Resident Author: R.C. Goodwin on ‘The Stephen Hawking Death Row Fan Club’ (Q&A)

Today, I’m joined in virtual companionship by R.C. Goodwin.

Goodwin is the award-winning author of The Stephen Hawking Death Row Fan Club: Six Stories and a Novella (Langdon Street Press). He graduated from Yale with a degree in history, attended medical school in Dublin, and completed an internship and psychiatric residency in Connecticut. Goodwin has worked in private practice, jails and prisons, a facility for the criminally insane, and the counseling center at a large university. To date he has had seven short stories publishes; three have won literary competitions. The Stephen Hawking Death Row Fan Club is his first book of fiction.

r-c-goodwin
Author R.C. Goodwin.

Praise for The Stephen Hawking Death Row Fan Club:

“Goodwin’s potent debut drama is a series of stories about the U.S. rehabilitation system and how criminal acts affect the lives of criminals and victims alike … a collection of prison-centric stories that astonishes with its vibrancy and strong characters.”—Kirkus Reviews

“This is storytelling at its finest and I found myself truly caring about some of these characters, even the ones who were guilty of committing heinous crimes. Goodwin gives each character and story a human element that allows the reader to slip into the story in a way that few authors can achieve … ‘The Stephen Hawking Death Row Fan Club’ is a very strong short story collection that is sure to satisfy any reader.”—Examiner.com

From the publisher:

A stalker lets us glimpse into the world of his compulsions.
A woman, confronting her convicted rapist, becomes obsessed with finding a way to kill him.
A neo-nazi begins to see beyond the hate and violence on which he has based his life.

How do people wind up in prison?
Once there, can they change?
What’s the aftermath of a violent assault on victims and their families?
What kind of a toll do jails and prisons take on those who work there?

These are a few of the questions confronted by the characters in R.C. Goodwin’s collection of stories, The Stephen Hawking Death Row Fan Club. The questions don’t make for easy answers, and the characters don’t fall into clear-cut categories.

Taken together, the stories illuminate some of society’s darkest corners. Goodwin’s experience practicing psychiatry in correctional settings for over twenty years adds depth and authenticity to them. His stories offer unexpected turns and endings, as well as surprising doses of gallows humor.

the-stephen-hawking-death-row-fan-club

Now R.C. Goodwin sheds light on the inspiration and ideas that inform his debut collection …

John Valeri: What inspired you to write The Stephen Hawking Death Row Fan Club – and what do you hope this collection achieves when taken as a whole?

R.C. Goodwin: The title story, the first one I wrote, was loosely based on an incident in a maximum security prison. I did, in fact, bring the Hawking book to a death row inmate there. The story worked out pretty well, I thought, so I decided to use some of its characters in others. Incidentally, the stories don’t all stem from my own experiences. A friend of my sister, a woman who lived in another state, was raped. The assailant was caught, tried, and received a long sentence. This state had a pilot program that brought together victims and victimizers. That became the inspiration for “One to One.”

About your second question: I hope the collection gives readers a sense of what life’s like in a jail or prison– the sounds, smells, danger, lack of privacy, deprivations and small pleasures — the whole package. I hope it conveys a sense of what it’s like to work there. I hope it captures the aftermath of a violent crime – what it means to be raped, or to lose a daughter in a senseless murder. (While I don’t know these things first-hand, thank God, I’ve dealt with plenty of people who do). Finally, I hope it makes the point that inmates are still human despite their crimes – that they’re more like the rest of us than we tend to acknowledge.

JV: How did you find the process of writing fiction to compare to that of non-fiction – and what are the liberties that you are able to take when left to your own imagination?

RCG: I try to be meticulously accurate with nonfiction, to get the facts right.  With fiction I can take a person or event and tailor it for specific purposes: to make a point, to add drama or humor, to have people do what I want them to or think they should. Real life isn’t like that very often, as I suspect you’ve noticed.

To me, one of the biggest and occasionally rewarding challenges of writing fiction is to create a protagonist who’s radically different from myself. My favorite example in the Hawking collection is a story called “Hater,” about a violent neo-Nazi. I’m non-violent, and I’m Jewish, so it was almost completely a product of my imagination. I should add that the protagonist isn’t modeled on a single person. Like many of my characters, he’s a composite.

JV: Though these stories are fiction, they are grounded in reality. In what ways has your background informed your writing – and how do you endeavor to balance authenticity with creative license?

RCG: I believe the writer’s background almost always plays a role in writing fiction, to varying degrees. Certainly my own background (male, Midwesterner, history major, doctor) comes into a lot of my work. You can write about people unlike yourself, and about things of which you know next to nothing, but it’s tricky. You have to do your homework, and you should talk directly with those with the expertise you lack. A case in point: my college roommate and close friend practiced criminal law for thirty years. He helped me immeasurably when I tried to write about the legal system.

To answer your other question: I don’t think there’s an inherent conflict between authenticity and creative license. A good historical novelist will balance them routinely. Consider Hilary Mantel or the late great E.L. Doctorow.

JV: You illuminate some of the very real darknesses that punctuate life. What are the benefits of understanding these circumstances and situations – and how can humor serve those who are working, or living, within these difficult realities

RCG: We can derive hope from the survivorship of others; we can learn something of how they managed to go on despite their circumstances. This is a key component of group therapy and the 12-step programs, all of which can be profoundly beneficial.

Humor is often a key part of that survival. Unsurprisingly, it flourishes in places like hospitals and battlefields and prisons, places where hope can be at a premium. Part of Shakespeare’s genius was his brilliant use of humor, the comic relief that flows through his tragedies. An excellent and more recent example is Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. He could write something that’s heartbreaking, something that makes you want to stop reading it, but the next page could be hilarious.

JV: What advice would you to those who have the desire to write but have yet to harness their creative energies?

RCG: The most important advice I can give would be: just start. You’ll always find reasons not to — you’re too tired, or your job is more onerous than usual, or the World Series is on, or any one of a million others. Learn to ignore them, or at least some of them. Equally important: be prepared to write badly when you start. You will, at first, but you’ll get better. That’s true of almost all endeavors, from playing tennis to playing the trombone. Finally: read everything, from Homer to Stephen King. Try to ascertain what makes good writing good, and vice versa. It’s been said that almost all of literature is theft, so steal carefully.

***

With thanks to R.C. Goodwin for his generosity of time and thought – and to Cynde Acanto, owner of Book Club Bookstore & More (Broad Brook) for introducing us.

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