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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Sep012015

Norman Dubie

How did you become a writer?

In 5th grade, my English teacher held up a Webster's dictionary saying there are only two words in it that defied definition. The first was the point in geometry and the second was the poem. I told the little girl sitting next to me that it would be difficult for me to become the point in geometry but that I was going to become a poet. She asked why and I responded it sounds like there's no bosses in that world.

I think I was always intoxicated with the language of Shakespeare and the King James Version of The Bible. So I also blame the Elizabethan underground for sixty years of writing verse! Ha!

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

When I was in my early twenties, John Berryman's 77 Dream Songs and Homage to Mistress Bradstreet pointed me in a direction--call it ventriloquism or whatever--that I've yet to abandon. In terms of strict lyric poetry, I moved from John Donne to Sylvia Plath to Denise Levertov to John Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Among the Moderns, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens were very important to me. But I must confess to being an omnivore who's clearly read across a couple hundred years of world poetry. And I'll finish by saying that I will not in this lifetime ever recover from my original experiences with Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

With regard to teachers, I was blessed with having studied with Barry and Lorraine Goldensohn. I also studied with George Starbuck and Marvin Bell.

When and where do you write? 

I've always written at the kitchen table and usually in the middle of the night.

What are you working on now? 

I'm working on a manuscript now that remembers my childhood living on a peninsula on the coast of Maine.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

The truth is, I've always found it fairly effortless writing poetry and it gives me great pleasure. So it is not a torment for me! When I published my first book, The Alehouse Sonnets, I did suffer writer's block for one year, thinking I may never write again. I've now written some thirty volumes of poetry. It's also true that I walked away from the writing of poetry, but not from the teaching of young poets throughout the 1990s. I dedicated this decade to my spiritual life as a Tibetan Buddhist. I think at the beginning of this "silence," I'd already published ten book-length volumes of poems and I was concerned that I would soon be writing caricatures of my own work. So, following the example of Robert Duncan, I just stopped. Since that silence, I've published a big volume of collected poems and six other works of poetry in addition to a 400-page poem written in the tradition of Science Fiction--it's called The Spirit Tablets at Goa Lake (Blackbird Online archives).

So I was briefly blocked early on and then chose to be silent for a while--I don't regret any of it.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Read everything! Write fearlessly!

Norman Dubie was born in Barre, Vermont in April 1945. His poems have appeared in many magazines including The American Poetry Review, Bombay Gin, Crazy Horse, Gulf Coast, Narrative, The New Yorker, Paris Review, and Poetry. He has won the Bess Hokin Award of the Modern Poetry Association and fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The Mercy Seat: Collected and New Poems won the PEN Center USA prize for best poetry collection in 2002. He has published with Blackbird, a book-length futuristic work, The Spirit Tablets at Goa Lake. His most recent collection, The Quotations of Bone, is from Copper Canyon Press. He lives in Tempe, Arizona, and is a teacher at Arizona State University.

Tuesday
Aug252015

Rachel Eliza Griffiths

How did you become a writer?

It was all I ever wanted and want to be. An artist. A witness. At a young age I kidnapped the sky blue Smith-Corona typewriter in my family’s house but even before that I was always scribbling and drawing. As a writer and an artist, I’ve got quite a long way to go and I’m so very glad for that. It’s the attempt of becoming a writer that continues to fulfill me: the imagination and the voice meeting on the page.

It’s hard as hell but I’m not going anywhere. I’m excited for the writers in my life I am fortunate to call my friends. This includes writers I’ve never personally met but with whom I share an intimacy on the page through shared language. There’s great writing happening everywhere. There’s so much to say and to learn. And I don’t want to learn or know it all – but I do want to read and read!  I’m fortunate.

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

My writing influences are very fluid but there are some writers and visual artists that remain consistent companions in my process. Some of the poets and writers I often return to include James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Rainier Marie Rilke, Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Marilynne Robinson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Octavio Paz, Audre Lorde, Carl Phillips, William Faulkner, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Lucille Clifton. Also, I often include visual artists as writing influences. It’s difficult for me to segregate genres because I work across forms. So I’d like to include several visual artists as influences, such as Carrie Mae Weems, Joseph Cornell, Lorna Simpson, Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Frank, Romare Bearden, Hank Willis Thomas, and Graciela Iturbide. In a category of his own – Miles Davis.

