplace) with Word Wrangler, which sold the rights to Seven Rivers Press after two years although Word Wrangler still sells it. I have written several middle readers and children's picture books. Additionally, I have authored mainstream fiction and two horror novels, the first of which was a finalist for the Anubis Award for horror fiction. America
My latest novel, published in September of 2007, is John Lennon and the Mercy Street Café. It is sci-fi/fantasy, although readers who like literary and mainstream fiction will also enjoy the book. It is a "rock-and-roll Field of Dreams," with John Lennon alive and unaware of his assassination.
I have an MA in English and thirty graduate hours in education. I taught writing for twenty years at colleges and universities and have given numerous seminars on getting published, selecting agents, and submitting manuscripts. Before publishing books under my own name, I wrote newspaper columns, edited company newsletters, did technical writing, and wrote short stories.
I have always been interested in verse and have published poetry in American Poets & Poetry, Pegasus, Poem, Black Buzzard Review, The Lyric, Tight, Creative Juices, Twilight Ending, Angelflesh, Lynx, Parnassus Literary Journal, Offerings, and many others.
I have worked with many clients during the last eight years to help them produce their own manuscripts. I have worked with corporations, celebrities, sportsmen, housewives, ministers, social workers, engineers, artists, politicians - in other words, people from all walks of life. I have written nonfiction on numerous subjects for my clients, and fiction representing several different genres: mainstream, literary, horror, romance, adventure, science fiction, historical fiction, humor/satire, and more.”
BILLY: I have been heavily influenced by the work of Robbins and Vonnegut. I love Robbins' eccentric style, full of attitude and word play. With Vonnegut, now deceased, I love the way he would make outrageous plots sound believable, mastering the "willing suspension of disbelief." As for magical realism, John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe is the only novel where I've fished those waters, injecting fiction into historical events. It still uses a quirky style, but it's the first time I tried it. It's a rock and roll Field of Dreams. Instead of bringing Shoeless Joe back, I brought back Lennon.
LISA: Based on your descriptions in John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe I'd think you were a native New Yorker. Have you spent much time in
BILLY: I'm a native of
LISA: Both of your novels have female main characters and they're very convincing. Did they evolve naturally from the story, or was writing from the female point of view an intentional choice.
BILLY: My best friends have always been females. Males have been in the minority. I'm not sure why. With the Lennon novel, it seemed more natural to have a female fan interact with the pop icon.
LISA: You managed to touch on some significant historical events in the book, without ever making us aware that you were doing it. We start out early in 2007 and you reference the
BILLY: No. I mention the Iraq War for all of two lines, and part of novel deals with the FBI, which was always chasing Lennon in the 70s, feeling that he might be a security risk. I thought that if he somehow "returned," the FBI would be more paranoid than ever. But I didn't want to mention 9/11 or delve deeply into current events since this is a work of fantasy that attempts to deal with the mystical more than politics.
LISA: Are you a poet first and a novelist second, or do you find the two forms complementary?
BILLY: I've never favored one over the other. I do find that writing poetry, with its tight, demanding syntax, keeps my brain sharper for prose and therefore contributes to varied sentence structures.
LISA: Tell me a little about ghostwriting. I find it fascinating and I imagine it as the kind of enterprise where someone -- perhaps a wealthy person -- wants to write a memoir, but they need some help in doing so. Is this a typical scenario, or am I way off base?
BILLY: I do work for celebrities sometimes, but unfortunately most of my clients aren't wealthy. Most people who query me want me to write their memoirs, but I turn them down. Memoirs don't sell unless one has been in the limelight (with some exceptions). Some of my clients make it into traditional publishing, getting contracts with major
LISA: What are the kinds of ghostwriting projects that you’re excited about working on?
BILLY: I like intelligent nonfiction that has something important to say. I like to write about metaphysics, or the intersection of quantum mechanics and spirituality. In a larger sense, I’m interested in working with clients who are intelligent and mature and know the realities of the literary marketplace. Most clients have unrealistic expectations for their books.
LISA: What is the worst writing advice that you yourself have been given and what's the worst advice that you see other people listening to?
BILLY: To heavily outline. If a character has any vitality, you can't restrain him or her. As local bestselling novelist Walker Percy used to say, "I can't tell my characters what to do. They have to tell me." My outlines are mere skeletons, with plot resolutions nothing more than distant stars on the horizon. I trust that the story will tell me how to get there. (This is more heresy, but it's the way I work.)
LISA: You taught writing for over twenty years and I absolutely love your list of “Twenty Things You're Not Likely to Find in a Book About Writing” . What are the biggest novice fiction writer mistakes?
