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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Mar312015

Nahid Rachlin

How did you become a writer?

When I was an infant my mother, who already had seven children, gave me to my childless aunt to raise as her own child. Then when I was nine years old my father came to my elementary school in Tehran and forcefully took me back to live with him, my birth mother, and siblings in Ahvaz, a town miles away from Tehran. I was happy being an only child to my loving aunt and it was traumatic to be forced into living with my birth family, I hardly knew. This trauma led me to reading books to find answers to my questions. In turn reading led me to writing. In writing I could give shape to incidents that were painful, seemed meaningless or random, chaotic. I found that even if I wrote about a depressing subject, the process itself made me happy. Writing then became an ingrained habit, a need.

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

When I was in high school, I found a bookstore with books by European and American writers in translation. I read almost everything I found in translation—work by Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Hemingway, Balzac. Of course, I also read books by Iranian writers. I probably absorbed some of the techniques used by the writers I read. I can’t say I was influenced by a particular writer.

One of my composition teachers in high school liked the pieces I handed in for assignments. She was unusual in that she believed women should have a voice and not settle for prescribed roles in the male dominated world I grew up in. She was a big influence on me, both in her encouragement of my writing and my development as a more independent person.

When and where do you write?

I try to write three hours in the morning. If appointments stop me from writing in the morning then I write in the afternoon. I like working at home. So I just go to my desk and start writing. 

What are you working on now? 

I am putting together a short story collection, that includes a novella. Also  I am working on a novel.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

No, I haven’t had a writer’s block, but in general I write slowly. I usually become interested in a particular character or theme and then it takes me a few revisions before I even know what details in the story would convey what I am trying to develop.  

What’s your advice to new writers?

If you become too self-critical, you may get a writer’s block. It’s best to just put words on the page, until something clicks. Then be prepared to revise until you are satisfied with the outcome of your story or whatever you are writing. It is also important to read a lot. Reading can inspire you and also show you some techniques that you may not already have.

Nahid Rachlin (http://www.nahidrachlin.comwent to Columbia University Writing Program on a Doubleday-Columbia Fellowship and then to Stanford University MFA program on a Stegner Fellowship. Her publications include a memoir, PERSIAN GIRLS (Penguin), four novels, JUMPING OVER FIRE (City Lights), FOREIGNER (W.W. Norton), MARRIED TO A STRANGER (E.P.Dutton-Penguin), THE HEART'S DESIRE (City Lights), and a collection of short stories, VEILS (City Lights). Her individual short stories have appeared in more than fifty magazines and of her stories was adopted by Symphony Space, “Selected Shorts,” and was aired on NPR’s around the country. She has been judge for several fiction awards and competitions, among them, Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction (2015)  sponsored by AWP, Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award sponsored by Poets & Writers. She has taught at Barnard College, Yale University and the New School University.

Tuesday
Mar242015

Ellen Meister

How did you become a writer? A lot of authors have a story about the wonderful teacher who was nurturing, kind and inspirational. This isn't one of those. This is about a mean, arrogant, ice-cold high school English teacher who didn't like me one bit. I handed in a writing assignment that was a scene between two characters, and got it back from him with an A- and the grudging compliment, This is essentially believable dialogue. Even though it was less than enthusiastic, it was enough. Something clicked and I thought, Yes. It really is. And I knew right then that this was The Thing I Could Do. It took me decades to stop procrastinating and get to work, but it was a defining moment.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). The first writer to inspire me was J.D. Salinger, but it wasn't The Cather in the Rye, it was Nine Stories. His ear for dialogue kicked me right in the solar plexus. Since then, I've tried to glean at least one small nugget from whatever I'm reading. It's something I tell my creating writing students—if you're paying attention, each book has something to teach you.

When and where do you write? Mostly in my home office in the wee hours of the morning. I do my best work before sunrise.

What are you working on now? I'm juggling two embryonic novel ideas, and they're in that delicate stage where I can't quite talk about them. Soon, I hope.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? I don't believe in writer's block. I think that term simply means that you haven't yet decided where your story is going, and expect your muse to materialize overhead and deliver it. Perhaps it works that way for some people, but for most of us, it just takes work. So when I get stuck, I open a blank Word doc and write down all the questions I have about the story and all the possible answers. After a time, the right direction emerges.

What’s your advice to new writers? Impatience is our enemy, especially with the lure of self-publishing offering instant gratification. No matter what route you choose, understand that it takes time to get your book in shape. Even when you think you're done, you're not. Revise and edit, then revise and edit again. Repeat until you go mad. Congratulations, you are a writer!

Ellen Meister is the author of five novels, including DOROTHY PARKER DRANK HERE (Putnam 2015) , FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER (Putnam 2013), THE OTHER LIFE (Putnam  2011) and THE SMART ONE (HarperCollins 2008). Her essays have appeared in the Wall Street Journal blog, the Huffington Post, Publishers Weekly, Long Island Woman Magazine, Writer's Digest and more.  Ellen teaches creative writing at Hofstra University Continuing Education, mentors emerging authors, lectures on Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table, and does public speaking about her books and other writing-related topics. She runs a popular Dorothy Parker page on Facebook.

Tuesday
Mar172015

Joan Wickersham

How did you become a writer?

My fifth-grade teacher, Miss Knox, had us write what she called a creative story every three weeks, and I loved it. From that point on I was always writing stories. Most went unfinished, but I kept writing. I knew it was the only thing I really wanted to do.

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

Books have always been my great teachers, but I don’t learn from them directly. It’s more that the voices and the sentences excite me: Dickens, Elizabeth Bowen, Isak Dinesen, William Maxwell. Or the perceptions: Chekhov, Turgenev, George Eliot, Tolstoy that moment in War and Peace where Nikolay Rostov is suddenly in the middle of a battle, and he thinks, How can they be shooting at me? My mother loves me. I love those moments of small weirdness, where the writer shows you something you recognize as true, even when it’s an experience you’ve never had.

When and where do you write?

I need to go away. I get my best work done when I’m at a colony and I can just be in a studio all day long without any distractions or interruptions, and can sustain the trance from one day to the next. My last book, The News from Spain, was written entirely at colonies, a month here, a month there. Right now I’m teaching, and the job comes with an office, which is wonderful. Sometimes I’ll go to a coffee shop, or a friend will lend me a house for a while. Anyplace really, that isn’t home. When I am home I tend to become preoccupied with laundry.

What are you working on now?

After years of saying, “I’m working on a book about my father’s  suicide, and having people recoil; and then some years of saying, “I’m writing a book of stories each of which is called, The News from Spain, but the title means something different in each story, and having people look puzzled or bored, I’ve learned that I don’t  know how to answer that question in a way that doesn’t demoralize me.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

All the time! It is very hard to push past my own perfectionism and self-doubt. I really believe that all the bad drafts, and all the times when I sit down and nothing happens, are investments in that lovely time when the writing wakes up and starts galloping, and my job is just to ride it. But that boggy, ploddy, stage of blah writing or no writing is just about unbearable while it’s going on.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Keep going, and one day you’ll be an old writer. That sounds facetious but really, I had a hard time as a young writer and find it better now. Not easier, but definitely a lot more interesting.

Joan Wickersham’s most recent book of fiction is The News from Spain. Her memoir, The Suicide Index, was a National Book Award finalist. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading, as well as magazines including Agni, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and One Story. She also writes an op-ed column for The Boston Globe and her pieces have run in The International Herald Tribune. She is currently teaching fiction at Harvard and nonfiction in Bennington’s MFA program.

Tuesday
Mar102015

Roxana Robinson

How did you become a writer?

