Woody Skinner grew up in Batesville, Arkansas, before attending four different universities in three different states. He’s currently an MFA candidate at Wichita State University, where he serves as fiction editor of mojo. Other work of his has appeared or is forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, NANO Fiction, and Euphony.
The Carolina Quarterly recently talked with one of our favorite contributors, Woody Skinner. With a name like a Jack Palance character, this word-wrangler sings of the Ozark plateau and the lonesome call of a life on the road. To read his story, “The Knife Salesman,” check out the Winter 2011 issue of CQ (http://cqonline.web.unc.edu/past-issues/61-3-winter-2011/). If you’re into Ted Nugent and the Parnassian properties of late-night infomercials, read our interview below.
–Jerrod Rosenbaum, Fiction Staff
Carolina Quarterly (CQ): I don’t want to sound weird, but you have a pretty great name.
Woody Skinner (WS): My real name is William Wood Skinner. Wood is my mom’s maiden name. But I’ve been Woody all my life.
CQ: How did the kids in grade school react to a name like Woody Skinner?
WS: There was a fair amount of good-natured teasing, but it was character building, I’d say.
CQ: So you’re an Arkansas native, but you’re living in Wichita these days. What brought you up the river?
WS: Right. I grew up in rural-northeast Arkansas. In the Ozark foothills. When I finished undergrad it took me a few years to figure out what I wanted to do. I didn’t take any creative writing classes in college, so when I sent out applications to graduate school I didn’t have a portfolio or anything. Wichita State University accepted me and their program looked good, so here I am.
CQ: So when did you figure out you wanted to be a writer, then?
WS: I think I was in denial for a long time. I wrote some real terrible stuff in high school and some truly awful melodrama in undergrad. I didn’t start taking things seriously until the end of college. I started reading more seriously, and that helped me get more serious about writing.
CQ: Well there’s some pretty country out your way… in Arkansas and Kansas. Does it inform your writing? The people? The landscape?
WS: Definitely, but each in different ways. Growing up where I did, I can’t help but have a rural perspective. I think what seems ordinary or mundane to some people is more interesting to me. But Kansas isn’t like anything I’d experienced in the South.
CQ: Do you have a day job in Wichita?
WS: I’m going to school full time. I also teach composition. I’m teaching remedial English right now; it’s challenging, but pretty rewarding.
CQ: Have your students read your fiction?
WS: I don’t think any of my current students have read it. I like to leave them in the dark about those things. Students have tried to read it in the past, but I like to remain a mystery in the classroom.
CQ: We loved “The Knife Salesman” at CQ. Tell me about it. Is there a story behind the story?
WS: Not much of a story. I wrote “The Knife Salesman” during my first semester of graduate school and it’s been a couple of years since I’ve read the first draft. I guess I wrote it for two reasons. The first is simply that I was out here, taking in Wichita, which is a weird place to live. It’s very spread out, and strip malls seem to be the defining characteristic. I wanted to write something that tapped into that a little bit. That combined with where I was on a personal level.
The first story I workshopped was a fairly ordinary piece that got real weird at the very end. People hated it. I think because it was terrible. What I learned from that workshop was that the ending wasn’t really in line with the rest of the story, but the ending was the only part I really enjoyed writing. The first 15 pages were filler. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again, so I started “The Knife Salesman” the next day. Once you have the voice figured out, all the other things fall into place.
CQ: The scene in which the young woman asks the Salesman to cut her. It’s among the strangest and most interesting things I’ve ever read. Where did it come from? What’s it all about?
WS: It’s hard to say the exact purpose it serves. I wanted the story to work on a kind of grand scale: arenas full of people, auditoriums filled with school children, the ladies’ book club, a group dynamic. But I also wanted the Salesman to interact with an individual. A different dynamic. It was interesting to figure out how the Salesman would interact with a really intense fan, as opposed to how other celebrities might interact with fans in more traditional ways. Something about a cut seemed appropriate.
CQ: It’s his autograph.
CQ: Can you tell me a little about your writing process? Where does an idea come from? Once you have it, what happens next?
WS: My process is constantly evolving. At this point, I tend to work on 4 or 5 pieces at once, all at different stages. I’m a plodding, slow first-draft writer. Some of my friends write quickly and do complete overhauls, but my first drafts emerge very slowly. It gives me flexibility. Sometimes I’m in the mood to finish a story, sometimes to start one. That process may reflect my experience with grad school. I have a limited amount of time to work and want to take advantage of every opportunity.
CQ: What are you working on now?
WS: I’m trying to finish up my thesis. It’s a collection of short stories. Most of them are close to finished, but I’m in the middle of one story I don’t understand yet. It’s about satellite dishes; or at least they’re the central image.
CQ: Do you often begin with an image, then write a story around it?
WS: Hmm. When I’m still in the exploratory stage, there are often certain images that keep me anchored. I’ve written a number of fish stories, several occupation stories. A Beanie Baby counterfeiter, a butcher (which also has a knife theme). I’m trying to play [the knife theme] out. After my fourth fish story, I didn’t ever want to think about fish again. Right now it’s still knives. I’ve been thinking about a deer-hunting television show host.
CQ: Wait. The show is about deer hunting, or the television host likes to hunt deer?
WS: He hosts a deer-hunting program. I feel certain that Ted Nugent influences us all in some way.
CQ: I’m inclined to agree with you on that point. Before we finish, do you have any advice for aspiring writers? For amateur knife enthusiasts?
WS: For the aspiring writers, I don’t think I have any advice. I’m in such an early stage myself… I feel like a complete novice. But for knife enthusiasts: watch a lot of late-night TV. I’ve learned a lot from infomercials. They’re usually a good place to start.