by Juan Sandoval
Operating as an important figure in San Antonio since his arrival in 1977, Bryce Milligan is the epitome of a renaissance man and an advocate of the arts. Milligan’s works cover poetry and folk music as well as children’s literature and historical fiction. When he’s not writing an initial draft on a yellow pad, he’s taking a trip down Highway 281, brainstorming a new poem. Additionally, Milligan runs his own publishing press, Wings Press, in which he aids ambitious young artists and established artists alike achieve publication and contribute their works to the world of literature. Milligan has also functioned as an outstanding advocate for the attention to latino/a literature in the literary canon. His efforts were so influential that he himself played a part in the creation of what would become the San Antonio Inter-American book fair, a staple in San Antonio’s literary scene. With such achievements, I was very excited at the thought of interviewing Mr. Milligan on his thoughts, experiences and plans as a writer and came away from the experience with a new understanding of what it is to live and breathe literature.
Juan Sandoval: What was your initial inspiration to become a writer?
Bryce Milligan: Undoubtedly it was reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at an early age. My mother aloud to me as a young child, and after she had finished Tom Sawyer, she launched into Huckleberry Finn – but she stopped dead after a few pages and said, “Oh, there’s a dirty word.” This was when I was in second grade, and I spent the rest of grade school struggling through that book, then re-reading it several times. Eventually I sort of became Huck, but Twain’s writing about the river was so beautiful, and his analysis of the human side of the historical situation was so moving, well, I wanted to do that.
The other thing that I remember early on was listening to a transistor radio late at night, hearing the folk music of the late 50s and early 60s, the blues, and early rock & roll. I used those tunes to make up my own songs. We had “show & tell” sessions all the way to fifth grade, and kids would stand up and sing the latest Beatles song. I would stand up and sing a Beatles tune with my own lyrics.
Another thing was that my mother made me memorize chunks of the King James Bible. I grew up Baptist in Dallas, and we had a preacher who quoted from both the Bible and Paradise Lost interchangeably. I loved it.
Finally, someone left an Oscar Williams anthology of poetry in the back of my father’s car. It was a huge thing, with poetry from Donne to Ezra Pound, with an essay about each poem. That hooked me. I began writing formal poems the summer of sixth grade and never looked back.
JS: What are your ideal conditions to write in? Do you have a ritual of any kind that helps put you in the right mindset?
BM: I write different things under different conditions. I write a lot of the first drafts of my poems while driving, especially if I’m on a small highway and alone. This doesn’t work in high traffic! The last few years I had to drive to Dallas up 281 a couple of times a month – short runs, up and back – and I wrote at least two or three poems on each leg of the trip. Most of those get trashed immediately but quite a few survived the revision process and have been published. A lot of them are in my next book, with the perhaps unsurprising title Take to the Highway: Arabesques for Travelers. It will be published in September by West End Press.
I write first drafts and generally first revisions of my poems and songs by hand. I generally use a yellow pad – regular size, not legal – using a Waterman ballpoint that I’ve had for about 25 years. After the third draft, they go into the computer. If they survive beyond that, and sometimes my poems will go 30 or more drafts, I start showing them to people whose opinion I respect. A little feedback never hurts. It doesn’t matter so much whether they like a poem or don’t. What matters is how they understand it. That can be very revealing and will show whether your intent, your imagery, your symbolism translated into something meaningful for another reader.
Fiction and essays I write directly on the computer. Essays I revise twice and then publish. Fiction takes a lot longer, and the revision process is too often disorderly. I tend to revise fiction while I’m writing, so it is hard to say that there are “x” number of drafts.
I like elevation. My study is on the second floor of an old carriage house and I look directly into the canopy of a couple of pecan trees. If I am writing in the morning, I generally have music in the background, but music that is so familiar that it does not overly engage me. It varies from Beethoven’s string quartets to Villalobos guitar pieces to Jefferson Airplane or Buffalo Springfield.
I write best In the morning, but I do not have regular hours unless I’m working on a serious piece of fiction. In that case, I have to clear the decks of pretty much everything – editing projects, design work, whatever – and work on nothing else at least three to five hours a day, every day. Otherwise, the story will dry up.
JS: Out of everything you do, poetry, songwriting, and story writing, which is the most difficult, and why?
BM: Fiction is the hardest to find the time to write. Poetry is the hardest to do well. Songwriting is what I think I do best, perhaps because when it happens it happens easily. But I don’t write as many songs as I once did.
JS: For many, historical fiction seems paradoxical; what about this genre interests you and what difficulties existed in crafting those stories?
BM: I love history. Not just facts and dates, but the way people lived in past eras. Right now I’m working on a novel about a 15-year-old girl who lived in Ur in 2300 BCE. She was a real person. Enheduanna was the first person we know by name to call herself a writer. She was being taught as a classic in Babylon a thousand years after her death, and we still have a couple of thousand lines of poetry by her. I had to learn Sumerian (her language) and cuneiform in order to read her work in the original. But the real trick is learning so much about a time period and a culture – and your character — that you can write about it without constantly having to fact-check yourself. When you really go deep, it is almost hallucinogenic. Then there is the revising, fact checking, world-building almost the way you would in a fantasy setting. All that is done stone cold.
JS: How has being an editor changed you as a writer?
BM: It has given me a tremendous respect for other people’s creativity, craft, and obsessions. I learn a great deal from reading – and correcting – other people’s work. You have to be pretty sure of yourself before you can tell another writer that he or she made an error, or that something needs to be more coherent, etc. So that makes you examine your own skills every single time.
JS: Which book do you believe every writer should read and what could said book teach someone about being a storyteller in general?
BM: There are too many good books to answer that in a meaningful way. Besides, everyone responds differently to different books and different kinds of books. I would recommend Tolkien – he had a huge influence on my life. But not every reader sees what I saw in those books. I would recommend Beowulf and Dante and Shakespeare and Tennyson and Jose Marti and Ruben Dario and Dumas and Dickens and Hemmingway . . . no end, not forgetting that one always needs to read one’s contemporaries, both within and outside of one’s personal cultural comfort zone.
When I have creative writing students, I tell them that the best thing that they can do is to read everything – great books of all sorts, old literature and new literature, lots of history, technical manuals and popular magazines, good newspapers, etc. And ask questions, talk to people, listen to their voices. Given the age we live in, I also stress that no 21st century writer worth his or her salt is likely to succeed without a working knowledge of calculus, basic physics, chemistry and astronomy. Reading popular science books is de rigueur, whether you are writing poetry or fantasy – you need to know how the world actually works.
If I had to recommend one book on craft, it would be John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. Nothing better in the field, so far as I’m concerned.
JS: As a literary advocate, you’ve done a great deal for the world of literature with the creation of what became the San Antonio Inter-American book fair and literary festival just being one of them. With that said, what would you recommend others do in the advocacy of literary appreciation?
BM: Look at it this way. If you want to have readers for your work, then they need to be able to read and appreciate what you write. So first and foremost is advocating for literacy. Everyone can do that – all you have to do is think about who you vote for. But advocacy in general is a response to what you see in the world that you think you can help to make better in some way. Back in the 80s, there was tremendous resistance to using multicultural literature in the classroom. But I found Chicano, Native, Black, Latin American literatures fascinating, very valuable voices that needed to be heard. So I reviewed those authors in my column at the Express-News; I published it in literary magazines I created and later in the press that I have run for 20 years; I promoted it by creating book fairs and other events that focused on multicultural literature in particular, and alternative literatures in general. Most of that literature came from the small and independent presses, so I have always tried to support them as well.
JS: How has being a publisher changed you as a writer?
BM: Well, I would have been a much more prolific writer had I not edited, designed, published and promoted a couple of hundred books by other people. On the other hand, I think that experience has made me a much better critic of my own work. It’s not like just sitting down and reading a book and saying, hmm, I think I could have done that. It is taking a manuscript apart line by line, often word by word, thinking about whether the author has actually done his or her best to convey his or her vision to the reader.
I think of what I do in many ways as “necessary work.”
JS: Lastly, what would you tell a writer with doubts about their place in a society that devalues them in favor of those who can contribute to society in more “traditional” ways?
BM: Boy, that is a knife with a lot of edges. Writing can be therapy for a lot of things, but to be a writer is a different thing. You know that slogan, “Su voto es su voz”? For the writer, su voz es su voz. Writing is how you claim your place in the world, how you give value to what the world thinks is worthless, how you change what needs changing. I value both revolution and tradition. Rules can be beautiful, but so can breaking them. In the case of literature, writing within established forms or writing with no form at all both require a lot of acquired expertise to be truly expressive. Of course, if one has something to say, one should say it. But there’s the rub, to quote Hamlet. You want to say it in the most powerful, most efficacious way possible, otherwise you’ll just be making noise. To do that, you have to work at your craft. You have to balance being true to your own vision with the ability to listen to the opinions of others about your work. Teachers and mentors are very helpful but still nothing is more important than reading, deep and wide, and then sitting down and getting words on paper. I’ve known several exceptional writers who were autodidacts, who educated themselves while in prison or while working at menial jobs.
True artists are so captured by their own creative vision that they have no choice but to try and express it, whether society approves or not, whether family approves or not. It can be a very difficult road, but a very fulfilling one. On the other hand, many very fine artist and writers have worked their entire lives as teachers or insurance salesmen or car mechanics and still produced great work. Wallace Stevens is a great example of that. He was an insurance “executive” – meaning that he had a desk job – and he wrote most of his great poems in his head while walking home from work, or so the myth goes. William Carlos Williams was a full–time doctor. I don’t know exactly how that works, but I know it can be done.
Born in Dallas, Texas, Bryce Milligan has lived in San Antonio since 1977. Among other things, he has been a folksinger, a maker of guitars, drums and dulcimers, a carpenter, a rare book bibliographer and appraiser, a college English and creative writing instructor, a poet-in-the-schools, an arts administrator, a book and magazine editor, a book designer, and a publisher. As a writer, he has been a newspaper columnist, a freelance journalist, a scholar, a novelist, a poet, a playwright, and an essayist.
Milligan’s literary papers are archived at the San Antonio Authors Collection of the University of Texas at San Antonio, Institute of Texan Cultures.