Interview with Stephen Gallup, author of What About the Boy

Stephen Gallup at Zion National Park
Stephen Gallup at Zion National Park

Stephen Gallup’s memoir, What About the Boy, passionately explores the difficult journey a father takes when his new-born son has problems. The traditional medical community offered nothing but discouragement, telling Stephen and his wife Judy they should just accept the status quo. The Gallups found this advice unacceptable.

What About the Boy has won San Diego Book Awards! You can read more about Stephen on his website:  Father’s Pledge.

Q. Talk a little bit about the process of writing a memoir? How did you start? What kept you going?

What About the Boy? began as a journaling exercise. I was a new parent and things were not working out well with the baby who’d just joined our family. He obviously had some kind of problem, but his doctors didn’t seem to be particularly involved or interested in understanding it. My wife Judy and I refused to accept their claim that nothing could be done and kept trying to find someone to help him. I started writing about the unfolding events, and what I thought about them, probably as a way to improve my grasp of the situation–certainly with no expectation of ever seeing it published. That writing became a habit, and gradually the journal entries turned into chapters and it began to resemble a book. Years went by. Judy and I were trying alternative therapies, since mainstream doctors remained stubbornly unhelpful, and our son responded in rather exciting ways. But as he grew older it became evident that his developmental issues were not going away. We still felt an urgency to do something for him, but we were running out of ideas. And our response to that conflict became another big part of the story. By this point I realized that what I’d documented might be of interest to other people.

Q. Did you have to revise a lot?

Revising is just part of my nature as a writer. In this case, I likely did more burnishing than writing, in hopes of exposing whatever truth lay behind all this. When I say years went by, I mean decades. By the time my son Joseph was 20, I’d written so many words that I knew it needed some drastic cutting. Also, as I began getting feedback on it, I came to understand that good memoir is more than simply a chronological recitation of events. Instead of being a reporter who’d just gotten all the facts straight, I needed to be more of a character in the story. I needed to preserve the state of mind I’d had when those events were occurring, and contrast it with the insights I’d acquired over time. But while arriving at those insights, I didn’t want to end up with a how-to book. I didn’t presume to be offering a manual for other parents who’ve got disabled kids. Rather, the most honest claim I could make would be to have a depiction of an uphill struggle undertaken by people who felt they had no other choice.

Q. What are you working on now?

We just passed the third anniversary of WATB’s publication, so that project ought to be history now. However, in continuing to blog about it, I’ve often found myself revisiting some of the book’s themes and topics, to the point where certain minor changes would be necessary if I were still writing it. What I’m doing instead is supporting preproduction of a film version of the story. Joel Franco, a movie producer, asked me to adapt it as a screenplay, even though I had never attempted that kind of writing. Screenplays have to be a lot tighter, which means you go for scenes that really pop out the key parts of a story. I’ll let you know if an honest-to-gosh movie results from this, but either way being involved is a great experience. And on the side I write an occasional short story, just for fun.

Q. What’s your favorite kind of writing? Either what you like to read, or what you like to write, or both.

I type up short reviews of all the books I read, as a way of remembering them. And in looking over my favorites, I see a preference for stories that explore aspects of the human condition such as ambition versus disappointment, the pursuit of elusive but potentially wonderful new insights that might change life forever, and reminders also to cherish the life we already have. I also relish lyrical prose and sparkling dialog. As for my own writing, to a large extent, it’s important to me more for the experience of creating it–what I discover in the process–than for the finished product. So I like to write about those same themes, and I try to let the story tell me the direction they should take.

Q. What do you aspire to, in your work?

Clarity. I find that it is incredibly easy to be misunderstood. Of all the various ways to say something, one way conveys more information than others. So many times, beta readers come back with rebuttals to what they think I’m saying, or questions about why something happened the way it did. That prompts me to realize that I wrongly assumed some little point was just going to be understood. When readers don’t understand, they become distracted and lose their momentum, and they might just give up. So I try very hard to pave over all those potential roadblocks, albeit in as few words as possible.

