Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!
My name is Andy Douglas. I live in Iowa City, a fabulous literary town. My books include “The Curve of the World: Into the Spiritual Heart of Yoga” and “Redemption Songs: A Year in the Life of a Community Prison Choir.”
What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?
The first book is a memoir and chronicles the seven years I spent in Asia, developing a spiritual practice, studying with a teacher, meditating and engaging in social service. The second deals with my six years as a volunteer in a medium-security prison, singing in a choir that combines incarcerated men and community volunteers. This experience was an eye-opener, bringing me into contact with people and I would otherwise never have encountered, and setting me on a path to reevaluate my understanding of the American criminal justice system. From that perspective, the book offers, in addition to the narrative of shared creativity in the choir, a critique of certain aspects of the penal system, and a portrayal of how ‘restorative justice’ can help to improve things.
What inspires/inspired your creativity?
When I encounter other writers and filmmakers and musicians who seize my attention, transport me, drop me into an aesthetic reverie, I try to look more deeply into how they do what they do.
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
I make a real effort to create a sense of continuity and cohesion within a narrative, a voice that is so compelling that the reader is pulled headlong into the world I’ve created. The mistake would be to not go deeply enough, to offer a shallow vision. So I pay a lot of attention to transition points, making sure there is, as I noted, continuity between ideas and plot points, and I also give myself the permission to take chances, go deep, and express myself fully.
Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
Interestingly, both of my titles have colons and subtitles. Obviously “Redemption Songs” owes a nod to Bob Marley, and I have no problem with borrowing from famous phrases. Covers need to be visually arresting and suggestive.
How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
Early on, in my MFA work, I received negative feedback from my thesis committee. This caused me to think very seriously about what I was doing, as I respected their opinions. I knew that I could do better. I feel I’ve come to a point of understanding what good writing is and how to do it, and so I’m no longer much affected by negative feedback. My point is, sometimes negative feedback is valid, and you need to pay attention to it. It’s important to be able to trust a few readers of your drafts, and pay attention to what they say, especially early in the process. But later, you have to trust your own vision.
How has your creation process improved over time?
Following up on what I wrote in the previous response, it took me many years to learn to write in a way that was not derivative or unnuanced. Even after completing an MFA in Creative Writing, I still did not understand certain things about writing. How to sustain an arc over many chapters. How to not sink into sentimentality. I needed to read more and develop a voice that was mature. I feel I have done that, but of course, there are always new things to learn, new areas in which to improve.
What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?
Best: The power of the scintillating sentence. Worst: An editor who inserted typos into my finished manuscript in my first book (daggers to the heart!). Most surprising: How deeply good writing can touch another person.
What role do emotions play in creativity?
Often, a mood, which I’ll sink into, gives rise to a memory, wrapped in a specific feeling. I chase those suckers down and interrogate them.
What are your plans for future books?
I have ideas for two books. Another nonfiction book exploring practices and stratagems on both the personal and social level, for dealing with the perfect storm of climate, rising tide of fascism, and economic collapse we seem to be facing. I’d also like to try my hand at fiction, and write a novel on similar themes.
Tell us some quirky facts about yourself.
I used to be a monk, way back in my 20s. The discipline I imbibed then has served me very well, into my 50s, and has probably impacted my writing life and work ethic as well. Being patient, being focused, seeing the long game…