It's very flattering to receive a referral for work, especially out of the blue, and to have an opportunity to meet someone new. A good friend of mine, who has done many portraits and is very capable, gratefully sent the local writer José Skinner my way to get some new portraits done ahead of the launch of his newest book, The Tombstone Race.
Working with different types of creative people is always fun and exciting, and I especially have a lot of respect for writers. I met José at his office on Cesar Chavez, and after taking a few warm up shots, we walked down the street to find the potential backdrops for these images. Personally, that is the way I prefer to do all my headshot/portrait type work, which I did a lot of in NYC while studying acting. José and I walked around his neighborhood exploring the colors and textures of the east side, using only natural light, and found some pretty great spots. All the while I'm getting to know José, we talked about his work and his life. Post photo shoot, I sent José over a few questions since I still wanted to know more about him.
I'm looking forward to reading his new book and seeing how the photos will be used because I really like how they turned out. It's even better because now I know José and have been exposed to more of the diversity and talent that exists under the radar here in Austin. Be sure to visit his website and read about his very interesting past.
SDG: Tell me about your new book?
JS: Fourteen realist stories set in contemporary New Mexico. Reviewers have described them as "gritty" and as depicting "hardscrabble" lives, and I guess that's true enough for many of them. You can read a review here:
SDG: When does the book come out and where can it be acquired?
JS: It will be released March 1, 2016. Launch is March 3rd, 7pm at Book People.
SDG: Where do you get the ideas for your writing?
JS: Could come from anywhere: a snippet of overheard conversation, a remembered incident from childhood, a street scene. For example, last time I was in NYC I saw a grand piano being hoisted to a third-floor window. I can do something with that... I think...
SDG: What motivates you to write?
JS: It's the same motivation that ultimately motivates any artist or craftsperson, I think: the desire to create a solid piece of work in which everything fits together in a way that makes sense. Writing a story or novel is like building a house: it can be extravagant and baroque, but in the end it has to be unified as a structure. The reader has to inhabit it without feeling it's going to collapse around her. I suppose the same desire also motivates mathematicians and scientists. Physicists won't be satisfied until they can unify the fundamental forces and particles into a single field. Your panoramas are exquisite examples of distinct images brought to unity.
SDG: Thanks! The were a lot of fun to create. Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?
JS: First I brainstorm, and then I make an outline from the patterns that emerge from the free association. The brainstorming would likely involve characters. In the piano story above, I would immediately begin imagining the pianist, the movers, perhaps the building's super. Eventually a theme evolves, but that comes later--the owl of Minerva takes off at dusk and all that. I don't begin writing and see where it takes me: to keep with the house building metaphor, I think this would be like starting hammering boards together and hoping a structure comes of it.
SDG: You mentioned how you deal with writers block. Can you elaborate on that?
JS: First I think it's good to try to get your ego out of the way. You can't be thinking, "How is it that I am writing this, what are others going to think of me when they read this,etc. Instead, you have to think, "Here is a story worth telling and this person they call me seems to be the one that has to tell it, so let me take a crack at it." If the story seems to big and daunting just in terms of execution, keep in mind Anne Lamott's "bird-by-bird" advice: you have the whole diorama in mind, but you build it bird by bird, that is, scene by scene, word by word.
SDG: Who do you like to read and what books have made the most lasting impression on you?
JS: I read widely. A guilty pleasure are these "Very Short Introductions" by Oxford University Press, which cover everything from electromagnetism to Wittgenstein. (I say "guilty" with irony, aware that the cash nexus, the money economy that rules our society, would prefer that people not "waste" their time pursuing knowledge in a dilettantish way and instead concentrate on the specialty for which they've been trained.) In terms of the short story, which I suppose is my specialty and is indeed what MFA fiction workshops mostly train one in, I admire Mary Gaitskill, Lorrie Moore, Eudora Welty, Tessa Hadley, Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortazar, Richard Ford… I could go on. On the long side of things, and what actually got me writing, strangely enough, was Proust's multi-volume Remembrance of Things Past. In general, I prefer realist writing to postmodernist because I'm interested in discerning the patterns I think can be found in reality and history and don't think reality is so chaotic that one might as well slap any old pattern or design onto this hopeless chaos. For this reason, I enjoy reading science books. I am eager to read Nick Lane's The Vital Question, about the origins of complex life.
SDG: Thank you for your time and best of luck with the book launch. I really enjoyed working with and getting to know you.