The Snow Whale is John Minichillo‘s first novel. He lives in Nashville with the writer, Katrina Gray, and their very young son. Find him at

You can read an excerpt from The Snow Whale on Fictionaut.

Q (Meg Pokrass): As a reader, which writers do you feel closest to?

My wife is a writer, and I try to feel close to her as often as I can (can I do a winky-face emoticon, do people do that in interviews?) We are each others’ first readers / best readers. We really get each other and have probably influenced each other in untold ways. We’ve taught workshops together, which I’d recommend to any couple, whether you write or not. She wrote a very important scene for The Snow Whale, and it turned out great, and it was one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me. And she got me on Twitter, which is disposable writing and very good for you as a writer – for us anyway, it amounts to sending off jokes into the ether.

At different points as a writer, have you had mentors? Do you mentor?

I’ve had some semi-famous writing teachers but “mentor” is this overbearing word. I sent them all The Snow Whale when it came out, a couple of them blurbed for it. This is the kind of thing you dream about as an MFA student, and for me at least, it took a really long time. So I was out of touch for many years. I suppose a lot of us go off and do other things, and some of us stayed in touch, but I was toiling in obscurity. I mostly wanted them to be proud and so you don’t see these people anymore, so they are kind of like dead parents. You send give them flowers, they may not notice. I learned from all of them and I am grateful for the time they gave me.

My university workshop, the writers are juniors and seniors in college, and some of them are sophomores. So the mentoring I can do is limited. I secretly love it when a bunch of them are talented and having fun and I had nothing to do with it. They do all the work while I play M.C. One way to mentor is to be this living example. Share your drafts with the class. Make them go to readings. Suggest very strongly that they should be submitting to magazines.I’m fostering a sense of competitiveness with those young writers and if they like it, it will stick with them.  In all the discussion about writing programs I don’t see anyone talking about how it made us want to be seen as better writers than the other writers in the room. I want to be a better writer than you. And I WANT you to be a better writer than me. That’s why so many of us writers are bitchy. That’s why we have egos. I recently listened to Michael Jordan’s NBA Hall of Fame acceptance speech and it was a joy. He talked about all the people who gave him drive and competitive spirit, and he said it was because he wanted to be better than them. I think a lot of writers have this, which is why people put down Jonathan Franzen, who is a fucking splendid writer, because we want to be better.  My wife and I live near Tony Earley in East Nashville. He doesn’t know who I am. I see him sometimes when I drive home from work. I want to be better than he is. So he’s a mentor. He has no idea about this, but he is.

How do you stay creative? What are your tricks to get “unstuck?”

Anyone with writers block needs to just go out and procreate. As a graduate student you have so much time you don’t even realize it. You have the luxury of working the equivalent hours of a full-time job on reading and writing (this is reason enough for anyone to go). As you get older time is much harder to come by.  I just started writing on an iPad. The word processors are all primitive but the touch screen is nice – I can just reach out and drop a cursor. The point is that I’m hoping to be more mobile with it. I’ve always worked at a desk, and worked well that way, but now I want to take it anywhere I get a spare hour. It’s been good so far.

Favorite writing exercises you would like to share?

I like to give the writing workshop a list of settings, settings that are unusual, settings both realistic and nonrealistic, settings that allow for good interaction, etc. When I was younger I always rocked my setting long before I had any notion of the story or the characters. Setting grounds the characters and creates mood. Not making the most of it is a missed opportunity.

Suggestions for making characters live? Do you know who they are before you write or do you find out who they are in the writing?

Character is the hardest thing, the slow-growing thing. In The Snow Whale, which is a loose retelling of Moby-Dick, I had some automatic stock characters to start me off: an Ahab, an Ishmael, a Queequeg, a white whale. But like any other story they would evolve over drafts. Dialogue draws them out and gets them to stand on their own.

Plot: how it evolves for YOU… anything on this subject.

I believe plot should be simple. Whether it’s tragic or funny it should always be easy to grasp. The Fictionauts would groan and roll their eyes if I told you what I was working on now. It’s an old worn-out plot, and I’m having fun with it.

The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at

  1. Marcus Speh

    What a wonderful interview — thank you both. “Jonathan Franzen … is a fucking splendid writer, because we want to be better.” is by far the best thing I’ve read about Franzen lately. The notion of mentors who don’t know they’re mentors includes dead authors, who have always been my (only) mentors. The best thing about this interview (next to Katrina and Giacomo, of course) is the book behind it. I’m reading it now, too slowly perhaps, but then again not, because it’s a book that wishes to be savored. Congrats & good luck with the next novel!

  2. Steve Himmer

    John’s point that we don’t discuss the competitive nature of workshops is an interesting one. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I tend to agree with him — we don’t talk about it. I’m not sure “better” is quite the word I’d use, though. In my case, it was more about realizing what I was doing differently, and about finding my own position as a writer (and if any of my past workshop-mates are reading this, they’re thinking, “Yes, and that meant all you did was write those dumb stories about bears.”). So “better” at being my own writer, not in a way measurable against others, per se.

  3. Matt Mullins

    I especially like what John says about setting. It’s often the last thing young writers think of, yet, to some degree, it dictates what you can and can’t do with the story, the choices available to your characters, their obstacles and opportunities. I have a throwaway comment I often give my students when discussing setting: A fist fight set in a china shop is not a fist fight set in a pillow factory. Obviously. But what I want them to understand is that although the winner in each instance may be the same, the “getting there” is entirely different. My point is simple: treat your settings as characters in and of themselves, not as backdrops for your characters and your story’s action.

  4. Jürgen

    What’s funny to me about the “I want to be a better writer than you” quote is that John, with whom I’ve been through many a workshop, was always first to quote Cheever whenever egos flared: “Fiction is not a competitive sport.” I also understand how both of these things can be true at the same time.

    And yes: you should read The Snow Whale.

  5. J. Mykell Collinz

    My thanks to Meg and John for an excellent, informative interview. I particularly like John’s comments about setting, character, and plot. I also like Matt’s comment about treating your settings as characters.

  6. John Minichillo

    Thanks everyone.

    Steve, I knew I was being controversial. Maybe you’re just too nice.

    Jurgen, good catch. I do throw out that Cheever quote quite a bit. The competitive side of workshops can be what’s most ugly about them, but a competitive drive is motivating. I’m sure I said it to you at some point when Fictionaut was still just an idea and we probably debated the “fave” system. I’m not a fan of the fave system, but I like getting faves: so, yes, they can both be true.

    Marcus, thank you for savoring.

  7. Jane Hammons

    Yes to the point about setting. And procreation :) Great interview-thanks.

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