Q. You’re also an accomplished technical writer? How has that work influenced you?

Technical writers often are not subject matter experts. We rely on scientists and engineers for our content. The input they provide may be very rough and disorganized and incomplete, and may be coming from someone on the other side of the world who has a poor command of English. The challenge is to take this confusing material and turn it into a coherent document. So tech writing involves ferreting out the key message and making sure it will be obvious to the audience. And guess what? The same thing occurs in turning any idea or personal experience into a piece of writing.

Q. What’s your favorite sound?

In nature, I’m partial to the sounds of water in a rocky mountain stream, and to wind blowing through treetops. The manmade sounds that give me pause most often come from a musical instrument, the violin in particular — say, Joshua Bell playing “O Mio Babbino Caro.” Or my daughter, whose playing is also starting to sound pretty good.

Q. Are you a computer, typewriter, or pen & ink type of guy?

Typewriters? Does anybody even have a typewriter now? Virtually all my writing is on a word processor. My thinking is tied to the ability to insert and delete bits of text and move chunks around. Yes, there was a time when I relied on typewriters, and boy was that a messy experience: arrows all over the page, insert A, insert B, and so on, one iteration after another. They say Milton dictated Paradise Lost, because he was blind, and I absolutely cannot imagine emitting a clear statement in such a way. I thought the advent of word processors was like the invention of the wheel. But life goes on when we walk away from the keyboard, so there will always be a place for scribbling notes in the margin of a printout, or on grocery store receipts or whatever scrap of paper is at hand. When a pocketful of those notes accumulate, it’s back to the computer.

Q. What advice do you have for authors just starting out?

I wouldn’t want to say anything to dampen creativity, because that is likely a young writer’s best asset. I see some wonderfully original, exciting ideas in new writing, and think if only such ideas came to me! But too many aspiring writers don’t much care about the less thrilling considerations like grammar. There seems to be an assumption that creative writing is on a higher plane, where one doesn’t need to know the subject of your sentence or how to spell it, and that an editor will come along later and tidy up such things. But doesn’t a painter need to know all about mixing colors? Doesn’t a musician need to know scales? First of all, a writer who puts thought into the structure of each sentence is going to get more out of the language, and achieve a better result. Secondly, the books I read provide evidence that you’d better not rely on an editor to catch all your mistakes. And finally, regardless of how clever your story might be, an accumulation of errors will cause both publishers and readers to put it down. This doesn’t mean your first draft has to be error-free, of course. Definitely get the idea preserved in words while it’s fresh. But fix everything you’re aware of before asking anyone to critique your work, and shoot for perfection before showing it to the public.

Q. If you could have lunch with any author, living or dead, whom would it be?

I’ve often said that I would love some one-on-one time with Mark Salzman, who may be best known as the author of Iron and Silk, a memoir about teaching English in China while studying martial arts. Part of the attraction is simply the overlap in our areas of interest: writing of course, plus music and the Chinese language and culture. Also, quite frankly I feel a little envious because he has done more in all those areas than I have. I felt he would be able to give some perspective because, as I wrote in a review of his more recent memoir, The Man in the Empty Boat, his characters, real and fictional alike, are “tormented by the gap between who they actually are and who they had hoped to become.” This more recent book of his answers some of the questions I would have put to him. But I’d still enjoy a chance to meet the guy.

Q. Would you have any advice for yourself, for when you were just starting out?

Sure, but I probably wouldn’t follow it! Even if it were possible for people to hop back in time and start over, I suspect we’d repeat a lot of the same mistakes. But wouldn’t it be fun to find out!

Q. I asked my students what their favorite question was during a recent collaborative assignment on bios. One said, “Have you ever been skinny dipping?”

Actually, yes! I might still remember how to find several beautiful streams deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, with placid pools and little waterfalls, where I skinny-dipped long ago with a bunch of friends from Charlottesville. I even wrote a short story about skinny-dipping when those memories were still fresh, and tried to sell it to The New Yorker. The editor asked for revisions but in the end never accepted it. That’s probably just as well, because in those days I was writing to what I thought was the magazine’s formula, rather than trusting the story to take its own course.

More Interviews