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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Feb092016

Matt Gallagher

How did you become a writer?

Like most writers, I read a lot growing up as a means to make sense of the world. The old truth that the best way to develop as a writer is to read, read, and read some more endures for good reason. But I was a skinny Irish kid from Reno, Nevada, and had no idea how someone "became" a writer. Some years later, as an Army lieutenant in Iraq, I started a blog that inadvertently jumpstarted my writing career. At the time though, I was just writing to keep in touch with family and friends.

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

The best question and the hardest! Because someone vital is always left off. Let's see ... I grew up out west, so Joan Didion and Katherine Anne Porter and Robert Laxalt were literary fixtures in our house. Like a lot of young men of a certain type, I read too much Hemingway. I came to Marquez late but am glad I did. As for “war” stories: Herr’s Dispatches, Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato … oh, and Tolstoy. Can’t leave out that guy.

A number of wonderful writing instructors left great impressions on my work, to include John McNally, Lauren Grodstein, Richard Ford, Benjamin Taylor and Victor LaValle. 

When and where do you write?

My usual schedule is write in my apartment for three to four hours in the morning. Then I'll take my dog to the park and grab lunch. In the afternoon I'll edit and revise at the local coffee shop for a few hours.

What are you working on now?

A second novel, centered on post-empire America. It still needs a lot of work, but I’m excited for its potential. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Of course! Any writer who says otherwise is lying through their teeth. But I've gotten to the point where I realize that the only way past writer's block is through it — writing through it, to be more exact.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Talent's great. Tenacity is better. Don't be afraid of failure, it's part of the process. And "Embrace the Suck," as we liked to say in the Army.

Matt Gallagher is a former U.S. Army captain and Iraq war veteran. His debut novel Youngblood was just published by Atria/Simon & Schuster.

Tuesday
Feb022016

Joyce Sutphen

How did you become a writer?

I’m not sure. I think it was because I was always reading when I was a child; sometimes it got me out of chores, and I loved the sound of a voice (Jane Eyre, Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, or Scout—all of them!) and the sound of words. My father was a farmer and a rhymer in a sort of Dylanesque way; my mother was (and is) someone who dislikes embellishment and pretense. I realize now that they were a good combination for me, but I think I became a writer (if that’s what I am) because I was very shy and inarticulate, and writing was a way for me to sound the way I wanted. Then, when I realized that writing was a way to find out what I didn’t know I knew, that it often brought me along a way I didn’t plan on going, I was hooked.

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

My influences? I would say Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, Yeats, mythopoeic writers such as George MacDonald, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were especially important when I was in my twenties, but the older I get, the closer I have come to reading contemporary poetry and fiction most of the time. One thing that I’m sure had a huge effect on me was memorizing poems (mostly when I drove to and from the college where I’ve taught for over twenty years). I have memorized thirty or forty of Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems by Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Roethke, Wislawa Symborska, Rilke, James Wright, W.S. Merwin, and others—I think those poems settled in my bones and helped me in immeasurable ways.

When and where do you write? 

I write anywhere and anytime; if I’m wise, I write when I feel that lump of emotion in my throat (the one that Robert Frost says a poem begins with), and that could occur anytime—it might be while I’m reading a stack of student papers or when a bird crashes into a window on my house and I see him lying down on the patio, beautiful and absolutely still. Mostly though, I’m foolish and work too hard on other things.

What are you working on now? 

I’m always working on new poems, hoping that I’ll write something that takes the top off of someone’s head, something that “clicks” and helps me say what I don’t know. I think I’m in transition now. There’s a topic I want to write about, but I’m not sure how to approach it; it may even call for prose!

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not really—until now. My father died a few months ago, and everything I begin falls into a tangle or a blank. He was such a good man, but the end of his life was shadowed by things that he couldn’t control and strange events that are like something out of a Thomas Hardy story. I know—as much as I ever did—that I’ll get past this if I keep working, keep trying to get it down right.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Read and read and then write and write. Find people who care about writing as much as you do; go to readings and support other writers in any way you can.

Joyce Sutphen grew up on a farm near St. Joseph, Minnesota. Her first collection of poems, Straight Out of View, won the Barnard New Women Poets Prize; Coming Back to the Body was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award, and Naming the Stars won a Minnesota Book Award in Poetry. She teaches literature and creative writing at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. Her latest book, Modern Love & Other Myths, was published by Red Dragonfly Press in 2015.  She is the second Minnesota Poet Laureate, succeeding Robert Bly.

Tuesday
Jan262016

Rachel Cantor

How did you become a writer?

I always wanted to be a writer. Wanting and becoming turned out to be different things, however. It wasn’t till I was divorced and in my mid-thirties that I decided to take the idea seriously: I quit my job and moved to the shore not just to write but to “become a writer.” I gave myself a year and never looked back. At the time, the decision required all the courage I had; at much remove, it’s plain the decision was a no-brainer.

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

It starts with Miss Benny, the fourth grade teacher who removed me from my third grade classes once a week to attend her creative writing class. It continues with at least 1,000 great books, 1,000 great paintings, 1,000 great musical compositions, etc. Plus all those great people I met, the men I loved, the friends I made, all those interesting and beautiful and awful places in which I’ve lived and visited and read about, the strange curves life throws. Unless you’re trying to write like someone else, influence, for me, anyway, is infinitely complex and ultimately untraceable.

When and where do you write? 

I write when I can. I only write well when I am able to focus on it more or less exclusively for stretches at a time, so I alternate money-work and writing. I live in a small NY apartment, so I work in a corner, unless I’m fortunate enough to have a residency, in which case I write in absolute luxury!

What are you working on now? 

I’m drafting a novel-in-stories about the Brontë siblings. I’ve published pieces of the book in the Kenyon Review, Five Chapters, Ninth Letter, Volume 1 Brooklyn, and in a few anthologies.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Can’t say I have. I yearn so much for unbroken writing time that when I have it, I almost always get to it! Not every day is productive, but I have faith that the next one will be, and usually it is.

What’s your advice to new writers?

I have advice both for the hesitant and the impatient. For the former: have courage! Share your work with teachers and peers, never let fear of failure keep you from finishing your work, and never let fear of rejection keep you from sending it out. Persist! For the latter: don’t rush to publication! Take time to read lots and lots of great writing and to rewrite your own work again and again and to share it and rewrite again, and possibly put it away for a while. Take time to find the writing style and subject matter that are well and truly yours. Know the world of publishing will still be there when your work is actually ready!

Rachel Cantor is the author of the novels Good on Paper (Melville House, 2016) and A Highly Unlikely Scenario (Melville House, 2014). Her short stories have appeared in The Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Millay Colony, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is always at work on another book.

Tuesday
Jan192016

Amitava Kumar

How did you become a writer?

I must have been fifteen or sixteen. I had recently moved to Delhi, the capital city, and I had decided that I needed better English. I read an essay in the school text-book by George Orwell. The British writer had been born near my own village in eastern India, in 1903, but I hadn't known this connection at that time. The essay was "Why I Write." Orwell had written that there was a voice in his head describing what he was doing and what was going on around him. This also became true of me. I could be in a bus and a voice running in my head would name the objects I saw being sold on the streets, their colors, the looks in the eyes of the sellers. That basic desire, to use words to give shape to the world around me, made me a writer.

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

My roommate in college had on his shelf a copy of V.S. Naipaul's Finding the Center. This was one of the first literary autobiographies that I read. Its very first sentence established in my mind the idea of writing as an opening in time or a beginning. It conveyed to me, with its movement and rhythm, a history of repeated striving, and of things coming together, at last, in the achievement of the printed word: “It is now nearly thirty years since, in a BBC room in London, on an old BBC typewriter, and on smooth, ‘non-rustle’ BBC script paper, I wrote the first sentence of my first publishable book.” This first sentence—about a first sentence—created an echo in my head. It has lasted through all the years of my writing life. Other writers have influenced me in the decades that followed, numerous writers, perhaps too many to mention, with their language and their technique. But no one has so consistently dramatized for me the narrative of a writer's struggle. Barely a day passed when I'm not reminded of his phrase: "such anxiety, such ambition."

When and where do you write?

I have only worked in my study unless I've been away for a short-term writing residency. We moved house recently. My study overlooks a creek. I like looking at the changing light on the water. Once, I was on a very comfortable flight across the Atlantic. Jimmy Cliff was singing "You Can Get It If You Really Want." A short-story came tumbling out of me. It came out of the relaxation of the moment, and also perhaps the isolation, but such happenings are rare.

Mornings are best for fresh writing. As soon as the children leave for school, I turn to work. If I dawdle over coffee and nothing else, we can be off to a good start. Otherwise it is easy to lose the rhythm, the intensity.

What are you working on now?

About fifteen years ago, while on a visit to Mumbai, an acquaintance gave me a copy of your book Advice to Writers. (The best advice I remember reading while walking around the Fort area in Mumbai came from E.L. Doctorow: Writing a book is "like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.") Anyway, right now, I'm trying to do a long essay that provides advice for academic writers. I want to provoke us to think about style. My argument is a modest one. We shouldn't feel duty-bound as academics to produce writing the texture of drying cement. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

No, but that doesn't mean I lead an ideal existence. I'm conscious of the lack of time. There's never enough time. I'm happy that I can write regularly but what disturbs me, no, distresses me, is that whenever I get the gift of large chunk of time, I seem to write less.

What’s your advice to new writers?

The same advice that I offer my students and myself: write every day and walk every day. Your output needn't be huge but writing needs to be practiced daily. A goal of writing 150 words is achievable even on busy days. The same goes for walking. You don't need to hike for miles. Even ten minutes of mindful walking will suffice.

Amitava Kumar is the author of several works of non-fiction and a novel. The New York Times described his book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, as a "perceptive and soulful...meditation on the global war on terror and its cultural and human repercussions." Kumar's latest book is a collection of essays entitled Lunch with a Bigot. He teaches English at Vassar College. His website is www.amitavakumar.com and is on Twitter @amitavakumar.

Tuesday
Jan122016

Mark Harris

How did you become a writer?

Simplest answer: I wrote, and I read. I think that's how all writers become writers. I wanted to write from the time I could form letters. I think I was probably just out of college the first time I said, "I'm a writer" aloud and tried to own it as a profession or at least as an aspiration.

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

When I finished high school, I foresaw a very orderly future for myself in which I would go on to college and then to law school, after which I would be a lawyer. My father, who died when I was 14, had been a lawyer, and so this plan seemed somehow likely to fulfill my family's expectations. So I went to my high school prom, and I was dancing with a teacher I really liked, and she asked me what my plans were. I told her "I'll probably be a lawyer," and her face fell and said, "The world has enough lawyers. You should be a writer." Those words went into me like lightning; my life changed in that moment. It was the first time an adult had ever suggested to me that this was a choice I could make. As for influences, there wasn't one writer who made me want to be a writer. I'm a journalist, and therefore sort of a scavenger. Every writer who's ever written a sentence I wished I'd thought of has been an influence. 

When and where do you write?

I have a small home office, and I write there, or on the couch, or really anywhere--including in my head, on the treadmill, walking the dog, or in the shower before I ever sit down at my laptop. I don't have a routine; I wish I were one of those writers who got up at the same time every day, made breakfast, sat down, and wrote, but I never have been. I'm an evening person; I gain in competence as the day goes on, so I tend to write in the afternoon. I don't have a lot of rules; I think years of working on a magazine staff made me unfussy. I can't write in bed, and I can't write if music is playing. But otherwise, I don't need perfect atmospheric conditions to do what I do.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on my third book, a biography of Mike Nichols, and will be working on it for the next three years. I've also written a script for a documentary. Biography and scriptwriting are both new forms for me, and it's very exciting for me to try something I've never tried before. I've taken a break from writing journalism about movies and TV for the last few months in order to concentrate fully on those projects, but I think soon, I'll reincorporate some journalism into my working life. I like keeping one foot in the 21st century, and I also think it's dangerous--for me, at least--to go too long without writing. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I'm grateful not to have suffered from it in any sustained way--I think journalism beats that out of you--but of course, I've had days on which I've felt either that I didn't know how to get my ideas out of my head and onto the page or that the sentences just wouldn't come. So sometimes I walk away, just to think, because if I'm stuck, there's almost always an underlying problem with the idea itself. And sometimes I'll just start writing anyway--writing garbage that I know I won't submit but that will help me figure out why I'm having trouble.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Read everything. If you admire something and wish you'd written it, read it again--for style, for word choice, for thought, for construction, for how it makes you feel. And for new journalists; Rewrite yourself ruthlessly. If you're lucky enough to have the guidance of an editor, that's great; if you're not, learn how to be your own editor. It's easy to treat writing as a form of self-expression, but unless you're writing in a diary, it's first and foremost a means of communication. Rewriting your own prose honors the person with whom you're trying to communicate, so it's worth the extra effort and time. Try to put your best work into the world--and then, try not to beat yourself up when you realize, as you always will, that it could have been better. It will be better next time.

Mark Harris is a New York-based cultural journalist and the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008) and Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (2014).