6.4.19 Frederic Durbin on how ‘Typewritten Tales’ key readers into post-digital collapse worlds

As a big fan of Frederic S. Durbin‘s work (especially his 2017 novel A Green and Ancient Light), I was delighted to discover he had new work in a new set of anthologies, which he’d co-edited with Richard Polt and Andrew V. McFeaters). Not only that, the angle “keys” in directly to one of Fred’s major passions: typewriters! Check out my e-chat with him below to find out why you need these new-future tales (divided up into two very-affordable boosk that’re now available: Escapements and Paradigm Shifts), and just how the typewritten word plays into all of them!

Fred Durbin

Explain yourself! Give us the elevator pitch for the anthologies.
Fred Durbin:
At some point in the future, digital technology has collapsed or is collapsing, and people have returned to using typewriters as a means of keeping written communication alive. The anthology — mostly through fiction stories, but also through poetry, photography, and artwork — tells the tales of human life with its struggles, adventures, tragedies, and victories set in a post-computer age. The initial drafts could be done by any means the authors chose, but the final drafts were all typewritten. There is no e-book edition — just two lovely, physical, print-on-demand volumes.
It was up to the individual authors to determine what caused the digital collapse and how widespread it was. Some stories depict the moment that current life goes haywire, and they can be quite chilling. Some are set farther into the future, when computers have receded into the realm of myth. Some are whimsical, some sad, action-packed, reflective, or uplifting. Most are poignant and, at their core, very human.
I’m particularly happy with the wide array of voices we have here. Some of the stories came to us from overseas, and not all are set in North America. The authors are male and female, some quite young, some elderly. Some are seasoned writers, and some were trying their hands at fiction for the first time.
What’s the origin story for the books?
The idea for the project began with our head editor, Dr. Richard Polt, author of The Typewriter Revolution. Richard is a philosophy professor at Xavier University. He has studied and thought a great deal about patterns in our culture, the effects on us of the tools and toys we use, and about where we might be headed. He is also a long-time advocate of the typewriter. Richard tells the origin story best in his introduction to both volumes, so I recommend reading what he has to say there.This project was a way of bringing those elements together: thinking about the effects of our digital devices … and then exploring what might change if conditions forced us to return to an analog life, to mechanical typewriting. The minute I heard Richard’s idea, I begged to come aboard. We also had the skillful co-editorship of Andrew V. McFeaters, writer and English professor at Broward College. And then we were extremely fortunate to have Linda M. Au doing the layout, turning the typewritten pages into the finished books. Linda is a professional author, editor, and book designer. It’s nothing short of miraculous that Richard and Linda, on a tight schedule, were able to wrangle the stacks of paper, master the margins, overcome the glitches, and get the books out exactly on the projected publication date (or before, in the case of Volume 1).
Why are there two volumes and not one large one? Will there be a third volume?
From the outset, we were committed to keeping the cost down, so that anyone who wanted to own a copy of this anthology could afford it. It was all done by volunteer work, a labor of love. When the submissions came pouring in, we knew early on that, even though space constraints made it necessary to be selective, we would have to go to two volumes. A higher page count means a higher cost. We figured that most of us would want the whole thing regardless, but with two modestly-sized volumes, if someone wanted to buy just one or the other, that was an option.
Fortunately, the stories more or less grouped themselves: there were some that focused more on the digital collapse and on its immediate aftermath. Those make up Volume 1, Paradigm Shifts: Typewritten Tales of Digital Collapse. The others followed characters farther in the future, living in a world more distant from the computer age, and those became Volume 2, Escapements: Typewritten Tales from Post-Digital Worlds.
Yes, there is already talk of more volumes. The sheer number of submissions is proof that there’s abundant interest. Most likely, subsequent books will each have their unique twist on the general theme. I won’t give any spoilers, but Richard has some cool ideas for upcoming themes!
