Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Interview with memoirist Stephen Gallup

Writer Stephen Gallup joins the blog today with an inspiring award-winning memoir about his son, Joseph. The book is titled What About the Boy? A Father’s Pledge to His Disabled Son.

Stephen Gallup has worked for many years as a technical writer in aerospace and wireless telecommunications, with projects ranging from proposals for satellite launches and feasibility studies of space missions, to user guides for trendy new cell phones. In the early years, he wrote occasional short fiction on the side, and features for newspapers.

His life changed drastically with the birth of his son Joseph in 1985. Upon learning that there was a problem, he applied his energies to a pursuit of answers that he felt certain must exist. After a year of consulting with physicians to no effect, he located other resources. For the next four years, he and his wife Judy implemented an intensive two-pronged treatment campaign that resulted in dramatic improvements in Joseph’s condition.

His memoir What About the Boy? shows what the family did, and what happened next. The book has twice won “Best Memoir” in the San Diego Book Awards competitions, once in the Unpublished category (2007) and again following publication in 2011.

Welcome, Stephen. Please tell us about your current release.
What About the Boy? is a true story about chasing an objective in the absence of dependable guideposts. Specifically, it’s about a campaign my wife and I launched to help our little boy overcome some pretty acute developmental problems. Nobody really understands what’s going on with him, and the doctors appear uninterested in finding out. So we’re pretty much on our own, and we get lost. The book uses the concept of a maze, or a labyrinth, as a kind of metaphor. The image on the cover suggests that.

What inspired you to write this book?
The book started out simply as a journaling exercise. I found myself in a confusing situation, and writing was a way to try and make sense of it. And of course writing provided an emotional release. There was no thought of ever seeing those words in print. But as I kept pondering the things that happened and what they meant, and as my point of view evolved over time, I realized that what I’d produced was a memoir. Memoir tends to be a kind of writing in which you use your present-day perspective to understand the one you had at the time you were living out the experience.

As an example, here’s an excerpt from the book in which my older self is looking back at my earlier motivations:

“But on the other hand if this campaign were to fail—No, it couldn’t fail! I refused to contemplate what that would mean, for myself as well as for Joseph. I avoided comparing the energy and passion I spent on his behalf with what I displayed at my day job. The managers there had faith in my ability to support tight deadlines with high-quality work, but I had no remaining bandwidth to offer much creativity or leadership. They rewarded my steady presence with steady employment, but no promotions. Like Nell’s contempt, that too was ok. I could not excel in my career because I had this program to do! Therefore, the program must not fall short of what I needed as badly as Joseph, because then neither of us had a way out.”

 What exciting story are you working on next?
Most of my creative energies over the last year have gone into promoting WATB. I do have a few pieces of short fiction sitting around, and I have this idea of putting them together into an ebook—or maybe two ebooks, one for fiction and one for my favorite blog posts. If that becomes a reality, I’ll just put ‘em up on Amazon for free. WATB was a very important project for me. At this point, I just don’t envision another one like it.

In July, a local newspaper reprinted one of my blog posts as an article, and today I heard that the editor liked that enough to ask me to pitch a regular column to them. Maybe I’ll become a journalist next.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
In grade school, teachers gave me lots of encouragement about my writing. They said it was a strength I should build on. And I always liked reading, so maybe there was a subconscious notion that one day I’d write books. Once, in my twenties, I was going to be getting nitrous oxide for a dental procedure, and I came up with this idea that while I was under it might be a way of getting in touch with my “inner self,” whatever that is. So I made of point of telling that inner self, You are a writer, just to see what would happen. But when I did that, my inner self replied, Of course. You already know that, dummy.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I do write full time, but that’s because I have a day job as a technical writer! Most of that output is not very creative. The memoir I wrote was composed in my spare time, over a period of many years. Likewise, blog posts for my website and occasional short fiction take shape in fragments of spare time here and there.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
A lot of what I’ve written began life as random jotting on scraps of paper—grocery store receipts, post-it notes, whatever happens to be within reach when inspiration strikes. (There are examples of that in front of me right now.) This could happen when I’m walking down the sidewalk, sitting in a boring meeting, or even driving on the highway. Later, in front of a computer, assuming I can read my scribbling, I look for a way to expand those nuggets into something worth reading. Somehow, that’s more natural for me than starting from scratch in a blank Word file.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Starting around age 10, I got it into my head that I was going to be a doctor. That assumption stayed with me a long time—right up to the point where I interviewed for medical school. My grades and test scores had been OK, but apparently I didn’t handle the interviews very well. The problem was a combination of immaturity and just not being prepared. I still think I’d have made a good doctor.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
My story shows, first of all, that I believe in taking charge of a challenging situation, to whatever extent that’s possible. I believe, since each of us has to live with the consequences of what we do, it’s really up to us to shoot for the best possible outcome.

But there’s no guarantee of achieving that outcome, even after we make our very best effort. Our culture is full of inspiring stories in which the underdog finally triumphs over the odds, but in reality it doesn’t necessarily work out that way. So a more important takeaway is this: Hardship comes to all of us, but misery is optional. Yes, we should do whatever we can to improve things, but there’s no reason to beat ourselves up if we don’t see the result we were looking for.

I'm happy to connect with readers through my Facebook and Twitter pages.

Thanks for sharing a little bit about your journey and story, Stephen.

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