Monday, March 10, 2008


I first heard about Burning Shore Press about a year or so ago. I knew I wanted to investigate for reasons both personal and professional and now that I've met the man behind the company, I can say I am glad I did.

His name is Rob Woodard. He's a novelist/poet from Long Beach who's published three books --his novel "Heaping Stones," Dan Fante's play "Don Giovanni" and Tony O'Neill's book of poetry "Songs From the Shooting Gallery: Poems 1999-2006." Each is different than the next, but there is a common theme to what Woodard chooses to release. His publishing house deals with the gritty, the downtrodded, the sorts of things mainstream publishers aren't interested in. Which just so happens to be what I like to read.

I was excited when I discovered someone in Long Beach doing the kind of work he does. This is a special town and needs someone to shine the literary spotlight on it. And his work does just that. From scenes at Acres of Books or driving down Seventh Street, "Heaping Stones" is a Long Beach book that should be read by everyone who lives here. Woodard said something in this interview regarding why he writes about Long Beach and I agree. But you'll have to read to find out the answer.

I picked up "Heaping Stones" one Saturday afternoon and was finished before I went to bed. I can't say the same for many other books I've read. It's chalk full of despair, honesty, confusion and sex -- all things that can make or break a book. For Woodard, it makes it.

This interview is pretty long, so I'm going to break it up into different parts and give a mini intro before each one. So here's part one. And don't forget to visit It's full of details and all kinds of good stuff. If you want to check out his blog, it's linked on this here site. Enjoy.

J: Your work reflects your background as someone who’s read a lot. How did you get interested in reading and writing?
R: I had a weird background. My family watched a lot of TV. My mom read a lot, but she liked mysteries. Murdering doctors are the best for her, which is fine, but it’s not exactly stimulating if you want to write. My stepdad used to read Edgar Allen Poe out loud, which is creepy when you’re a kid. I read “Little House on the Prairie” and “Tom Sawyer” and I loved it. But it didn’t stick. It was more important to watch “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch.” It wasn’t until my teens that I picked it up. I read a lot of Steinbeck and Hemmingway, then I got more into music. I started getting back into literature through bands where the lyrics matter. One of my favorite bands was X. This was serious musical poetry. Poets tend to look down on lyrics, but to me they’re the same thing. I started listening to the Minutemen; their lyrics are fascinating. Then I got into Bob Dylan and that blasted my mind about the potential of language. Also Lou Reed. He’s the opposite of Dylan. He’s a poetic journalist. Then I started reading the Beats. In my senior year of high school I took a poetry class. My teacher was so cool that she brought Bukowski. She was careful of which ones she brought. That got me reading other poets. It took off from there. Then I got really heavily into what I call the Pacific Northwest poets – Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, Philip Walen. I’ve always been into hiking and camping and stuff like that. They led me to ancient Japanese poetry and haiku. By then I was hooked. It just took me a long time to translate the influences into my own life.

J: Tell me about writing about Long Beach.
R: There are two sides. There’s the personal. I ran away from home essentially for about a decade. I had to come to terms with that in order to come to terms with myself. From a literary mode, growing up, the thing frustrating to me about books was they always took place somewhere else. I remember reading a scene in one of Steinbeck’s books that took place in La Jolla and I was all excited. Does everything take place in New York, London or Paris? Why are these places so special? It pissed me off. Why is my home not special? When I hit my Bukowski phase, one of the things I remember reading in “Factotum” takes place at the Los Alamitos race track. I grew up down the road from that. That really set off something in my head. And that’s where bands like the Minutemen came in. They were writing songs about San Pedro. If they were writing about San Pedro, which is nowhere near as cool as Long Beach, then I can write about Long Beach. At that age, I needed somebody to tell me it was ok.

J: Your work has a theme of longing for love. Where does that come from?
R: There’s a lot of personal overlap. There wasn’t a lot of closeness in my family or excessive emotion. We weren’t touchy feely people and I think I kind of am. I’ve tended to go for women who are completely self-absorbed and capable of giving very little. These women were exciting because they do bizarre things because they don’t see anybody else. I was mistaking crazy women for interesting because they can’t get out of their own head. Part of writing “Heaping Stones” changed that. I’ve moved past that, but I still write about it. There’s nothing more harrowing than a crazy woman. When I write it now, it doesn’t feel like me. It feels like I’m copying myself.

J: Who are some of your influences for novel writing?
R: I really like John Fante. Nobody ever caught this and it really pisses me off. The opening of “Heaping Stones” makes jokes off the opening of “Ask the Dust.” My character walks into a coffee shop and has the same kind of sarcasm. Basically, it’s a re-write and nobody’s ever caught on to that, including Dan. It was designed to be an homage and a loving parody. D.H. Lawrence was a major influence, Henry Miller, lots of old Russian novelists like Dostovesky, Proust.

J: How does your time spent traveling the world affect what you write?
R: It opened my mind to seeing lots of different things. I did it so young. I was on the road, thousands of miles from home before I was 20 years old. I’ve never written about the places I’ve traveled to. I don’t know why, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that those years I was running away from my problems. I wasn’t facing my problems and there wasn’t much to write about or worth writing about. I tried setting a novel in Honolulu and Australia and it seemed really surface level. I couldn’t get it to gel and go anywhere else. It may very well happen some day. I need to be connected to a place before I can write about it.

J: Is that why you write about Long Beach?
R: Yeah, and exercising demons, coming to terms with my hometown. I had a less than stellar family situation. My father didn’t exist and my stepfather caused more problems than he solved. I never felt like I fit in growing up. My mom re-married when I was 6. The person she married had substance problems and troubles keeping a job, so for three years we moved constantly. I lived in Beaumont, Texas, Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Phoenix, Arizona and Santa Rosa, California. Those are formative years and by the time I got back here, my social skills were really limited because I never stayed anywhere long enough to become friends with anybody. Those places today are kind of sophisticated, but back then they weren’t. When I got back here, I felt like a hick. I never recovered from that.

J: You have two degrees in anthropology. Why didn’t you pursue an English degree?
R: I have a BA and an MA. It was a lot of things. When I was traveling, I always wanted to be a writer. I was trying to write and I wasn’t doing very well. But I was constantly reading. By the time I got back here, I started looking at the classes and I’d read all those books. I wrote about this in “Heaping Stones.” I gave my protagonist the same problem. I felt like I would have been dotting my Is and crossing my Ts to make it official. Plus, I was older and I was at that point where I wasn’t going to jump through hoops for professors to tell me what to write. Literature programs are cool because they expose you to lots of literature and help you teach, but as far as writing, I always thought that was a joke. I don’t think that’s how you become a writer. As soon as somebody tells me I have to read something, I don’t want to read it. That would have been a drag. Of the writers I’ve been influenced by, they’ve all been autodidact or their backgrounds weren’t in MFA programs. You need to be living and everybody in MFA programs gets squashed in the middle. They make great writers mediocre and bad writers mediocre. Everybody comes out the same. It’s the same with any art. Some of the least interesting musicians on Earth are the people who come from the Berkeley School of Music; they all sound the same. They’re technically fantastic players, but who cares?

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