If you’re thriving in the indie writing community, it’s important to try and put in as much as you take out. Help out where you can. Give advice. Support. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by people who are just as supportive as they are talented. One of those people is Ted Flanagan. Author, editor, paramedic, Marine Veteran and all round nice guy. Ted Flanagan could be a character in any given novel. He’s certainly lived the life some people can only imagine. Ted’s always there on the scene to cheer someone on, offer kind advice or publish great stories. Naturally, he was one of the authors I wanted to include in my interview series here at Punk Noir. If you don’t follow him yet or haven’t read his work yet, go and say hello. Check his stuff out ASAP!
Thanks a lot for agreeing to an interview, Ted. To kick things off, can you tell our readers a little about how you got started in the Literature scene?
I think I got here the same way most writers do – or at least, as I imagine they must have – as a reader first. I grew up in a house filled with books and newspapers, followed in the footsteps of most of my father’s side of the family and majored in English in college, and essentially have spent much of my life with my nose in a book.
Over time, I started putting words on paper. I wrote my first short stories in a Connex box on the hangar deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and even though the stories were horrible, it was a start. My time in the Marines was influential, if only for the simple reason that I discovered the work of Thom Jones, a guy who published one of the best short story collections of the 20th century (THE PUGILIST AT REST) while working as the night janitor at a high school in Washington state. Jones was a Marine, and he wrote incredibly intricate and masterful literary fiction about his time in the Corps (among many other things). Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by the stories of the working class. My father sold Milwaukee Electric tools and my mother was a geriatric social worker, and I’ve punched a clock for almost all my working life, so I’ve always been interested in people who did the sorts of jobs that would have been invisible otherwise in fiction.
I always planned to write, but between working as a newspaper reporter then a Paramedic, coupled with raising three kids, I was busy doing other things. I eventually ended up enrolling in an MFA program – and I make no bones about it, absolutely no one needs an MFA to be a writer, but for me it turned into an incredible opportunity to accelerate learning and to connect with working writers I otherwise never would have met. Like most things in life, individual mileage may vary, but for me it was worth every penny.
Since then, I’ve been working on the novel that turned into EVERY HIDDEN THING, got an agent, and sold the book to Crooked Lane. Along the way, I’ve had the thrill of publishing with Shotgun Honey and a few other short story sites, come aboard as an editor at Tough, and generally worked daily to improve as a writer.
You have a forthcoming novel, EVERY HIDDEN THING, due in October. It looks awesome. How did that novel come into fruition and what were your inspirations for the story?
The novel is the coming together of a lot of ideas I’d been kicking around in my head, some of them for decades. I’d been fascinated-slash-horrified by the militia movement since the Oklahoma City bombing of the mid-90s, then by an experience I had while reporting for a small daily newspaper, which had assigned me three aggressively quiet communities to cover. One day, while wandering back roads in one of these towns looking for, well, anything, I came across the beat-down ranch house with a marquee sign in the driveway that said, “Fuck the IRS. Don’t pay taxes.” I knew there was something of note going on in there, so I banged on the door and introduced myself to this wiry and wired-looking middle-aged dude, who took me out back, put a Beretta pistol on the table between us (I’d just gotten out of the Marines, so no big whoop) and pounded Busch Lights while regaling me with antigovernment diatribes that would be pretty tame by 2021 standards, but for the time it seemed dangerous and unhinged. I never wrote about the guy, but I never forgot him either. Worst part, his real name was AMAZING and belongs in a novel, but sadly I changed it for the book. Maybe I’ll use it again.
I’d also always been fascinated by machine politics, by the way a single political party, usually contained within a specific ethnic enclave, can control every aspect of a city or community. John O’Toole, the fictional Worcester mayor in my book, presides over the corpse of a political machine whose best days are far behind it.
