We at Long Shot Books are thrilled to share this interview with multi-talented wordsmith, Max Orkis. It was a pleasure and a great opportunity to delve a little deeper into this writing, which is always enjoyable. Check the interview out and be sure to click the links below to find him across the world wide web!
How has teaching affected you as a writer?
Teaching got me closer to writing for a living. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I scribbled as a kid and kept soiling paper, as the Russian expression goes, well into my 20s — mostly because it came to me naturally as opposed to by virtue of conscious choice or work ethic, which I didn’t develop until I was in my 30s.
Before I became a teacher, I was pretty directionless. In college, I initially majored in Journalism but soon got bored of it because I found it limiting in terms of content and form. Translation: I was lazy and arrogant (cause and effect). I then took a whole bunch of Creative Writing, French, and History, and subsequently, double-majored in French Language and Lit and Int’l Relations, of all things. I still don’t know what the fuck I was thinking career-wise. I was just kind of drifting along, partying, happy to be learning interesting stuff, to get to live in Paris for a year, and unconcerned about future employment. It was the 90s, and getting a stupid office job was easy (I got fired a lot, too). I don’t think the possibility of doing what I liked for work ever occurred to me. I graduated right after 9/11, and the only gig I could land was at a hotel.
Long story short, I went to grad school because I didn’t have anything more worthwhile to do with my life. The path of least resistance was Int’l Relations. When I finished grad school, I was in my late 20s and about to start a family, which meant I couldn’t avoid adulting any longer. But I got into a PhD program anyway, on a topic combining PoliSci and Russian literature, and immediately quit. There was little money in that, and I couldn’t bear the thought of having to do PoliSci for another four years and thereafter. On a hunch, I went back to school. I figured I would have ended up teaching after my dissertation anyway, so I might as well pick the subject matter I actually loved — language. That turned out to be my eureka moment and teaching English — a revelation. I enjoyed the process and the material. I essentially got to hang out and talk about language all day, so I kept doing it for the better part of my 30s. At last, mentally, I was where I was supposed to be. I didn’t have to force myself to schlep to the office to watch the clock. Suddenly, there weren’t enough hours in a day.
Meanwhile, my writing was taking shape, and working directly with language as a teacher helped shape it. For me, reading and writing have always been, to a large extent, about language. I realized I could live and write deliberately, like I mean it, in a rigorous, systematic, disciplined way. For most of my 30s, I lived in Zurich (by way of grad school in Amsterdam), where I was super lucky to join a wonderful crit group and learn from immensely talented writers, most of whom were more experienced than me. That’s also where my switch from Russian to English took place. I’d been in Russian poetry mode for a while, and my first mentors, who believed in me as a writer, are Russian speakers. Teaching inspired me to write in English more. I think I’d found myself as a writer through teaching English, and by the time I came back to California, I had stuff published, which helped me get my first writing gig.
Can we get a brief synopsis of your screenplay about COVID?
I’m not sure it’s appropriate for me to pitch my movie script in public because I’m starting to submit it and would like to avoid spoilers, but I can give you a taste. “Shelter in Place” is an irreverent feature-length comedy about a family's struggles and triumphs in the time of COVID.
When Alex closes his hair salon due to COVID, he takes extreme measures to avoid bankruptcy. The situation isn't helping his wife's 10-year itch or their daughter's growing pains, and all three must make sacrifices to survive lockdown as a family.
It’s a work in progress (i.e. I suck donkey balls at writing loglines). Just because I’m serious about writing and people pay me to do it doesn’t mean I’m any good at it. There. Glad we got that out of the way.
You've worked with writing and narrative design for video games. What's the difference, if there is one, in writing for mobile gaming as opposed to the printed word?
I love writing for games. I get to work with story and character and write dialogue, puns, jokes. World-building is fun. It all feeds into my own writing. In any case, it’s great practice. For example, just recently, I got paid to pitch a narrative to a pretty prominent studio. Most important, literally millions of players read and maybe even enjoy my work. At the same time, I don’t want to be typecast as a game writer, which is why I sometimes seek out gigs in other spaces, just to shake things up. Versatility can and often does translate into employability.
