November 15th, 2012

My cup runneth over with insightful questions about writing, writers and life in the mix – thank you very much.  Last month’s Q&A barely dented the inventory.  Because most of the questions are incidental to personal email, I won’t reveal your identity unless you specifically ask me to.  Here are 9 more culled from my inbox.

Q [Ventura, CA]: What do you think of this article?  [The reader included an article claiming that free writing on the Internet is effectively putting professional journalism out of business.]

A: Traditionally writers have sold their product through middlemen who – for better or worse – have acted as gatekeepers to the readership.  Wresting some of that arbitrary power from those gatekeepers (publishers) has certainly made a lot of good writing available that never got a chance to find an audience; but it has also lumped it indistinguishably alongside the truly awful stuff.  So, the sorting-out process is challenging and brings a new kind of unfairness: how does professional quality writing promote the difference?  That said, I have to believe that quality will find ways to keep its seat at the table (look toward e-publishers like Crossroad Press).  Bottom line: along with freedom, the Internet brought a commensurately larger dollop of insecurity and competition (and as my questioner also pointed out in her email, plagiarism).

Q [Cincinnatti, OH]: What sports do you like besides the ones you write about?

A: I hope you mean DOING, not watching.  I’ll go for anything that makes an intense physical demand on the participant (not much interested in passive sit-down sports where you push an accelerator – though I understand the role of reflex, concentration, stress etc.).  Almost anything else is on my radar, even like bull riding.  If I had the guts, I’d try that.  Only instead of riding bulls like BUSHWHACKER and CYCLONE, I’d ride one named SLEEPING PILLS.  Think I could beat the 8-second hang-on requirement if ol’ SP strolled out of the chute on Sominex or Ambien.  And if he came out bucking, for sure I’d set the record…for hanging on to the chute!

Q [Kingman, AZ]: What do you think is the single most important thing in writing to focus on?

A: In fiction, that would be characters.  As I see it, plots, settings, themes, twists – all the rest of it – are secondary to how and with whom the reader identifies.  Think of it this way: the Where, When, Why, What, How all describe things that are relevant to the Who.  The Who is central.  In one way or another a Who Character IS the reader – the identity the reader assumes in order to go along for the ride.  So, if there aren’t convincing emotional vehicles, skins or minds for the reader to enter into, you aren’t going to communicate much beyond description, gimmicks and events.  That doesn’t mean the other elements aren’t crucial in distinguishing a writer’s skill and narrative believability.  On the contrary, they are what anchors and enhances the journey.  But the journey itself is a people story, and how that journey impacts and changes the Who is what resonates emotions and informs the reader at the deepest level.  If you want to x-ray your story for the strength of its characterization, ask yourself could you reveal the same evolution of character traits/ideals/values/ideas/emotions with all the other elements of narrative skill being different.  The answer should be yes, however much everything you’ve used enhances the telling.  Or simply try to write a story without any characters or human traits (no anthropomorphizing), if you want to understand the role of characterization.  Last but not least, everything I’ve just said in regards to “the single most important thing in writing” assumes the obvious: that you have an ability with words that is creative and uniquely you.  I like to call that STYLE, but many people will see the secondary aspects I cited as part of style as well.  It does seem to me, that if you don’t have compelling and imaginative wordsmythery, why should people want to see slices of life through your words?

Q [Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia]: Are you on something? Why are you always so happy and full of energy?

A: S’cuse me, couldn’t hear you on account of my head was in the oven with the gas on.  Well, I’m happy to be called happy and ENERGETIC.  Dunno why people perceive me that way, but maybe it has something to do with the word FREEDOM, which also makes me happy.  And I’m definitely substance and Rx free, though an editor once asked, “…how come Sullivan disappears for years on end – is he on heroin or something?”  Not on heroin.  Never licked a toad or smoked a houseplant.  I did chew a stick of Trident xylitol gum once.  To the degree that I live up to any of those desirable labels, have to say I don’t believe you can be happy unless you are being who you really are.  Maybe that doesn’t have to be all the time.  Let the world trust who it thinks you are – who you have to be to earn a living, advance a career, sustain a relationship.  But if any of that is out of sync with your true thoughts or feelings – and especially your dreams, hopes and aspirations – you’d have to be a fool to fool yourself 24/7/365.  Because if you did, you would shrink to fit the misrepresentation, i.e become the lie.  No happiness under that wrapper.  I started finding sanctuaries early in life, taking the road less traveled, and it just grew to be almost the whole of my existence.  I think most people – especially women, because they are objectified – wait too long to find their sanctuaries.  By the time they know who they are and what they want, they’ve spent their prerogatives on something far short of that.  Men may find sanctuaries more easily but, whether out of superficiality or lack of imagination, don’t seem to get as much out of them.  Maybe it’s because I’ve lived a relatively solitary life in eclectic sanctuaries, but I feel like I haven’t used my prerogatives.  Call it the Peter Pan delusion, but I wake almost every day feeling new and full of energy.

