Derrick Ferguson: Who Is Bill Friday?
Bill Friday: You would ask the hard question first.
This is going to sound silly but, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to give just one answer to a question like that. It’s like the answer changes out of necessity every few years, from childhood into adolescence… teenage to adult… then into who I am now. And right now, I’d have to say that I’m a man who knows his time is short. Not because I have some kind of diagnosis hanging over my head. I don’t. But when you’re young, you think you’re never going to age. That you’re invincible. That you are going to dodge every bullet, and do every thing you randomly set your mind to. Then after a few years, or decades, you realize… okay, I realized… that thoughts like those were just crap. You grow up with dreams that don’t get realized. You want to play centerfield for the Dodgers. When the expiration date for that passes, you tell yourself you want to be the play-by-play announcer for the Dodgers, and you’re glad that one didn’t happen because the guy with the job is finally just retiring after 67 years. So you get yourself busy forgetting all those random thoughts. You make yourself busy by living, getting married, rising your kids, working thirty-some-odd different jobs… none of which ever satisfy the something that’s gnawed at your insides since the day you quit dreaming and started living. And somewhere along the way, after all those years and all those experiences, you realize that the only thing you have to show for them is your recollection of them.
And then, you write.
So I guess, to answer your question, I’d have to say that I’m the guy who writes what he remembers.
DF: What do you do to keep yourself in cheese and crackers?
BF: For most of the last ten-plus years, I have worked as a driver in the freight transport industry, primarily at night, after the rest of the world has gone to bed. After a while working graveyard, I discovered that the world is a much quieter place when there’s no one awake to interfere with your thoughts. It has been in this profession that the majority of my writing has taken shape. Most of my work hours involve the companies and corporations in and around Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Without realizing that it would eventually become a “thing”, I started tagging photos and posts with the hashtag #LAXConfidential while blogging and using social media. What started out as an unintentional homage to film noir became another way for me to sort out all the memories I was making out of life, and work. Eventually, it became the filter for the words inside my head to find their way out to the public.
DF: Tell us a little something about your background.
BF: Here’s the part where pride and embarrassment start sounding the same. I was born and raised, and have spent my entire life, in Southern California. I’ve never lived more than a half-hour drive away from my childhood home. I graduated high school, and am currently a three-time college drop-out. I say currently because life has taught me that you can never totally rule anything out for the future. While I was on my way toward becoming a first-time drop-out, I took an English Composition class. Over the semester, I managed to turn in two of the ten writing assignments that all students were given during those 18 weeks. With three days left till summer vacation, and after the turn-in deadline had passed, my professor, Betty Dillon, informed us that if we still wanted to turn in 100 percent of the semester’s assignments, we could earn up to 50 percent grade credit on them.
After stalling for two more days, I began writing just before midnight, and finished all eight by sunrise. Later that morning, I turned them in at the final informal class meeting.
When I got the turned-in assignments back, Professor Dillon’s comments made me think she was writing about some other student. She liked them. Really liked them. Weeks later, when grades were mailed out… yes mailed, because no internet… I had gotten a C in the class. Exactly half-credit for all assignments turned in after the deadline, if all the grades were A’s.
I didn’t write again for twenty-five years.
DF: How long have you been writing?
BF: In 2004, between jobs and spending way too much time watching Syfy Channel, I wrote a screenplay about a chupacabra, just to prove to myself I could. It was more an excuse to write out a lot of frustration in my life at the time. Looking back, it was a thinly-veiled auto-biography. I still have the script, not that it was any good. But it began to stir up a lot of what had been balled-up inside me that would end up coming out in the years ahead. Still thinking I wanted to write movies, I started and stopped a few more scripts. A couple of years later, the one I still think was some of the best writing I ever did was lost in a computer crash. I learned a lot about writing from those early years, which took another turn when I started writing online.
DF: What’s your philosophy of writing?
BF: Don’t be “superficial.” Not everything a writer writes is going to be a work of art. Some of it will be worse than your best, and there won’t be a damn thing you can do to fix it, but be true to the depth of the feelings running through you while you’re writing and, eventually everything will work itself out.
DF: Do you enjoy writing?
BF: I suppose, as a writer, I’m required by law to answer yes. But since I’m still under oath, I’ll tell the story this way. Because my writing is so personal, as most poetry tends to be, there are times when I just don’t think I have the words to adequately capture the thoughts or feelings that gave the first spark to the poem I’m working on. That’s pretty much always how it starts, with a word or phrase that captures a passing thought. Everybody has random, passing thoughts throughout the day, but if all goes well, mine end up creating a “beginning-middle-ending, one act story.” One that usually takes up little more than a single page. And if I don’t like where it’s going, I click save and file it away to be made better later.
That’s the luxury of poetry for the writer. If something sucks, you don’t have to keep plowing through it because you’re already 50,000 words worth of invested in a character or a plotline. You just file it and move onto the next thought, and the next.
But as far as the pure act of writing goes, I love writing so damn much, I don’t think I can even tell anyone without sounding like a crazy person. The only people who would get it are other writers. The best I can do, and as writers we do this all day anyway, is try and express that love for it as we might through the voices of our characters. Only in this case, the characters are the people in front of us who ask. And the voice is expressing ourselves in ways they would understand. Like cooking to a chef, or running to a runner. Even a baby’s first steps to a parent. Every explanation is fair game if it clicks with the person standing in front of your words.
DF: What writers have influenced you?
BF: Another funny thing about being a poet… I really don’t like what passes for poetry all that much. When most folks think of poetry, they think of flowery words from centuries-old voices like Byron and Shelley. When I think of poetry, I think of centuries-old voices like the angry Hebrew poets of the Psalms or the epic of Beowulf, and recent angry voices like Charles Bukowski. I have poet friends who I read, but poetry, as a genre of writing, let’s just say I would rather find the poetry in other forms. When I think of influencers, I think about how many times I’ve read Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” cover to cover, or the first few novels of Stephen King. Believe it or not, I actually like reading screenplays. Everything from Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” to Quentin Tarantino’s “From Dusk Till Dawn.”
DF: Do you write for yourself or for the reader?
BF: Right now, I write for myself. So much so, that I’m genuinely surprised by the positive feedback I get from my writing. I don’t know if I’ll ever be someone who thinks of the reader first. The words that come out of me are still just an extension of who I am when nobody’s paying attention.
DF: Are you interested in critics or criticism?
BF: No. And for many reasons. I guess first, because I haven’t been subjected to much criticism… yet. To date, having only been published in anthologies and online, I haven’t gotten any bad reviews, or really, any good reviews. So the first of either kind I get with the release of A DEATH ON SKUNK STREET will both be a new experience for me. I do expect that to become a thing for me in the near future, because of the plans to have four books in print by the end of 2017, two poetry and two fiction. But for now I can say that they haven’t been a factor in what I’ve written.
You’ll have to get back to me in a year from now.
DF: What audience are you trying to reach with your work? Is there an audience for Bill Friday?
BF: If you believe those online demographics generators, like the kind that hides in the “tools” section on your Facebook page, my following is very clearly outlined. Apparently, women read poetry 2 to 1 over men. Also, nobody under 25 of either gender is much of a fan. I could speculate on both of those metrics, but what’s interesting to me is that the audience you think you might be writing for, the one that you might have thought could relate to what you were saying through your words, is not the crowd that’s reading me. I would hope, in the future, that these disparate groups would somehow become more evenly balanced. I think my work has as much to say to those not in my demo. And as I go forward, I hope that, if anything could affect the way I tell my stories, it would be that desire on my part to say what is uniquely mine to say in a way that would be the most widely receivable to all people.
I think every good story, whether it is a 50 word poem, or a 50,000 word novella, should be universal on some level.
DF: You and I first got to know each other when we both wrote for BrooWaha. For the uniformed can you explain what BrooWaha is and what you wrote for them during the period of your affiliation with them?
BF: Oh, man. It’s time to jump in the Hot Tub Time Machine with Peabody and Sherman for that one. Back in the fall of 2006, I worked as an inventory manager for a surgical supply company. Business was interminably slow, and I already had the writing disease. As I sat at my desk with a fully filter-less work computer, I began to search the internet for “writing opportunities,” and found BrooWaha. Broo was a startup created by Ariel Vardi, a video game designer from here in Venice, California, originally conceived as a “Citizen Journal.” A way for local writers to share what was happening locally with the exploding World Wide Web. I signed up for the gig the first week of January 2007. The beauty of the early days of Broo was that there were absolutely no restrictions on what kind of writing you could contribute, everything from street-level journalism and political coverage, editorials, creative writing, comedy, sports, you name it. By the middle of 2007, after Los Angeles had become somewhat successful, an edition for New York writers was created. And within the pages of the New York edition, a movie reviewer made a name for himself among the readers on both coasts. A guy who went by the pen name, “DL Ferguson.”
I still love your reviews, by the way.
Anyway, by the end of my run at BrooWaha, late in 2011, I had been given a regularly featured column, “Friday on Friday.” After 5 years with the site, I left, realizing that those years had been like my do-it-yourself school of writing. It was also at the end of that run that I realized my writing had begun to condense and compress itself into something more closely associated with what could be called poetry. I’ve written mostly nothing else since.
DF: Tell us about A DEATH ON SKUNK STREET.
BF: In the almost 5 years since the end of my time at BrooWaha, my life underwent a lot of changes. A DEATH ON SKUNK STREET is the mirror of that time. There’s some dark, and there’s some light, and a lot of what all writers go through during times of self-reflection. But mostly, it’s what the subtitle says it is, “a life in poems.” Because when I look back on my life, I don’t remember in chapters. I remember it one poem at a time.
