Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Interview With Dan Lopez, Author of "Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea"

It's not new advice to writers to try reading something outside their comfort zone. Since I write entirely speculative fiction, especially historical fantasy, "outside my writing comfort zone" includes a pretty wide field of books. Last week I read the amazing PART THE HAWSER, LIMN THE SEA, by Dan Lopez, a sea-and-sailing-themed collection of literary short stories. It's a short read, but far from easy: themes like love, loss, and unimaginable grief make the stories in this anthology the type that stick with you long after you finish reading them. I highly recommend this book.

Check out reviews and more for PART THE HAWSER, LIMN THE SEA on GoodReads here.

You can pre-order PART THE HAWSER, LIMN THE SEA direct from publisher Chelsea Station Editions here, from Amazon here and from B&N here.

As with most writers and their books, the journey for Dan was far from simply Concept-Writing-Publication. Dan answered some questions about nautical-themed books, LGBT- and other niche markets, and publishing with small presses:

Each of the stories in Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea takes on a different aspect of a nautical theme. It's clear from the writing you know something about ships and sailing. Can you please share a little bit about your own nautical background?

I was involved with traditional sailing vessels for many years when I lived in New York. I learned a lot about sailing there, and a lot about the rhythms of boats: they tend to have these really enigmatic personalities, very stoic and Sphinx-like. I also picked up some really neat anecdotes, some of them made their way into the book—like the Twizzler thing in the eponymous story. I've always been attracted to boats. They represent paradoxically both stasis and change. Like everything else, technology has changed boats dramatically over the years, but so much of what makes a boat a boat has remained unchanged (at least on an immediately perceptive level) for a long time. I think there's a freedom in that, and it's something I certainly exploit in the stories. These are all characters who are caught between some traumatic past and some unknown future—hopefully, a better future.

What were some of the challenges of bringing a fresh perspective to the topic of sailing and the sea?

It's funny, I never intended to write a book about boats. I wrote the first one "The Cruise" for a reading I was doing. I basically had to write something in a week. I knew I wanted it to be about exile, so, naturally, boats came to mind. I wrote all the stories while my husband and I were doing long distance, a kind of exile in itself, and the more I tried to write the more I kept coming back to boats as a framework through which to explore the liminal moments of relationships. I honestly tried to not write about boats a lot of the time, but those attempts failed. At some point I just decided to embrace it. I like to think I'm single-handedly bringing literature back to the sea, kinda like Melville did. 

Now that marriage equality is becoming a reality for more and more of the country, and LGBT issues are being brought to the forefront of our cultural consciousness, do you see LGBT literature becoming more mainstream, and less of a sub-genre?

Yes and no. Writers like David Sedaris, Armistead Maupin, Jean Genet, Alison Bechdel, James Baldwin, Proust, and even Melville, have never been confined to the LGBT sub-genre (a nicer term than "gay ghetto"), and I don't see increased acceptance of LGBT people as a factor in whether or not writers like that continue to find broad readerships. Yet, dedicated spaces for LGBT writers has had a profound impact on nurturing certain voices. Personally, I've had more success in the LGBT world than in the non-LGBT world. There are probably a lot of factors for that and anecdotal evidence like that is not necessarily indicative of larger trends, but I do feel that our culture in general is moving towards more specialization. You see it every day with technology—just look at the way Netflix's algorithm surfaces ridiculously niche genres. I think this is actually a good thing for readers and writers (maybe not for culture as a whole; that remains to be seen). Increasingly, we have the ability to seek out exactly what we're interested in and sharing that with a like-minded community. If you, say, are a fan of gays on boats, well, good. I know of at least one amazing book for you.

How does your work at Goodreads affect your writing process? Did working there influence your decision to go with a small press publisher?

My day job, whether that's Goodreads now or Time Out New York in the past, or any of the retail and service industry jobs I've held, serves a motivational and palette cleanser role in my writing. A particularly onerous day at the office is great motivation to sit down and write the next book—naturally, the fantasy here is that the book will make you enough money to live on. But it's also nice to come into an office and interact with a whole bunch of interesting people doing things that are in no way tied to my specific writing projects. It's nice to have those multiple mental registers.