BILLY: Listening to the advice of others. I don't think writing can be taught per se. I always regarded myself as a mentor, nothing more. As Stephen King says in On Writing, the best way to practice the craft is to read a lot and write a lot. I grew up with a book in my hand from age seven on. Students no longer read from what I can see. They don't learn syntax or plotting. I'm not saying you can't learn from others or pick up ideas, but I think as soon as one sits down and starts asking, "What do I do?" and begins to obsess, the battle is already lost. I believe in Ray Bradbury's advice in Zen in the Art of Writing. Relax and have fun. Let the plot and characters grow organically.
LISA: I keep reading that there are more people writing than reading. There are more print and online literary magazines than one can count, yet most of them don’t last a year, and you can’t swing a dead cat without running into an MFA graduate. The typical published writer still needs a day job and yet more people than ever seem to be writing. Do you have any theories as to why? Do you think the reasons people are motivated to write have changed?
BILLY: Blogs, message boards, and websites have enabled people to acquire limited audiences. Some online writing is quite good, while much is deplorable and shows an ignorance of the basics of grammar, usage, and style. On balance, it’s healthy. After all, Sister Mary Henrietta was hoping all those years ago to make us literate. And yet, as you point out, more people write than read. Many of my potential clients see the golden ring, the movie deal, the reviews in the New York Times. They think that if a book is written, it will surely be published. I place the blame on poor educational systems. Today’s college curriculum is easier than the high school curriculum when I was growing up. Students graduate, unable to write a coherent essay. They don’t know the cause of WW I and can’t point to
LISA: You've published both of your novels with small presses. Was that a conscious choice, or was it difficult to sell your style of magical realism into the
BILLY: Again, I wouldn't say that my work is magical realism (except for one novel), just very quirky. I've had agents, but even though they say they like quirky, it's meat and potatoes prose that sells. The literary marketplace is now downsized and very limited in what it will take a chance on. It's also a bit schizophrenic. It says it wants new, fresh styles with energetic language, but the very agents and editors who ask for something radically different will say, "this is too quirky." Go figure. I stopped expecting logic from publishers and agents a long time ago. Most of the good ones I've worked with urged me to go to small presses with work written under my own name. I haven't given up on the major houses though. Besides, according to Publishers Weekly, the average fiction title only sells 7000 copies nationwide. There's not a lot of promotional money going into fiction these days, so most titles sink to the midlist and die. Sometimes you have to play AAA ball a long time before being called up to the majors.
LISA: What are the benefits and disadvantages of working with small presses?
BILLY: It might be slightly easier to get published, although small presses still get thousands of submissions just like major publishers. The downside is that they don't have large print runs and have limited distribution. But it's better to have your work "out there" than sitting in the bottom drawer of the desk. I've come very close to publication with major houses, and my ghostwriting clients have enjoyed much success because they have the proverbial connections. But I’ll get there myself sooner or later.
LISA: What does no one ever ask that you'd like to talk about?
BILLY: Raising children. We nurture and protect them with Mr. Rogers,
LISA: Some people (I’m one of them) believe most writers have an issue or a theme in their lives that repeatedly manifests itself in their art. Do you agree with this, and if you do, what themes do you think recur in your work?
BILLY: I agree with you. Most writers, regardless of plot, are operating from a philosophical underpinning of some kind. My books have dealt with the mindlessness of modern man and the absurdity of contemporary life. We’ve forsaken magic—the holy, the divine, the sacred—but I’m not talking religious dogma. Any society that sells Girls Gone Wild videos is in real trouble. We’re obsessed with Britney and Paris while our own children are allowed to stay out all night because they have cell phones to “check in.” This is the age of casual hook-ups, political lies, corporate greed, global warming, genocide, and perpetual face-lifts. As novelist Walker Percy said, we have the spiritual flu. We don’t know who we are anymore. We follow trends without thinking. Plus we don’t believe in Santa Claus. A bad sign. If there’s one thing I want to leave readers with, it’s hope. There’s a fatalism in the air that things are too far gone. I want people to believe that there’s immense power in a single thought. If we talk to the universe, it will talk back if we bother to listen.
LISA: What advice would you give to the aspiring novelist?
BILLY: Take out a piece of paper and write about something that makes you mad. Don’t worry about anything but getting your ideas onto paper or the PC. When you’re finished, you can go back and play with it all you want. As Bradbury said, “Shoot a character out of a cannon.”
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Thank you Billy for taking the time to chat with me.
To win a copy of John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe, leave a comment with your thoughts about one or more of the Q&A topics. I'll randomly draw a winner sometime this weekend, so don't forget to check back!
Note: I apologize for the wacky fonts in this post. Blogger had it in for me today and after messing around for an hour, I decided to post this "as is".