I guess the main difference between writing for games (or any other industry) and working on my own stories and poems is — in one scenario, you’re a writer, while in the other, you’re an author. As a writer, you come up with the content the project requires, and ideally, your words help your employer make money. As an author, you have the freedom to write whatever you want, but there’s very little money in it for you, at least most of the time. It’s a labor of love, and the main challenge is to have the discipline to keep at it on top of everything else going on in your life.
Then there’s the day-to-day. Just like in other jobs, when you’re writing professionally, there are deadlines. The gaming industry is notorious for being particularly brutal. Content is live 24/7 and needs constant tending to, while the pace can be neck-breaking. A couple of employers ago, I ended up burning out — that’s why I’ve been working as a writer in the food space at my main job and taking part-time game projects on the side. Both gigs are fun, and it’s easier to make time for my own writing this way. As an author, though, I don’t have release schedules or editorial calendars, probably because I’m not yet at a level where money’s at stake. As soon as pay comes into play, so does a certain amount of stress.
Collaboration is a big part of writing for games. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and learn from talented writers (I’m generally very much an interpersonal learner, to use teacher-speak). Being an author can, conversely, be pretty lonely business. Again, I’m fortunate to have writer friends (some of whom I met through game jobs) I can turn to for feedback and often get it. At work, though, review and critique are often built into the production pipeline (analyzing live data can also give you an idea of how your writing is performing), which isn’t the only advantage of writing professionally. Besides other writers and editors, I get to kick it with designers, artists, engineers, translators, and other kinds of cool, creative colleagues. I’m also proud to say I’ve discovered and hired talent, but I’ve had to reject and even fire people, too, which I didn’t enjoy. Sometimes, especially in entertainment, there are also too many egos, too many cooks, not to mention micromanagement and politics. As an author, I don’t have to worry about any of that.
Then, of course, there’s technical stuff. Whereas as an author you can write, say, the next great American novel, in games, more often than not, you’re going to find yourself working with genre (can there be a genre, cartoony great American novel?). If you’re a poet or an author of literary prose, your audience consists of other writers. When you’re writing games, the demographic you target is going to be even more specific, and most of these people aren’t going to be avid readers. Furthermore, short stories, mobile games and, say, poems all represent disparate formats, and each breaks down into subcategories. Depending on what kind of game and its parts we’re talking about, there are your basic specs, which can include anything from line, word, and character counts to IP-specific characterization to structure, to name just a few considerations. Another major distinction between print media and games is the necessity to integrate narrative and gameplay, and ultimately, monetization. On top of the actual story (some games don’t have any), writers have to come up with a whole bunch of other content, in-game text, and collateral. For example, there are all manner of blurbs, item descriptions for in-app purchases, push notifications, microcopy like nomenclature and UI buttons, ads and other kinds of marketing copy, not to mention tutorials, social media posts, wiki entries, blogs, voice and style manuals, outlines, “how to” sections, and other ditties. Plus, let’s not forget the more mundane aspects of working in a game studio like the software you use or the fairly complex production process, its various facets, and where your role fits in. Finally, once you’ve published a piece of flash fiction, for instance, in a print journal, you can’t update it with the next build the way you do a live game. As the Russian saying goes, what’s printed in paperbacks can’t be chopped away with an axe (my translation).
Your nonfiction piece, "In Passing," (Link below.) uses words to give the reader a sense of commotion and movement. Would you say your prose benefits from skills you've developed as a poet?
Yes, definitely — in fact, peers have called this and some other pieces of mine prose poetry. As you probably know by now, I’m all about language. Nobokov and James Joyce are among my favorite writers. To me, language, including the written word, especially the kind with a heartbeat, like a literary text, is, to a large extent, about rhythmic breath. It’s impossible to speak or to live without breathing. By transitive property, words (thoughts — cogito ergo sum) are life, kind of like in the biblical metaphor: God is the word, and God is everything, so words are everything, or maybe everything is made of words. I think I’ve just confused myself, but again, words are life.
