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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Nov132018

Jericho Brown

How did you become a writer?

I got really excited about reading poetry and about its possibilities when I was a kid. And I wanted, then, to make things that could create feeling in people in the same way that poems I was reading created feelings in me. I just never stopped wanting that.

When and where do you write? 

Whenever I can. On my lap. Right now, because of how I’m leaning, it’s a cream-colored couch in the Hurst apartment for visiting writers at Washington University. Sometimes, it looks like that tray that comes out of the back of the chair in front of me on an airplane. My gray bare kitchen table. Or my gray kitchen table with mail and books strewn all over it when I haven’t cleared it of clutter. Or the glass dining room table. Most often, though, my lap, and sometimes, in front of a window where I can see my front yard or my back yard. 

I wake up and eat something. Then I read something by Ernest Holmes, usually just a few paragraphs. Then I pray. Then I open my laptop and see what lines are in the single file I have of all my lines that eventually (and magically, it seems) turn into poems over time. I do that for about an hour and a half to two hours and then I stop because by that time two to three hours have passed, and I know it because I’m hungry again. So I get up again to eat, and that means I’m done writing for the day unless some unexpected inspiration appears.

What are you working on now? 

These questions. I'm giving them my all.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

No, because I don't think typing is writing as much as thinking is.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

"Never say no." -Nikki Giovanni

What’s your advice to new writers?

"Never say no, but always use condoms unless you have another plan in mind."

Jericho Brown is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Brown’s first book, Please (New Issues 2008), won the American Book Award. His second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon 2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. His third collection, The Tradition, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in 2019. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, TIME magazine, and several volumes of The Best American Poetry. He is an associate professor and the director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University.

Tuesday
Nov062018

Joe Moran

How did you become a writer?

I was shy and introverted when I was growing up (and, for that matter, now).I suspect that the art of sentence writing, which lets you endlessly rework your words until they fall right, appeals to people like me who in life are tongue-tied and slow-witted.

I started my career writing academic articles and monographs. Writing in academia is regarded as a fairly neutral activity – simply a way of disseminating your research findings. But this does at least get you into the habit of writing and publishing. And so, when I moved into journalism and writing books for a broader readership, I’d learned some of the ropes.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I tend to like writers who write in clean, elegant sentences: Annie Dillard, Diana Athill, Jamaica Kincaid, James Baldwin. I’ve also been influenced by a lot of new nature writing (Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane) – not because I write that kind of book, but because I liked its combining of deep, scholarly knowledge with a personal, intimate voice. Academic writing tends, for perfectly good reasons, to hide itself behind an anonymously professionalised voice and I wanted to move beyond that.

When and where do you write?

I can write anywhere. But my favourite place, when I have time, is at my office desk at work, where I have the luxury of two screens: good for checking facts and multitasking, bad for getting distracted. 

What are you working on now? 

I’m working on a family memoir about the island that my grandmother came from in the west of Ireland. It will hopefully have a bit more of a story in it than my previous writing but will also be about bigger things: the relationship between Ireland and Britain, postwar history, families, memory and grief.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not fully, although I’ve had many bad days and many false starts. I’m quite an incremental writer, chipping away gradually, so although it’s a bit of a slog and I never ride on a wave of inspiration, it never quite grinds to a halt either. If you write non-fiction, as I do, there’s always something else to do if you get stuck with the writing: fact-checking, research, reading, reading. The American poet, William Stafford, said something like ‘if you get stuck, lower your standards and carry on’. So if you get writer’s block, just lower your standards. You can always improve it later on.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

My late father, who was also a writer, said that writing was like dropping a stone down a very deep well. For ages it feels like nothing is happening, and even when you’ve published something, it seems to disappear into nowhere. But then you might hear a tiny ‘plop’ in the water as it makes contact with someone. You never quite know what impact your writing will have, so you just have to write in a way that feels right to you and hope that it connects with someone when it finally reaches the bottom of the well.

What’s your advice to new writers?

First, focus on technique as much as on ideas and subject matter. The painter Edgar Degas once complained to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé that, while he had great ideas, he couldn’t seem to write a great poem. Mallarmé responded that, alas, poems are made of words, not ideas. That feels right to me: writing ismade up of words. The only way into your ideas is through the words, so you need to learn how to choose the right words and put them in the right order.

