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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Mar032015

Mary Vensel White

How did you become a writer?

I would have to say that the path to my eventual career as a writer was paved with many, many books and stemmed from my love of reading. Countless worlds discovered on the page, many long afternoons sprawled on my bed, or the couch, or the floor, turning pages. And I always wrote things down. I had a diary and a notebook of terrible poetry. I wrote longhand letters to pen pals and grandparents, and made my sisters sit through scribbled lesson plans in a pretend classroom. In college, I progressed from poetry to short stories, then novels, and now I’m starting to write stories again, along with the novels. And I’m reading some poetry these days. I’d still say I’m more of a reader than a writer, if you really break it down into time spent.

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

After a brief stint in junior college and several years working, I decided to go back to school in order to start a more lucrative career. I thought I’d be a paralegal, because I liked books with courtroom drama—the verbal sparring, the vocabulary—and so I started taking classes at a local technological college. Of course, the class I really liked was the entry level English course and one night after class, the professor called me aside to talk about a paper I’d written about a D.H. Lawrence story I didn’t like. Her encouragement set the cogs into motion and soon I decided to study literature instead of law. I think about that teacher often. Authors who’ve had a cataclysmic effect are Kent Haruf, Per Petterson, and Marilynne Robinson, but recently, I’ve discovered Ron Rash, who may become a favorite over time. Favorite book in recent years, which I like to mention when I can: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley. This is a novel that opened doors for me, as a writer.

When and where do you write? 

Because we have good-sized family and a not-particularly-large house, my current work station is in a corner of our bedroom. I have a roomy desk, a bookshelf, and good light from a large window. I seldom work anyplace else, unless it’s the kitchen table for a change of pace. I write before the kids get home from school, and when I’m really in the throes of something, in the evening after they’ve settled into their rooms. I used to say “after they go to bed,” but sometimes they stay up later than I do now. And all writers know that writing happens 24-hours-a-day, whether you’re at the computer or not.

What are you working on now? 

I’ve been working on a long non-fiction piece lately, a personal history article about motherhood in all of its forms and particularly, about my sister’s experience with surrogacy. Any day now I’m going to get back to a novel I’ve been stewing over for a couple of years. It’s a love story, I think, but also a story about what it means to be complete. It’s set in the American Southwest and it may have some ghosts in it. The main character is a teenager who sees things differently than everyone around her.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I often feel blocked from writing, but it isn’t caused by a lack of inspiration. I feel blocked by the hectic pace of my current life, blocked by time and the lack of it, blocked by a wall of other interests and obligations. I’ve always had many more ideas than time to work them out. I think it’s partly because I work at a slower pace. I need lots of mental time to ruminate before I start the actual writing. I consider that a form of writing, this “thinking about writing,” so maybe I write more than I think I do!

What’s your advice to new writers?

My advice to new writers would be to return, again and again, to your initial motivation for writing. If you came to it via reading, then keep reading what you love. Write mostly for yourself. Block out the noise of the outside world, at least during the first draft. No one can tell your story, in your way, except you. So do it. Then put on your protective gear and head outside. Develop a tough skin. Not everyone likes every book, and they won’t like yours. Don’t let the outside world into your writing place. Keep that for yourself.

Mary Vensel White’s debut novel, The Qualities of Wood, was published by HarperCollins in 2014. Her short fiction has appeared in The Wisconsin Review and Foothills Literary Journal. She is a contributing editor at LitChat.com and blogs about writing and reading at maryvenselwhite.com. Vensel White lives in southern California with her husband and four children.

Tuesday
Feb242015

Jennifer Niven

How did you become a writer?

I was lucky enough to grow up with a writer mom, who taught me that I could be or do anything I wanted to be or do, and for as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’m an only child, and when I was a little girl, we used to have “writing time.” From her, I learned to find the story in everything, and I learned never to limit myself or my imagination. I also saw firsthand how difficult and stressful and unpredictable the business was. And I saw the commitment it took. Even during the toughest, saddest times of her life, she wrote. In so many ways, she was my hero. I think many people go into the business of writing with unrealistic expectations—not realizing that it is, in fact, a business, and that you have to be ready and willing to do it in spite of everything else.

Professionally it all started with The Ice Master, sixteen years ago. Because I had recently graduated from the American Film Institute, my mind was in movies. I was actually searching for ideas for a screenplay, and I was glancing through the TV schedule and read about a documentary described as "Deadly Arctic Expedition." Immediately, I was intrigued. I love that kind of story—filled with drama, adventure, edge-of-your-seat action! So I recorded the show, promptly forgot about it, and stumbled across it again a month or two later. I watched it and immediately fell in love with the idea. I’d never written an entire book before, but my mother reminded me of something her own agent once said to her: Every writer has to write his or her first book at some point. Why not now?

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

In addition to my mom, I love Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, and Harper Lee. One of my favorite books is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I also get a lot of inspiration from filmmakers. Charlie Chaplin in particular. All of these artists taught me the importance of being succinct but expressive, and of saying a great deal in the most straightforward way.

When and where do you write?

I write five-seven days a week for eight-fourteen hours a day, depending on my deadlines. One of the very best things I learned from my mother and from my graduate program was the importance of discipline. You can’t be a writer without it. When I’m writing a project, I immerse myself wholly—right down to listening to music from the time period, reading books my characters would have read, creating a soundtrack with songs relating to the story. I hear from people who ask if I only write when I’m inspired, but the answer is no. I work harder (and longer!) than most everyone I know in a big, sunny office in my apartment. It is stuffed with bookshelves and books and souvenirs I’ve collected throughout my career and my travels (not to mention my computer, which is what I almost always compose on). I call it the nerve center of our home. It’s where magic happens. But when I’m deep into a project, I tend to write everywhere—I get ideas while driving or working out or spending time with friends or doing errands. I record them on my phone or write them down on any piece of scrap paper I can find. My mind is always writing, long after I’ve left my office.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on my second YA novel, which is an unconventional love story of a boy who can't remember faces and a very visible girl who feels invisible. It’s about seeing, being seen, and learning to recognize what’s important. It’s about what makes us love someone.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

It happens from time to time—not so much a block as a getting stuck here and there. I’ve found there are two things that work to get through it. The first is to show up at your computer anyway. Try to write your way to the other side of it. Often, by doing that, you’ll jar something loose and the plot/characters/words—whatever is sticking—will begin to flow again. The other thing is to take an hour or two, or maybe a day or two away from the work to recharge and reboot. Then go back to the writing with fresh eyes.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Write, read, and work hard. Remember to enjoy it. Don’t get hung up on making it perfect, because there’s no such thing. Write the kind of book you’d like to read. Write what inspires you. Write what you love.

 

All the Bright Places is Jennifer Niven’s first book for young adult readers, but she has written four novels for adults—American Blonde, Becoming Clementine, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and Velva Jean Learns to Drive—as well as three nonfiction books—The Ice Master, Ada Blackjack, and The Aqua-Net Diaries, a memoir about her high school experiences. Although she grew up in Indiana, she now lives with her fiancé and literary cats in Los Angeles, which remains her favorite place to wander. For more information, visit JenniferNiven.com, GermMagazine.com, or find her on Facebook.

Tuesday
Feb172015

Paulette Livers

How did you become a writer?

I studied art (painting, design, photography, drawing, printmaking) in college, then worked in the publishing industry for many years as a book designer and art director. But I can’t remember a time when I didn’t also write, mostly clandestinely, for reasons that escape me now. It wasn’t until about twelve years ago that I began thinking of my writing in the way I’d always thought of visual art, as something for others to see. With the encouragement (the pushing, to be more accurate) of my writing group in Boulder, I began submitting stories to literary journals.

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

There’s a regular choirloft full of voices singing in my attic, so thank you for not asking me to pick a “favorite.” Here’s a short list of some writers whose work made me want to write in the first place, and still does: The dark examinations of Flannery O’Connor and the sweet pain of life painted by Eudora Welty; the subtle complications Alice Munro employs to lay bare the gap between what we think we’re supposed to feel and what we actually feel; Virginia Woolf’s brittle people trying to survive in social straight jackets; Louise Erdrich for showing me that good writing can cause a reader to inhabit the mind and experiences of someone very different from herself; Marilynne Robinson’s—wait, I just realized there may not be words for what reading Marilynne Robinson's work does to my head. Incandescent? Quintessentially American? None of those suffice. 

Not to neglect the menfolk: Richard Bausch and Tim O’Brien seem always to be writing about people I know (psychically, of course, not literally); Faulkner is the literary papa one can be grateful she didn’t have, but godalmighty, the sentences that make you flat-out sweat from the heat and humidity; Barry Hannah, ditto. Steve Yarbrough is southern ex-pat brethren. 

Some writers I’ve read in the last couple years who I love to recommend to other writers: Paul Harding’s “Tinkers” was transportive; reading Laird Hunt’s “Neverhome” is one of my favorite memories of 2014; Cara Hoffman’s “Be Safe, I Love You” gave me deeper insight into PTSD; Dylan Landis’s “Rainey Royal” reveals a girl who grew up at the same time I did, but whose experience of American adolescence was a polar opposite to my own, and thus reminds me of our country’s multivalent nature, and how where we live and who we love shapes us. I could go on, but I’m sure you wish I wouldn’t.

When and where do you write? 

