A few years ago, the Northwest Arkansas Writers Workshop was lucky enough to have Brian C.Conley as an attending member. Each week, we looked forward to hearing the voices of the characters in his novel, The Neighborhood. So much so, many of us refused to believe him when he told us he and his family were moving away from Arkansas. Unfortunately, no amount of creative reasoning, even by a group of writers, could make him stay. He remains an honorary member, and thankfully, social media lets us keep in touch and follow his successes.
I hope you enjoy getting to know about Brian and his writing.
1) As writers, we often find certain characteristics in books that make them memorable. What makes you most enjoy reading a book – writing style, voice, sense of place, the story or something else? How have you incorporated that characteristic into your writing?
I guess my only barometer for total enjoyment is whether or not I’m thinking about the book a week or more after I’m done reading it, regardless of style, voice, etc. But there are characteristics I’ve lifted from certain authors: Chuck Palauniuk’s style, James Patterson’s brevity, John Steinbeck, Guy Johnson and Elliot Perlman’s scope in dealing with multi-character stories, and Edwidge Danticat’s soulfulness. I think my humor’s more influenced by television, though. Elmore Leonard once said something that’s always stuck with me: “Leave out all the parts you tend to skip when you’re reading.” That advice has influenced my writing more than anything else.
I would say the only similarity between the two is that they were written by the same guy. They differ in tone, style, subject matter, theme, setting, length, maturity and skill levels of “the same guy”, and the cover art (one’s in color, the other’s black & white).
3) Is there a message you wanted readers to carry with them long after they finished reading each?
There’s no message with The Neighborhood; my only hope is that readers enjoy the book and tell others about it. Make it a book club selection and whatnot. As far as Stay is concerned, I just wanted to show that even though men are not wired or raised to show our emotions in relationships, we do have them. And that some of our most hateful actions can come from a loving place, we just don’t always know what to do with those loving emotions, especially if they make us feel like a girl.
4) You describe Stay as: “Told in Anthony’s words to the new woman in his life, follow the story of a young man trying to do what few men attempt: To explain to his woman why he is the way he is.”
This book would be a great book club selection. What are two questions you would want a book club to discuss about Stay?
1. Did you make it past the first half?
2. By the end, did you understand the point of the first half?
I believe Stay has been unfairly judged as “raunchy”, “smut”, and so on, though mostly by those with delicate sensibilities like my godmother and church-going friends. True, the first half is racy, but it evolves into a genuine love story because the main character evolves from a man whose only interest in women were sexual to a man who can’t fight the emotional pull the love interest had on him. Being that the story was told in his words, I had to be true to what he thought and felt.
5) One of my favorite quotes on writing is by Madeleine L’Engle: “When I’m writing, I’m listening.” So, I was particularly interested in what you said on your Amazon author page:
Long aware of his talents, his beloved parents, in an attempt to lend some direction to their wayward son (and perhaps to prevent him from moving back in with them), enrolled Conley in a creative writing class at Rice University. He was, as they say, a hit.Since then, the prolific writer has gone on to publish one short story (Voices Volume II Anthology), and two novels – Stay and The Neighborhood.
He lives in North Dallas with his wife, two children, and thousands of voices in his head.
What have you found to be the best way to “listen” to those voices in your head?
Just to let them talk. It’s the same way I’ve learned to listen to the voices in my house. (Just to be clear, I’m talking about my wife and children, not ghosts.)
6) My most challenging character in Broken Dolls was Terrence, a black teenager. Not only was he outside of my race, he was outside of my gender. As you know, I struggled with his voice. Since then, I have been intrigued by the question of whether or not a person can (or should) write outside of his/her race or gender. (Click here to see my post, “Color of a Voice.”) What are your thoughts?
I remember you having that issue. My issue with helping you was that even though I was once a black teenager, I wasn’t alive during the time in which your story was set, so I had no idea how a black teenager spoke during WWII.
I think a writer can and should write outside of his/her race or gender. The problem is when the effort devolves into caricature and stereotype. I have two white characters in The Neighborhood. Neither speak alike because I never concerned myself with how white people speak, but with how these two people speak.
You can’t say, “My character speaks this way because (random racial group) people speak this way. But I will admit that non-white writers may have an advantage (sad as it may be)in writing white characters because of the multitude of personalities shown in the media, whereas non-whites are not shown in nearly as many variations. My advice to white writers seeking to write about non-white characters is to read books and magazines written by and for your character’s ethnic group. Watch their tv shows. You’ll learn that one size (or voice) does not fit all.
7) What’s next for Brian C. Conley?
I’m currently developing a sitcom pilot, a dramatic series adapted from one of my favorite novels, two comedic memoirs, and a psycho-sexual novel and screenplay tie-in. It’s those damn voices fault! Whichever voice speaks the loudest and has the best story gets first dibs.
Brian, thank you for sharing some of your thoughts on my blog. On a personal note, I most appreciate your insights on writing outside of one’s race. Like you said, “The problem is when the effort devolves into caricature and stereotype.” For someone unfamiliar with the nuances of an ethnic group, “getting it right” without crossing the line is a big challenge. I’ve followed your suggestion to read books “written by and for your character’s ethnic group,” and that has helped a lot.
By the way, the Northwest Arkansas Writers still miss your reading and critique!
To follow Brian:
To purchase The Neighborhood: