Writer Bill Cushing’s story “The Commies Come to Watertown” was featured in Issue #7 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed him about his writing, and his answers are below. You can read more from Bill at PoemHunter.com or at PoetryNook.com.
What is your relationship to Queens?
I have always considered myself a New Yorker first and foremost even though I’ve spent decades in other locales. My Dad was from Brooklyn and grew up in Albany. I was born in Norfolk, Virginia, because he was serving on subs in the Navy, but before I was two, the family moved, first to Flushing and then to Douglaston. I still have many of my “emotional roots” there even though I have been gone for so long. Once while visiting a friend out on the Island, I took a side trip through the town to show my wife the places I grew up, so my relationship with the borough seems unending.
What is your favorite memory of Queens?
That is tough to answer, but certainly my time both in New York through the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s has to count for something. What’s interesting are the many fascinating people I grew up with and knew in my youth: James Conlon has become a world-renowned operatic conductor, Debbie Berke is now the first female dean of architecture at Yale, and I hardly have to qualify John McEnroe.
How would you describe the writing you do?
Because I tend to work across genres, my writing shifts gears with the theme and format of the piece, but I also find that I tend to be influenced by whomever I may be reading at the moment, which makes things confusing at times but also, hopefully, interesting. For instance, I am currently reading the novel A Void by Georges Perec, a surrealistic mystery, while also reading Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. I’m certain the combination of those influences must rub off into my ongoing work.
How did you come to writing?
My first interest in the arts was visual, and I used to sketch and paint. However, when I entered the sixth grade, I was lucky enough to have several teachers who chose our reading assignments very well so that I soon began to read with a passion. My admiration for these writers pushed me to try it myself, and by the time I reached high school, I was active on the student newspaper, writing across departments with a monthly column being my favorite assignment since it allowed me to choose whatever topic I wished. Even before I made writing an academic choice, I kept journals, sketchbooks, and pads of paper with short pieces and some short stories. I still have many of these in file folders, boxes, and various piles—much to the chagrin of my wife.
Growing up, my “dream” was to get a journalism degree and write for the New York Times sports section. Then I got sidetracked when I managed to flunk out of the University of Missouri and enlisted in the Navy. Then I spent about 15 years after working primarily as a shipyard worker, but I continued maintaining journals, notes, and skeletons of stories.
Finally returning college at the age of 35, I was lucky enough—yet again—to enroll with an instructor who rekindled my desire to start writing seriously. While I started school with the intention of majoring in either history or humanities, I ended up getting a dual major in literature and creative writing. From there it was an easy decision to continue, and I was fortunate enough to be admitted to the only post-grad program I wanted: the MFA program at Goddard College in Vermont.
What inspires you?
That’s simple: life. But when I say that, I don’t mean only my life but my observations of the lives of people around me whether they are known by me or strangers I happen to see. I think it is difficult if not impossible for writers not produce material based on people and events in life. Even most of my poems are images and impressions of those I’ve met or that which I have experienced. But the other part of “inspiration” is, as Philip Levine alluded to in his memoir, the willingness to spend the energy in an effort to produce pieces worth reading. If anything motivates a writer, I argue it is the desire to be read and heard as an individual. Writing becomes that person’s voice. I would say the act of writing is more a calling because, whether I get paid or not, published or not, I cannot stop writing. Perhaps that makes it more of an obsession.
What does it mean to be a writer in Queens?
That’s an interesting perspective because, other than my internal “voice”, I likely would have written regardless of where I was from. Certainly my place of origin influences how I see things and then write about them—I am a big believer in Locke’s theory of the tabula rasa, but that is only one part of the whole recipe. Staying put or moving around only alters the possibilities, not the desire. I’ve spent a good portion of my life traveling the country because of work, and I’ve found that material is almost anywhere there is a window. Yes, I travel, but I do not travel to write; my writing comes out of the journey.
What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
I am now trying to pare down my MFA thesis into a publishable piece. The title is Counting Down the Breaths, a “memoir” about my late wife, and it chronicles the dual lives of me and her, our subsequent relationship, her battle with cancer, and as indicated by the title, the event of her death, which I witnessed over the final hours of her life. Perhaps the greatest inspiration for the work was my desire to share with others the ordeal of the caregiver for those with terminal disease. I want it to be a way to inform anyone else thrown into that position of what to expect, to convey that the pain that people watching their loved ones go through, while personal and unique to each of us, is not isolated.
And, finally, my favorite question: What should I be asking you that I didn’t?
“What is your favorite book?”
I live convinced that Anthony Burgess is one of the greatest modern writers of the English language because of his sharp mind and versatility. I mean here is the man who wrote A Clockwork Orange, one of the more disturbing stories on society versus the individual, as well as Man of Nazareth, an ode to the life of Christ that became the backdrop for Zefferilli’s six-hour movie. He has written novels, biographies, and critical studies that knock me out. I know that when I read him, I better have a dictionary nearby because of the linguistic jokes he loves to plant in his work. In fact, there is a word that I still cannot nail down from his novel Napoleon Symphony—a fictionalized look at Bonaparte’s life divided into four parts where Burgess tries to pace his diction according to Beethoven’s Third Symphony. That is magnificent, clever, and indicative of real discipline. Yet, with all that work to choose from, he also produced what I rank as the greatest novel of the late 20th Century, Earthly Powers. The book covers 80 years of history and events through the eyes of a gay writer who befriends and becomes a confidant to the Pope. It has one of the greatest opening lines ever, and no one but no one comes out with clean hands.
Readers, mark your calendars:
- Join Joe Okonkwo on June 2 at 7:00 p.m. at The Astoria Bookshop for a reading from his debut novel, Jazz Moon.
- Join Boundless Tales on June 9 at 7:00 p.m. at the Astoria Bookshop for readings by Lynne Bronstein, William Shunn, Mark de Silva, and Elizabeth Onusko, hosted by Aida Zilelian.
- Join us on June 11 at 5:00 p.m. at the park behind Lost Battalion Hall as we celebrate the launch of Issue #8 of Newtown Literary! The event will be hosted by Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons and feature Carly Anderson, Chris Antzoulis, Suzanne Bennet, Jurien Huggins, Madelin A. Medina, and Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie. Rain date: June 18.
- Join the LIC Reading Series on June 14 at 8:00 p.m. at LIC Bar for readings and a panel discussion with Rob Spillman, Joe Okonkwo, and Charlie Vazquez.
- The Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning is calling for artists to apply for a free one-month residency. For more information, and to apply, check out the JCAL website. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis.