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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Apr182017

Jean Kwok

How did you become a writer?

I immigrated from Hong Kong to New York City along with my family when I was five years old. We lived in an apartment that was overrun with rats and roaches, without a working central heating system, and the windowpanes were covered with a layer of ice on the inside throughout the bitter winters. After school, I went with my father to work at the sweatshop in Chinatown, where my brothers and mother also worked. Much as I loved reading from the moment that I learned to speak English, there was no space in this life for dreams of becoming a writer.

Yet it was somehow in this difficult period that my brother managed to save enough to buy me a gift one evening. Instead of getting me a toy or piece of candy, he brought me something that would change my life: a blank diary. He said, “Whatever you write in this will belong to you.”

From that moment on, I kept a journal, which kept me on course throughout all those years of being an awkward outsider. I entered Harvard as a physics major and it was only there that I realized I would not have to return to a life at the factory. Slowly, I understood I could try to pursue that which I loved most: writing.

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

I concentrated in modern poetry as an undergraduate, so there are many poets I love: Pablo Neruda, Wallace Stevens, W.B. Yeats, Sylvia Plath, W.S. Merwin, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton. Novelists I admire include Vladimir Nabokov, Italo Calvino, Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt and Jennifer Egan.

When and where do you write?

I am by nature a night person but having children has cured me of this. It’s impossible to live my life and be a night person so I am now a morning person. When I’m not under a deadline, I get up at 6 a.m. so I have time to use the elliptical in our attic before I start my day. Then I write when the kids are at school. When I am under pressure, however (as I was recently in order to finish my latest novel), I get up at 4 a.m. to have enough time to exercise, shower and write before the events of the day overwhelm me.

I have an office in our attic but more and more, I find myself writing wherever I can. The only certainty is that I need to be alone and I like to have all of the curtains shut. 

What are you working on now?

I have just finished my third novel, so I am getting ready to work on it with my editor.  I’m really excited about it. Here’s the short summary: when an underachieving Chinese American woman journeys to the Netherlands to probe the cause of her brilliant older sister’s mysterious disappearance, the secrets she uncovers reveal more about her own family - and herself - than she ever could have imagined. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I prefer to call it resistance and yes, I think it’s a part of every writer’s life. As I’m working, many thoughts and fears plague me. Sometimes, I’ll freeze. I try to ease myself out as gently as I can. Over the years, I’ve developed a process that enables me to build up a book piece by piece, so that I don’t have the same fear of the blank page I once did. I accept my terrible first drafts and I spend much more time thinking about the overall structure of my novel before I actually write it.

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

Well, I think the worst advice was that Doctorow quote, “Writing is like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This quote has caused me much heartache and many worthless pages, but of course, I am a person who can get lost anywhere. It works for other writers but not for me.

I need to have a plan of my novel pretty much from the beginning. That plan changes greatly but it still ensures that I can think about foreshadowing, symbolism, pacing, character development and structure as I write.

I loved the book by Rosanne Bane called, Around the Writer's Block. She talks about how putting words onto the page is actually the last step of a long creative process. What we may think of as a block is simply the incubatory silence before the words flow.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Be kind to yourself. Sometimes, life can be so overwhelming that the only thing that indicates you are a writer is that burning desire itself. It’s all right if you haven’t written a word in far too long. Corporate lawyers don’t lie awake at night worrying that they didn’t get any creative writing done that day. Try to gently make the time and mental space for yourself and the writing will come.

Also this: don’t worry about being perfect. It’s most important to write something that is alive. It’s much better to create a passionate, flawed beast with a rampaging heartbeat than a perfectly proportioned corpse on the page.

Jean Kwok is the New York Times and international bestselling author of the award-winning novels Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown. In between her undergraduate degree at Harvard and MFA in fiction at Columbia, she worked for three years as a professional ballroom dancer. Her work has been published in 18 countries and taught in universities, colleges and high schools across the world. She has been selected for honors including the American Library Association Alex Award, the Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award international shortlist. Jean’s writing has been featured in Time, The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek and Vogue, among others. She has spoken at many schools and venues including Harvard University, Columbia University and the Tucson Festival of Books. A television documentary was filmed about Jean and her work. She lives in the Netherlands with her husband, two boys and four cats, and has just finished her third novel.

Tuesday
Apr112017

Brett Scott

How did you become a writer?

I’ve never had a precise moment of becoming a writer really, and I don’t necessarily think of myself primarily as a writer. It’s always just been something I’ve done and over the years I’ve worked on it. I guess I read a lot growing up and that in turn helped me get a basic sense for what writing should sound like. I use the term ‘sound’ deliberately, because I often think of writing as kind of the same as speaking. I mean, if I can say something I should be able to write it down. I’m not sure all other writers necessarily think like this – sometimes I read pieces that are very elaborate and beautiful, but that would probably sound unnatural or overly ornate and artificial if you said them out aloud.

In terms of building an overt "writer" identity, though, I guess this happened in 2010 after I’d left the financial sector and I started sitting in Foyles Café in London writing about my financial experiences. Then I got somewhat obsessed by that and wrote 160 thousand words over several months whilst bankrupting myself. The book I wrote then never got published, but in the process I got commissioned to write a different book, called The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance. During this time I began to think more about writing as an overt craft.

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

I don’t necessarily have any definite writing influences that I can pinpoint. Rather I have a whole range of books that have probably subconsciously influenced me. I am also a musician and I can name specific musicians that have influenced me much more easily than I can name writers. But, if I had to name some classics, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, Moby Dick by Melville, and possibly even Kerouac’s On the Road. Also, I love sci-fi writers like William Gibson, Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. Actually, Bob Dylan has influenced me a lot – I loved his autobiography Chronicles – and Tom Waits, another musician who has some great surreal writing and dark storytelling. My cartoonist uncle Anthony Stidolph (aka. Stidy) is a great writer too, and I reckon he’s probably influenced me.

When and where do you write? 

I write on trains and planes and in coffee shops and in my room. I have no specific times that I write, but I normally don’t write very late at night. Strangely, I write a lot of stuff when I’m sitting on stages during panel discussions. I do a fair amount of events and speaking and I find that environment sparks a lot of thought, so I get it down on paper. I’d also make a distinction between writing notes (which I often do all the time), constructing a piece and editing a piece. I do these things at different times.

What are you working on now? 

Well I always have a few journalism pieces and essays on the go. So I’m writing an essay on the ethics of digital finance, an essay on money, and a paper on the governance of decentralised technology systems. Apart from that I’m planning a big new book on the financial sector, which will take many months of preparation. I also have a lot of pieces that I’m writing for nobody in particular, that I start and then leave for a few months and then pick up again. The aim with these pieces is that they’ll eventually either be published or will inform other pieces I do.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I always like to think there is a difference between magic and a magician. Magicians are essentially entertaining con-men who claim to be able to produce magic on demand. No matter how they’re feeling or what the situation is, they can make the coin disappear, and this is how you know it isn’t true magic. Actual magic – if it exists – would not be something you can just conjure up on demand. It would come in waves through a confluence of forces, and it wouldn’t always work. It would ebb and flow, and you’d need to recharge yourself after a period of casting intense spells. I feel this is a pretty good analogy for writing. No writer can ever just produce writing of equal quality on command. So yes, I go through periods where I write less or get frustrated at not being able to express something or can’t think as clearly as I want, and I guess you can characterise this as periods of ‘writers block’, but I’d be reluctant to describe it as some kind of condition that needs to be ‘cured’. In most creative scenes people go through dynamic cycles of creativity, sometimes having high energy and sometimes feeling low. My mother is an artist and she has a mantra which is "trust the process." Sometimes she feels down and feels like a piece of work is going nowhere, but she just pushes on. It’s the only thing you can really do.

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

Someone once quoted the "kill your babies" line to me, which means you’ve got to be prepared to let go of paragraphs that you think are profound but that actually aren’t serving a piece. I think this is really important, but admittedly I still struggle with it.

Also, I’m never sure which writing advice to take. I write for various media outlets and you get these editors who have these hard lines on how writing is supposed to be done and they treat them like universal laws, but there are trends and fashions in writing that come and go and these laws are seldom set in stone. For example, some editors insist that you cannot write long sentences, but why pedantically limit yourself like that? This observation can be expanded into other areas like public speaking. You have these people who write books or run workshops on how to sound like a professional TED speaker, but to me the TED speaker style is clichéd and pretentious. Actually a lot of professional journalism can sound clichéd too, despite being the "correct" way to write in that context. In the music realm you get session musicians who, again, are highly proficient and know the "correct" way to play things, but seldom have anything distinctive about their playing. So, you’ve got to treat advice about "how to write" carefully, because it can often be someone projecting their biases onto you.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Well, related to last points I made above, I’d say don’t try to write like "a writer." Write with your own voice. And again, when I say "voice" I mean it literally. Can you picture yourself saying what you write to others? If you can’t picture yourself doing that, you’re either overtly performing a different persona – which can be fine if you’re doing that deliberately – or you’re not being yourself.

Secondly, I’d say try do other things beyond writing. If you have a writing impulse and you also spend time exploring or working on other projects, those projects give you material to feed your writing impulse. In my case, for example, I work on various activist campaigns, financial projects, money systems and technology collaborations, and those in turn give me material to write about. Actually, the relationship isn’t just one way – the act of writing about those things in turn helps you to make sense of them, which in turn helps you to do those things more effectively. Writing is both reflective and creative in the sense of helping you understand things and also helping you articulate things you want to see created.

Brett Scott is a journalist, campaigner and the author of The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money (2013). He works on financial reform, alternative finance and economic activism with a wide variety of NGOs, artists, students and start-ups, and writes for publications such as The Guardian, New Scientist, Wired Magazine and CNN.com. He is a Senior Fellow of the Finance Innovation Lab, an Associate at the Institute of Social Banking and an advisory group member of the Brixton Pound. He tweets as @suitpossum.

Tuesday
Apr042017

Heather Sellers

How did you become a writer?

To me becoming a writer means consistently creating work while using the process as a laboratory for observation. Learning how to observe people and understand more of the human experience is part of the process; equally important is learning how to look at one’s self alongside the work-in-progress with a balance of compassion and growth-orientation.

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

My most important influence is the natural world: being outside alone or with a quiet beloved friend. Then: art and literature, especially where the two intersect.  Text and image. Visual artists and their writing about process—I’m thinking about Anne Truitt’s Daybook or Van Gogh’s letters. The trove of writers’ minds at work: The Paris Review interviews, artists talks, lectures, readings, classes. Henry James on craft. Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel. My teachers. Especially those who keep saying you can do this.  I imagine I’ll always want to have teachers.

When and where do you write? 

I write in the morning in my office in complete silence. I write in my friends’ apartments. I teach during the day and in the evening I revise at bars and restaurants where I enjoy my manuscript as companion and the noisy backdrop helps keep demons at bay. I bring back-up books in case my companion goes silent or weird.  The most productive writing time might be in the blocks between semesters when one can manage to at least partially hide away for days or weeks at a time.

What are you working on now? 

Better not to say and to work instead. Am I a superstitious? Shy? Stingy? I’m not sure. I love to hear what other people are working on but for me it’s better not to talk about content because talking makes me feel my contact with what’s urgent behind the writing slackens. 

By way of process, I’m working on learning more about structure. What creates momentum and progression? And, I’m working on learning how to better help my students move more deeply into a place of unknowing and tolerate uncertainty for longer and longer.

My friend, the painter Valerie Larko, paints complex landscapes en plein air, over a period often of months or even years. She has a morning painting going and an afternoon painting going (because of the light). She does small “car paintings” with her travel easel on the steering wheel. (When the weather is bad.) I try to teach and practice a process that adapts to changing conditions, internal and external.

We must be able to work on more than two fronts.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Fear, depression, lack of knowledge of self and process—these things separate one from one’s work.  I’m a religious person. I seek to address such separations with reverence and humility, and engage these things with questions, along with, I hope, some patience (and humor?) now that I’m old. There are many things to worry about and the worrying itself can become a habit and be very sticky.

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

Hush. Eric Maisel.

Show a lot, tell a little, never explain. Phillip Lopate. Dinty Moore.

Have someone waiting for your pages. Wallace Stevens.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Welcome! Please tell me more.

Heather Sellers is the author of You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, a memoir, Georgia Under Water, short stories, and, most recently, The Practice of Creative Writing, a textbook for beginners in any genre. Her recent essays appear in The Sun, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, and The New York Times.  A Florida native, she teaches in the MFA program at the University of South Florida.

Tuesday
Mar282017

Sarah Knight

How did you become a writer?

I’ve always been a writer—a dabbler, a periodic poster, an infrequently paid contributor—but how did I become a real, live, published author of two books? Well, after I quit my job as a book editor at Simon & Schuster, I had an idea, drafted a proposal, showed it to a literary agent (who had expressed interest in whatever I might do after I left corporate publishing), and she sold the hell out of it. My path was certainly less fraught than many of the writers I’ve worked with, because I had good connections and a deep understanding of the business, but ultimately it was all about getting struck with a great idea and then executing it.

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

My high school English teacher, Bonnie Jean Cousineau, was a great champion of mine, and I credit her with developing my childhood love of reading into a deeper intellectual pursuit of literature. My Uncle Bob, who recently passed away, was my “biggest fan” (his words) and always said I would write a book someday. Turns out, he was right.

As to stylists, I love any writer who can grab me from the first line and propel me through a book, whether a novel or nonfiction. My favorite first line of all time is from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany:

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

When you think about it, even just the first three words are more compelling than the opening lines of most books!

I always want to be surprised and entertained when I read, which is probably why, during my career as an editor, I gravitated toward commercial fiction (specifically thrillers and suspense), humor, and celebrity memoir. But I also worked with many literary writers whose prose and plotting was equally page-turning. I’m not one to revel in a beautifully crafted but static novel—I like to feel invigorated when I read.

Finally, I’m such a word nerd that I love writers who are inventive and playful with language, like Nabokov. My own books (The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck and Get Your Sh*t Together) are nowhere near his orbit, of course, but I do like to play around with language and I have several fuckmanteaus to show for it.

When and where do you write? 

I am a creature of habit, and my brain works best between about noon and four p.m., so that’s when I do most of my work. Now that I live in the Dominican Republic (my husband and I moved here from Brooklyn last year), I write at our outdoor dining table, overlooking the pool and garden, and with a never-ending parade of lizards to provide distraction.

What are you working on now? 

I’m crafting a piece for Medium called How To Switch Seats On An Airplane, inspired by my recent trip to Miami to give a TEDx talk. As I say in Get Your Sh*t Together, I have a real beef with people who think I guess I’ll just sit wherever is a viable strategy for ticketed airline travel.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not in a serious way, thankfully. Both of my books were written on extremely tight deadlines (four weeks and ten weeks, respectively) so I really had to put my butt in the seat every day to grind out the words. Some days, they came more easily than others, and every once in a while I had to admit defeat and just take a day off—and inevitably, the words poured forth with gusto after my brief mental vacation.

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

If you have to explain the joke, it’s not funny.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Respect the process. Whether you’re just trying to finish a draft of a book, or sending out query letters to agents, or you’ve got a contract and are working with a publisher, there are no magic shortcuts to writing a book or publishing one. Eventually there will be lots of people other than you whose opinions and experience shape the book’s trajectory. It’s important to keep that in mind and not try to cut corners. Patience, Grasshopper.

Sarah Knight is the internationally-bestselling author of two profane self-help books: The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck and Get Your Sh*t Together, which have been translated into seventeen languages and counting. She lives in the Dominican Republic, and you can follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Medium @MCSnugz.

Tuesday
Mar212017

Amy Ephron

How did you become a writer?

I think I’ve always written; my sister Delia embarrassingly recited a poem I wrote when I was four the other day in front of a crowd at a crowded bookstore. It rhymed. Writing was something I always did and was encouraged to do by my mother and father and also possibly something I compelled to do, because I liked it and…and I had stories in my head and sometimes I’d discover a story along the way.

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

My parents were writers and I think they encouraged us to “tell stories,” either about our day at the dinner table or on paper. They certainly encouraged and enticed us to read I also felt that books were magical places when I was a kid, places I could get lost in, that the characters were real and the places they lived, even if they were fantasies, totally existed. I still feel that way. And it was a lovely place to get lost in.

When and where do you write?

I always say that, for me, books get written a sentence at a time…that you write in your head sometimes and then put it on paper, and having once been a single mother to three kids, I never quite had the kind of schedule where I could block hours, weeks, days…. Some people need to do that, to have a set time and place. But write best with the view though on a window…possibly essential element in my office which is why I often have a writing table in the middle (or corner) or the living room...if that’s the better view.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just published my first novel for children, I call it a modern day mash-up of an old-fashioned children’s book, “The Castle in the Mist.”

I’m on book tour, which is amazing and fascinating, as I’m visiting not only wonderful bookstores, cities, conference, but also doing a lot of school events and interfacing with young and amazing students 3-7th grade…so in a way, at the moment, I’m having a lot of fun teaching as the book is a little about believing in yourself, believing in magic, with a bit of wild astronomy and possible other-worldly-ness thrown in and the deep belief that wishes can come true. But secretly, I might be writing something.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Some things are harder to write than others but difficult to structure or to crack or to get right, but I’ve never quite had that “writer’s block” thing.

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

That if more than one person gives you a note, there’s probably some thing you should look at. Not that the person who gave you the note necessarily gave you the right fix, but that if two or three people tag the same section or sentence, there’s probably something you look take a look at.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Find your own voice. And find the right voice for the piece you’re writing, whether it’s first person or a narrator, the voice a story is told in is an excellent place to start.

Amy Ephron (www.amyephron.com) is the author of several adult books, including A Cup of Tea, which was an international bestseller and won the 2005 Southern California Booksellers Association award for fiction. Her book One Sunday Morning received the Booklist Best Fiction of the Year and Best Historical Fiction of the Year Awards and was a Barnes & Noble Book Club selection. She is a contributor and contributing editor at Vogue and Vogue.com, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, House Beautiful, and the LA Times, among other publications. Amy was also the executive producer of Warner Brothers’ A Little Princess. The Castle in the Mist is her first book for children. Amy lives in Los Angeles with her husband; between them they have five children.