Author spotlight: Stephen Kimber

Between now and our awards ceremony on September 20th, we will be featuring the shortlisted authors for the 2014 East Coast Literary Awards.

This week, we feature Stephen Kimber, author of What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five. His book is shortlisted for the Evelyn Richardson Non-Fiction Award.

Stephen Kimber is a professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax and an award-winning writer, editor and broadcaster. He is the author of one novel and seven non-fiction books.

Describe your ideal writing space.
We put an addition on our house this past year that includes a basement walk-out office. There’s a built in horseshoe-shaped desk/air-traffic-control console with windows overlooking my wife’s garden. Having spent much of my writing life in basement offices without a view, I’m slightly nervous I’ll be too distracted by my new window on the world to actually write. But not really… I acually have several offices: the new one at home, another at our cottage overlooking a lake in Lunenburg County and a new one — probably in a basement too!— I’ll be moving into at the university. But I also write on planes, in airports, in hotel rooms and, perhaps too often, in my head when I’m driving on the highway. 

Tell us a bit about your process.  Do you work in snippets or do you have a full draft? Are you a planner or do you feel your way through? Pencil, pen, typewriter, computer?
I’ve become a planner. I develop an outline of the book I want to write — one that almost always changes and evolves as I write it — and then I write, revise, edit and polish chapter by chapter as I go. Each morning, I sit at my computer (I’ve been writing on a computer for so long I can barely write with pen and paper any more), begin at the beginning of whatever section or chapter I’m writing and revise up to where I ended the day before, then add new material. That not only helps me to get into the “swing” of my story and writing each day, but it means that the beginning of a chapter will have been reviewed and revised a dozen or more times before I move on to the next one. The result is that when I come to the end of the first draft of the book, I’ve usually already completed my-next-to-final draft. I try to set aside the manuscript for at least a few days before returning for a final beginning-to-end polish, which I turn in to the authorities.

Give us the ‘elevator pitch’ of your book.
What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five is a narrative nonfiction thriller about terrorists who blow up airplanes and try to overthrow governments, and intelligence agents who try to stop them. The twist is that these terrorists are not Muslim. They’re Cuban exiles. And the men trying to stop them? Cuban intelligence agents. The Cuban Five were members of an intelligence network dispatched to Florida in the early 1990s to infiltrate militant anti-Castro exile groups hatching terrorist attacks against their country. In 1998, after the Cubans passed on to the U.S. government information their agents had uncovered about a plot to blow up an airplane filled with beach-bound tourists heading for Cuba, the FBI arrested … not the terrorists plotting the attack but the agents trying to stop it!

What was the biggest difference between your first draft and last?
Despite what I said earlier about planning and outlining, I initially wrote a significant chunk of the Cuban Five manuscript focusing on a string of hotel bombings that took place in Havana in 1997. I thought when I wrote it that this would become the opening chapters of the book. Later, I decided to begin the book seven years earlier with the arrival of the first Cuban intelligence agent in Miami and then unfold the story chronologically. Luckily, the chapters I’d written fit neatly into the middle of that chronology.

Do you feel public readings help writers develop their craft? Or are readings simply part of the business of being a writer?
A bit of both, I’d say. Public readings are definitely part of the writing business these days, but they’re also a chance to test out passages you think worked well on the page, and see how readers respond to them. I’ll often find myself wanting to edit already published passages to make them read better. Sometimes I do! With the Cuban Five book, readings have been doubly important because they provide a chance to introduce readers to a story most haven’t heard before.

Many writers have other roles, such as instructors, mentors, editors, cultural workers, publishers. What other roles, if any, keep you busy and do you view them as supportive of your work as a writer?
I’m incredibly lucky. I teach journalism and creative nonfiction in my day job, which means I get to think about what it is I do as a writer, as well as to write myself. And writing — practicing my craft — is considered part of my job too. Which is both exciting and humbling.

Your thoughts on Twitter (in 140 characters or less.)
Twitter? I tweet. I use Twitter to spread the word about what I write. For a book writer, 140 characters is daunting, but great discipline.

What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a film treatment for What Lies while trying to decide what book project I want to tackle next, and whether it will be fiction or nonfiction. Unusually for me, I’m having trouble settling on a next subject… which probably means I’m not ready yet.

What book out there do you wish you had written?
Too many to count or catalogue. I try not to think about that. Sometimes, I’ll wander through a bookstore, look at all the wonderful, eclectic, brilliant, awe-inspiring titles on the shelves and ask myself, does the world really need my next book? At the end of the day, of course, the answer doesn’t really matter. Like most writers, I write for me and not for the world, and because I can’t imagine myself not writing.

Who is your biggest cheerleader? 
Until she died a few years ago, I would have said my mother. She unconditionally supported me and my writing, even when she didn’t agree with it, which was a fair amount of the time. These days, it’s my sister — I’ve seriously thought of asking her to be my publicist! — and my wife who can, thankfully, be supportive and gently critical at the same time.

The winner of the Evelyn Richardson Non-Fiction Award will be announced in Halifax on September 20, 2014. 

Stephen Kimber’s book, What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five, can be purchased from your local independent bookseller. 

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