Second, remember that writing is rewriting. Get a first draft down as quickly as you can, and then the hard work begins.

Third, read your work out loud to yourself or, better still, get someone else to read it to you. It may help to clear your head of what you thinkyou’ve said, and introduce you to what you’ve actuallysaid. In other words, it will turn you from a writer into a reader of your work.

Joe Moran is the author, most recently, of First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing … and Life(Viking). He has written for the GuardianNew StatesmanTLS and other newspapers and magazines. He is Professor of English at Liverpool John Moores University, UK.

Tuesday
Oct302018

Michael Meyer

How did you become a writer?

I worked as a journalist from age 16, but I really started after volunteering with the United Farm Workers on the Texas border, which led to applying to the Peace Corps -- which sent me to China. I was one of the first volunteers there, and had a lot of time to read, to write, and to learn the language. It was great training, being in a place where my story was the least interesting one to tell, and where I could afford to sit and watch other people's stories unfold over time. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I'm the product of the public library, which is to writers what an art museum is to painters. And just as you'll see students sitting on a museum floor, sketching a picture to see how the artists put it together, I have always done the same with books, pulling them from shelves, one after another, and figuring out the structure the writer decided to use. 

When and where do you write? 

I've written two of my books while living for spells in London -- once in a hotel, once in a rented flat. I wish my muse had less expensive taste. Now that I'm home, I work first thing in the morning, at a desk facing a big window overlooking trees. Then I go for a run.   

What are you working on now? 

A book about the amazing afterlife of Benjamin Franklin. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I don't think there is such a thing. If you suspect you're infected, do what John Steinbeck did -- taking Emerson's advice -- to kick-start his writing "East of Eden": write a letter to a friend. There is an inspiring book of these letters, "Journal of a Novel."

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

You know it's time to write a book when the book you want to read doesn't exist. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Don't wait for permission to write. Nearly everything I've sold came not from querying editors and publishers, but by submitting a finished essay, article, and even book manuscript. Nothing builds confidence and momentum like actually doing the work, instead of talking about it.   

Michael Meyer is the author of the acclaimed nonfiction books “The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed” and “In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China.” He first came to China in 1995 with the Peace Corps, and for over a decade has contributed from there to The New York TimesTime, the Financial TimesLos Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Architectural Record, Reader’s Digest, Slate, Smithsonian, This American Life and many other outlets. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Lowell Thomas Awards for travel writing, and residencies at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. He has taught Literary Journalism at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, and wrote the foreword to The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China, 1873, a collection of Scottish explorer John Thomson’s early images. He is a member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations‘ Public Intellectuals Program, a recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar fellowship, and Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches nonfiction writing. The final book in his China trilogy, The Road to Sleeping Dragon: Learning China from the Ground Upwas published by Bloomsbury in October 2017; Mainland and Taiwan editions will appear in 2019.

Tuesday
Oct232018

John Larison

How did you become a writer? 

At first, I tried not to be one, because writing didn't seem like a stable way to make a living. I tried teaching high school, guiding anglers, and many odd jobs, but writing kept drawing me nearer and nearer--like gravity draws a river to the sea. At first, I started writing articles for outdoor magazines, and soon found luck. Within a year, I had started a how-to book on fly fishing, which seemed like the perfect way to learn the craft of writing a big project. At about that point, I applied to MFA programs, lured by the promise of knowledgeable mentors and a small writing stipend. I got very lucky to get into one program at Oregon State University.  

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

My early influences were all fishing related: Norman Maclean, David James Duncan, and Ted Leeson. Leeson taught at OSU, so I immediately sought his wisdom and guidance in person once I arrived; he has remained a friend and mentor over all these years since. As I turned toward writing fiction, my list of influences grew widely. I count Annie Proulx, Marianne Robinson, Charles Portis, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Larry McMurtry as major influences; however, if I'm totally honest, I feel like I learn something from every great novel I read, and I try to read widely, at the pace of 3-4 books a month.  

When and where do you write?

Six days a week I "commute" about 50 yards to a cabin I built with my parents behind my house in Oregon's Coast Range. I have big windows overlooking a creek and field, and books on three walls. I use a stand-up desk, but spend large amounts of time on the floor or in a chair thinking through what will come next. I show up at the cabin with two big thermoses full of hot water for the green tea I brew on-site, and once the water is gone, I return "home" for lunch and a refill; usually that takes 4-5 hours. After lunch, I go for a hike on the hill above our house, then return to the office with fresh hot water, for another 2-3 hours. When I'm drafting something new, I will usually return to the cabin after the kids go to bed in the evening for another hour of thought, but not writing. The trick for me is to find the inspiration, then keep it stoked for as long as possible; my friends know me to be a flake when the writing is going well. 

What are you working on now? 

I'm working on a novel called Peacemaker, which is set in 1924 in remote Oregon and follows four kids who are on a journey to find their mother. It's after WWI, and the historic West was, then, missing a generation of young men, including the characters' father. The novel is set in a world that remembers the characters from my last novel, Whiskey When We're Dry, as historic figures, which allows for me to build on the world I created in that novel. I'm loving the characters and the story, and so are my early readers. So fingers crossed!   

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not really, though there are definitely times when I couldn't write if I wanted to. September is one of those times. In September, my mind is consumed with the garden, the salmon in the rivers, the mushrooms in the hills. I cut myself a break, and follow my whims, which all have to do with harvesting the bounty of fall. I read a lot between outings, but I don't write much. I justify the break by thinking that I'm storing up energy for the hard work coming during the winter. Most of me thinks that's true. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

The how is the shape of the what. David Keplinger, an American poet, offered that advice during a reading I once attended. I was blown away with it at the time; I couldn't understand what he meant, but the phrase wouldn't leave my mind. I count it as the most significant single line of advice I have ever encountered. In a writing context, consider this breakdown: if you want to write a great story, create a great story-writing process. The trick, of course, is learning what kind of process works for you. It took ten years, but for me, I've learned that good sleep, minimal alcohol, daily reading, and lots of walking are essential for my process. I never give myself a hard time when the writing ("the what") isn't going well; instead, I tweak "the how" of my writing life.  

What’s your advice to new writers?

Beyond Keplinger's gem, I advise my students to read more than they write. I believe that before we can write great stories, we have to have internalized the largely ineffable movements of great stories. Personally, I sometimes think the first year of any MFA should be spent reading seven hours a day and writing for one hour. In the very least, I advise budding writers (of any age) to locate their first novel between three or four other published works of fiction; these books can serve like lighthouses when the waves are leaving you dizzy. 

John Larison is the author of Whiskey When We're Dry, a September 2018 Indie Next Pick. Whiskey When We're Dry has been selected a Best Book by Entertainment Weekly, New York Post, Goodreads, O Magazine, and many others, and is currently being developed into a feature film by Shinbone Productions. He lives and writes in the mountains of western Oregon.

Tuesday
Oct162018

Todd Hasak-Lowy

How did you become a writer?

Indirectly, because I first wanted to be a professor, something I decided to become around the age of 20. I also knew that I wanted to study Israel and the Middle East. But it took me a while to decide which field or discipline I wanted to pursue.

I wound up settling on Comparative Literature. I attended the University of California, Berkeley for graduate school, where I started in 1994. There I studied Hebrew and Arabic literatures, though by the time I was writing my dissertation I was only working on Hebrew literature. The weird thing about being at Berkeley, especially at first, was that I really had no idea how to study literature. My undergraduate major had been interdisciplinary, with an emphasis on history. I had always loved reading novels, but had never much systematic instruction. Suddenly I was attending one of the top literature programs in the world, and I was lost. My first few semesters at Berkeley, were, needless to say, difficult.

But when I started making sense of fiction (and narrative in general), the payoff was huge. I still remember, sitting in my younger brother’s apartment (both my brothers moved to San Francisco around the time I moved to Berkeley), reading some comic or graphic novel that was clearly in the tradition of R. Crumb or Harvey Pekar. I was amazed how the author was able to represent an entire imagined world, and that this world was utterly specific and alive, and that the author was creating all this through some remarkable combination of decisions, techniques, ideas, etc.

I guess that was an epiphany of sorts. I suddenly realized, Oh, this [this=writing stories] is really interesting, and somehow no longer 100% mysterious, and so maybe I could do it. I had always had a creative impulse (one that largely manifested itself from a young age with my behaving like a clown), but I never had a form or a medium to work in. Now I sensed I may have found one. I started writing a few months later, my voice somehow mostly formed right from the beginning.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

Two novels that I read around the time I started writing had a big impact on me: Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine and Yaakov Shabtai’s Past Continuous. These two works, each in its own way, offered me very particular models for forging my own prose. They were both highly analytical, which has always been central to my prose.

