Inky Interview Special: Author Joseph S. Pete

Your literary or photographic work has appeared in over 100 journals. Can you tell us about your journey towards being a writer? What subjects do you photograph? Do you combine words and pictures?

As a bookish person, I’ve aspired to be a writer since childhood. I read constantly. I keep paperbacks in my jacket pockets and my pants pockets so I can read at any time I am not otherwise occupied. I even pocketed paperbacks at my wedding, just in case. Understanding at an early age that few are fortunate enough to write literary fiction full-time, I sought out a career in the media so I could write for my day job, to develop the muscle memory. I first started photographing as a necessity for publications with limited resources, where I needed to both photograph and write up assignments. I’ve since evolved into a prolific shutterbug, and am most interested in architecture, urban landscapes, urban decay, graffiti, and natural landscapes. My iPhone photo albums are largely devoid of people–for whatever reason, I’m more drawn to art, architecture and the like. I seldom combine words and pictures, but my writing and photography sometimes draw inspiration from the same subjects.

You are an Iraq War veteran. How much has this experience fed into your work?

Iraq was rough. I often strive to tell war stories, and experiment by trying to tell them through different forms. It’s something I feel I have to do justice to as a storyteller.

You are also an award winning journalist. How did you get into journalism? Have you advice for any of our followers who want to enter this field?

In high school, I wrote an earth-shattering investigative exposé on how high school athletes used the dietary supplement creatine and how it was potentially harmful. Earlier in May, I received a prestigious Peter Lisagor Award from the Chicago Headline Club at the ritzy Union League Club in the Loop after watching a video presentation about the acclaimed Chicago Tribune journalist Anne Keegan, whose first high school story had been about birds nesting at the school, which somehow stirred up controversy with notoriously open-minded administrators. Anyone interested in entering the field should just amass clips, and use them to persuade editors of their writing chops. It’s largely all about what you can do. That being said, the transition from dead trees to online has taken more than a pound of flesh, and the carnage continues until they settle on a new, more viable business model. I’ve been sickened to see so many of my talented colleagues laid off, or just given up on a career that seems to be circling the drain and certainly has endured a great deal of political scorn over the last few years.

You were named poet laureate of Chicago BaconFest. Interesting! Can you tell us about this? What is the literary scene like where you live?

I get nervous reading my work at half-empty coffeeshops but somehow wasn’t daunted to read a dumb joke poem in front of thousands of people at the UIC Pavilion, including comedian Hannibal Buress and Chicago Bears players. I was also a runner-up in the PBR Art Contest for poetry, earning me a three-month supply of that hipster swill. For some reason I imagined a worker would dolly a few cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon to my door; instead, they sent a paltry check.

Northwest Indiana is the New Jersey of Chicago–it has a surprisingly vibrant literary scene that includes afew journals, the Zine and Small Press Festival in Michigan City, many lovingly crafted zines at cafes and boutiques, writers groups, the Indiana Writers Consortium Steel Pen Conference, open mics and more. Neighboring Chicago definitely has one of the best literary scenes in the country, with at least a few live lit events every week. Plenty of big-name authors pass through. I’m going to see National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward at the Chicago Humanities Fest in Hyde Park.

What is it you love about the short story form? What about poetry? Any preference?

Short stories are one of the most digestible and accessible forms of literature, a narrative contained in a convenient package. I love the soaring heights of language poetry can ascend to. No preference. They’re both great expressions of creativity.

What do you care about? What themes keep cropping up in your writing?

I write a lot about industrial decline, abandonment, alienation, war, despondency, injustice and other themes. While my work may be thematically dark, it’s typically leavened by a lot of humour.

Describe a typical day in your life.

It’s a grind. I write, write, write for my newspaper…at a bar, a fellow reporter recently introduced me as the “journalist who wrote the entire Times of Northwest Indiana and produced 12 stories a day.” That’s a comedic exaggeration, but not by much. I write journalism by day and write literature by later at night, often working on short stories or poems into the wee hours of the morning. I read as much as possible, try to walk as much as possible, and frequent plays, museums and other cultural events on the weekends.

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

There’s so much that’s so profoundly wrong with the world, from poverty to inequality to sexism to racism, to senseless gun violence. If you put a gun to my head, I would probably call for more appreciation for media, literature and the arts. I say that partly out of self-interest but truly believe, however Pollyannaish it may sound, that most of the world’s problems could be solved if people read a book a week, kept up with the news, developed empathy for other people, and maybe spent a few hours volunteering. So many intractable issues seem to be at least partly the result of ignorance.

Who inspires you and why?

This is perhaps the toughest question. Any author I’m reading, any painter whose work I’m looking at. It takes bravery to create art in a cruel, indifferent world.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I was miserable for most of my youth but haven’t since attained any wisdom of note. Mostly, I would encourage my younger self to not be such a perfectionist with literature and just write. My biggest regrets are failing to submit to literary journals like Canvas at Indiana University because I held them in such high esteem and held myself in such low esteem that I didn’t think I was worthy. Now they’re gone and I missed the chance to develop as a literary writer, whether they accepted my work or passed on it with stale, dashed-off form letters that are almost always more error-ridden than the cast-aside submissions.

Tell us a story in five words.

Fiction: Baby shoes, never worn

Have you been on a literary pilgrimage?

I’ve frequently sought out literary sites, such as the Thurber House in Columbus, the James Whitcomb Riley mansion in Indianapolis and Jean Shepherd’s childhood home in Hammond, Indiana. I’ve frequented places like the American Writers Museum in Chicago and The Things They Carried exhibit at the National Veterans Art Museum. The closest I probably ever came to a pilgrimage proper was my cross-country road trip to Fort Lewis by Seattle, which I fancied was a modern-day version of On The Road even though it was far less exciting.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

As someone who suffers from Imposter Syndrome, no matter how widely I’ve been published, I probably shouldn’t be proffering advise on this subject. But read, write and read a lot. That’s the ticket. Read widely, and keep trying to incrementally improve. Reading’s the key thing.

What are you reading at the moment?

Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lost short story collection I’d Die for You, Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, Michael DeForge’s Very Casual, Sam Graham-Felsen’s Green, Nathaniel Rich’s King Zeno, Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters, Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. I’m also a professional book reviewer for a national magazine and read tons of books for work.

What is next for you? What plans have you got?

Novels, plays, maybe even screenplays. I’m been slowly but surely working my way up to longer works, and we’ll see how it goes. I’m trying. Everybody’s trying.

Pantry Prose: The Young Man and the Sand (a contemporary homage to Ernest Hemingway) by Joseph S. Pete

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