Q [Swansea, UK]: Which of your books did you enjoy writing the most?

A: THE PHASES OF HARRY MOON was a natural because it was a direct flow of the honest, eccentric, satirical me.  It’s been 24 years and not a month goes by when someone doesn’t write from somewhere in the world to tell me they kept their spouse up all night laughing, or cried at work at the few sad parts, or skipped work to finish the book.  It has become a cult classic among a couple of university faculties and isolated communities like that.  The novel is getting harder to find now, and I’m thinking of licensing a re-issue – possibly in e-book.  I miss the brothers Moon.

Q: [White Plains, NY and others] Have enjoyed your new expanded editions in e-books, but are you writing anything new?

A: Happy to blow the dust off this question on account of I have a positive answer at last.  THE SHADOW SHOW is finished and on the docket as an e-book original in time for Christmas!  A psychological thriller, this one will put you in the heads of a very traumatized little girl and an unredeemed father in an odyssey that moves from a centuries-old monastery in Nepal to modern Minnesota and embraces puppets/dolls/marionettes/icons/masks and image culture in a way you have never imagined.  Look for it on my website and Facebook page, as well as December’s column and Sullygram.  If you don’t receive my monthly Sullygrams w/photos that go all over the globe, I’ll be glad to add you to the mailing list for free at your request.  Email me at mn333mn@earthlink.net .  …  And be a test audience for me, if you will, please.  The cover photo at the top of this article is tentative.  Thumbs up, thumbs down?  You can let me know at the same email address if you choose to vote.

Q: [Soka, Japan] Do you believe in God and if you do what religion do you believe in?

A: Yes to the first question; and the second question shouldn’t be do I believe in this religion or that; the question should be do I DISbelieve in every religion but one.  The answer to that is no.

Q [Tooele, UT]: What’s your favorite child’s story that influenced you growing up?

A: Did I mention, I’m Peter Pan’s younger bro?  Actually, in addition to many Spanish nursery rhyme books whose origins I cannot clearly place, I was partial to “Wind in the Willows.”  The optimistic – nay, let’s call it obsessive-compulsive – Mr. Toad is a classic character archetype for me.  That’s not a safe admission, is it?  OK, every night when I was in the cradle, Dad used to read me “Ulysses” while Mom sang opera in Italian and Mandarin Chinese.

Q [Bowling Green, KY]: What are your children’s names?

A: I dare not – um – sully their sacred monikers.  Colleen Erin and Sean Thomas (a.k.a. Shane, the Lad, the Boy, and – snicker – Sully the Lesser).

And that’s a wrap.  Feel free to keep the questions comin’!  Terrific Turkey Day to you, one and all…

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan




  1. Dorie Furman
    November 15th, 2012 at 19:33 | #1

    In reading your Q&A above, I rather pictured you teasing the bull with a red cape rather than riding on it; riding seems too tame for you! However, I also thought about the guide we had in the Andes who took us to his home (which was also a winery). He had been a bull teaser in his earlier life and had a scar from his chin to his navel to prove it. After surviving that, he settled down to guiding and making Pisto. Boy, was that good wine!
    I also have to comment on the question about whether you are high on something. Of course you are! You are high on life! And, all that said, one more comment about your religion–I think you are a religion yourself. Call it Sullyism! Happy Turkey! Dorie

  2. Dorie Furman
    November 15th, 2012 at 20:54 | #2

    Uh oh, I think the wine was Pisco, can’t remember for sure, but I have never seen it in the States. All I remember is that the couple with me on the tour were determined to carry a bottle home and the only bottle available at that time had no lid so they carried the bottle on the plane with a carrot stuffed into the top for a lid. If they did that today, they’d probably be arrested at the check in! Dorie I don’t know how he sold his wine with no bottle lids!

  3. November 15th, 2012 at 21:23 | #3

    Regarding the photo, I need to emphasize that this is a tentative cover, and any actual usage would be pending approval of the image owner.

  4. November 15th, 2012 at 21:23 | #4

    Pisto from a bull teaser with a scar from his chin to his navel? That’s quite a pedigree for a wine, Dorie. I don’t even want to dissect the name, which I suggest is ripe with etymological context. … I’m thinking if the bull drank enough pisto, I might venture into the arena with El Toro – maybe as one of those clowns in a barrel. And if he sobered up enough to find me, you can bet I’d be trying out a lot of religions in there! Theology has always been one of my favorite topics, notwithstanding. Had to figure that out before I could go anywhere in life. And Sullyism by any name plays large in everything I do. I love the sheer overtness of Creation and celebrating it is what I do beyond the confines of man-made stuff!

  5. November 15th, 2012 at 23:23 | #5

    Love the Q & A and love the photos in your newsletter. Such beautiful landscapes, as always, and beautiful you. I am so excited about your book coming out in December. How lucky for those of us who have been waiting for more! The cover is perfect. It’s just the kind of cover art I love – mysterious and pretty and it has your name on it. What could be better? So i give it a big thumbs up!

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. November 16th, 2012 at 00:19 | #6

    You wanna hear something REALLY cool? Carole Lanham’s THE READING LESSONS is coming out just around the same time as THE SHADOW SHOW! So backatcha, Sheena. And I wish I could say that cover is a keeper, but my loyal readers are pointing out some disconnects. Actually, the art director and moi have been trying to trace down permissions for that red forest photo I posted a while back. The FB source can’t remember where he got it, and it’s not coming up anywhere. Alas. Having the same trouble with another candidate, the mirage-like carousel spinning in a wind – which I’d really like to use. THE SHADOW SHOW has so many compelling elements in it from foreboding and forbidden monasteries in centuries-old Nepal, to a step-down closet whose bottom has never been reached, to ivory marionettes and an incredible universe of masks and puppets and dolls and icons steeped in history, to a wild gallery of intense relationships and interesting characters, that you would think covers would be leaping out at me. I picked one thread, and now I need to find another. Where’s that crimson forest? Alas. But thanks for the kind words. I’m postponing suicide another day…

  7. Robert Jones
    November 16th, 2012 at 09:03 | #7

    Extra points are being granted by this reader for humor that made him laugh out loud so early in the morning. The cause was your remark about setting a bull-riding record for hanging on to the chute. I could not only picture that, I could feel it. Even more points are being applied for defining the importance of characters so clearly in only six words that referred to one of the “sacred five W’s,” the words being “a Who character IS the reader.” Supporting this definition, you added the important fact that the journey a character takes throughout a story is itself “a people story.” Your quick test for the strength of a character added another valuable tool to a writer’s toolbox.

    Regarding THE PHASES OF HARRY MOON, I liked it so much that I bought numbers of them to share with friends. I still chuckle when I think of certain phrases that still dwell in my memory. If a reader can’t find a copy, I’ll sell my last copy for a skillion dollars.

  8. November 16th, 2012 at 09:42 | #8

    Bull-riding? Hmm … on one of our rare forays into county-fair fun, we came across a wool-riding attraction next to the mechanical bull. Alas, the riding of sheep was only for children. But what would make me feel more of a thrill-seeker at the fair than mere bull-riding is eating the food. You see, I have never–not once–consumed fair food. I was never allowed to eat it when I was a child, and all these years later and with no living parent, I hold to the prohibition. But that’s a bit off topic.

    The Shadow Show sounds intriguing, but I don’t think the cover you’re considering does the story justice. I’m no expert on covers, and I can’t really explain (this morning, before enough cups of tea) what I feel is lacking; but I think many browsers who would really like the book would “read” something else in this cover and walk away from it.

    Loved your photos!

  9. November 16th, 2012 at 12:58 | #9

    Reminds me of the sage old adage, “when you take the bull by the horns, make sure you’ve got your glasses on,” Amalgam. I don’t wear glasses, and I’m quite certain I don’t want to grab the wrong end of the bull, so I’ll just chill out here on the chute. Thanks for the kind comments…as simple as characterization is, it’s still an oft overlooked aspect of writing. If I get enough points, I’m going to trade them in for your last copy of THE PHASES OF HARRY MOON!

  10. November 16th, 2012 at 12:59 | #10

    Your cover vote is definitely a consensus, Jeani. We’re trying to come up with another.

    Fair food seldom has appeal to me, if for different reasons than your prohibition. Here in Minnesota they’ve taken to deep frying everything from ice cream to chocolate bars. Blah! But then I seldom go to state fairs or hang out in crowds anywhere.

  11. Robert Jones
    November 17th, 2012 at 18:42 | #11

    You obviously misunderstand the meaning of the word, “skillion,”

    In my previous comment, I left off a bit about the opening of your newsletter. It calls attention to what I have mentioned before, namely, the ultrawide perspective of your vision. Most persons would view winter-approaching trees to simply be skeletal remnants of of their summer magnificence. You see positive things that take a whole paragraph to describe. What it also describes is a true artist at work.

  12. November 18th, 2012 at 00:58 | #12

    Thanks, Amalgam. I’ll mention you to all my tree friends. Not believing in death is how they stay alive. And then we have the evergreens…

  13. Chris McKenna
    December 13th, 2012 at 22:32 | #13

    Hey Sully. It’s Chris McKenna – yeah that Chris. How the hell are you?

  14. January 16th, 2013 at 20:08 | #14

    Mercy! THAT Chris. Just stumbled across your comment awaiting moderation. Sorry I missed it, and hope you see this. Unfortunately spammers ’cause a lot of legitimate comments to get lost. Anyway, as you may have gleaned, I’m jumping up and down in Minnesota now. What are YOU up to? So many great memories, and too little connection, with the great Peanut Butter Players diaspora. Sean lives 20 miles from me, BTW. No theater, but hey, he still cracks me up with his antics.

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