We had the pleasure of a virtual sit-down with Dan Kopcow, author of the soon-to-released Worst. Date. Ever. and are delighted to share his responses to our questions with you.
We’ve all heard the advice that authors should “write what they know.” But fiction emerges from imagination and creation of new worlds. Do you feel a tension between what you’ve experienced and what lives only in your mind?
First off, “It Lives Only in Your Mind” sounds like a 1950s sci-fi horror movie I would definitely want to catch on late-night TV.
As a writer and a reader, I want to escape everyday life. So writing just what I know doesn’t excite me. I want to take what I know, or more specifically, what interests me, and heighten it until it’s dramatic and entertaining. Life doesn’t always throw coherent drama and absurdity at you so I think there is a fair amount of invention involved in writing. Sometimes, it’s finding a nugget of reality and imagining a particular circumstance or character within that reality.
If I wrote only what I know, things would tend to get dull for me. In life, you’re trying to manage things to keep the chaos and entropy at bay. When I write, I look for the extreme and try to figure out how I can maximize the chaos and make my characters squirm. It’s all about possibilities; either comic, dramatic, or thrilling. And I tend not to think in terms of genre – it’s all about what the story requires. As Stephen Sondheim is fond of saying, content dictates form.
As an example, I had heard a story on NPR a few years ago about something called the John Hour. In 1979, Ed Koch, who was NYC’s mayor at the time, thought it would be helpful to broadcast the names of the men who had been arrested for soliciting prostitutes every day on public airwaves. Well, as soon as I heard that, I thought it would make a great basis for a comedy of misunderstandings. It took a while to crack the story but “The John Hour” is one of my favorite stories in “Worst. Date. Ever.” You never know where you’re going to find your next bit of inspiration.
What surprising skills or hobbies do you have?
Because I work by day as an engineer, my hobbies tend to be more on the creative side. I love woodworking and furniture making. I’ve reviewed films and directed theater. I used to be in a professional boys choir and once sang for the Pope at the Vatican while we were on tour in Italy. I make a mean Tres Leches Cake. Actually, I find all these things are tied to my storytelling. Even the Tres Leches Cake, especially when it turns into an epic, mushy, failure.
What’s your process for writing: do you outline, create flow charts, fill out index cards, or just start and see where you end up? Do you use the same process every time?
All of the above. Usually, before I even start writing an outline, I think a lot about my characters and what they want. That usually leads me to what the right point of view and tone should be. Once I know who should be telling the story and what their perspective is, I’m ready to start writing.
Some stories are more plot driven so a roadmap is helpful to make sure I get to certain rest stops and destinations. Others are more character driven so it’s all about the journey. Some of my stories are very tightly-woven so flow charts are completely necessary to diagram where and when each storyline and character will bounce off the other to create more complications and resolutions.
So, all that is part of my process. And massive amounts of cocaine and absinthe. Wait, am I allowed to say that?
Who inspired you? Which authors influence you?
Keeping my eyes and ears open for strangers, their stories, expressions and turns of phrase is always inspiring for story ideas. Teachers were a great inspiration, of course. There was a guidance counselor at my high school who was in charge of the Drama Club. He really encouraged me to pursue the creative arts and think about story structure.
As an adult, I draw my inspirations from a variety of authors, playwrights, and screenwriters. The list is vast but at the top sits P.G. Wodehouse, Stephen Sondheim, Truman Capote, David Mitchell, Michael Chabon, Kate Atkinson, and Jacque Tati. I love the way each of them decides to tell their stories. It’s rarely a conventional subject matter and almost always expanding the boundaries of structure and perspective.
My friend, Paul, started writing when we were in college and inspired me to take it seriously. We’ve been sharing each other’s stories for decades and it always inspires me to keep going.
And my wife keeps me whimsical and not so serious.
What’s next for you?
I’m always working on a few short stories. I also have two novels I’m currently polishing. Prior Futures is a social satire thriller that I’ve been working on for several years. The Singing Boys is a fictionalized version of my time in a professional boys choir including our summer tour through Italy. “Mac and Cheese,” one of the stories in Worst. Date. Ever., is a chapter from this novel.
I’m also continuing to work on my next novel, The People from Away. It’s a quirky detective story and family drama.