When and where do you write? 

I create during daylight hours, usually in the morning. I revise in the evenings. I read and write at home for several hours a day. I take a lot of walks and showers and baths while I work. I think better near or immersed in water. On days that I teach I spend more time reading because I give a lot of energy to teaching. Then I have weekly studio days where I work at my art studio. I treat my workday with intention. Lately I’ve been on the road so I will often set up my hotel rooms or residency spaces as micro studios and do both writing and visual work. There are Moleskine notebooks all over my house, crammed into my five million tote bags with paintbrushes and cameras. Moleskines under my pillows. Maybe even in my fridge. It’s ridiculous!

What are you working on now? 

My first novel is nearly completed. I’m also curating several books of photography. I have some fragments and imagery for stanzas of poems but it will likely be some time before I’ll actually think of them as poems. I want to explore a number of shapes and forms where they’re concerned and if I lock that energy into stanzas prematurely it’s more challenging to move the ideas and feelings around. I’ve also returned to painting, which helps me balance the density of prose.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I’ve evicted that phrase from my vocabulary. It’s reactive and doesn’t provide me with enough oxygen. What I try to do is set up a number of spaces where my mind can go when I’m unable to access (what I think) comes next. Usually, when I’m snagged on a thorn, I overload myself with reading, music, visual arts, and films. I double my time out in nature, looking at rivers and trees and light. I coax myself away from panic. Sometimes I can’t. Really, what I’ve begun to understand is that I have to listen and get very quiet when I feel a certain kind of silence approaching. I have a small set of questions I pose to myself about the work itself and about how I’m feeling specifically about the work and then I look outward through the windows of those questions. And I turn to other writers.    

What’s your advice to new writers?

Read everything, especially the things that make your ego nervous. Be open to words, dreams, memory, sensations, politics, and feelings. Push the alphabet toward your desires and your fears. Push the grammar until it breaks open in (re)discovery. Value your voice and your mistakes. Supporting other writers’ work means you value your own work and presence. Balance community and solitude. Make sure your competitiveness is constructive and useful. Read and read and read. Write to the living and to the dead. Take your good, sweet time.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and visual artist. Her most recent collection of poetry, Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books), was published in 2015. Currently, Griffiths teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

 

Tuesday
Aug182015

Richard Hoffman

How did you become a writer?

I honestly don’t know. I suspect that my love of reading led me to want to write. When I was very young, I wrote little story books with drawings and dialogue balloons that I colored and my mother stapled them together for me. So I must have had the itch to do this all along. I grew up in a macho, blue collar, locker-room culture in which the writing of poems would have triggered very dangerous homophobic responses from other guys, mockery being the least of it. I was the football player with a secret stash of poetry, a cache of penciled poems in a notebook hidden between the mattress and box spring.

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

Nonfiction inspirations: Baldwin and Orwell. Poetry: Theodore Roethke, Thomas McGrath, Muriel Rukeyser. Short fiction: Andre Dubus, Bernard MacLaverty, Frederick Busch. Behind those writers are the choirs of saints and angels, of course: Montaigne, Augustine, Donne, come to mind. My recent book of poems, Emblem, is inspired by two early Renaissance works, Andrea Alciati's Emblematum Liber and Sebastian Brant's Stultifera Navis (Ship of Fools). A book I carried around and read and reread for about 10 years is Elisabeth Sewell’s The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History. It’s out of print now, tragically. If I were a publisher, I’d bring it back. It’s eco-poetics on the grand scale, including the human organism in the matrix of creation. I'm an omnivorous reader, not much of a scholar, and half the time I don't recall from where I got a particular notion. I’m pretty lazy and trust in a kind of osmosis.

I’ve been blessed with wonderful teachers, especially the poets Barbara L. Greenberg, Stephen Tapscott, and Donald Hall, each of whom helped me in a different way during a crucial time in my twenties.

When and where do you write?

