Geoffrey Craig On Work, Life, and Writing Process
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- Published: Friday, 20 July 2018 04:40
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Author and Playwright Geoffrey Craig
Interviewed by Aura Martin
Geoffrey Craig attended all the rehearsals of the first play he wrote. One day the cast informed him that one scene just didn't work. So he went home and rewrote the scene and brought it in the next day for rehearsal. "They looked at me like I had grown two heads, and they asked how I did that overnight," Craig chuckled. "I said that's the way an investment banker works." The new scene succeeded. The intense focus, organizational skill, core optimism, and attention to character needed for such quick revision--these are qualities which inform Craig's life and work. Aura Martin interviewed the author about his background, his recently released One-Eyed Man and Other Stories, and his writing strategies.
Geoffrey Craig is a writer, playwright, director, and retired banker. After graduating from Colgate, then from Harvard Business School where he earned an MBA, he joined the Peace Corps. He traveled quite a bit in Latin America, developing an understanding of global problems, witnessing a different culture, and learning to speak fluent Spanish. "Peace Corps was a work experience that allowed me to stay involved with Latin America for a good part of my career. I had come from a relatively privileged background, and it was an eye-opener to see how many people lived."
After Peace Corps, Craig traveled more, and joined a small consulting firm that focused on developing small businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area. Later he got a Master's degree in history, and then a banking job that provided investment services to companies throughout Latin America. That's how he was introduced to banking, a career that lasted for over two decades, ending when he retired as a Director at Credit Suisse, First Boston, in 2002 and turned a hobby into a second career.
Works and Themes:
His first published novel, The Brave Maiden, actually began as bedtime stories for his daughter--about a brave medieval girl looking for justice, or possibly revenge, during the lifetime of Robin Hood and Bad King John. Like a medieval bard, he put the tales into verse, but later he gathered them into a verse novel as a special Christmas present. "It was quite laborious," Craig said of his versifying process. "I have written some poems since then, but I don't know that I would write a complete novel in verse again.* His daughter is now in law school at U.C. Berkeley, perhaps embodying the bravery and sense of fair play which her father's tales encoded. But that's another story.
In his first published collection of short stories, One-Eyed Man and Other Stories (Golden Antelope Press, June, 2018), Craig explores tough people fighting their way through injustices in the world. Ever since college, he says, he has been interested in equity and ethics, and he uses story-writing as a way to examine and test this old idealism. He didn't set out to push an agenda, he says, but to explore characters and situations. If ethical implications evolve from this exploration, they do so naturally.
The focus of the first five stories in One-Eyed Man, for example, is a Latino community living in "Blue Heron Lake," a town in the Hudson Valley. The stories, some of which were written several years ago, are linked by a common cast of characters with common problems: how does an undocumented worker manage to exist without his wife and children for years at a time? what makes a man leave home and cross a national border without papers? Craig wrote about the Latino community because he was very familiar with Latino culture, having spent years living and working in Latin America. "I thought that would be something I was somewhat familiar with, so I started to write about that," he says. Some of the issues his characters face have become more pressing, dramatic, and traumatic since as he began writing the "Blue Heron Lake" stories. The last one in the set involves sanctuary cities. "I think current events have caught up with me."
Another set of stories, collectively titled "Snake," deals with racism in the early 20th century. Its first story, "Back from the War," was inspired by real events, known to historians but pulled back into the mainstream news just a few years ago amid claims and counterclaims about racism in the USA. African American veterans of World War I had been lynched simply for wearing their uniforms. (The summer of 1919 was called "Red Summer" because of its flood of violence against African Americans.) "I'd felt that outrage for many years, and it finally came out in the story" of James Yates' lynching. In the "Snake" set, the longest story is low-key and meditative as its protagonist, James Yates' younger brother, raises his family and, once a week, contemplates his minister's demand that he forgive those who murdered his brother. There are no easy answers here. The final "Snake" story, "Lying in Wait," was also inspired by a real story, this one told by Craig's grandmother, who was on a farm in South Carolina in the ‘30s when the snake-bitten daughter of a farm worker was refused treatment at the local clinic because she was African American. Craig's snake-bitten boy dies; the real-life girl may have survived--but in any case, the story stuck with Geoffrey Craig for years.
Race and racism are further explored in six stories about Brandon Forsythe, a promising young New Yorker who was wrongfully sent down the for-profit prison pipeline and emerged to become a big-time drug dealer. "I was outraged about what was going on in our society about the over-incarceration, inequality and unequal treatment of African Americans vs. white. I tried to think what it would be like to be an African American falsely accused, falsely sent to prison, and then not be able to find honest work," Craig said. The other stories in the collection explore the lives of several Swedish immigrant during the Great Depression and in the generation following. What are the strengths and values of farmers and factory workers in rural America? How do they cope, adapt, survive, enjoy the lives they are living?
When it comes to writing, Geoffrey Craig does not have a set routine. He finds that fact ironic since he has spent almost thirty years working in the highly-structured world of banking. Before he writes, though, he does try to get household chores done so he can have a clear mind. He says it makes no difference when he starts writing; it could be in the morning, afternoon, or evening. "If I'm deeply involved in a project, I can go late into the night; if I'm not so deeply involved, I struggle to keep going. I don't have any specific time when I write."
He has tried outlining stories, but it never seems to work for him. Rather, he makes notes about characters and ideas and then starts writing. Outlining might help him avoid changing directions, he says, but he is a little too impatient for it. He does try to have an ending in mind before he starts the actual writing, because he finds that many novels and plays go on too long; their authors seem unable to find a way to end them, or they just don't want to stop.
He loves the theater and enjoys the process of writing and having plays produced, though theater can be "all-consuming." Directing a play he's written, he says, "is an amazing collaborative experience. I feel like I am not alone out there, struggling to get the right words and the right phrase or dialogue. I have actors and other people who are all helping me."
An unusually active man, he used to be a runner. But when a back injury relegated him to walking, he made the best of it. He walks every day, sometimes twice, and finds it has affected his writing process. "There is an advantage to walking instead of running. I really couldn't think much as I was running. Now, when I'm walking, I can think a lot about the work. I create scenes, come up with dialogue, and develop characters. So a lot gets done in my head as I walk." He doesn't take notes during his walks; he thinks it is a good mental discipline to remember the ideas. "This is a second career for me," he muses. "I'm not just a young person out there writing; I'm seventy-four, and I think it's a great discipline to use my head and not be able to take notes." Nowadays, he writes almost exclusively on a computer. His handwriting has become illegible over the years, he says, and the computer gives him the freedom to edit and restructure while drafting. "It took me a while to become computer literate," he says, "but I'm quite proficient at using Word to write, and I can't imagine doing it any other way now."
Craig uses books and the internet to research his short stories and plays. Though skeptical of some sites, he has found reliable historical resources online, so that the historical aspects of his work are as accurate as possible. Still, he is not doing the indepth work of a scholar. Rather, he concentrates on making his characters real and memorable. In a recent collaboration, for example, when he and his colleague included series of Civil War monologues, they were content with basic history.
When it comes to revising, Craig relies on his girlfriend and other well-read, critical, friends. They have vetted almost every story in One-Eyed Man and Other Stories, and he revised heavily based on their feedback. "I have a hard time judging my work, but my readers don't have as hard of a time," he says. Craig thinks that his ideal audience is serious about fiction and likes to be challenged by ideas. Currently, he is developing a novella out of an unpublished short story. "I don't typically write about myself - I'm not very autobiographical in that context - but this story does have a little bit of a connection to my youth, so I'll see what happens with it." He is also thinking of writing poetry again.
To anyone who wants to write, Craig says: "Start writing. There are courses and writing groups that can be helpful, but the most important thing to do is to write. Also, be prepared to show your work to people and accept criticism and then be ready to do much revision. "If you're trying to get it published or produced, just to be prepared for massive numbers of rejections, but stay persistent and keep writing."
* Here's a tiny sample from The Brave Maiden's opening stanzas. It may not be the greatest poetry you'll ever read, but it's large-hearted and good-humored--and a fantastic beginning for a talented storyteller.
Honor and valor were in short supply;
For the slightest of reasons, a man could die.
King John sat atop this foul heap of dung,
A villain, but wanting his praises sung;
And so, he pretends to great piety,
While stealing with all due propriety.
One light shone in this dark night of evil:
A crusading earl both strong and civil......
He had a fair daughter whom he adored,
Teaching her early to fight with a sword.