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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Nov292016

Blake Bailey

How did you become a writer?

In college I surprised myself by writing a pretty good senior thesis on Walker Percy. "Maybe I can do this," I thought, then spent the next 15 years writing bad fiction and the occasional book review. Suddenly I stumbled into a number of lucky breaks, and before I quite knew what was happening I managed to sell a proposed biography of the novelist Richard Yates. Oddly enough I learned thereby that my main calling was to be a literary biographer.

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

In no particular order: Wodehouse, Strachey, Christina Stead, Waugh, Nabokov, Joseph Mitchell, A. J. Liebling, many others (including my own biographical subjects and their influences), various literary biographies such as Brian Boyd's superb two-volume work on Nabokov, Gerald Clarke on Capote, and (of course) Ellmann on Joyce.

When and where do you write? 

I try to stop farting around with email, Twitter, the NYT website, etc., by 10:30 AM or so, and write most of the day--when I'm writing. (Bear in mind biographers go through years of research without a properly stringent writing routine.) Then I write all day, allowing myself a break at lunch if I've managed to meet roughly half my daily quota, about 600-750 words. My office is on the third floor opposite my 12-year-old daughter's bedroom; she's very considerate and quiet and has her own work to do, after all.

What are you working on now? 

A biography of Philip Roth.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Oh yes. Especially when I was trying to write fiction. Nowadays I try to prepare my notes as meticulously as possible, precisely because I have a horror of getting stuck.

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

Writing is rewriting.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Find what interests you passionately and write about it. If, after a seemly interval, you find yourself hating your life, do something else.

Blake Bailey is the author of biographies of John Cheever, Richard Yates, and Charles Jackson. He's the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Francis Parkman Prize, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His latest book, The Splendid Things We Planned, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography.

Tuesday
Nov222016

Maddie Dawson

How did you become a writer?

In some ways, I think I’ve always been a writer. I wrote my first story when I was six years old when my mother wouldn’t give me money for the ice cream man…and sold it to the neighbors for 25 cents, which in those days would buy a very nice banana Popsicle. I could see right then that writing was going to be a very lucrative path for me—I’d always have all the frozen desserts I wanted! Later on, I became that kid, the one in the corner writing down snippets of dialogue and then forcing my friends to act in the plays I was writing. I majored in English lit and journalism in college (figuring out by then that I’d need to make a living that included money for more than Popsicles), and worked as a newspaper reporter and magazine columnist. But I never got over the desire to write fiction, so I started writing a novel on the side. It took me 17 years, but after that, I was on my way.

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

Wow, there are so many! I read everything—especially when I’m on deadline supposed to be writing my own stuff. I have a network of writer friends, and we all share our agonies and stories and characters and give each other advice during what we call our “plot walks.” I love Anne Lamott and her down-to-earth advice about writing in Bird by Bird. And John Truby (The Anatomy of Story) has taught me how to put all the elements of a novel together in much less than 17 years! I’m in love with Alice Mattison’s book, The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control and Live to Tell the Tale, which is an entire Creative Writing course in one book! 

When and where do you write? 

Oh, boy. This question! I am practically a nomad when it comes to my writing life… walking around with my Macbook Air under my arm, looking for a friendly spot where the words might be located. I have a desk and an office at home, but I mostly hate being in there, so I’m often at the dining room table, curled up on the couch, in bed, on the back porch, in the Adirondack chairs outside, or at Starbucks, on Metro North (that’s my favorite office—something about the movement of the train and the fact that I can’t get up makes it my most productive space). I write on and off throughout the day to get my page count, but my very favorite time is the middle of the night. Unfortunately for my regular life, that’s when the scenes play in my head almost like a movie, and I have to get out of bed and hurry to write them down. Sometimes I’ll sit down to make a few notes and then am stunned to see the sun coming up!

What are you working on now?

I’m halfway through a novel that is under contract. It’s about a woman who finds her regular life turned upside down when she unexpectedly (even reluctantly) inherits a house that comes with a whole cast of characters who need her to solve their lives.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I don’t think so, not for any ongoing length of time, at least. I’ve certainly had times when I didn’t know what was going to happen next in my book, and I spent a few weeks staring off into space and moaning and groaning while I waited for the next thing to occur to me…but I’m lucky in that it seems that whenever I’ve been about to finish a book, the next book is right there, taking shape out of the ether, all ready to pull me in.

