Musings On Inspiration: Writer Victor J. Banis
An idea is salvation by imagination.
—Frank Lloyd Wright
I am continuing my series of interviews with writers and other artists about the inspiration for their work and about the subject of inspiration in general. The purpose of these interviews is to dialogue either seriously or humorously about the mystery and magic of inspiration—and to offer any insights that would be useful to others trying to find or better employ their own muse or shift into a more productive creative space.
This week’s interview features long time gay rights activist Victor J. Banis, critically acclaimed author (“the master’s touch in storytelling” Publishers Weekly) of more than 160 published works in a career spanning nearly 50 years. Of particular pride is his contribution to THE GOLDEN AGE OF GAY FICTION from MLR Press, 2009. “It was the first great explosion of gay writing in history. These books were about gay characters. They were written mostly by gay writers. Above all they were for gay readers. And, as this entertaining chronicle of the emergence of gay literary pride makes clear, it was a revolutioln that occurred several years before Stonewall.”
Learn more about Victor by visiting his website.
TSC: How do you define ‘inspiration’ for yourself?
VB: I think inspiration is that divine voice that whispers in your ear, the idea that seems to pop into your head out of nowhere. It is definitely not planned by you or governed by you or controlled by you. Fitzgerald – or no, maybe it was Bud Schulburg in The Disenchanted – talked about the blue sky hook that just descends from above and you can hang everything on it.
TSC: What do you think first inspired you to become a writer/artist? Can you identify a moment or experience or influence that turned you in that direction?
VB: I started reading very young and telling stories to younger kids. Just gravitated to writing them down. I had a crush on a school mate (girl) and she started reading the Nancy Drew books when we were about 12 or 13, so I did too, and then I started writing these Nancy Drew-ish mysteries with her as the hero, but I was already into writing by that time.
TSC: Describe the ‘inspired’ you. What does he/she look or feel like?
VB: He’s a mess. Sometimes the ideas ( or, more likely, the characters) take me over and I am like a zombie, possessed. I talk to other people in monosyllables, if at all, I stumble around in a fog, but this is the extreme. Most of the time, I get the idea, and then the rest of it is just craftwork, putting it together. Or sometimes it alternates, I just start putting a story together and then the ideas flow. But for the most part, I wait for the characters to decide they’re ready to start telling me their story.
TSC: What is your most ‘inspired’ work? Why?
VB: That’s kind of like, “What’s your best work?” Not sure I know. Lola Dances started with pure inspiration, the transformation scene that is really the heart of the book. Longhorns, I wrote the whole book in two weeks in that fog state, so I hardly had to think about it at all until I went back to do rewrite. I pretty much wait with every book until things start to take some kind of shape in my head.
TSC: Who or what or where is your muse? How do you invoke your muse? Rituals?
VB: My muse is called Snotto, the Muse of Sleaze. She’s often left out of the tonier books,and she is a bitch. I don’t invoke her, she won’t let me alone, except when I want her help, and then she doesn’t know I exist (I had a boyfriend just like this, too.) This is one of the great, painful burdens I have borne throughout my life and one for which a think I deserve a great deal of sympathy.
TSC: What is your take on the notion that writing—or any creative work—is more about perspiration than inspiration?
VB: Inspiration is like enlightenment, you can’t work and achieve enlightenment, but you prepare yourself for it so you are ready when it comes. Same with inspiration, but inspiration is just the vision in your head. The perspiration comes into putting that vision down in words. Something always gets lost in the translation, what you end up with is never as good as what started out in your mind. That was divine, what you produce is man made. If one could only cross that gulf. That’s why I say only the mediocre artist is always at his best, he has no real concept of anything better than what he does (which can be quite wonderful) but the true artist knows there is more, he is always trying to reach a little farther, jump a little higher, spin a little faster, that’s why we fall on our faces from time to time, but failure in trying to reach beyond oneself is noble failure. There is no shame in it, and sometimes, just every rare once in a while, we make it just an inch or so past what we’ve done before.
TSC: What do you think is the most common—or problematic—myth or misconception about inspiration?
VB: That you have to have it for every day’s writing work. No, that is where the craft comes into it. Some days you are inspired and the words just flow, and they’re just as smooth and silky as a foie gras. Some days you have to get hold of them and drag them out like links of sausage in an old Warner Brothers cartoon. The funny thing is, once you’ve got some experience under your belt, you find that the products of the two different days aren’t very much different. The foie gras and the sausage are indistinguishable. This is why you write every day at more or less the same time. It’s like saying to your muse, “Snotto, this is when I am at home and ready for you, just in case you’d like to stop by for a visit.” You can take your chances and write any old time and hope she catches you at home when she comes to call, or you can make it easy for her by setting up a schedule, so she’ll know when she can find you.
TSC: What is the most ‘inspired’ work you’ve come across so far?
VB: I am in awe of other writers. I am like a gushing school girl. I always think, “How did they do that?” Some of them… well, like Shirley Jackson, what a demonic mind she must have had, she saw evil in the most astonishing places. If you read her stuff, you’ll find these funny stories about life with her children, and then you’ll run across practically the same story except it’s told in this chillingly horrific way, and you start looking at the day to day events of your own life differently. And, really, that is what the artist does, we see what other people just look at. A good writer becomes something scary, you have to conceal it from other people or they’ll wig out. I read minds. I know what people are thinking better sometimes than they do. That’s why my writing is so character oriented, because I read people. I think a lot of people who got burned at the stake as witches would probably have been first rate writers. I am sure there are many people in my life who would like to have started a good bonfire.
TSC: List a few tools or practices or methods that work reliably for you to get you in the mood to create. How do you shift into your ‘zone’?
VB: I don’t know that I can ever control it quite like that. I try to maintain a routine. I write early in the morning, after I have coffee, do the crossword, etc. And sometimes I lie awake at night and see scenes or hear dialogue. But I think making a routine for yourself is the most important thing. Also, sometimes I meditate. And if I get stuck on something, I go for a walk. Plus, for me, it’s important to be alone. I’m listening for that tiny, interior voice and I will miss if it someone else is chattering next to me. The best companion for a writer is one who doesn’t talk. A dog is ideal. Every writer should marry a dog.
TSC: What are you currently feeling inspired to do?
VB: I am trying to get a new novel started, but Snotto is having a mood. I’ve thought about one of the ears, but I am such a puss when it comes to blood. Especially mine.