Scott Winkler won the 2016 Hal Prize Award in Fiction, administered by the Peninsula Pulse with support from Write On, Door County. As part of his award, Scott received a one-week residency at Write On. While here, he will offer a fiction workshop titled “Making the Stomach Believe” on Saturday, August 12, 9 am – noon. The class will meet in The Coop, Norb Blei’s former writing studio. Maggie Peterman recently had the opportunity to talk with Scott about his writing and upcoming residency.
Maggie Peterman: Where do you live?
Scott A. Winkler: Casco, Wisconsin.
MP: What author and/or book has most influenced your writing?
SW: Wow–picking just one is so difficult. Tim O’Brien is the most influential writer both stylistically and thematically. His ideas about the work of the fiction writer and how to carry out that work resonate with me. I like to tell people that O’Brien is my writing hero, pound-for-pound the greatest living American writer, and that I hope to write as well as he does when I grow up. I seek to make my work emulate key principles practiced by O’Brien: to illuminate the extraordinary in the everyday, to make the stomach believe, to ask questions whose answers matter, and to save lives through storytelling. Aside from O’Brien’s body of work, a single book that has influenced me greatly is W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. A fair measure of that is due to it being the first serious literary work I encountered centered on baseball, but beyond that, the novel’s deployment of magical realism and its treatment of themes like the healing power of the game, the power of family, and the power of dreams all influence my sensibilities as a writer.
MP: What can you tell us about your writing discipline?
SW: I’m never entirely happy with my discipline. I continue working to carve out a place for writing in the midst of family life and professional obligations. Some of this, too, is due to the pull I feel as a writer. I’m primarily a fiction writer, but I’m also a poet and an academic and an armchair activist who’s published and expressed himself in these areas as well; I feel the tug to explore compelling ideas in these areas as well. I don’t know that I’ll ever strike a balance that leaves me entirely satisfies, but perhaps that’s a good thing. Good tension, in a story or a novel, drives plot, and good tension in life compels the writer to ply his or her practice.
MP: What are you working on currently?
SW: Multiple projects. I’m looking for a home for my novel The Meadow, and I’ve begun notes and research for that book’s follow-up, The Field. These are books that explore invisible wounds–trauma and moral injury–and the impact they have on not only the person who’s experienced the wound, but the persons whose paths intersect with the victim. They also explore the role stories play–both in being told and being heard–in healing the lives of individuals, of families, and even nations. These books are set in rural Wisconsin beginning in the late 1960’s and run through the mid 1970’s, but their themes are universal and timeless. I hope to spend my time at Write On, Door County drafting The Field. I’ve also begun research for an academic project exploring the manner in which Paul Simon embodies God and the divine in his music–something he’s done throughout his career, but something he’s done with increasing regularity and urgency in his most recent albums.
MP: What is your favorite place to visit in Door County?
SW: I love Cave Point and the Whitefish Dunes. My wife and I are particularly fond of Hands-On Art Studio and Chanticleer. We’ve had really great times taking in shows at the Door Community Auditorium, and PC Junction is a favorite family stop.
MP: How did you become acquainted with Door County?
SW: My first experience came the summer between my junior and senior years of college when I worked as a maintenance man at Birch Creek Music Center (and also played tuba at night during the symphony and jazz sessions). I was able to get first tastes and have initial experiences with so many of the Door County institutions that my family and I now enjoy.
MP: What are some of your favorite books?
SW: Anything Tim O’Brien has written, but particularly The Things They Carried and In the Lake of the Woods. W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (Happy 200th birthday, HDT!), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum.
MP: What was your childhood like?
SW: I grew up on a small dairy farm in Gillett, Wisconsin. Growing up on a farm, I learned lessons I couldn’t have learned anywhere else–lessons about hard work, about the rhythms of life, about our interaction with the land. Growing up there also afforded me the opportunity to dream, and those dreams typically came through reading. I spent a lot of time listening to Brewers games on the radio, collecting baseball cards, and wondering what the world beyond boundaries of my hometown might hold in store for me. From second grade through middle school, I’d bike into town during the summer to play ball (t-ball, little league, Babe Ruth league).
MP: What were some of the after-school activities you engaged in?
SW: I worked on the family farm and worked at the grocery store in my hometown. Though my interest in sports has always been keen, I didn’t play any sports in high school. I did, however, play in the bands and sing in the choirs at my high school, and I was active in forensics, school newspaper, yearbook, and student government.
MP: Can you tell us about one of your favorite library memories?
SW: Toward the end of my first semester at St. Norbert College, we were reading Shoeless Joe in my Literary Genres class. I went to my favorite reading spot–a small room tucked away in the basement of the old Todd Wehr Library–and began the novel…and couldn’t stop. I didn’t bother going to my other classes that day as I couldn’t put the book down. I remember sitting in that room in a ratty old chair and, as I made my way through the final chapters, reading through the tears. Libraries always have had and always will have a special place in my heart. Being surrounded by books and ideas and words and knowledge is its own kind of intoxication.
MP: Is there a book that you think elected officials should read?
SW: Every elected official should read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Were they to read this book, I don’t think they would be so quick to send our men and women to foreign lands to fight wars whose motivation doesn’t stand the test of time. I think they’d better understand the scars left not only on those persons directly engaged in the conflict, but also the scars left on the nation.
MP: How did you become involved with Write On?
SW: I became involved with Write On through the Hal Prize. My story “The Hunt,” which is a chapter from The Meadow, won the 2016 Hal Prize in Fiction, and the thing that most excited me about that–beyond the story getting out to a wide audience through Peninsula Pulse–was the week-long residency at Write On. I’ve been looking forward to my time at Write On ever since learning of the contest results.
MP: Why is there a need for an organization like Write On?
SW: Write On promotes writing and reading–and by doing this, it encourages people to step out of the rapid-fire lives they lead, to think, to ponder, to assess, to formulate ideas, to give shape to their lives and experiences. We all need to do these things–and to do them with greater frequency and purpose–if we’re to avoid being sucked into the vortex of an existence that will use us up with no consideration for who we are on a deeper level, for what we might contribute to the world as something other than market forces.
MP: You will be teaching “Making the Stomach Believe,” a fiction workshop on Saturday, August 12. What can participants in that workshop expect?
SW: I’ll try to help you view the act of storytelling as a form of truth telling–not necessarily the truth as it actually happens, but the truth as it feels. By working to find that spot, we can create stories that endure, that resonate with those who read them, allowing those readers to find something of importance to and application in their lives even though those stories are grounded in and built around the particulars of our own lives. I’ll also try to help you see storytelling as both life-affirming and life-saving. It’s an essential part of our makeup as human beings, and the more the world attempts to divorce us from the practice of mindfully telling and consuming stories, the more we suffer as human beings.
MP: What advice would you offer to aspiring Write On writers?
SW: Words and ideas matter. Don’t ever be ashamed to use them, to explore them. Find those writers whose work resonates with you, work to find out why it resonates with you, then seek to put that “why” into practice in your own writing. Every job requires a time of apprenticeship before we can strike out on our own and perform the task without someone looking over our shoulders; writing is no different. Learn from those writers, practice their principles, and you will, at some point, strike out on your own.