Back in the day, priests would read scripture out loud to their flock because, in different eras and places, people were mostly illiterate. Hence “read,” which comes from a Saxon word, whose one meaning is fossilized in the German “reden,” “to talk.” Poetry, of course, also used to be a form of performance art. “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” begin with the word “sing,” an activity impossible without rhythmic breathing. Homer is said to have lived during the dark ages when writing had been lost. Hence the spoken word tradition in poetry. That’s also why epic poetry was performed during festivals. So, again, poetry is song, which, like prayer, is breath, which is life, and I suppose the point of this whole spiel is I’m all about language because it’s a way (the way?) to lend a piece of prose breath and a heartbeat.
All of this is to say I’m not sure the word “skill” applies to poetry. At least not exactly the way it does to prose. In other words, to me, skill is more about having the type of philosophical ideas I’ve been rambling on about inform my writing so as to make it bold and every word deliberate.
Do you have a favorite medium to work in?
If by “medium” you mean prose, poems, screenwriting, etc., I don’t think I have a favorite. I like to mix it up. Poems kind of come to me on their own. I don’t really control it, nor do I think I should. Flash fiction or short stories are more like projects. Flash fiction is sort of in between poems and short stories. For the latter, I’ll write multiple drafts based on peer feedback. Sometimes, I’ll keep a piece of prose or a poem in the drawer for years, then dust it off and revise if I feel I’m ready for it. Screenplays are longer projects. You have to research, outline, and keep showing up for work, whether you feel like it or not (I’m more of an outliner as opposed to a pantser). I’ve been on a screenwriting kick again lately. I’m also working on a picture book at the moment, and I started writing a novel I’d been sitting on for years, then paused — mainly because I wanted to write a screenplay, which I did, and because I’m not sure whether the novel is actually a TV mini-series. That’s what’s in the back of my head right now, among other writerly shit. Often, I’ll finish part of one project, send it off for crit, then, while I’m waiting for feedback, switch over to another project — and so on.
What was the impetus to frame "A Sunset in the Sunset" (link below) around the Pink Floyd song, "Shine On You Crazy Diamond"?
Well, the song is essentially a tribute to Syd Barrett, who had to leave the band because his drug use had been affecting his mental health and ability to perform as a musician. One can interpret what takes place in my story as a hallucination, possibly induced by substance abuse and/or insanity. I certainly intended for the piece to have a sort of dream-like quality to it. Also, the sun and the many themes it associates with is a leitmotif in the story, and it’s easy, I think, to make the connection between that and the lyrics in the song. I mean, the sun is Pink Floyd’s simile for Syd Barrett. Of course, I feel it works structurally by way of counterpoint (I hope I’m using the term correctly) — I wove in phrases from the song throughout the piece, which kind of develops at the same pace as the music, and those lines interplay with their immediate contexts in the story. I also meant to give the prose more texture by adding another sensory experience — a soundtrack (I’m not sure I used the elusive “texture” correctly). In other words, there was a lot of weaving involved. “Text” and “textile” are related, so writing naturally has to do with fabric and weaving.
Some of your poems are published in both English and Russian. Do you have a preferred language to write them in or for them to be read in?
That’s not actually the case. One of my stories, “Disappearing Acts,” (Link below.) initially came out in Russian — in Russia. Afterwards, I translated it into English, and my fabulous friend Jill Marsh published it as a podcast (spoken word tradition) in her British writerly ezine Words with JAM (the story has never been published in North America, so those rights are still up for grabs — if anyone wants to snap it up for their mag, wink-wink). As for my poems, I used to read a lot in Russian, so they would come to me in that language during that period. For the past fifteen years, I’ve been working mostly in English, so I’ve been writing my own shit in that language. Of course, Russian poetry has influenced my English poems, particularly style-wise.
"A Sunset in the Sunset": https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1PmcXcWIHR9ZDRkUDU3M3ZTMmFkbnhBNHptNXU0RlVfUkhv/view
Read "A Cryptic Triptych" in Atomic Flyswatter Vol. 1:
Thanks again to Max for the awesome interview and thank you for reading!