What’s the tie in (type in?) with typewriters?
There’s been an unexpected resurgence of interest in typewriters over the past twenty years or so, and it seems only to be on the rise, with no signs of slowing down. There are all sorts of reasons for this, and for a thought-provoking exploration of this phenomenon that is also deeply engaging and entertaining, I recommend Richard Polt’s book The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century.
We knew that there was a vibrant and growing worldwide community of typewriter enthusiasts, and one major goal for this project was giving them something to do with their typewriters. People collect the machines, repair and maintain them, research their history, figure out ways to display them — and those are all wonderful things to do. But most of all, typewriters were built for writing, for putting words onto paper.
That’s why I wanted so much to be involved with this. I’m a writer and a teacher, and for me, the allure of typewriters is what they can do. All my life, I’ve loved the opportunity to write and to help others get excited about writing and to hone their skills. I knew this anthology would be a way to get typewriter enthusiasts to put their fingers on those keys, to start the spools turning and the typebars clacking — to birth ideas and to create stories. For me, the creation of a story is just about the most exciting thing in the world: you make something new, something that wasn’t there before. And it’s a thing with the potential to endure, to move people you may never meet, to enrich lives.
This project became a wonderful learning opportunity. We provided feedback, a lot of guidance to the contributors, and most put their stories through rigorous revisions. Many of the authors reported improving in their craft through this experience, and we editors learned a great deal, too–you can’t help but learn when you read so many stories by so many thoughtful and fascinating people.
Is this your first time editing an anthology? Editing anything? What does editing teach you about being a writer?
It’s the first time I’ve edited an anthology. Editing itself is something I’ve been doing all my life — my own writing, the college newspaper when I was a student, educational resources for teachers when I was in Japan … student papers, of course, for over twenty years. I work now as a writing coach at a community college, where I’m still helping students learn to edit their own work.
One of my best experiences as a writer has been working with the editors who have torn into my fiction and helped me improve it. Particularly, I’m grateful to various editors at Cricket Magazine. They taught me a great deal in my early career. Madeleine L’Engle said something along the lines of, if you’re not good enough to write for children, maybe you can write for grownups. I think that’s true, and writing for Cricket‘s young readers really taught me about how to be purposeful on the page.
I’ve always had friendships with other writers and have read manuscripts for friends and made suggestions. Writing is largely solitary, but I think a writing community is also important–writers benefit from interaction. As crafters, we need to see how other crafters approach tasks and solve problems, what techniques they use … We learn much of that by reading, but we also have to get into the nuts and bolts of manuscripts-in-progress. We thrive from our community. The more we interact, the better we all become.
Editing is the art of seeing what’s on the page and being attentive to the effect it has on the reader. If something makes the reader’s experience murky or confusing, it needs to go or be improved. Maybe something should be revealed in a different order. Maybe the story doesn’t begin in the right place. It’s not about what the writer intended or what the writer thinks: it’s about what’s there on the paper. If we do a lot of editing, we’re learning to see, to analyze. That helps us as writers to get more things right the first time. We develop writing-muscle memory.
Do you compose all your first drafts on your typewriter?
I hope it’s not a disappointing answer, but I usually don’t do first drafts on a typewriter. I tried it on a couple of fiction stories I’ve written in the past year, and it was fun. In fact, my story for this anthology was drafted on an Olivetti Lettera 22, which I think of as like a little Italian sports car of the typewriter world. But I hit my stride as a writer just as word processors became the common tool. Electronic writing works well for me, so I have no reason to change my methods.

An Olivetti Lettera 22

My first-draft tool of choice is the AlphaSmart Neo. It’s a full-sized, portable keyboard that runs for hundreds of hours on a couple double-A batteries. It’s distraction-free, and it lets me get outdoors–into the woods, a park, a library–where I seem to do my best writing. The Neo shares some of those qualities with a typewriter, but it also gives me the fluidity of digital drafting. I make a lot of tweaks and changes even in that earliest stage of getting the words down, and for me, the electronic page makes it easier to change things as I notice problems. Typewriter-writers call that “thinking with your fingers” and perceive it as a negative; for me, it’s the better way to work.
I use my typewriters every day for note-taking, journaling, list-making, check-writing (which makes paying bills a lot more fun), and especially for correspondence with friends and relatives. Often, I take some of them into college classrooms for creative writing workshops. Students respond well to the tactile experience of typewriting.
How many do you own, and what’s your favorite one? Why that one?
Around 70, most of them portables, all in good working order and frequently rotated into use. It’s really hard to choose a favorite; each typewriter is unique and gives you a typing experience that’s different. It’s extremely rare for me to come across a typewriter I don’t like. If I had to pick just one favorite, I guess it would be the Corona Standard Portable from the 1930s, commonly nicknamed the Flattop. For me, it’s that perfect combination of form and function. It’s a gorgeous, glossy black machine that’s an absolute delight to type on. I have decals on the back side windows of my car that depict the Flattop.
Do you think writers write differently when it’s longhand, versus typewriters, versus computers? Why is one more advisable than the other?
There are some differences in the writing methods that develop in writers using different tools. I’ve described above how for me, the fluidity, the ability to make changes in the first-draft stage, is important. The hardcore typewriter-writers point out how the typewriter forces you to think with your brain, not with your fingers. Committing those typewritten words to paper is more serious, less experimental. Yes, you can type X’s over words or sentences — you can cross out, and of course you can come back and do subsequent drafts. But it fosters a more contemplative writing. You go slower, you think before you write … and since you can’t delete, you keep moving forward. You don’t second-guess yourself as much. And it’s focused; you can’t check e-mail or Facebook. I happen to be a slow, deliberate writer anyway, so the electronic fluidity doesn’t bother me. It helps me to be more creative and bold, because making changes is no trouble. I still do multiple drafts.Writing longhand, of course, is even slower. C. S. Lewis extolled the virtues of writing with a dip pen, because he needed that pause of dipping the pen into the ink to allow himself to plan his next sentence. The first typewritten novel manuscript we know of that was submitted to a publisher was from Mark Twain, and when you read his description of writing on the new-fangled typewriter, it sounds for all the world like he’s talking about a computer–a machine that allows you to get your thoughts down on paper as fast as you can think them. Garrison Keillor has said that he thinks writing by computer is too fast, that the speed and ease hurt the writing. I just read an article about how Danielle Steel writes all her novels on her old Olympia standard typewriter.

An AlphaSmart Neo

My conclusion is that no writing tool is more advisable than any other. Writers find a way to get it done. It’s all a matter of what works for you. It’s fun finding out what that is. I’ve known many writers who felt like they came alive when they started using a typewriter, that it opened up their creativity. I’d encourage writers to try a typewriter if they’re curious. I love living in a house where I have both options. Plus the AlphaSmart Neo — don’t forget the Neo!
What are you working on next?
I just finished a story for a different anthology — one based on the ideas of H. P. Lovecraft and involving weirdness in time. Now I’m back to the revisions of a fantasy trilogy. All three books are written, but now that I’ve gotten to the end, I know the characters better, and I need to rework Book 1 once more to streamline it and make sure it sets up whom these characters will become. Then we’ll start shopping it around, looking for a publisher.
Finally, what’s your favorite “type” of book?
I’ve always gravitated to fantasy — books that transport me to other worlds, that let me experience the struggles of brave, loyal friends against insurmountable obstacles. I’ve heard Peter Straub say that we read and write fantasy because it’s the genre most capable of representing life as it really is. In fantasy, sometimes it’s easier to see what’s really ugly and really beautiful in ourselves, in the world–what we have to fight against, and what we need to strive for. Also, the great stories remind us that what we do is truly important, but that we’re still just a part of a much larger whole; there is a higher power at work, which accounts for why life works the way it does. I’m glad it doesn’t all depend on me, because I’m like Bilbo Baggins: “Only quite a little fellow, in a wide world, after all.”

Fred Durbin and Randee Dawn at Confluence, 2017


  1. Bill M on 6/04/19 at 9:58 pm

    Great interview.

    I received my copies of Paradigm Shifts and Escapements over the past week end, and I’m presently enjoying them.