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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Sep272016

Lian Hearn

How did you become a writer?

I must have been born a writer. I was making up stories by the age of four. Writing them down was harder. My handwriting as a child was slow, clumsy and illegible. I was taught to write again at age 15, in a modified italic. I still write all my first drafts by hand.  I worked as a journalist, film critic and arts editor before I emigrated to Australia and had my three children. When they were small I wrote poetry and made up stories for them. My youngest child went to school and I thought I would try and write a novel. It was published eventually and I was on my way. It was 1986 and I have been a full-time writer ever since.

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

I’ve always been a wide and eclectic reader, but I’ve never done a writing course or read many books about writing. I learned how to write from reading. I studied French and Spanish at school and university and so was influenced early by literature other than English. Now I read in Japanese as well, which has an effect on my style. As a teenager I loved Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut. Also Lord of the Rings which I read when I was 19 and it was still a little known cult book. When I was poised to try writing my first novel Diana Wynne Jones was a huge influence.

When and where do you write?

I write very early in the morning, in bed, the cat on my knee, a cup of green tea to hand. I like to start before anyone else is awake, while I am still half in the dream world.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a further tale of the Otori, looking at what happens to the characters who survive the trauma at the end of The Harsh Cry of the Heron. I’m also letting some ideas for horror stories simmer away somewhere in my unconscious.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

All my life I’ve written in stolen hours so I’ve never had time for writers block.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Trying to be a writer is full of paradoxes and contradictions. Grow a thick skin but be sensitive to everything around you. Get a day job but make writing your priority. Read other writers but find your own voice. Have the highest expectations but don’t be disappointed. Be prepared to sell yourself in a marketplace but remain modest. Success if it comes will be followed by failure, so have courage.

Lian Hearn is the pseudonym used by British born Australian writer, Gillian Rubinstein for her Japan inspired medieval fantasies, Tales of the Otori (2002-2007) and The Tale of Shikanoko (2016) These books have been translated into 40 languages and published around the world. She has also written two historical novels, set in 19th century Japan, Blossoms and Shadows and The Story Teller and his Three Daughters. In her previous incarnation Gillian wrote over thirty books for children and teenagers, as well as numerous plays, winning many awards and inspiring many young writers. Previously she worked as a film critic, freelance journalist and editor in London and Sydney. She lived for thirty years in South Australia and now lives in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales.

Tuesday
Sep202016

Nayomi Munaweera

How did you become a writer?

I think the writing chose me. I was unhappy in grad school and trying to write a dissertation. At some point I realized that I wanted to write fiction not analyze it. I dropped out and started writing a novel. It was 12 years before my first book was published and I felt comfortable calling myself a writer.

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

Salman Rushdie, Lionel Shriver, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Hilary Mantel.

When and where do you write?

In the morning, when I am as close to the dream world as possible. Never at night because I write about dark things and I don't want nightmares.

What are you working on now?

A third novel. It has a very different protagonist from my other two books. He's dangerous and thrilling. I can't say more than that.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?


No really, because I write novels--big projects--so if some part of the book isn't working I can work on a different bit. Which is not to say that some days I'd rather do anything else--root canals included--than write. On those days I try to do research or interviews etc :)

What’s your advice to new writers?

This is not a job. This is a calling. If you are called you won't have any choice but to answer. Throw off your clothes, wade into the water, dive deep, deeper, deeper. It will be hard, it will be cold and lonely and sometimes terrifying but if you go deep enough you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams by the writing itself.

Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, was long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. It was short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Northern California Book Prize. It won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. The Huffington Post raved, “Munaweera’s prose is visceral and indelible, devastatingly beautiful-reminiscent of the glorious writings of Louise Erdrich, Amy Tan and Alice Walker, who also find ways to truth-tell through fiction. The New York Times Book review called the novel, “incandescent.” The book was the Target Book Club selection for January 2016. Nayomi’s second novel, What Lies Between Us was hailed as one of the most exciting literary releases of 2016 from venues ranging from Buzzfeed to Elle magazine. Her non-fiction and short fiction are also widely published. www.nayomimunaweera.com.

Tuesday
Sep132016

Dawn Raffel

How did you become a writer?

I started as a daydreamer. You know the kid who’s a million miles away when the teacher calls on her? That was me. And from the time I could read, books were both my refuge and my window on the world. Let’s blame it on that. By middle school, I was always writing something.

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

Everything that influences who we are influences what we write, doesn’t it? I devoured the Russian classics, especially Tolstoy, though I doubt anyone would see that in my work. I have huge admiration for the dialogue and silences of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, and tremendous regard for the courage and wit of Flannery O’Connor and Grace Paley. Is that traceable in my work? That’s for someone else to say. I studied with Gordon Lish, who is a phenomenal editor and teacher. I count Robley Wilson as a mentor. And I learned something from every writer I’ve worked with in a long career as an editor. I spent several lifetimes in dogs years as an editor on staff before going freelance. 

When and where do you write?

In my head all the time. On the page under pressure. I tend to procrastinate.

What are you working on now?

A heavily-researched nonfiction book that is taking me way outside my comfort zone, in a good way.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Daily. But usually writer’s block is fear of what’s going to come out on the page. If you’re writing well, no matter the topic, you’re going to learn something about yourself and it might disrupt your idea of who you are. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

It’s supposed to bring you joy. That’s not exactly the same as “fun.” And it doesn’t mean it’s easy—it isn’t. But when people talk about bleeding onto the page and all that other crap, forget it. Suffering is part of the human condition, not a badge of honor. You don’t need to seek it out to be a better writer. Find the joy.

Dawn Raffel’s four books include a novel (Carrying the Body), two short story collections (In the Year of Long Division and Further Adventures in the Restless Universe) and a memoir (The Secret Life of Objects). She teaches at the Center for Fiction in New York and works as a freelance book doctor.

Tuesday
Sep062016

Ben H. Winters

How did you become a writer?

I was always writing something or other. In middle school and high school I played bass guitar in a punk rock band called Corm, and though I was never more than a mediocre bass player, I managed to contribute to the group by writing most of the lyrics. In college I wrote for the school newspaper, engendering a minor scandal by satirizing the fraternity system (I was straightedge, meaning I didn't drink, a holdover from the brief career in D.C. punk rock), and then post-college I wrote and performed standup comedy and then musical theater. In all of these efforts I was balancing a narcissistic desire to be public/performative against my real ability, which was always just sitting alone in a room and writing. My first gigs in publishing were on commission for Quirk Books in Philadelphia, doing various nonfiction things, and it was through that connection that I became a novelist—first with parody fiction  (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters) and eventually with the novel I think of as marking the beginning of my real career, The Last Policeman.

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

I learn from what I read, and what I read depends on what I'm trying to write, so for each book there tends to be a different set of influences. So for example, for Underground Airlines which just came out, I would say I was very influenced by John Le Carré and Ralph Ellison and Octavia Butler. Reliable permanent influences include Patricia Highsmith (the Ripley novels) and Walter Mosley (the Easy Rawlins books) and Richard Price (everything); and books about writing by Stanley Fish (How to Write a Sentence) and Stephen King (On Writing). For day to day inspiration I turn to the Paris Review archives of writer interviews—endlessly inspiring and fascinating. It's hard to stop once you get in there. I recently read the Ellison one and it's just so beautiful: "All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel—and isn’t that what we’re all clamoring for these days?—is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance." Yes, sir. Yes, yes, yes.

When and where do you write?

In a perfect world, I write for the six or seven hours between when my kids start school/camp/preschool and when they're done. In reality, at least a third of that time is taken up by emails or errands or all the other dull subroutines of life, but I strive to get a three hour stretch of real solid work time on each work day. And though I think about what I'm writing every day, I generally do not have time to work on the weekends. 

When I am deep in a book I get very obsessive about work time and time management and the fear of wasted minutes. I'll make a list of tasks for the next day, and carefully slot them into work-time periods: from 8:25 to 10 I'll work on chapter 1, from 10 to 11 I'll revise the restaurant section, from 11 to 11:15 I'll take a brisk walk during which I'll think about how I want the ending to work—and etc. etc. I find having that road map in my head for each work day is as valuable or even more valuable than having the road map for the novel itself. 

In terms of location, I'll write anywhere. Laptop, headphones, a cup of coffee, I'm fine. I'll work in a public library a lot, because I like to be surrounded by books, old-fashioned nerd that I am. My favorite place I've ever had to work was when we briefly lived in the Boston area, and I had a membership to something called the Boston Atheneum. It's this large gorgeous historic landmark building, adjacent to some kind of revolutionary graveyard, as I recall, and it's stuffed with books from the basement up. I wrote a lot of The Last Policeman in there, and I still think about what pleasure it gave me, wandering around in those stacks, solving my mystery. 

What are you working on now?

A new novel, tentatively called The Prisoner. So far I know it's a legal thriller, or some kind of legal book, but that's about all I know so far.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Well, no, not really, or only very temporarily. And while I don't question people who say they have it, I tend to view the idea of writer's block with a lot of suspicion. I see it as the corrosive flip side of the muse myth, this whole romantic idea that writing is some sort of magical supernatural process involving no real agency or work on the writer's part—you open the floodgates and it flows through you when it feels like it. If you accept that, then you've accepted there are times when the taps are closed, and oh well I guess no more writing today. Because of course there is an element of magic to the writing process, the a-ha moments and the tapping of the subconscious and all that, but at base writing is a craft that requires knowledge, dedication, persistence, and perseverance. 

Writing can be extremely difficult—as can be anything worth doing—and I think saying "I have writer's block" is a way of saying "this is too difficult for me to do right now." Which is a totally valid thing to say, but that's not a "block," a word suggesting permanent immovability—that is a problem you have, which has to be solved.What’s your advice to new writers?

Carve out time for writing and be ruthless about protecting that time. The best advice I ever got about writing was not writing advice, it's just general advice, from William Penn (Quaker founder of Pennsylvania): "Time is what we want most and use worst." Find the time to write, and then write during that time. Don't sit there checking your email and checking your Facebook page and texting your friends and then walk around the rest of the day bemoaning how you never have time to write. Because it is time—time to exercise your imagination, time to think freely, time to do the hard logistical and emotional labor of writing—it is time that is your key resource. Time is precious; treat it that way. 

Ben H. Winters is the author most recently of Underground Airlines (Mulholland/Little, Brown); his previous work includes the Edgar-winning, Philip K. Dick Award-winning Last Policeman trilogy (Quirk Books). He has written extensively for the theater and has also published numerous works for children. Originally from the Washington, D.C. area, Ben has lived all over the country and is now in Los Angeles.

Tuesday
Aug302016

Dani Shapiro

How did you become a writer?

I didn’t know it was possible to be a writer, when I was growing up. I loved to read, and I wrote constantly, but the idea that I could actually become the person who wrote the books – simply never occurred to me. It wasn’t until I went to college at Sarah Lawrence that I first met “real” writers who taught there. Grace Paley was a teacher and mentor of mine. It wasn’t a smooth road. I dropped out of college after a few years, knocked around for a while, made a mess of my life, and when I went back to school it seemed I had something to write about. (I don’t recommend this as a career path.) I got my MFA, and my graduate thesis became my first published novel. 

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

Virginia Woolf; Anne Truitt; Elizabeth Hardwick; Grace Paley.

When and where do you write? 

Mornings are best. I write either at home in my small office, or in a local cafe.  

What are you working on now? 

I’ve just finished a new book, Hourglass, which will be published by Knopf in April. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

John Gregory Dunne once described what we call writer’s block as a “failure of nerve.” I try to keep that in mind because it de-mystifies it, and makes it possible for me to push past my resistance. It’s all about courage — which involves feeling the fear and doing it anyway. 

What’s your advice to new writers?  

Read. Walk. Don’t succumb to impatience. Play the long game. 

Dani Shapiro is the bestselling author of the memoirs Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, The New York Times Book Review, the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and has been broadcast on This American Life. Dani was recently Oprah Winfrey’s guest on Super Soul Sunday. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, The New School and Wesleyan University; she is co-founder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. A contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler, Dani lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut. Her next book, Hourglass, will be published by Knopf in the spring of 2017.