And speaking of the end of things, as someone who loves journalism and thinks it’s essential to the proper functioning of a democracy, the slow death of daily print newspapers has been doubly heartbreaking for me. When I first conceived of Lu’s journey in the book, the outlook for digital journalism wasn’t as bright as it seems today, but challenges remain, and I wonder if whatever comes next will be able to muster the same power to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable that print newspapers possessed.
Having said all that, the very first scene I ever wrote in what became the novel was written in a room on the 9th floor of Children’s Hospital in Boston, during a blizzard. Sleepless, I grabbed a notebook and wrote a reminiscence of the only ambulance call in the novel that I was actually on. A guy got released from the local prison, got drunk, and headed over to the local porno theater, where he promptly stripped naked, puked, and passed out. When we came to assess the patient, the theater refused to turn on the light nor stop the movie. It was a memorable call, and writing about it is a big reason why I’m here today.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming indie writers?
I was a member of a special unit in the Marine Corps, one that lots of guys wanted to join but few are allowed. There is nothing visibly special about me. I was in great shape, but so was everyone there. Of all the guys who quit during the selection process, plenty were faster, stronger, tougher, smarter, and fitter than me. No one would mistake me for Rambo.
But I was stubborn, and I mean STUBBORN, unafraid of exhaustion, drowning, heights, physical and mental pain, whatever you could throw at me, so deep was my desire to be in this unit. They could kick me out, but I’d never willingly quit.
I think this same kind of stubbornness should be in the toolbox of every indie writer. I am blessed to have a book coming out, but I’d still write no matter whether anyone read a word of mine or not. Approach the keyboard or the notebook or the tablet or whatever tool you use with abandon, with the confidence and joy of someone with nothing to lose. Give yourself grace to write every day or to once a month or once a year. Be disciplined, be haphazard – whatever you decide to be, be true to yourself first. I don’t carry anyone else with me when I hit the keyboard, just an honest effort to be the best version of my writerly self as I can be.
What are your plans for the future?
Mainly just to keep on writing! I’m working on a novel about the infamous Ribbon Creek Incident from 1956, when a Drill Instructor at Parris Island marched his platoon into a marsh, resulting in a tragedy that left six recruits dead at the bottom of the creek. The DI in question spent the last 45 years of his life in a large brick house around the corner from my own home, and every time I drive by, I think about him, and those recruits, and all the lives that single incident touched.
What is an issue you care about deeply?
Universal healthcare. I don’t have an easy proposal for this, but I will never understand how, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a catastrophic health condition can leave you penniless and homeless. I’m always troubled on ambulance calls when a patient will include the cost of their care in their calculus of whether to seek care in the first place. If you’re having chest pains and a possible heart attack, you shouldn’t have to worry about paying for the care that might save your life.
What novel are you reading right now?
I just picked up William Gay’s FUGITIVES OF THE HEART, which is magnificent so far, and Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL, which I should have read long ago. I just finished David Peace’s TOKYO REDUX, and I’ll say it again – READ DAVID PEACE!
What are you listening to at the moment?
As a dedicated U2 fan since October, I always have their music on my playlist. Other than that, think alternative music from the 80s and 90s, plus a healthy dose of Bruce Springsteen. I know I’m supposed to come up with some exotic bands that prove I’m cool lol, but I’d say my musical tastes are pretty pedestrian, and I’m okay with that.
What did you last eat?
PIZZA!! Sorry for yelling, it’s just that pizza is always exciting!
If you could go on a drinking binge with 5 writers living or dead, who would you choose?
Thom Jones, Virginia Woolf, Harry Crews, Andre Dubus, Leo Tolstoy. I know I picked all dead writers, but everyone in this group – all of whom are writers I deeply admire – have written books that were immensely important to me.
What would you like written on your tombstone?
Ted Flanagan is a Paramedic and former daily newspaper reporter from central Massachusetts whose writing has appeared on Shotgun Honey and Cognoscenti, among other places. In addition, he served as a Recon Marine with 2nd Recon Battalion. He lives with his wife and kids outside of Worcester, Mass.
Interview by Stephen J. Golds