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

To write every single day! I think it was Annie Dillard who said that if you don’t work on your book each day, if you let it go for a while, it turns feral, and you practically need a whip and a chair to get it into shape again. I love that analogy. Also, if you write each day, the book stays front and center in your head, and your subconscious mind keeps working on it even when you’re doing something else. Best of all, you don’t then have to go back to the beginning and read it all again before you can write your new pages; re-reading is deadly for your fledgling book! After all, everything, even War and Peace, would start to sound trite and boring the 3,476th time you had to read it. Best to re-read as little as possible, just keep moving forward, writing little notes to yourself, and know that you can (and will) fix what needs to be fixed when you have the draft finished.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Keep going. Don’t be shocked at how long it takes to get your work to the point it’s ready to go out into the world. Work on it steadily, don’t give up, and know that every writer out there is writing bad first drafts (and slightly less bad second, third, and tenth drafts, etc.) We all want to be writing final drafts first, but that’s not the way it works. It came as such a relief to me to realize that it wasn’t just ME who couldn’t get the words right the first time. Writing gets better through time and through reading and watching how others do it. Read everything, the bad and the good and the amazing. And work to discover your own authentic voice. It’s there, lurking, waiting for you to hear it and pay attention.

Maddie Dawson is the bestselling author of five novels, the latest of which is called The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness, which will be published this month by Lake Union. She lives in Guilford, Connecticut, with her husband. She formerly wrote under the name Sandi Kahn Shelton and is the author of three non-fiction humor books about parenting as well as a novel. She also teaches writing workshops.

Tuesday
Nov152016

Liz Kay

How did you become a writer?

I was a reader first, obsessed with books from a very young age. Of course I was a daydreamer too, and writing just seemed to follow naturally from that. I started my first “novel” when I was ten, a murder mystery titled “Sisterly Betrayal” in which the bad sister (based loosely on my sister Katie) gets murdered in a really gruesome way somewhere in the first ten pages. I left it out for Katie to find, but she did not have the response I’d hoped which was for her to weepingly beg forgiveness for the many cruelties she’d inflicted on me throughout my young life, and I abandoned the project soon after. It is telling that from the very beginning, my writing has been driven by an interest in provoking the reader as much as possible.

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

I was a poet first, so many of my influences come from the world of poetry—Sharon Olds, Beth Ann Fennelly. I’ve loved T.S. Eliot forever, and the musicality of Byron and especially Shelley is a tremendous influence. Even in fiction, I pay close attention to rhythms and repetitions.

When and where do you write?

I’ve never been a very disciplined writer, so I don’t have a routine. I’m either writing or I’m not. By that I mean I’m either deep in a project, or I’m at some other stage that is less about putting words on paper. Sometimes it’s more about gathering sparks—reading a lot, watching movies, thinking through the possibilities of a project—and that might come with some little dabblings of writing, but most of the time, it’s not much. When it clicks and the project is in motion, then I’m never really not writing. I write from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed and in every spare minute I can snatch from my day, and I’ll write absolutely anywhere. I’ve written in my car. I’ve written on the floor of an auditorium while my kids practiced for a performance ten feet away. It’s exhilarating but it’s also sort of terrifying and there’s always a part of me that stalls on going into that space again.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on not stalling.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

There are so many ways of not-writing. I’m good at many of them. We have to live in the world if we want to write it. We have to live and we have to consume and we have to read and look at art and listen to music, and for me at least, these are things I don’t really do while I’m writing, so I need time between projects to do the work of thinking about other interesting things, and I think this is a really productive way of not-writing. The other way of not-writing that I’m particularly skilled at is the way in which a project seems too hard and I haven’t figured it out yet and I don’t want to do the work and so I think I probably just need to read 7 or 39 more novels, and this is not a productive type of not-writing. I’m trying to learn how to distinguish between the two.

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

I’m drawing a blank, and not because I haven’t been given advice but it’s never been advice that’s helped me to grow as a writer. I’ve never gotten encouragement and then somehow improved from that. I’m a big proponent of obstacles actually. Obstacles force me to assess whether I want to do the work of getting the skills to get over the next hurdle or not. For me, I’m most appreciative of the times I’ve heard “No,” the times I’ve been told the work wasn’t good enough, the times I’ve been closest to giving up.

What’s your advice to new writers?

