Tim Trask was born in Maine, a post-WWII baby, and grew up in a minister’s household. His family moved frequently, so he doesn’t have one place that he considers to be a hometown. These facts have had a huge effect on the way he views the world. Since retiring from teaching English and television production at Massasoit Community College, he has been teaching writing at Bridgewater State University. He has written several novels, three nonfiction books, more than fifty short stories, and one screenplay. His novel Frags is based in part on his experience as a soldier in Viet Nam. He’s been married to Janet for forty-three years, and they have three adult children.
Daniel: Tim O’Brien, whose Viet Nam war experiences have some parallels to your own, wrote in The Things They Carried that he’d like to tell stories about other things than the war but can’t quite seem to. From short stories, essays, and novels of yours that I’ve read, you seem able to draw from a larger world and set of experiences than just the war, and yet it is often there. Comment?
Trask: Well, Tim O’Brien was a grunt, and I was a REMF; he was wounded, and I was not, so those things need to be said first. Still, the war is always there in my writing, even when it wouldn’t be evident to most readers. One of the things I learned on returning to civilian life is that there is a difference in degree but not in kind between combat and our everyday lives. There is little outright killing going on in our daily lives, but there are countless metaphorical murders taking place all around us every minute. There’s a reason that Donald Trump’s favorite sentence—a kind of trademark—is “You’re fired!” Even the word “fired” brings a rifle to mind, and firing an employee is a type of murder. In firing someone, you put that person out of your sight and life and do considerable financial and psychological damage. Firing someone gives you the same thrill as killing him or her. For the same reason, many people are attracted by that Trump obsession. He’s living the dream many people have, not just the dream of being wealthy but also the dream of having the power to obliterate and wall out people he doesn’t care for.
Near the end of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” The Misfit says, “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” What The Misfit says is true for most of us. We would behave better under a constant threat of death. The truth is, there actually is someone there ready to shoot us every minute of our lives, and awareness of that fact can be both devastating and inspirational.
The event we call 9/11 changed many people. Part of what it changed was their consciousness of the world and their sense of safety in it. That effect is very similar to what war trauma does to you. For some people, the effects of such trauma are lifelong. Great literature teaches the same lesson, but people who are not prepared for the lesson tend to read right past those details.
So yes, war consciousness is always there. On returning from the horrors of war to what you think is going to be the peace and tranquility of The World, you can’t help but notice the terrible things people do to each other without being wholly aware of what they’re doing.
Daniel: What has your experience with publishing Frags taught you?
Trask: One thing it has reminded me of is that many people prefer paper books to e-books. As you know, I published Frags only in e-book form, and while I’m very pleased by the number of people who have read and commented on it, there are just as many or more who tell me they’re waiting for the “real” book to appear.
I finished a draft of Frags in the late 1980s. I revised it in 1992, after the Gulf War. At that time, I had a few nibbles and good comments from a couple of publishers and one agent, but no offers, so it sat there for over twenty years before I asked for and got an offer from Vook (now Pronoun), and they prepared it for many different platforms and vendors, both here and in Europe.
Finally getting it published was a great relief. Sending the “rambling brat . . . out of door,” as Anne Bradstreet said about her first book, felt good to me.
Daniel: You teach creative writing to college students. How does your own long practice of the craft of fiction feed your teaching, and vice versa?
Trask: Teaching creative writing, or rather leading writing workshops, is something that comes out of my writing practice more than my academic training. I have degrees in literature, not in creative writing. My methods very likely appear a bit unorthodox to the professional writing teachers I know. In fiction workshops, I focus on storytelling, the stories we all carry. My belief is that all people can be good storytellers, but most of us need practice with a critical audience to get a feel for what works and what does not work. I also urge my students to take classes with professors who focus more on craft and theory than I do; I tend to focus more on what is in the students, and I urge them to write what they want to write.
Working with young writers stimulates the imagination and spirit, so I learn new things about writing every semester from my eager, imaginative, and skillful students. They also teach me a good deal about contemporary youth culture. I get at least as much from these classes as they do.