I was always a writer, and as soon as I learned to write, at the age of five or so, I began to write stories. Writing itself was always easy for me, and seemed like part of being alive. But my big shift as a writer came when I was in second grade, when I started a newspaper, called The Daily Nut. The first (and only) issue was written in our classroom, on the second floor of the eighteenth-century building of our school. It was winter, and outside it began to snow. I was a newshound then, with a nose for a story, and I rushed to the window to watch the snow flickering past the blurry eighteenth-century glass panes. Then rushed back to my desk to record the information for my breathlessly attentive readers. “It’s snowing!” I announced, then rushed back to the window again. Now it was snowing harder, and I ran back to my desk. I had chosen to use crayons, which slowed me down. I couldn’t give the instantaneous response that a Tweeter now could. I sat down again at my small wooden desk. “It’s snowing REALLY FAST!” I wrote. I slanted the letters, to give some idea of the speed involved. Then I went back to the window again, but more slowly this time: I was wrestling with a metaphysical problem. No matter how many times I rushed back and forth to the window, I would never be able to give my readers the immediacy of the swirling, scattering snowstorm that was taking place outside. Newswriting, it seemed to me, required a kind of connection to the event that I wouldn’t be able to sustain. It was in that moment that I became a fiction writer. I wanted to create a narrative that I could explore in my own time and present through my own lens, one that would show only the aspects that I found most powerful, most essential, most deeply important. My version of the snowstorm story would have something to do with weather, but not much. My snowstorm narrative would be about a different kind of weather, the interior sort, the kind that might be predicted but cannot be avoided. The kind that must be lived through, weather that ripples through your heart and mind, turbulent and distressing, violent and heartbreaking, exuberant and joyous. But it would have nothing to do with running to the window and back to my seat. All the weather would take place inside the heart.

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

When I was in boarding school I had a wonderful English teacher, Isota Epes. She was from Virginia, deeply intelligent and intellectually sophisticated, and she took writing, and reading, very seriously, as things that should provide us with a kind of profound sustenance. She was also glamorous in every way – she had worked for the OSS, and she had written for Vogue. She came to class beautifully dressed and turned out, so she was someone who demonstrated the complexities of what a woman could do. She asked us to investigate literature at the outer limits of our abilities, to search the texts for elegance, for meanings, for complexity. She asked us to incorporate literature in our lives, to use it as a way to read the world. I was deeply indebted to her for that. Years later, when I published my first story in The New Yorker, under my married name, I received a letter from a reader. She said she had never written a letter like this before, but she had so admired the story that she was moved to write to the author. She said she had never read my work before, but she looked forward to reading more of it. She was, of course, Mrs. Epes, and I wrote back to say that she had read my work before – she had given me an A on my paper on Hamlet. It gave me the most enormous sense of satisfaction, that I could give back to her using the same currency in which she had given me such a profound sense of respect for literature.

When and where do you write? 

I try to write every morning, and wherever I am I try to find a secluded place where no-one will look in the door and ask me something. In New York and Connecticut I have rather austere rooms where I work, without internet connections. I write first thing in the morning, before I do anything else, for as long as I can. Sometimes that’s two or three hours, sometimes more. In the beginning of a book it may be only a few hours. Toward the end of a novel I write longer and longer, and by the end of it I will write all day and long into the night as well.  

What are you working on now? 

I never talk about what I’m working on. Sorry!

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Yes. It’s a misery. You just have to work through it. Sit down and write. You can’t let it win.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Just write and write and write. Don’t think about publication, and don’t think about externals. Don’t think about literary trends or fashions. Don’t write from the outside in, write from the inside out. Write from emotion. Emotion is the engine of all great fiction; all great books engage the heart as well as the mind. Write about the things that frighten you and tear you apart. Write about the worst things in your life. I don’t mean write memoir, write it  as fiction, that way you can change the facts to make your emotional reality precise and true. Write down the things you have found most difficult, the things that wake you up at three in the morning, the things that remind you that we are fragile beings, kept only by a metaphysical rule from falling off the surface of the earth and flying helplessly into black space. Write about the beautiful terror of being human, being alive, having a soul and a heart.

Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books. Her most recent, Sparta, won the Maine Fiction Award and the James Webb Award, and was one of the BBC Top Ten Books of the Year. Her work has appeared in Slate, Best American Short Stories, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Harper’s, and has been translated into French, Spanish, German and Dutch. She has received fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation and she is the President of the Authors Guild. 

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.