When? All the time. I write every day but, full disclosure, I've expanded my definition of the term to include reading and research. Otherwise, I’ll look at my word count at the end of the day and berate myself if it doesn’t meet my expectations. Where? All over the place. I’m lucky to have a cozy study in the attic of our old Chicago two-flat. Our little front parlor has a fireplace, and because there’s a foot of new snow outside, I’m parked fireside just now. And, at the risk of sounding like the stereotypical cafe writer, I’ll admit to this: Wicker Park is just lousy with coffee shops I do haunt sometimes. My good friend, the brilliant writer/artist Jessica Chalmers, sits and works with me once a week—which has the triple benefit of making me talk to someone about the work, getting me out of the attic, and flushing the bats out of my belfry. In fine weather, there’s the postage stamp courtyard, back of the house, where I’m known to scratch in the dirt, threaten neighborhood cats who’re nervy enough to stalk my bird feeder, and write.

What are you working on now? 

The first draft of a new novel is about two-thirds of the way there. Or one-third left to go. And no, I don’t want to say a lot more, and yes, I am superstitious.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Most of the time, it’s the opposite problem: too many ideas and too much attention deficit disorder. But if a blocked feeling does creep in, it’s usually because I’m afraid. I rely on friends who will not mollycoddle me, who'll tell me to just suck it up and plow through the passage of work I’m dreading. What works sometimes is to tell myself that getting it on the page comes first, and getting it down doesn’t mean anybody else has to see it. I never want to really believe anything is off limits. 

And can we talk about distraction? Because sometimes I think boredom with your own work is more horrifying than being blocked. If jumping on some social network site has more pull than the story I’m writing, it’s time for me to look hard at the work and see where it became so boring that it can’t compete with somebody’s cute puppy or new haircut or the latest prize that I did not win (see above re fear and dread). If I’m not interested in what I’m writing, why would someone else be? 

If I’m not afraid of what I need to write next, and I’m not bored by what I’ve already written, things are generally cooking right along. Or at least simmering on a low flame.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Writing programs are fine and good, and I’m never sorry for the time I’ve spent studying with great teachers. But there’s no substitution for reading really good work. Find the writers whose sentences make your heart beat fast. Beyond that, it’s a matter of keeping your butt in the chair. Ron Carlson says: The writer is the person who stays in the room (see above, re fear, re distraction, re honesty, re plowing through). Disconnecting from Wi-Fi for a set number of hours per day can exponentially increase what goes on the page. Lastly, have trusted readers look at your work. Let go your defenses and listen to what they have to say. Oh, and put on your thickest suit of skin. You’ll need it.

Paulette Livers is the author of the novel Cementville (Counterpoint Press, 2014—out in paperback on March 15th) winner of the Elle magazine Lettres Prize, finalist for the Center for Fiction's Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and the Chicago Writers Association Fiction Book of the Year. She has received awards, residencies, and fellowships from the Artcroft Foundation, Aspen Writers Foundation, Center for the American West, Denver Women’s Press Club, Key West Literary Seminars, and Ox-Bow Artist Residence, among others. Her stories have been awarded the Meyerson Prize, Honorable Mentions from Hunger Mountain, Red Hen Press, and Writers at Work, and have appeared in Southwest Review, Dos Passos Review, Spring Gun Press, Bound Off, and elsewhere. A member of PEN America and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, she lives in Chicago.

Tuesday
Feb102015

Tina Welling

How did you become a writer?

I began writing commercials for a radio station, then for the fun of it, I tried poetry. All my poems could be read in 30 seconds - exactly, just like the commercials I wrote. From there I moved into longer and longer pieces, stories and essays, until I came to book-length projects, which seem to suit my pace. I have published three novels with Penguin Group and most recently New World Library published my non-fiction book, WRITING WILD, Forming a Creative Partnership with Nature.

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

My mother loved to read. She read Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry to me as a child. And when I began to read on my own, I loved it so much I vowed to be a writer when I grew up, then forgot all about it for many years. Eventually, I remembered how I wanted to give to others what reading good books gave to me, which was sometimes a good story and sometimes words for my inner life. I fell in love with the whole process and all its props: paper, pens, files, dictionaries. I admire Barbara Kingsolver for her characters, the poet William Stafford for his language, Carl Jung for his insights, Lorrie Moore for her quirky thinking, and many novelists for their riveting storylines. I never read in an analytical way or am even particularly conscious of what I want to emulate in my own creative work. It’s more that I absorb the energy of the voice and material of what I’m reading and store this, unsorted, using the information as resource.

When and where do you write?