My best advice to new writers is to try very hard to think of something else to do instead. If you can’t think of anything else and you’re convinced you really want to be a writer, then read everything you can get your hands on.

Liz Kay is the author of the novel Monsters: A Love Story (Putnam). She is a founding editor of Spark Wheel Press and the journal burntdistrict, and her poems have appeared in such journals as Willow Springs, Nimrod, RHINO, and Beloit Poetry Journal.

Tuesday
Nov082016

Jodi Picoult

How did you become a writer?

I have been writing since I was five and wrote a book called the Lobster That Was Misunderstood. I had a ton of teachers who recognized I liked to write, and encouraged it. I applied to Princeton and was accepted into their creative writing program, where I had a mentor, Mary Morris, who really taught me everything I know. My first book was published when I was 25.

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

Mary Morris, as listed above. And believe it or not, Hemingway, for his economy of language. Also F. Scott Fitzgerald. He taught me the joy of using an unreliable narrator…and I lived in the same room he did when he was at Princeton.

When and where do you write? 

Five days a week, in my office, which is the attic of my home.

What are you working on now? 

I am getting ready for a grueling three month international book tour so I am not actively writing fiction. However, I’m helping to adapt Between the Lines as a Broadway musical.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I don’t believe in writer’s block. I started writing when I had babies, and the only time I had to write was when they were asleep or watching Barney on TV. I learned to write in fifteen-minute bursts. If you have time, you have writer’s block. If you don’t, you WRITE.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Take a fiction writing workshop course. It will help you create on demand and learn to give and receive criticism. Read – a ton – so that you figure out where your work fits into the literary canon. And most importantly when you start something and decide halfway through you hate it, don’t abandon it. Force yourself to finish. THEN decide if you want to get rid of it or fix it. If you scrap it before you’re done, you’ll never believe you can finish anything you write.

Jodi Picoult is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twenty-three novels, including Leaving Time, The Storyteller, My Sister’s Keeper, and Nineteen Minutes, and two young adult novels, Between the Lines and Off the Page, co-written with her daughter Samantha van Leer. Acclaimed as “a skilled wordsmith . . . who beautifully creates situations that not only provoke the mind but touch the flawed souls in all of us” (The Boston Globe), Picoult delivers her most timely novel to date with Small Great Things, which will be published as a Ballantine hardcover on October 11, 2016. Picoult lives in New Hampshire with her husband. They have three children.

Tuesday
Nov012016

Philip Hensher

How did you become a writer?

I always had that itch to write. I suppose it needs an opportunity--an urgent subject coinciding with a stretch of time. In my case the occasional, disorganised desire to write something came to a point during four weeks in a house in Sicily in the summer of 1991, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. 

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

The influences come and go, and sometimes I've gone crazy for a writer in the period leading up to writing a particular book - Natalia Ginzburg, Henry Green, Dickens, Kingsley Amis, Arnold Bennett, Evelyn Waugh - a varied lot, I see.

When and where do you write?

When I'm writing, between 7 and 10 or 11 in the morning. I've got a desk but actually I write more naturally at the end of the dining room table. Then all the papers have to be lifted off in time for lunch. 

What are you working on now?

I finished a novel in the spring, which I'm putting on one side and will come back to in a couple of months. It's scheduled for publication in February 2018. I didn't want to rush this one.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No. Sometimes I haven't written for a few months or even a year. That's called not writing. If it really won't come you walk away and go and look at life and forget you're supposed to be a writer altogether. In the end it comes. Real writer's block - the sort where you just cannot do it - is rare and I believe terrifying. The sort where you just can't think of something to write isn't worth worrying about - it is a waste of everyone's time to sit and force yourself to type when the tank is empty.

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

Never, ever, write "As X happened, Y started to happen" unless there is a direct cause between the two. There's no need to explain how things are linked in fiction. "As John looked out of the window, Mary started to chop the tomatoes" is always inferior to "John looked out of the window. Mary started to chop the tomatoes." A simple point with profound ramifications about the writer's responsibility to the reader's imagination.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Focus on the externals when writing about character, social exchange, events. The insides of characters' heads are always much more similar than what bags they are carrying, and in the end much less revealing.

Philip Hensher was born in London in 1965. His novels have won the Ondaatje Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award and been shortlisted for many others, including the Man Booker Prize. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1998 and awarded an honorary degree by Sheffield University in 2015. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Bath Spa and lives in London and Geneva.