I initially decided to self-publish this book. Chelsea Station Editions came in late in the process at a time that was mutually beneficial to both of us, I think, and it solved a lot of logistical problems for me. But to answer your question, yes, working at Goodreads definitely gave me the courage to look beyond the "Big 6," or "Big 5" as the case may be, publishers. And, frankly, this book would've been a terrible fit for the big guys. Every day I see scores of authors who are going it alone. That has definitely been empowering. My job also gives me access to a lot of really smart people who are doing a lot of innovative thinking on what the future of authorship, publishing, and marketing will be, so I've been fortunate to have a direct line to that throughout my process.

Do you have any advice for writers looking to self-publish, or publish with a small press?

Don't be intimidated by the overwhelming process. In fact, lie to yourself, as I did, and tell yourself that it's just a little thing you're slapping together to give to some people and start spreading the word. Once the momentum is going you won't be able to get off the ride, so that's kind of a nice bonus. Also, judge a book by its cover. I'm a big proponent of things looking good. I'm not ashamed to admit that if a book has a lousy cover I'm approximately 1000X less likely to pick it up (or click on it). If you believe in what you've written, make the cover a priority. For me it was the single most expensive part, and it was 100% worth it. Find a good cover designer and be willing to pay for it. I'll let you know if publicity should be a bigger priority. That's one challenge that still looms over me.

How do you find the time to write?

Short answer: I don't. It took me three years to write this book. Now, granted, a significant portion of that time was spent finishing another book and trying to find an agent for it (unsuccessful). But still: I'm a real slow writer. I could spout some stuff about sitting down every day with a word or page count, but it would be total B.S. I write when I'm alone, which means I write when Eric and I live in different cities. I recently discovered this is a super important component of my process. It's kinda nice to realize that. It means that when we're living apart, as we are now, I can feel better about it by telling myself that I have x months/years to finish my next thing before we're reunited.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? What is your writing process like?

"Pantser"? I'm not familiar with that term, but if it's the opposite of "plotter" then that's what I am. People talk about making outlines, and I'm glad it works for them, but for me whenever I think about making an outline I get sleepy, which is my brain's defense mechanism against things it doesn't understand. I simply am incapable of making outlines. I tend to have a vague idea of the beginning of a story—some image, generally, or a piece of dialogue, sometimes even a title, as was the case with the story "Part the Hawser / Limn the Sea"—and I'll work with that in fits and starts until one day I put something down that feels like an ending then I stop. I'll edit like crazy, sometimes for years, until I get it right, but the ending rarely changes. This is probably why my stories tend to be one movement instead of evolving through a series of minor climaxes and denouements.

What can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

I've been telling people that I'm working on a historical fiction novel that takes place alternately in 1920's San Francisco and modern day San Francisco, and that it concerns an Amelia Earhart-like character as well as some nefarious entrepreneurs, so I'll say that here, but the reality is that if I'm talking about it a lot it probably means the idea has calcified in my mind and I likely won't get around to it ever. Anyway, while the book I just described would be something I'd love to read, it's not likely something I'd be any good at writing. For one thing, there are precious few boats.

About the Author:

Dan Lopez lives in San Francisco. His work has appeared in The CollagistStorychordMary LiteraryTime Out New York, and Lambda Literary, among others.


  1. Great interview! Going to check out this writer's work.

    1. Thanks, Tony! Hope you enjoy it.


  2. Great interview. One thing I noticed though is that this author is not nearly as handsome as his brother.

  3. Can't wait to read this! I hope he has a reading and book party in SF.

    1. That's great, Rob! I appreciate it. I'll be doing a reading at Alley Cat Books on 3/22. Come on down!

      - dl

  4. Love the interview! Definitely going to check out the book :)

    1. Ebony! How have you been?

      - dl