Ira Sukrungruang: Part One

FLARE conducted an interview via Skype with Ira Sukrungruang, associate professor of English at the University of South Florida. He has published several works, most notably Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy and In Thailand It Is Night. Despite some minor technical issues, FLARE was able to have a fantastic conversation with the Chicago native and learn a great deal about his background, processes, and writing philosophy.

Skype ringtone…

Ira: Hi!sukrungruang


Ira: How are you?

FLARE: Good, how are you?

Ira: Wait – can you see me? Let me see if I can do something about that […] Can you see me now?

FLARE: Yeah! There you are!

Ira: Awesome. So this is going to be an interview – what, recorded? To be published in the magazine? Or…

FLARE: Well, we couldn’t figure out how to record it, so we’re doing an audio recording right now. And if that quality is good, we might upload just the audio or we might type it out and put it on the website.

Ira: Okay! Well I have to stop and tell you that at some point, someone is going to call and tell me to go pick up my lunch [FLARE laughing] so that I might have to run downstairs real quick. Okay, cool.

FLARE: Alright, so, just for starters, tell us about yourself.

Ira: I’m Ira Sukrungruang, I teach at the University of South Florida. I have two books, Talk Thai: A Memoir about growing up in Chicago and In Thailand It Is Night, a poetry collection. I have a new book coming out in the fall called South Side Buddhist, which is really an odd kind of oxymoron – growing up in the South Side of Chicago, which is kind of a working class world, and juxtaposing that with being a Buddhist…kind of an interesting little mix. So that’s coming out in the fall. I also teach in the low-residency MFA program in Hong Kong – City University of Hong Kong – and I edit Sweet: A Literary Confection.

FLARE: Wow! So when do you teach in Hong Kong? How does that schedule work out?

Ira: So I spend about ten days in Hong Kong every summer and it’s called “low residency,” so basically it’s a pretty intense ten days where I’m teaching a workshop classroom with students from about nine to nine: just attending lectures, attending classes. And then throughout the rest of the semester, I’m paired with three students and they have to turn in packets of work every two or three weeks, and then I talk via Skype or email just to give them [support]. Pretty much it’s on them to give me the work on time, but I set up the deadlines and everything.

FLARE: Okay. Let’s see – how did you get started? Getting published, or how you ended up getting the teaching positions…where did your success start?

Ira: Well, when I was at Southern Illinois University, I took a six-year plan to graduate because I went from major to major, and then I found creative writing, which was really amazing. But even then, I started teaching at a high school for a year and I found out that I wasn’t writing when I was teaching high school. When you teach high school, it’s a completely – you’re life gets absorbed by the students. You think about them all the time. And at that time, I was really writing and enjoying writing and I was working with people at Southern Illinois University who edited The Crab Orchard Review, which is one of the best magazines, I think, in the country. And the people there, Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble, were so instrumental in just saying, “You know, maybe you should go get an MFA and see where that goes” and I really listened to them and decided to go to Ohio State to get my MFA. Everything kind of just fell into place, you know, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been publishing a lot and that got me a university job. If you are thinking about going into a university job, or anything in academia, the first thing that people will tell you is that you have to publish! It’s a field that demands that you constantly publish. So, I taught in upstate New York for six years and then finally I left that job and came to Florida. And it’s been great!

FLARE: So what’s your current writing process like? Do you set time aside, or do you just do it when you can…?

Ira: Every project has its own process, I think, so I’ll tell you when I was writing Talk Thai, basically I wrote the whole book in three months from, like, twelve midnight to four in the morning. [FLARE laughing] I just kind of locked myself up in the basement when I was living up in New York and just wrote, every night at night. The poetry book I wrote – I wrote the individual poems whenever I could, and so they didn’t really have a set place. I think [when I started] looking at poetry as a collection…it really took about two or three weeks of sitting down with them to see how they fit together. And I just did that whenever I had some time. Right now, because of the school year and because of all the things I have to do here at USF, I find niches of time. Like it doesn’t have to be an hour, it can be ten minutes, fifteen minutes. And in those ten or fifteen minutes, I make sure I write. So it’s more like a sprint than a marathon, right? And so a lot of time for me, it’s just finding these little niches of time to do something. My next book, the new book I’m working on right now is a memoir about being a monk in Thailand, so actually I’m waiting to go back to Asia and to do a lot of that work, because most of the time I just need to be there, see Asia, and be saturated in Thailand to really fully write about it.

FLARE: So the memoir about being a monk – how was that experience? I mean, you can’t give too much away –

Ira: No, no, I mean – the experience was fantastic; it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I went into it wanting to know more about Buddhism, and I came out of it, even though I did learn a lot, with more questions. And I think that’s the driving force of the book, these questions that I still have for it, and the “weirdnesses” that I find in any kind of religion. There’s a lot of strangeness in religion [laughing]. So I have a really intimate look at Buddhism from a guy who considers himself the worst Buddhist in the world [FLARE laughing]. So that’s really what the POV, point of view of the book, is about.

To be continued…


Scott Abrams & Andy Nance

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Nance (L) and Abrams (R)

FLARE sat down with Scott Abrams and Andy Nance of Awed Byrd Productions, a St. Augustine-based scriptwriting and project development company, to chat about their business, their writing processes, and their favorite literary characters.

FLARE: Tell us about yourself and your company (i.e., your crew, what your goals are, etc.).

Scott Abrams: We are local performers, writers and various creatives united by a desire to take our talents and aspirations to the next level. Vetting our skills through smaller projects, we will move on into ever-larger and loftier projects, including screenwriting and production for feature film.

FLARE: How did you get started?

Andy Nance: I suppose these projects got started last summer when we put on a comedic summer stock production of The Colonial Crew Revue. It was an outdoor production at the Colonial Quarter that featured comedic elements, improv, choreographed fights, song, and dance. When that ended we utilized that same stage with weekly comedy improv performances until the weather got too cold. From there we started on the Awed Byrd productions.

FLARE: Where do you find inspiration/material? Do you people watch or get ideas from television?

Scott: My mind is always identifying and reassembling aspects of story. Whether from other entertainment mediums (music, film, live performance) or real life, unique, interesting or incidental moments and characters present themselves and my brain starts turning the details and perspectives around almost on its own.

Andy: I find working with Scott Abrams and Madi Mack to be inspiring. Scott’s brain is always clicking and his enthusiasm is infectious. I had a career in personality driven radio for over twenty-years, mostly hosting morning shows that featured a lot of comedic elements. That experience is helpful in both writing and acting in our comedic The Writing Room: Unscripted, and Awed Byrds sketches.

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FLARE: What are you working on right now?

Andy: I am a writer with a couple of published novels under my belt. I’m currently a couple of hundred pages into a suspense/horror entitled, Oasis. Within Awed Byrd Productions, we’re constantly working on our sketch comedy show and I’m co-writing a couple of screenplays with Scott and Madi.

Scott: Starting with the comedy sketch show we just released, I have huge goals for 2014. Next we’ll try out hand at a suspense thriller series slated for internet distribution, followed by two feature films already in pre-production. I will write 13 feature length screenplays this year. I’ve already competed three since Jan. 1.

FLARE: Where do you hope to end up? Do you want to remain local or would you like a more widespread audience?

Andy: From a production company standpoint, we’d like to make feature length films and start a production company right here in St. Augustine. From our online comedy, our main goal at the moment is to constantly grow our viewership until we have a constantly expanding fan base who put our YouTube views into the hundreds of thousands or more.

Scott: Beyond that, we’d like to continue to write and produce screenplays right here. When a script reaches completion, we evaluate it and determine if it’s scope matches our current resources, if not, I hope to send these larger projects on for studio production.

FLARE: What are you reading right now?

Andy: I’m reading two books right now, James Lee Burke’s Light of the World, and into what is probably my twelfth reading of my favorite book, Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney.Awed 3

Scott: I have a bad habit of reading two or three books at a time. I’m currently reading The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson, Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk and Dr. Sleep by Stephen King. About once a year I plow through Old Man and the Sea by Earnest Hemingway. It serves as a cerebral enema, cleaning out the accumulated noise. I’m overdue.

FLARE: What is your writing process like? What kind of routine do you have, if any?

Scott: When I’m working on a project, I spend at least three-four hours a day working the material. Taking no more than a day off at a time to recharge as needed. I like to push through in a figurative ‘single sitting’ to maintain voice and rhythm of what I’m working on. A feature length screenplay, for example, shouldn’t take me more than three weeks for the first draft. Between projects I like to give my brain a week or so to data dump the last project and pre-load the next. Specifically, when I write, I sit at a high table on a stool with no back. And I write until I literally hurt. I find being comfortable or being able to lean back slows the process down. There also tends to be a great deal of caffeine an nicotine fueling this process.

Andy: I don’t have a rigid writing schedule, but usually write in the morning and early afternoon. I like to edit as I go along, maybe once or twice a week in the afternoon while sitting in a hot bath. Throughout the non-writing parts of my days and nights, I’ll get little ideas and either make note of them to work in later, or got add it right away. I also try to utilize my hypnogogic state, that’s the state you’re in between laying your head on your pillow and actually sleeping. Your brain is very creative at this point. If I have a problem with plot, motivation, or character development, I think about it before I go to sleep and often come up with a solution in the hypnogogic state. A lot of my comedy sketch ideas come to me right before I fall asleep.

FLARE: If you could be any literary character, who would you be? Why? What would you do for a day?

Andy: It’s hard to pick just one. Maybe Aloysious Pendergast, kind of a modern day Sherlock Holmes in a series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Going back to my favorite book, Dhalgren, I’d maybe pick a Awed 4character called Nightmare. He’s the leader of a biker-style gang (minus the bikes) called the Scorpions. They live in a dying city called Bellona and wear holographic projectors so that they look like giant scorpions at night. And I’d like to be either of the Weasley twins, I guess the one who doesn’t get killed. As a Weasley I’d spend my day flying around on a broom and playing practical jokes on people.

Scott: Tyler Durden from Palahniuk’s Fight Club or Roland the Gunslinger from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series or maybe Hamlet. I identify with deeply flawed heroes whose victories often coincide with their own demise. For me, it has much less to do with the ultimate goal, and far more the nearly impossible journey I find compelling. As artists we couldn’t do what we do if we had any real hope of success. We push and we fight and we scream to be heard, but when people actually listen, when an idea actually works, we’re often as surprised as everyone else. At least that’s how it is for me.

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