Lewis J. Beilman III lives in New Haven, Connecticut with his two cats, Elvis and Rico. He writes short stories and poetry in his spare time. Recently, his stories have appeared in Blood Lotus Journal, Gravel Magazine, Straylight Online, Larks Fiction Magazine, and Red Fez. In 2009, he won first prize in the Fred R. Shaw Poetry Contest.
In this interview with MG Editor Dariel Suarez, Lewis talks about inspiration, hard work and the lessons of poetry for writers.
Dariel Suarez: What inspired your story "First Time," featured in Middle Gray?
Lewis Beilman: The story is loosely based on an incident that occurred years ago. I don’t usually write autobiographical stories, so this is about as close as it gets for me. I was in a much different place emotionally then—and am glad that that part of my life is in my distant past. Your emotions can seem so intense when you’re young, and it’s sometimes difficult to see that your world will not end with a single unrequited love.
DS: Where do you usually find inspiration prior to sitting down to write a story?
LB: I believe in hard work more than I believe in inspiration. I try to write for an hour a day and would probably write more if I didn’t have a full-time job and a healthy—but time-consuming—obsession with playing and watching soccer. Usually, when I finish a story, I start a new one the following day—whether or not I have an idea about what I’m going to write. Generally, I think people who say they need to be inspired to write are people who have a hard time writing.
DS: Do you write in any other genres besides fiction? If so, how does it differ from writing stories?
LB: I started writing poetry when I was a teenager. In fact, I didn’t seriously start writing short stories until I was in my early thirties. I thought, for a long time, if I were ever to have any success as a writer, it would be as a poet. Fortunately, for lovers of poetry everywhere, I abandoned that notion three years ago. Still, when I was writing poetry, I learned some lessons that help me with my story-writing today. Those lessons include the necessity of choosing words carefully, the importance of using images that stick in readers’ minds, and the value of writing sentences that have rhythmic integrity.
DS: What are your main literary influences? Do you consciously use them as references when building your own work?
LB: Some of the writers I enjoy now are J.M. Coetzee, Milan Kundera, and Denis Johnson. I still love to read Homer, Shakespeare, and Hemingway. For more direct influences on my style, I would cite John Cheever, Raymond Carver, and Tobias Wolff. Pretty standard stuff. Generally, these writers’ influences on my work are subtle and show up in the tone of my writing, which tends to be objective, romantic, and modern at the same time—a strange and contradictory, but hopefully workable, hodgepodge. I rarely use these writers consciously as references when writing, although my story, “Amigos,” which was recently published in Blood Lotus, follows a similar stylistic arc to Raymond Carver’s story, “Cathedral.” That was deliberate on my part.
DS: How did taking classes at Florida International University help you as a writer?
LB: I only took one class there, but it definitely helped me to mature as a writer. The professor, Debra Dean, encouraged me to keep writing, and the three stories I wrote in her class—one of which was “First Time”—have since been published. I also took three writing classes with Dr. Michael Hettich at Miami Dade College. Both Dr. Hettich and Professor Dean taught me that writing makes a writer. They stressed the importance of writing every day and the value of revising my stories thoroughly. Without their encouragement, I don’t know if I would have started to send my stories into the world. I was lucky to end up in their classes—and continue to keep in touch with them to this day.
DS: You've had a novelette published recently. Was the process of writing a longer work different from writing shorter pieces? Do you plan the length of your stories before you write them?
LB: Straylight Online published my novelette, “Dignitas,” earlier this year. The process of writing “Dignitas” involved more research than usual for me and allowed me to explore a theme more fully. In this case, the theme centered on assisted suicide—and I think it would have been difficult to address the topic appropriately in a traditional short-story format. Since writing “Dignitas,” I’ve written two novellas, which have yet to be published. Although I don’t formally outline my stories before I write them, I usually have an idea of where they will start and finish and approximately how long they will be. The main problem with writing longer works is that they take longer to complete—and I like the satisfaction of completing a task in a reasonable amount of time.
DS: You are someone who's very politically and socially engaged. Do you see these particular aspects of yourself finding their way into your writing?
LB: I try to get involved in my community as much as possible. I truly believe it’s my civic duty to give back to the place I live. For me, that means volunteering for political campaigns, serving on municipal boards, and providing fundraising or other support to nonprofits or groups I admire. Still, despite my involvement in political and social activities, I don’t necessarily consider myself a political writer. Most of my stories deal primarily with human interactions and the struggles of the main characters to make sense of a world that often doesn’t make sense. Of course, many of these stories contain political undercurrents. “Dignitas,” as I said before, addresses the issue of assisted suicide. In addition, the main character in “Amigos” has an underlying resentment of immigrants. Along that line, many of my more recent stories deal with how white, non-Hispanic, Americans are adjusting to a changing America. I guess, to answer your question directly, it is difficult for me to write stories set in contemporary America without at times addressing the political and social issues that affect our daily lives.
DS: Where do you see your writing going in the coming years?
LB: I see myself continuing to write short stories and the occasional novella. I don’t have any particular urge to tackle a novel just yet. There’s still a lot I feel I can do in shorter formats. If I have any particular ambitions now, they include having more stories published in literary journals and having a book of short stories published someday. I probably have enough stories now for two collections—but having one collection published would be quite an achievement! Until then, I’ll keep plugging away.