My main teachers were the people I was studying with at Berkeley at the time. Robert Alter, Chana Kronfeld, Miki Gluzman, and Naomi Seidman. None of them were creative writing teachers per se (I’ve only taken one creative writing class in my life, and that was back in undergrad and didn’t really lead anywhere), but they all taught me to be a better reader, which is probably just as important. 

When and where do you write? 

My most productive hours are 9am-noon. Sometimes I’ll revise in the afternoon. I don’t write every day, but during the school year I’ll usually write every weekday morning except Thursday (when I teach). If possible I write in the sunroom in our house. This is one of my favorite places in the world, because of all the windows and because it’s my space and no one else’s. Unfortunately, it’s not winterized (or air conditioned), so the weather must cooperate for me to work out there. Otherwise, it’s our living room. I used to like writing in cafes, but now I’m too sensitive to sound to concentrate in such places.

What are you working on now? 

I’m finishing up a draft of a book currently titled We are Power: Nonviolent Activism in the 20thCentury. This is a history for young readers, a follow-up of sorts to a book I co-wrote (with Susan Zimet) that came out in January 2018, Roses and Radicals: The Epic Story of How American Women Won the Right to Vote. I’m also working on a novel for adults about the prime minister of a fictional country that’s been locked in a conflict with another fictional country for decades and who decides one day to apologize to the other country. Last, I also recently started translating a Hebrew novel called Aquarium, by Yaari Shehori. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I rarely if ever suffer from writer’s block. But I do somewhat regularly suffer from what might be called “sitting down to write at all block.” The distinction being: something (in the latter) is keeping me from bothering in the first place. So not a lack of ideas or lack of desire to write, but some other set of concerns (self-doubt, anxiety, other obligations) sort of tell me I shouldn’t write at all. It’s annoying, to say the least.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

I don’t think I’ve heard anything that isn’t pretty cliched at this point, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t (and isn’t) valuable. For me the most valuable thing that others can give me is encouragement. Writing is lonely, the process is slow, and you’ll never know about or hear from 99.9% of your readers, which makes it easy to assume that no one is reading you at all. So anytime someone tells me to keep writing, well, that helps. The voice in my head telling me not to bother (even after publishing a bunch of books) is insanely loud and persistent at times.

What’s your advice to new writers?

First, read a lot, trying to find a balance between what you love and what you suspect you “should” be reading. The ratio of input (reading) to output (writing), especially early on, should probably be something along the lines of 10:1, maybe even 100:1. You just need to steep yourself in literary language and storytelling/literary techniques. And read reverse-engineering style: don’t just “like” and “dislike” things—try to figure out what exactly it is you’re liking and how the writer is creating that effect (whether it be a character, a description, the structure of a scene, etc.). Read like a writer, in other words.

Second, just write. Many aspiring writers (for reasons good and bad) expend a lot of energy agonizing over whether they should write at all, what to write, why to write, etc., etc. Either write or don’t write. And if you’re going to write, then just commit to it (indeed, schedule it into your week) and write. And early on simply produce pages. Focus on the process and don’t think about what it all might lead to. The inertia of not writing is formidable, so overcome and don’t look back.

Last, write what you want to read. Or, if children are your audience, what you think a younger version of you would have wanted. In seems crazy to me to write any other way for any other reason. 

Todd Hasak-Lowy has published two books for adults: a short story collection, THE TASK OF THIS TRANSLATOR (2005), and the novel CAPTIVES (2008). His first book for younger readers, a middle grade novel called 33 MINUTES, was published in 2013. In 2015 he published a young adult novel, ME BEING ME IS EXACTLY AS INSANE AS YOU BEING YOU. That same year, a narrative memoir for ages 10 and up that he co-wrote with and about Holocaust survivor Michael Gruenbaum called SOMEWHERE THERE IS STILL A SUN came out. In early 2018 a young person's history of the women's suffrage movement, ROSES & RADICALS, which he co-wrote with Susan Zimet, was published. In addition to writing, he teaches literature at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago and translates Hebrew literature into English. Todd lives in Evanston, Illinois (just outside Chicago), with his wife, two daughters, a dog, and two cats.