Daniel: Can you talk a bit about your writing habits and routines?
Trask: I write more in the summer than I do during the school year, but I try to follow my own advice and write for at least fifteen minutes every day, no matter how busy I am with other tasks. Often I begin with a journal entry. Sometimes it’s just fifteen minutes of grunting and sweating, but sometimes during that fifteen minutes I lose track of time and really write. When that happens, when the writing flows, I don’t stop to wonder where it’s coming from. During the year it’s mostly at night. In the summer, I wake up ready to go and am constantly working on writing even when I’m, say, mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges, or painting the garage.
I also spend a great deal of time revising, cutting, rewriting, rearranging. I’m always surprised by how much revision my writing needs. Initially, it doesn’t come out as the inspired word. For me, writing well requires a good deal of perspiration.
Daniel: What are you working on now?
Trask: I’m close to finishing a sequel to Frags. Frags is Frank Dotson’s story, while the new book is the story of the descendants and legacy of Harry Emerson, Dotson’s mentor, who was killed in Viet Nam. As the sequel opens, in May, 2016, Emerson’s granddaughter, Sea, has just finished law school. Before studying for her bar exams, she decides to take the summer to find out what happened to her father (young Harry Emerson) after he went to meet Professor Dotson in 1991, when Sea was just a baby. At the end of Frags, young Harry suspects that Dotson has had access to his father’s work but does not know for sure. The reader knows that Dotson “borrowed” much of Emerson’s work and virtually all of the vision without giving Emerson credit, but young Harry does not. Twenty-five years later, young Harry’s daughter, Sea, picks up her father’s mission and does the necessary research. She confronts Dotson directly twice, once near the beginning of her quest and then again when she knows the truth. She finds out things about him that even Dotson doesn’t know. I’m very proud of Sea Emerson.
I’m also working on an experimental adaptation (possibly for the stage) of some Canadian former slave narratives. I’m in the very early stages of that project. I’ve been teaching Survivors of Slavery seminars for about five years, but it wasn’t until this year that I started reading stories from people who escaped to Canada before the civil war. The differences between their stories and those of the people who stayed in the United States are striking. The people who made it to Canada were liberated not just from slavery but from a very oppressive American culture. The reports of all these former slaves are part of the sacred literature of the United States. More people should know these stories of sorrow and endurance.
Daniel: What one question do you wish we’d asked, and how would you have answered it?
Trask: Q: Which of your teachers had the greatest influence on your writing? A: From kindergarten through grad school, I was in school of some sort for twenty-five years, and I had some really great teachers: Mrs. Apt, Miss Nicholaides, Miss LaGasse, Dante Ippolitto, and Mrs. Eilson all come to mind immediately. Some, like John Rigden, were from my physics years. Some were English professors, like Ruth Cameron, Noël Riley Fitch, and Donald Young. Then there was my dissertation sponsor, Quentin Anderson, whose influence on my thinking was profound. I would also have to mention the great Robert Gorham Davis, whom Norman Mailer credited with getting him started as a writer. I asked Davis about it, and he said that Mailer wrote a story for his class, and Davis told him to submit it to the Story Magazine contest and told Mailer, “I’m sure it will win.” It did, and because of that, Mailer never got to be an aeronautical engineer.
But the teacher who has had the most enduring influence on my writing is a guy named David Daniel. Even when I was a physics major, two of my fellow students who knew and made it known that they were writers were John Oertman and you. I recall envying your courage and certainty. Some five years later, after the war, when I returned to college as an English major, I took a few classes with you (you were by that time a professor), and it was in those classes that I found lasting inspiration that continues to this day. You’ve been a great friend and mentor, and I am deeply grateful for all the help and encouragement you’ve sent my way over the years and also for the way you have been a model of the successful writer for me and many others who know you personally.
Recent short fiction from David Daniel can be found at http://zombielogicreview.blogspot.com and in the anthologies Shattered (from Kind of a Hurricane Press) and Insanity Tales and Insanity Tales II.