Travel to Moldova with John Michael Flynn as he narrates a day with Vasya, a farmer with a passion for good food and drink, and a community that begins at the table in “Hai La Masa” (Issue 6). In this interview, Flynn discusses his influences, writing spaces, and mentors.
A resident of central Virginia, John Michael Flynn is currently an English Language Fellow with the U.S. State Department in Khabarovsk, Russia. His most recent poetry collection, Keepers Meet Questing Eyes (2014) is available from Leaf Garden Press. From 1993-95, he taught at the Balti State Pedagogical University in Moldova, and he’s nurtured a mild obsession with the place ever since.
What inspired you to create this piece? I’m currently living and working in Russia. So, looking back on when I first lived in the former Soviet Union, 20 years ago, specifically in Moldova, I began to think it would be fun to share some first-person accounts of my time there. The idea of the table, which was the theme for Proximity’s sixth issue, also appealed to me. I found it very easy to connect the table to old-world Moldovan culture and lifestyle.
How would you characterize your creative process as you worked on this piece? Slow brew but steady. I had a lot of notes to work with.
What writing or other artistic expression has had a profound impact on your writing? Why? I am fond of all the great Russian writers, from Tolstoy to Lermontov. I’m also big on reading and writing poetry. I write poetry and try to publish it. I also study the Russian language, and others, and I find that classical literature from other countries helps me focus more on the enduring problems of our human predicament, rather than the topical rapidly changing ones.
Where do you create? I can work just about anywhere, but I prefer to be alone and in a sturdy chair at a solid table. I don’t write in cafes surrounded by coffee drinkers, for example. Here, in Russia, I write at my kitchen table. I also like to be near a window when I write. I compose by hand first, and then, in future drafts, begin to type my work. I’m never in a hurry.
What is it about coffee shops — a place so many writers call their office — that you don’t like? I don’t like to work in coffee shops because of my own vanity, I suppose. I like to get up and walk around and stare out windows and do push ups and make a sandwich or a cup of tea at my own pace, in my pajamas maybe, or in shorts on a hot day — I like my privacy. It feeds me as I work. I don’t even like coffee shops, in general, especially those that play music constantly. But this is all vanity and personal preference. When I write, I’m like a squirrel unearthing and burying and organizing his various acorns and nuts — I don’t need or want others to see me. It’s my own quiet happiness.
Who has been influential in your writing/creative work? Why? Mr. Geoffrey Clark is one of my last mentors still alive. Geoff met me when I was in my late teens and now that I’m in my fifties, we are still friends. He writes letters to me. I write back. I feel as if I bring something to his life that he needs. Two other mentors were the late poet laureate of Connecticut, Leo Connellan, who encouraged me to keep writing my poems and believing in myself and not to worry about notoriety. Also, the late poet laureate of Virginia, George Garrett, who was also a fine fiction writer. George took an avuncular interest in me, as well as a lot of other young writers. He was so friendly and cheerful. He helped me. He told me practical things about my writing. He was honest. He wasn’t concerned with fame or notoriety either.
What do you do to help yourself get over a creative block? I don’t believe in creative blocks. I just keep sitting down to write each day. Simply put, some days produce better work than others, and to agonize over a creative block has always struck me as pretentious. I keep many projects going at one time. If I get stuck in one project, I shift to another. There are times when I just sit down to write and I’ve planned on advancing a non-fiction project, but I end up working on a poem, a play, or a novel.
What living writer would you recommend other nonfiction writers read? What titles in particular? Why? I would recommend the Russian poet, currently living in the USA, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. He’s written poetry, prose, songs, and plays. I would also recommend Geoffrey Clark. Neither man is young, but each one is still working, writing, helping others. They have lived a good deal. Such people, not only writers, I find interesting.
What is it about classical literature from other countries that helps you focus on “the enduring problems of our human predicament”? Well, classical lit from other countries helps me to see that the human predicament transcends such topical issues as politics and who is in the headlines or news. The human predicament is what we all share, and it is expressed in different ways in different countries, but there are common links and definitions that transcend borders and the apparel, so to speak, of cultures. Love, death, corruption of the soul, happiness — these are the things that I feel are worth my time as I try to live an examined life. Seeing how characters in literature deal with these issues in their own cultures, helps me deal with them in mine.
We asked John to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer.This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? I wouldn’t mind coming back as a tall, intelligent, perfectly proportioned woman with an enigmatic smile who becomes a movie star. Women of all types intrigue me.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “you know”, “I think so”, “okay.”
What is your greatest extravagance? At this time, living in Russia, I’m one of a smallish amount of city dwellers with a hot water heater in my apartment. This has helped my mood and my health all year because hot water is centrally controlled throughout the city and turned off for no less than a week at a time at various periods.
Which talent would you most like to have? To run, swim, and ski quickly and adeptly.
What is your current state of mind? On the lazily restful side since the sun is shining now and, yesterday, I went fishing all day and caught a pike and, today, being Sunday, I’m feeling fatigued and alone, but not lonely, and don’t mind it at all.
This interview was curated by Erika Williams, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a creative writing student at Ohio University.