DF: How personal are the poems in A DEATH ON SKUNK STREET? How deep into you did you get to bring them out?
BF: A couple of years ago, when I would post poems online, I realized that they were the ones that were only scratching the surface of what was going on in my life, or what was affecting me on the inside. When I would share these safe poems on social media, I knew there would have to be a book someday that had “all the good ones” I was hiding because I didn’t want to offend someone. It even got to the point, when I would tweet or post status updates, I would use the hashtag #GoingInTheBook, to remind myself that one day I was not going to be able to stay safe anymore. But it wasn’t until the selection process began, and my editor and I started deciding what poems really were “going in the book” that I knew just how deep I was digging.
DF: Why poetry at all?
BF: Writer’s block, originally. When I started writing my weekly feature post for BrooWaha, it didn’t take long for me to see that, based on quite a few circumstances, my words were drying up. It used to be easy to sit and bang out an 800 to 1,500 word post. By this time, it was hard just to scratch out a few lines. After some more time went by, some of these posts were shortening their way into just a few lines of prose. But what happened in all this drying up was, the thoughts were becoming more concise as the words became less. It became my way of not only conveying large ideas in a tight space, but it allowed me a freedom of expression that having to bang out 5 double-spaced, 12 point type pages never did. I became hooked on what just a few sentences could do to allow me to get some thought onto the page without burying the lead under a construct that no longer suited me.
In the bio on the back of the book, one of the summary lines about me reads, “…became a poet out of necessity.” That pretty much sums it all up.
DF: What is the difference between the creative muscles you have to use for poetry and the ones you have to use for prose?
BF: You said muscles. I believe that’s a very accurate way of looking at it. I used to think that poetry was the harder of the two disciplines. It didn’t make any sense to me, and I hadn’t written any since that one class in college. Before I wrote the unsold screenplay, I first tried writing a novel. Got 150 pages into it before my writers’ marathon muscles ran out of gas, and I didn’t try again. After that experience, and the continued shortening of my pieces until they reached the size they are now, I’m even more convinced that some writers are just born for certain types of writing. But I also believe that any writer can stretch out and strengthen their creative muscles, and conquer any length of expression. It’s all about desire and training.
In the early 1970s, there was a miler from New Zealand, Rod Dixon. Over the course of the next 10 years, he made himself into an elite marathoner, even winning the New York City Marathon in 1983. I think writing is like that. Poetry is a race that ends in almost no time. Novels are marathons. But the same principals apply. Make each step count. After A DEATH ON SKUNK STREET and its follow-up book are published, my goal is to complete and publish two, 50,000 word novellas in 2017.
That will be my stretching out.
DF: Can we expect to see more books of poetry from you?
BF: Now that SKUNK STREET is done, there will be one more book of poetry before the end of the year. The title of that book, A HOPEFUL MAN: a second life in poems, speaks of a realization that is summed up in a quote from Bernard Malamud, in his novel “The Natural”,
“We have two lives, Roy. The life we learn with, and the life we live after that. Suffering is what brings us toward happiness.”
After that, and after the longer form fiction coming next year, who knows?
DF: What is a typical Day In The Life of Bill Friday like?
BF: Currently, because of the wacky hours I keep for the job that keeps me in cheese and crackers, most typical days in the life are of the upside-down-to-most-people variety. I start work at 5 pm during the week, and noon on the weekends… yes, I often work 7 days a week… and most of those hours are on-call, meaning I could have a job that puts me on the road at a moment’s notice. But my days are mostly my own.
I get to sleep between 2 am and 4 am, and whenever it is that coffee finally finds me, I’m writing, until it’s time to pack it all up and get back to LAX.
The convenient thing I’ve found about writing poetry is, there’s no right or wrong place to get your words on. Sometimes a word or phrase will hit me right in the brainpan, and I can just as easily thumb-type it into my phone, or write it down on a corner of my cargo manifest for coming back to later, as I can writing full-length pieces on my home computer. I’ve actually written entire poems, some of which appear in SKUNK STREET, while standing in an airline cargo terminal or in five spare minutes at the warehouse. It’s a discovery I came to slowly, and over time. In the same way that there is no right or wrong place, there is also no right or wrong way to write poetry.
Derrick Ferguson: Anything else we need to know about you or your work?
Bill Friday: As far as the work?
A DEATH ON SKUNK STREET is available this Memorial Day, May 30th through all the usual outlets like Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and direct through the publisher, Hostile 17 Print.
Also, any questions about the next book, A HOPEFUL MAN, appearances or bookings for both books, and additional products from Hostile 17 Print can be sent directly to email@example.com, or found on my website, billfriday.com.
As far as me?
I’m still writing.