Bill Soldan has had a busy time the last few years. In 2019, his book In Just the Right Light came out, followed by his short story collection Lost in the Furrows and his poetry collection So Fast, So Close in 2020. Now, in 2021, Soldan has just released his new short story collection, Houses Burning and Other Ruins. Bill lives in Youngstown, OH, and has a Master’s of Fine Arts degree from the NEOMFA program. When I first read Bill’s work, I was blown away by the tenderness he has for the most broken of characters, something that’s caused other writers to liken his work to Tom Waits’s music (okay, I’m a sucker for Tom Waits, too). But Bill’s writing is so much more than just that authorial empathy—he’s got a great ear for language, a brilliant understanding of story structure and tension, and, plainly put, his stories are electric. We talked about craft in this interview, and you’ll want to read every thoughtful word he’s got to say about it.
Alex DiFrancesco: There’s often a dual tension in these stories—between the past and present, between the instincts in the characters for good and their draw towards their darker sides. Can you talk about how you structure story around these opposing threads?
William Soldan: Although the finished product typically maintains the same order as it did when drafting (with the exception of the story “Space Station Stereo,” which I wrote entirely out of sequence, because it felt appropriate given the subject matter), I don’t often have any sort of structure in mind when I begin a story. But I usually know from the start that there will be (at least) two stories at play within a single piece. And that’s largely due to the types of stories and characters I tend to write. There’s always going to be a backstory, even if it’s not explicitly on the page—either a time when the character was in a bad place before clawing their way out, or when the character was in a better place and ended up somewhere worse—whichever place they occupy in the main story, the opposite of that will often be the backstory that sheds light on the overall narrative.
Not every story is this way, of course. Sometimes, it’s a story about a kid, say, who by the end never actually escapes whatever situation they’re in, but I like to hint at what might happen next, even if I don’t give it to you. Sometimes the main story in one piece is the backstory of another piece, which was the case in a few of the stories from my first collection, where the stories are all linked, either by place, character, or circumstance.
But when it comes to structuring this stuff, I try to let instinct be my guide. I might use white space and give backstory its own section. I might let the character drift into reflection or memory triggered by something in the present—a person, object, sound, whatever—then start a new section when they snap out of the flashback. I know it’s popular to rail against flashbacks (as it is to rail against so many techniques these days), but I think whether it’s a full blown scene or simply a summarized paragraph, the past always has a place in the story. Always, especially if the character’s past was in someway different from their present. The then and the now are always pressing against each other, in fiction as in real life. I might just fold some backstory into the current scene during an exchange of dialogue (not necessarily in the dialogue itself, which often feels like a means to shoehorn pertinent information into the story, and feels contrived, but in the beats between the dialogue) or wherever it feels effective. It doesn’t need to be much, sometimes just a line or two, a hint at something that illuminates what’s going on.
Those are the main types of structure my stories tend to take, I think (sometimes employing more than one or all of them), though I’m sure there are others I’ve used. I’ve definitely attempted other structures: the circular plot, the reverse chronology, the braided narrative, etc. I’m always interested in how I can manipulate and convey time on the page. I’m far from an experimental writer—at least when it comes to my published work—but I enjoy playing around with ways of laying out the timeline, even if the finished work seems fairly conventional in its structure.
As for the tension itself, these opposing forces at work within the characters, often at odds with their environment or circumstances, I think that describes all of us, every single human being. We’re all walking sacks of contradicting desires and needs and dreams. I couldn’t imagine writing about any other type of character. As we know, tension comes from conflict (of course structure and word choice and style and other things can serve to heighten tension, too). For me there’s no greater conflict than what we wrestle within ourselves every day. Even a story where there’s very little external conflict, I think should have some—maybe just a glimmer—internal conflict. Depending on the character, this can take on many forms, but it’s always there. Identifying it and figuring out how to depict it is the fun part.
AD: Though I know neither of us are wedded to ideas of genre, your work is often described as “grit lit,” and that it’s set in the worlds of addicts, criminals, and small rough towns, adds to this categorization. How do you use the elements and tropes of this genre, and how do you push back against them?
WS: I suspect when you’re writing in a specific genre or picture yourself as a “____writer” then these things are a focus all the time during the writing process, but unless I’m setting out to write, say, a crime story, which I’ve been known to do on occasion, and as such have considered the genre’s specifics and expectations, I don’t typically set out to write a “____story,” just a good story, one people will enjoy if they choose to read it. And honestly, that approach has served me well. For instance, I’ve been embraced by many in the crime writing and noir communities online. And while much if not most of my work has the bleak atmosphere and absence of hope associated with noir, only a handful of my stories are overtly crime stories. And I like that about noir, it’s a broader term than crime, because a story can be noir without being a crime story (and vice versa), but a crime story has to have crime in it to be a crime story. Grit Lit is an even broader term (contrary to the opinion of many, I’m sure), and one that I think best describes my work as a whole. The qualities that have come to be associated with it—struggle, booze, drugs, violence, secrets, single moms, absent or abusive fathers, convicts, would be criminals, and other “hardscrabble” folks—are ones that are ever present in my writing. It just so happens these kinds of stories seem to also appeal to readers of crime and noir. A lot. Again, I’m just looking to tell a story you’ll enjoy, or in the very least have some sort of emotional reaction to. These places and characters are the ones I have the deepest connection to. Occasionally I think, This is gonna be a crime story when I begin a piece, but I’ve never said to myself, This is gonna be noir or This is gonna be a Grit Lit story. At this point, those two are almost a given coming from me. I just write the story and it fits in where it fits in. But I do use the terms when describing my work, because as much as labels can pidgeon-hole a writer, they are useful for readers when seeking out new work.
I could go on about Grit Lit and what it is and its characteristics and what genres overlap it and so on, but that’ll almost certainly steer the conversation in another direction, like “literary” vs. “genre,” and those distinctions are bothersome. Suffice to say, even with all the conventions, genres are nebulous and can morph into whatever the writer wants. The tropes of Grit Lit, crime, and noir overlap. They all find there way into my work because I feel a sense of authority of certain subject matter due to my history. Also, I write the types of things I love to read, and I love to read these genres. How I push back against the tropes and expectations that come with writing this stuff is by bringing to it something no one else can: my own lived experience. Also by refusing to be constrained by the conventions if I feel compelled to diverge from them or to subvert expectations, big or small. Tropes can be your friend, but they can also stifle you, choke all the life out of your work. I guess it’s all about learning how to make them work for you while telling the story you have to tell and allowing yourself the freedom to be more flexible than strict adherence to tropes would allow.
AD: You write prose and well as poetry, and much of your prose has what I like to think of as “barroom musicality” or “street poetry.” What’s the significance of language to you as a prose writer, and how does your work in the genre of poetry influence this?
WS: I love that term “barroom musicality.” One of my favorite things anyone has ever said about my work. Thank you for that. The short answer is language a top priority for me at all times, and poetry influences everything I write.
The more rambling, lengthy answer (you should have seen one coming by now, haha!) is I always bring the poet in me (whatever that means) to the table when writing prose. In fact, the majority of the poems I’ve written over the last couple years have been prose poems. Partially because when I’m writing a poem, I’m usually taking all the way to the margin, focusing on language over structure. Afterward, I’ll sometimes chop up and line-break and stanza-fy, but I’ve been doing that less and less in my recent poetry. Something about the visual aesthetic of a tight block of prose appeals to me (I’m sure a therapist would suggest that I desire order and to be in control, and they might be right), but I love all forms of poetry. I just have an affinity for the prose poem.
Anyway, I think a lot of people have this assumption that the sound of language isn’t as important to prose as it is poetry, as if there’s this unspoken (or rarely spoken) idea that poems are intended to be read aloud, to be heard—even if the majority of poems will be experienced silently through reading and not at a live event or open-mic—and as such are expected to be more conscious of to things like rhythm and acoustics in the language. But I argue it’s every bit as vital to prose.
After all, storytelling was once an oral form, and many of the techniques we use in both poetry and prose—repetition, anaphora, alliteration, sibilance, etc.—come directly out of that tradition. These techniques were not only used to make stories easier to memorize and thus perform, but they’re also pleasing to the ear if executed well. It’s no accident that speechwriters (good ones, anyway) employ these techniques in political addresses and persuasive rhetoric all the time: they captivate the ear first and foremost.
Now, fiction writers might not be as preoccupied with this stuff as poets, or as our forebears sitting around the hearth, but any writer is (hopefully) a reader first and understands that we have an inner ear that is always tuned to the language we read. This is why some sentences, even perfectly serviceable ones, fall flat compared to others. Take any two sentences that say pretty much the same thing, but let’s have one be dull and unremarkable and the other crackle with life. Both may or may not be grammatically correct, but both work to convey the information, yet one is meh and the other is POW! The difference? One hundred percent of the time it’s the words (and rhythm) of the sentences. One isn’t using language to its full potential while one shines because of an awareness of what language can do beyond conveying information. Of course, there’s a time and place to do linguistic acrobatics and a time to be more reserved with your language. But reserved doesn’t mean it can’t still have rhythm and flow.I’m not saying we should be writing musical, flourishing sentences all the time, just that we should have our ears always tuned the music of language, even the simplest mundane phrase can be beautiful. Is every sentence going to be? Probably not. But considering how a sentence interacts with the other sentences around it isn’t a bad practice. Also, if you’re language is great at the expense of the plot, even a mostly plotless story, then maybe consider writing poetry, because few readers have the tolerance for impressive language that doesn’t go anywhere.
Which reminds me of something Stephen King once said, which I’ll paraphrase. He essentially said there are two kinds of stories. One is the working-person, utilitarian story that functions just fine and takes you somewhere. The other is the beautifully written story that goes nowhere, which is like a Cadillac with no engine under the hood. At least the first story, although nothing remarkable on the line level, transports you, and that’s the kind of story people want. He also said occasionally you get the greats, the ones that do both. Those are the stories that stay with us, that we recommend to others. Like him or not, it’s a good analogy. And I suppose if I had to choose, I’d rather my story be a beater that gets you across town than a nice looking car that doesn’t start, much less move. Of course, my mission is to have it both ways. Always. Do I succeed? Sometimes, yeah, I think I do. I’ve written my share of the other two types, sure, and I’m sure I will again, but language is something I always consider. It matters. Hell, it’s all we have. Shouldn’t we try to juice it for all it’s worth?
That was my longwinded way of saying I think every prose writer could benefit from embracing poetics more. 😊
AD: To talk more about setting, your work often takes place in your home city of Youngstown, Ohio. Is the history and your own personal history of this place something you research and recall to create these stories?
WS: I’m a huge fan of place-based writing. It’s one of the reasons I love Grit Lit and rural noir so much. They almost always have a rich sense of locale. In addition to a strong narrative voice, a strong established setting is typically the first thing I connect with in a story. Never mind the plot and other important things. Without having a world for the story to take place in, you’ve got a void, and fun as voids can be, existentially speaking, they’re no good in fiction. So while others might disagree or have other priorities, place is big on my list of must haves. Flash fiction is another animal and doesn’t always apply to that belief, though I’ve read some wickedly good flash that has a strong sense of place, too, which is challenging as hell, so kudos to those who can pull it off.
But, unless I’m writing something that’s set against a particular historic event, the majority of my setting description comes from recall or good old fashioned boots-on-the-ground research. Or wheels-on-the-road research. I’m a big fan of a nice aimless drive. Of course, if I’m setting out for inspiration or looking for certain details then it’s not aimless, but at any rate I love driving around town. I do it all the time, move through the city and the surrounding rural communities, some of which I grew up in. I like to put myself physically in the place if I can. With the exception of stories that take place elsewhere, where I need to go online to study a different geography, different flora and fauna and whatnot, most of the setting details in my locally-set stories were gathered this way.
And yes, memory. I rely on that a lot, too. But memory is notoriously unreliable, which is why some of the stories in all of my books are presented as fiction rather than memoir. Some stories only differ from actual life events in that I had to mess with the geography or timeline in a way that better served the story, but are otherwise nonfiction. My creative liberties are enough that I don’t feel right calling them memoir. My first collection was mostly set in a fictional town that was drawn from details of a couple different towns I know well, where I grew up, but I changed enough about it to warrant calling it fiction. That, and the stories are fiction, even the ones that are mostly true. This new collection is entirely set in real places, namely Youngstown and Columbus, Ohio. There’s not a story in there that I couldn’t take you to the specific locations depicted. All the places exist, or existed. Only a couple of the stories in this book are of the memoir-turned-fiction variety, but I’ll let you speculate on which ones.
So driving or walking the same path a character takes, when possible, has always been a great way for me to get inside a story, and occasionally it’s these walks/drives that help me resolve an issue with the plot or figure out a character’s next move. Regardless of my motivation, getting out there physically is good for me.
As I’ve said, though, I have done traditional book/online/interview research to get my facts straight when writing about something specific. For example, there are two stories in my first book that take place before, during, and after a devastating blizzard that occurred here in the late 70s. Even though the story was a complete fiction, the setting details were researched, the time and date of the storm, the destruction it caused, the lives lost—all of that seemed important to get accurate. Those are my most heavily researched stories. But I did quite a bit of that type of research for my forthcoming novel, too. I needed to get some dates right, concerning the steel mills, the names of them, which ones shut down when, which ones still stood, which had been razed. I moved to this area in the late 80s, after all that happened. Not much after, but I was young enough not to have any factual information of that sort in my memory, so Google, and pestering a local historian, proved useful for that stuff.
Driving around was helpful here, too, being able to visit specific locations and see the remnants of the past up close. The material you draw from it feels—at least to the writer but hopefully the reader—all the more authentic because you have a more direct association with the place/object, and it’s less likely to be blurred by an unreliable memory. When I’m in doubt of my ability to hold an image in my mind, I snap a picture. I’ve got thousands. Rundown buildings, motels, truck stops, bars—the types of places my characters frequent.
Part of the increasing difficulty with this drivearound method is that so much of what was once here is now gone, abandoned mills and warehouses replaced by fields and vacant lots. Plenty of blight still, but nearly all of the big structures that haunted our landscape for the last forty years—furnaces and smokestacks and looming buildings from one end of the horizon to the other—have been torn down. What once appeared to be the ghosts of a better time are now gone. Some felt all the abandoned places were a constant negative reminder of where we are vs. where we were as a community. Others felt they were symbolic of who we were and always will be. I can see both sides of that argument, but I fall into the second camp. I miss the old structures. For me they were a source of inspiration. So it sucks that they’re gone. But I guess there’s always Google.
All that to say, nearly everything I write draws, in some way, from my lived experience, and setting is a crucial aspect of representing that experience, so recall and in-person research are extremely important to me and my work.
AD: Something that really resonates with me in your work is that your characters are not necessarily “good” people, but your writerly empathy shines through in every story, no matter how debased the people involved may be. Can you talk about the role of empathy in your work?
WS: This goes back to the first question, the idea that we’re all far more complicated than “good” and “bad.” I mean, unless we’re writing a fairy tale or some other type of story where absolutes like these are among the established tropes of the genre, who the hell would want such a rigid dichotomy, right? That’s why “anti-heroes” are so popular. Giving seemingly decent characters flaws is done in an effort to create a false reality that mirrors the real world. That is, to create a complex character, which is our objective, most of us, we must try for verisimilitude, a sense of being real and true. Even when writing high fantasy or speculative fiction, we want our stories to be believable. As far-fetched as the world or concept might be, we want characters to seem alive.
I think this is the distinction between sympathetic and likeable, in terms of character. People often conflate these terms, suggesting that a character has to be likeable to be sympathetic. I think what sympathetic means in this context has more to do with empathy than likeability. You can sympathize or empathize with an otherwise unlikeable character so long as you can imagine yourself in their situation, even if it’s unlikely you’ll ever be in their situation, and even if you’d never admit it to anyone. You don’t need to like them to do that. Some people seem to think you must like the character, perhaps because they feel icky relating to someone who does deplorable things. But it’s okay to feel some kind of way other than loathing toward even the worst characters. Because people are complicated, and complicated is more interesting.
It helps to have walked in their shoes in some way, too, which is another reason I write the stories and characters that I do. I’m a recovering addict. I’m a reformed criminal. I’ve done less than admirable things in my life. But even at my worst, I don’t think I was ever all bad. Perhaps it’s easier for me to suspend judgement of these types of characters for this reason. I’m just one bad decision from being right back there, in not so good a place. I try to remember that, in someone else’s story (even our own), we might be the despicable character. And we’d all like to be seen as greater than the sum of our bad choices.
The world is one big gray area when it comes to most things, as are the people who populate it, far more nuanced than black and white absolutes. None of us are all good or bad. There are some people whose decency I admire far more than my own, and likewise, there are some downright awful human beings on this earth. But even the best have had bad days, and even the most vile, at some point in their lives did something decent or showed the potential for decency. I’m not saying we should cut the villains some slack; I’m saying they’re more interesting if they have more than one side.
What’s cool about fiction is there might be a character who on the surface seems like a saint to other characters in the story, but to the writer and reader, we know better, and we can reveal the other facets of the saintly person while other characters continue to be duped by the “good” person. If we want, that is. It’s one way of creating tension and dramatic irony. Same with the “bad” guys. We can see them beyond the way other characters do, in a way that might contradict their usual actions. Or everyone can be aware that everyone else, including themselves, are imperfect and thus not to be trusted at face value. I prefer these types of stories myself. No one is beyond reproach, and no one is beyond redemption. As a writer, it’s not my place to cast down that kind of judgment. That’s the reader’s job. Sure, I’ve given the bad guys their comeuppance plenty of times, and I’ve written characters (usually mother figures) who, despite their struggles and bad choices, I hope to depict as decent, admirable folks. But those kinds of decisions tend to happen as the story unfolds and I get to know the characters better. A character who is invariably good or bad is a caricature. As a reader, my suspension of disbelief quickly wavers, in both realistic and fantastical stories, the second I realize a character is too perfect or too evil—too one-dimensional. So as a writer, I try really hard to avoid that sort of thing.
People make bad choices on occasion. Some people make them often. These bad choices are the backbone of compelling stories. They determine everything that follows. And if a protagonist is faced with a tough choice, and appears as if they’re about to make the wrong one, we want to keep reading to find out what happens. And that’s what we all want. If we can’t make the reader want to keep reading, we’re pretty much fucked and might be better off taking up knitting or something.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1982, William R. Soldan grew up in and around the Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio, with a brief stint in the hills of southern Oregon. A high school dropout and college graduate, he holds a BA in English Literature from Youngstown State University and an MFA from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program. Over the years, he has been employed as a factory machinist, maintenance man, house painter, record store clerk, line-cook, bartender, bouncer, writing instructor, personal trainer, and a host of other things. William’s work draws greatly from the urban and rural landscapes of the post-industrial Midwest—the stark beauty, the resonant history, the strength and endurance of its grappling working-class.
Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, William’s work appears in publications such as Elm Leaves Journal, New World Writing, Jellyfish Review, Gordon Square Review, Coffin Bell, Thuglit, (b)OINK, Bending Genres, Anomaly Literary Journal, Cowboy Jamboree’s All We Need of Hell: A Harry Crews Tribute, Mystery Tribune, The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, Ohio’s Best Emerging Poets Anthology, and many others.
William resides in Youngstown with his wife and two children and divides his time between being a fitness coach and teaching community writing workshops throughout the Youngstown area. He’s also the co-coordinator of The Strand Project, a staged set of dramatic monologues performed each spring at Selah Dinner Theatre.
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin House, The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity, and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.