I schedule nothing until after 3:00 in the afternoon – dental appointments, tea with friends, meetings. I love to wake up and know that the day is mine to work in. After breakfast, I take my coffee into my writing cabin and begin writing in my pajamas. My theory is that nothing really counts when you’re wearing pajamas, so I’m free to just go with whatever occurs to me. Later in the morning, I surface and jump into the shower. With water drumming my body, I seem able to solve some writing problems or see my intention with more clarity, so afterward I get back to work with new enthusiasm. By three in the afternoon, Zoe, my dog nudges my leg, stares me pointedly in the eyes, and I pull myself away from my desk. She and I go walking up Snow King Mountain behind my house or along Flat Creek.

My writing space is an old log cabin that used to be on the Elk Refuge here in Jackson Hole. We moved it to our other small cabin and attached the two. It has windows all around and sometimes moose peek in.  

What are you working on now?

I’m in a place of taking in right now, rather than putting out. I started a novel, a young adult novel, and a non-fiction project, before remembering what I wrote about in WRITING WILD: that there needs to be a time for growing our root systems, in other words attending our inner lives. So after a time of intense writing, followed by a lot of public events for my book, I have given in to my desire to read. Of course, I’m jotting things down, sometimes pages and pages, but I don’t have a goal for any of this right now. And I think, at the moment, that’s exactly right for me.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No, I haven’t. Without sounding too harsh, I don’t really believe in it. I’m easy on myself. I figure if I don’t feel like writing, then I could do something else at my desk: edit, tidy my snack drawer, eat the snacks in my snack drawer, day dream. I think we need to honor our feelings about the creative process. The problem of writer’s block often arises from needing something from the writing. For example, when someone writes with the hope of earning money or attention, then right away the process is burdened with expectation and need. Too, we often write something then begin to tear it apart, denigrating our skills and output to the point that we freeze up. It takes a lot of bad writing to get to the good writing. So we need to be kind to ourselves and patient.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Lower your standards and keep lowering them until the flow begins. Those nasty judges in our heads don’t belong there until the very end when it’s time to edit and rewrite. The whole skill of writing is in the re-writes. That’s the way beautiful, clear language comes about, along with unique insights: re-writing and re-writing. With WRITING WILD, Forming a Creative Partnership with Nature, I re-wrote most sentences dozens of times. Some dozens and dozens. You do not get tired of the repetition if the work keeps getting more polished. And polished sentences are like faceted gems, you don’t get weary of them, no matter how often you look at them.

Tina Welling is the author of WRITING WILD, Forming A Creative Partnership With Nature, and the novels Crybaby Ranch, Fairy Tale Blues, and Cowboys Never Cry. Her essays have been published in Shambhala Sun, The Writer, Body & Soul, and other national magazines, as well as four anthologies. She conducts creative writing and journal keeping workshops around the country and is a long time faculty member of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference. Welling resides in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She can be contacted through her website: WWW.TinaWelling.com.

Tuesday
Feb032015

Steph Post

How did you become a writer?

I’ve always been a storyteller--ever since I was kid. In high school I realized that I could start writing my stories down and it could take me places. I’ve been writing--poetry, short stories, longer works and now novels--ever since. I’m not sure it’s an occupation you choose. I think it reaches out and chooses you. Then drags you down into its clutches and never lets you go.

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

Jim Harrison, Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, just to name a few authors. The first book that I ever read that made me go--damn, I want to do that--was Sheri Reynolds’ The Rapture of Canaan.

When and where do you write?

I’m a high school teacher, so I have a pretty hectic schedule. I’ve learned that I can’t write once I come home from work. I’m too exhausted or preoccupied. Instead, I write every single weekend, come rain or shine. I live in Florida and have the benefit of amazing weather, so I do a lot of my writing by hand, sitting outside in the backyard. When it’s time to start typing, I seclude myself in my studio, always with a dog at my side.

What are you working on now?

At the moment, I’m working on my third novel, which is going back to my Southern Gothic roots. In some ways, it’s a re-write of the first novel I ever wrote and self-published. I was never satisfied with that book and so my plan was to fix it up and redeem myself. Of course, since I made that decision, the novel has taken on a life entirely of its own and is going off in a completely new direction.

Have you ever suffered from writer's block?

Not in the usual sense of the term. I usually have more ideas than I want or need when it comes to writing. However, I definitely suffer from stress, anxiety, lack of time and the general love/hate experience that comes with being a writer. Writing isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s the last thing on earth I want to do. But yet, I could never stop.

What's your advice to new writers?

Writing can be hell. If that doesn’t deter you, then keep at it. Keep at it, keep at it and keep pushing, even it feels like you’re going to break. Work hard, but be patient, and most importantly, make sure that you love the story you’re telling. Especially if you’re writing a novel or longer work. You will be spending a lot of time with it and you want to approach it with passion each and every time.

Steph Post is the author of the debut novel A Tree Born Crooked, a Southern literary thriller. She currently lives, writes and teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida.