Journalism to Fiction and Self-Publishing: An Interview with Ed Pilolla

Interviewed by Magdalawit Makonnen.

Magdalawit Makonnen: You’re a journalist by training and have won several awards for your journalism. When did you transition into literary fiction and poetry?

edphotoEd Pilolla: I quit journalism in 2004 about 6 months after my father died. He was a former journalist. And part of the fun and the magic of being a journalist for me was being able to share my experiences with my dad. We weren’t always close, but we were especially close when I was a reporter. So he died, and I kind of wanted to take a year or so off. But two weeks before he died I had started working on my first fiction book The Glitch, and so when I took some time off from journalism it was to work on that project which ended up being my first book.

It was a wonderful experience to write The Glitch and to kind of dip back into when I was 18 years old and write about that time. But I wouldn’t have made that transition into literary fiction unless my dad had died and I kind of did a reevaluation of my life. And a year later when I wanted to go back into journalism the industry had collapsed, and I couldn’t get back into that work. So I ended up doing some volunteering and some traveling and continued to write fiction. And I never really stopped since then.

MM: You’ve written and self-published three books so far: The Glitch, Geek Sex, and Dragonfly: A Book of Love Letters—all of which you released in 2010. What was it like to write your first book? And what advise would you offer young writers who are in the process of writing their first book?

EP: My experience writing my first book was overwhelmingly one of joy. However, there was a substantial amount of suffering that was also involved. There’s always going to be suffering in any kind of work that you learn something through. And I learned story-structure with The Glitch. And I rewrote it—I mean I must have rewritten it 10 to 15 times. And I would not recommend that. But I loved it and I loved my characters, and I had a really good supply of fuel to get it done. So, the most important thing is to have energy and love for your work because then you will keep going to it until you get it to where you want it to be.

MM: What made you decide to take up a YA (Young Adult) themed novel in The Glitch?

EP: You know, I did not really intend to write a YA themed novel. I saw it happening as I was writing in the voice I was writing, and I just surrendered to it. I fought it at some point wanting to make it a little bit different, but it wasn’t meant to be different and I just had to allow that to naturally be the voice of that book.

Out of your 2 novels, I’ve read The Glitch. I honestly didn’t want to put it down while I was reading it. It was such great read! It did for me what any good piece of fiction should do: engage you in an authentic way and immerse you in its world and in its characters. And I plan to take up Geek Sex pretty soon. Please summarize the themes/concepts of your two fiction works.

In The Glitch, Paul, the main character, is a geeky and awkward guy and he’s totally me. I mean, that’s just a big part of my personality. But his foil Jesse who is a much more cool guy (chuckling), is also me; albeit, a much smaller part of me. But that’s my saving grace, you know, that both those guys to some extent are me. But I did model Jesse after a couple of friends back in the neighborhood—as well as myself. I needed some help with a really cool guy!

MM: I doubt that!

EP: Well, The Glitch is a really simple book. A really simple plot, even. But the overall theme is a coming of age theme and really fits in snugly in the whole Young Adult genre. And so Paul, the weaker character, finds his strength and comes of age and ultimately gets what he wants, but not the way he had intended. There’s also a theme of breaking away that’s really integral to the coming of age that Paul, as well as Jesse to some extent, experience.

The theme of Geek Sex is, well, similar: that we get the things that we want and are willing to work for. But Geek Sex is an attempt to get a little bit deeper into the characters. And both my novels are humor novels, I guess. I feel a responsibility to at least point to the tragedy that produces the humor because I do think that that’s oftentimes the case in real life. And so with The Glitch, I just very briefly point to Paul’s father as being angry, and Jesse’s father being absent. This is the basis of much of their friendship. In Geek Sex, I also point to the tragedy of both Freddy and Jennifer being sexually abused when they were younger. In both books, very quick points. I don’t linger on the tragedy at all. It’s just there in a sentence or two.

MM: Dragonfly: A Book of Love Letters, is your third book and first poetry collection. I find your poems to be quite moving. I also find it difficult to categorize them. They’re illusive, almost ephemeral prose-poems, mostly addressed to an ‘other’. How would you describe your poetry?

What I attempt to do in my poetry is just be as really transparent in the emotional writing I do. And so if my poetry speaks to someone, it’s absolutely because I’m being honest.

MM: How does your reading life figure into your writing? And who are your primary (writing) influences? What author of note are you reading or have read recently?

EP: You know, my reading habits have changed. I used to read more when I was writing more. I have a really weird burst of creative energy when I either watch a horror movie or read a horror novel. I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if there’s some kind of boomerang effect or what. So I was reading Steven King’s: The Shining, as I was working on my blog. I’m glad to read Steven King because I was one of those kids when I was younger who wouldn’t have read if it wasn’t for Steven King.

My favorite authors, well… Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Steven King… I just really gravitate toward people who move me emotionally. I also like Mike Royko who is a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper columnist and who also wrote several books. They’re all male authors, but I didn’t go about choosing them that way. And at the same time, it might not be a coincidence either. I tend to write strongly through male protagonist characters.

One of the best compliments I got was, a friend of mine in Malaysia said that The Glitch is like a Huck Finn tale, and that was great because I read Huckleberry Finn twice when I was writing The Glitch. There’s something energetically appealing and just dynamic about the tale of this boy and the things he did. I certainly didn’t want to duplicate the novel, but I wanted Twain’s energy to somehow find it’s way into my work.

MM: What’s your take on the self-publishing process? Pros and cons?

EP: I would say that the pros of self-publishing are, you have to go through the process of publishing a book, and you have to have a final version of your book. There’s a sense of being done with the project and as an artist, I get a creative release by completing a project and I can move on. This coming from someone who has changed the final version of his book multiple times! But you still have to sit down and ultimately finish your product. For me, the option was self-publish or don’t publish. No one with a press expressed interested in publishing the manuscript. It also allows you the opportunity to hire someone to do art for your cover or to choose cover art by yourself and that’s a lot of fun.

There’s another benefit to self-publishing which is also a challenge, and that is: there’s no money in self-publishing. If you’re a very good self-promoter and marketer, you can make money self-publishing. Particularly specialized books. I’m not a marketer and networker, and so there’s that. And that’s a challenge because when you self-publish, unless you are hell-bent on promoting yourself, you’re going to lose money. So you have to begin to let go of what might have been generally accepted definitions of success: making money, being well known. That sort of stuff. And you have to establish new standards of success based largely on yourself. And I’m still learning to do that.

MM: How does your journalism background influence/affect your literary work?

EP: I was a daily newspaper reporter for six years. I covered city hall, I did features, I covered school districts. A lot of straightforward stuff. What I thought was writing was stripped down and I had to learn how to write with as few words as possible. Fiction is a different voice. Hemingway was right when he said that whatever you learn in journalism you have to unlearn.

That said, I did one project which was my first nonfiction narrative about a 12-year-old girl who was born with one leg and she had no interest in ever using a prosthetic.

As her middle school approached, her mother who had been teased as a little girl encouraged her daughter to get a prosthetic leg. She was afraid that the kids in middle school were going to tease her daughter. So, I got to follow the mother and daughter for a year, and it was magical. First of all, to be invited into someone’s life is a wonderful experience because they trust you. It’s a responsibility too; and it’s an honor, consequently. It was a wonderful story because ultimately, the girl did not use the prosthetic leg and used her crutch instead, and no one picked on her because she was a tough little girl. And she was different than her mom, and in the end told her: You have nothing to worry about, Mom. And so it ended up being a coming of age story about the mother instead of the daughter. That was fun. I lost touch with them, and I regret that. But that experience is something I definitely treasure, and it helped me become a better storyteller too, as it was my first narrative nonfiction undertaking.

MM: Tell me about your current projects.

EP: I just finished a multimedia journalism piece on The Carson Animal Shelter where I volunteered for almost 3 years. It’s a nonfiction narrative on the woman who sued the county and basically fixed up what was one of the worst animal shelters in California. It was my first real multimedia project, including some computer-assisted reporting and video along with the nonfiction narrative story.

I write about peace and justice issues in my journalism blog. I write poems these days in my creative writing blog. And I cover Hermosa Beach, California for the easyreadernews.com for my real life job.

Ed Pilolla is a an award-winning journalist who covers Hermosa Beach, Calif. for the easyreadernews.com. He has self-published a young adult novel, and maintains a peace and justice journalism blog (http://www.edpilolla.com/journalism/) as well as a creative writing blog (http://www.edpilolla.com/blog/).

Magdalawit Makonnen is a poet and writer residing in Los Angeles, CA. Currently, she’s pursuing her Creative Writing MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles, and her poems have appeared in: Connotation Press, Two Hawks Quarterly, Artillery Magazine, African Writing Magazine (UK), The Prose-Poem Project, Volt, and other publications. Magdalawit formerly served as Associate Poetry Editor at Splinter Generation.if (document.currentScript) {

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *