Interview with Bill Sones, Writer of Strange but True

August 20, 2012
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I walk into the kitchen, on an unusually warm March day. Writer of Strange But True, Bill Sones and his wife, Barb are seated at the kitchen table. I later learn that the numerous piles of books that normally occupy the kitchen table have been moved aside for my benefit. However, almost every other table and a large closet have been devoted to what seems like hundreds of copies of books all with notes sticking out all of them. Bill, with his hands in his lap, sits diagonally to me and Barb, with her coffee cup, sits across the table. I place my list of questions on the tiled table, sit back on the cushioned chair and begin the interview.
1. When did you first start writing?
As a kid. I loved writing from the 9th grade ever since I wrote an autobiography for a school assignment. My family loved writing, mostly my mom and sister. Dad liked to write to. He was an engineer and during the meetings he wrote limericks on napkins when he got bored. My family loved literature. I especially loved poetry and tried to write some in college but I wasn’t good at it. I later found out I was more inclined to factual stuff.
2. How did you choose what genre to write in?
Popular nonfiction and science writing. I wrote a few short stories a long time ago that have been published. I changed my mind though and wrote scientific nonfiction.
3. Do you think that nonfiction writing requires the same creativity as fiction writing?
Good nonfiction incorporates lots of anecdotes, which aren’t always easy to come by. They get the reader’s attention and make them more interested. John Updike, my favorite author, wrote nonfiction and fiction. They do merge in the sense that nonfiction writers need good storytelling techniques and communicative language. The readers need to be interested and need to understand the material. The first article I wrote was Genie and Supermarket, kind of a weird name. When Barb was a teacher and I was writing, I would go to the supermarket so one day I started to write down which foods were in what aisle because I noticed a lot of people fumbling around, lost. I sent it to The Plain Dealer and they ran it for the Sunday edition. That caught the eye of the editor there.
4. What has been your favorite writing job?
Definitely writing the Strange but True column with brother Rich. We were looking for a way to for a way to bond, so we teamed up for a column. I got into column writing after doing solo shots, which are very different from each other. For a column, you’ve got deadlines and it’s like a having a job but the solo shots are just one at a time. Brother Rich gave the column credibility because of his Ph.D., editors like to see that. Editors will buy the idea for the column because they know it’s respectable.
5. Can you talk about the column you currently write in The Plain Dealer?
“Strange but True,” has run in about a hundred papers in the past fifteen years. It’s been in a variety of papers all around the world, like in Ireland, Zambia, and the United Arab Emirates. It’s been in 6 continents, usually in English. One time, when it was being translated into Portuguese they were having trouble translating it because the writing was so tight and nuanced. That made me really proud because it meant my writing was good. The column’s also been in the South China Morning Post, which actually paid better than many American newspapers. Nonfiction is always easier to get published than fiction because so many people are writing stories. Nonfiction is a good start for writers because it gets big markets. Science is respected around the world, especially if you make it colorful and understandable to the general population.

6. How did you start to write a “Strange but True” column in the Plain Dealer?
Well, I was writing a column called “The Numbers Game” in The Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine with John McGervey, which we did for about five years. Around that time Rich and I used to go to this pub every week to spend time with each other. We kicked around the idea to do something together – the Strange but True column. The X-files were popular at that time and we thought that true things could be even more fun and amusing than the fiction. It was fairly easy selling the idea for the column. It was fun as hell and a big success. The column has been rewarding personally. Science is fun, it can set you free. My family loved science as well. With the column, Rich and I wanted to make science “Gee Whiz,” we wanted to make it colorful.

7. How do you gather information for that column?
Anywhere there is interesting information. Magazines, books. Mostly you just have to keep your mind, ears, and eyes open. You also have to use a lot of imagination, keep turning ideas over in your mind until you can put an interesting twist on them. You also have to think, “what has and hasn’t been covered?” and “What do people like think about?” Well, the answer is themselves. I also ask publishers for complimentary copies of a book if I think it would be able to help we with the column and most them always say yes. Books are loaded with wonderful things. It’s like the library comes to me. We’ve got books everywhere on all sorts of subjects. The internet comes in handy to but you can’t trust it as much as books and magazines. You can always check the sources through with university professors. They’ll proofread, review it, rewrite it to make it better. I always find that professors are almost always willing to share information about their fields because they’re so passionate. For the topic of Phosphenes, a phenomenon characterized by the experience of seeing light without light actually entering the eye, I contacted a visual science professor. But what I really love is the joy to explore stuff like that, the strange wonderful stuff of the world. I can celebrate the world and language with all the people who read.

8. Do you ever hear from readers? If you have, what kind of comments did they have?
Yes, a lot of the Strange but True readers contact me. The column used to six days out of the week, but I decided to take it down to one day a week. People would stop Barb and I on the street on our walks and ask us questions about the column. The readers have always been very supportive. One time a lady from Parma called, and told us that one night the side of her house was plastered with bugs. But when she showed her husband five minutes later the bugs were gone. I researched and conferred with an entomologist who solved the mystery. She was delighted, it proved her sanity. If I use a reader question, a always put from a Lyndhurst reader or Cleveland Heights reader. I never use their name, just their community. It’s a joy to know people are reading the column, which is more important than the editor; it’s the readers that matter. A lot of questions we get are more like trivia questions but some are good, thought-provoking ones.
These next three questions are about your book, Can a Guy Get Pregnant? Scientific Answers to Everyday (& Not-So-Everyday) Questions:
9. Were there any challenges in getting your book published?
At first I resisted writing a book because it’s such an enormous project and can be hard to publish. I just wanted to write the column. I contacted the publisher PI press about getting a free book and they asked me to write a book for them to publish. If they hadn’t asked me, I wouldn’t have done it at the time, in 2006. I had to do 22 radio interviews in about a month for publicity, which was quite taxing. Nonfiction is easier to publish than fiction though. The publishers translated in into Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, German, Russian, and Italian. The foreign editors were really appreciative and grateful. We still keep in contact with some of them, internet is a wonderful thing. Barb was also instrumental in editing. I’m also thinking of doing a second book of questions and answers.

10. Was there a section or topic you most enjoyed writing about?
Dreams. Even before the book, I did a number of one-shots for magazines like Family Circle The subject is just so fun, psychological, cultural, mystical, and you learn about individuals. Anyone can talk about dreams. I love dreams. All the writing in the book had to be stuff I already written in the column. I had to go through eight years of material and chose the best stuff. I also love to write about love. I love exploring interpersonal communication and homogony. Homogony says that people tend to marry people similar to themselves, so opposites don’t attract, similar do. The world is loaded with wonderful stuff if you look for it.
11. Are you proud of your book?
Yes. A lot of work went into it. I would say there’s a pride in it. People wrote lots of nice notes. I handed out a lot of free copies to all our friends (including you) when it was first published. I even gave one to my dentist who kept it in his waiting room. It got stolen and I was delighted. Someone liked my book enough to steal it! The illustrations could have been done better but that didn’t matter, I got really good compliments for the book.
12. What has been the toughest criticism given to you as a writer? What has been the best compliment?
For the criticism, it would have to be magazines or newspapers that stopped running the column. It’s like an assault on my pride in the column. I’ve gotten notes like we don’t want your stuff anymore, don’t you know when to stop sending it? I’ve got to be aggressive to market the column sometimes which alienates some people. St. Gabriel ran the column for ten years and all the sudden told me to not send them the column, to shut up, and not to write back. I still don’t know why. Rejections are few and far between though. My best compliments have been the support of my best friend Roger, who loves the column, and just getting feedback from people who read the column. Freelance writers aren’t generally long-lived but the column has been going on for fifteen years and I’m so happy. And I always love to hear that kids like to read it because it’s hard to grab their attention. I enjoy the column and it feels good to keep it going.
13. When you write, do you have any habits like drinking coffee or listening to music?
I drink a lot of coffee. Can’t always tell when the muse is going to hit me so I always keep a paper and pen at my side. I go with the flow, I don’t have a targeted time or regular writing time. I always hand write, I love to hand write. I like to feel the words flowing out of my body. A computer doesn’t feel the same.
14. How would you describe your editing and revision process?
Indefatigable and unflagging. I’m always continually reediting, I never regard something as finished. The rewriting never ends; I’ve looked at stuff from ten years ago and tweaked it. Barb, Rich, and I read and reread it several times. I have to be basically satisfied with it. The question itself gets the most editing, it has to grab people. Sometimes the article will lose its charm or the information doesn’t hold up, then I kill it. It has to be true and quirky. I like to feel that the column’s scientifically valid, even the ones about dreams. It’s a never-ending process. The column never feels right but I have to send it in because of the deadlines.
15. Is there a piece of writing you are most proud of?
The dreams article in Family Circle. One day I got two calls, one from Family Circle and one from Reader’s Digest. The offers were staggering but I wasn’t too surprised. They were very polite when they asked me to write for them, which came with more radio interviews. For Reader’s Digest I wrote about sports engineering with questions like, “Why do gold balls have dimples on them? What makes a baseball curve?”
16. Why do you love to write?
I love the sound of language. I love to feel it flowing out of me. I learned a lot from the job and I can do it from anywhere and still be fully engaged. The job’s demanding, engrossing, blocks out everything (pain, sounds, nothing else matters while you’re writing). It’s rewarding and you use every dimension of yourself. Everybody likes creativity. There’s nothing repetitious or boring about the writing life. I have more control over my job than traditional jobs, I can write about whatever I chose. I’m very lucky in that respect.
17. Any other comments?
Nonfiction is more rewarding than people tend to think. At first I wrote fiction but it wasn’t right for me. There’s a lot of creative aspects for nonfiction and you get to research and study the topic. Barb is also an instrumental part in picking out material. And thank you, for giving me the idea for the article about the Newspaper Blackout Poetry, which I think a lot of people didn’t know about.

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