I try to be writing all the time. I mean that in the spirit of being “one on whom nothing is lost.” A lot of the time that means jotting things all day, writing a couple of pages in a notebook, not worrying what it is connected to. Then when I have time less encumbered by obligations — summers, vacations, those few times when I’ve been able to take some time away from home and work to devote to a book, I gather all that stuff and sort it and look for what I can make of it. Mostly I write whatever I can, whatever I’ve been given to write on a given day. Later, I gather things together. Whenever I set myself a project, I'm in danger of turning writing into homework. I always hated homework. So if I'm supposed to be writing prose (as I was recently, with a memoir under contract and with a deadline) then all I want to do is write poems and/or stories. It's the rebellious Catholic schoolboy.

Recently when our house was full with five adults and a baby (my grandson), I rented a studio because I had no place to write. It had three walls; a little wedge of a room made of leftover space in an old industrial building. No one else wanted it so it was cheap, but it seemed perfect for me! I set up tables for fiction, nonfiction, and verse. I worked in a desk chair on rollers and whenever I'd get stuck for more than a half hour or so, I would push off across the hardwood floor — whoosh — and see if anything was happening at one of the other tables, if any of the other projects seemed "alive" that day.

I’m always working on several things at once, as if I’m gardening, tending several different kinds of plants growing from the same soil. I have a couple of quiet places I like to get away to, the houses of generous friends. I spend the first two days fasting and reading and walking in the woods and remembering how to be alone, and I lay out the various things I’ve been tending: drafts of poems, essays, stories. I shuffle through the huge stack of note cards I keep, and I sort them in ways that seem right. I don’t really start working on anything until something starts working. I often finish several things during that time, but I refresh a number of things in the garden, too, and plant some new things.  When I finish anything it has probably been in the works and carried forward, draft after draft, in my notes for a very long time. Maybe I’m just making the best of what would otherwise be called ADD, but it’s the only way I know how to work.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m assembling my fourth collection of poems. There’s an art to organizing a book of poems, but I’m beginning to think I don’t know what it is. I’m lucky to have other poets I trust, Peter Covino, my wife Kathleen Aguero, D. Nurkse, who’ll weigh in. It’s weird: you have to believe there is one right way to organize the book while at the same time knowing full well that there isn’t.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Yes, but I don’t call it that. I don’t want to reify it. I think it is just fatigue, or resistance to something I might be about to say that I am not yet ready to know, or fear of someone’s response to what I’ll write. The churning, the clenching, the sitting and staring, the self-doubt, it’s all writing. All of it. If I were not afraid I was getting it wrong, how would I know if I’m getting it right? It comes with the territory, struggle does.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Commit yourself to a long apprenticeship and do it in secret. Don’t hang out your shingle. Don’t print up business cards. It’s hard enough without putting external social pressure on yourself. Take Whitman’s advice: “Dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” There’s a great deal of bullshit around us.

Richard Hoffman is author, most recently, of the memoir Love & Fury, which was a finalist for the New England Book Award from the New England Independent Booksellers Association. He is also author of the celebrated Half the House: a Memoir, just reissued in a new 20th Anniversary Edition in 2015, with an introduction by Louise DeSalvo. His poetry collections are Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club; and Emblem. A fiction writer as well, his Interference & Other Stories was published in 2009. A past Chair of PEN New England, he is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College.

Tuesday
Aug112015

Eleanor Brown

How did you become a writer?

I’ve always been a writer. For as long as I can remember, writing is how I worked through my emotions, how I recorded my daydreams, and acted out my frustrations.

Over the years, I’ve tried my hand at every kind of writing – short stories and poems, essays and songs, journalism and novellas. A lot of those have been spectacular failures, but I’m a fan of Samuel Beckett’s advice: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." So each time I had a piece of writing go disastrously wrong, I would do my best to learn from it, and then go on and make entirely new, better mistakes.

Because I knew writing on its own isn’t a great way to make a living, I have spent my life doing all sorts of other things – coordinating weddings, teaching 7th grade, working at a bank – and it turns out that is the best sort of preparation you can have to be a writer. That life exposed me to all sorts of people with all sorts of stories, and I mine those experiences all the time for fiction.

As far as becoming an author, my first published works were essays and short stories, but I really wanted to write a novel, so I kept at it, writing terrible novels and failing better until I failed my way to bestsellerdom with The Weird Sisters.

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

For teachers and mentors, I would follow Steve Almond, Dani Shapiro, and Liz Gilbert to the ends of the earth.

I’m a pretty indiscriminate and voracious reader, so my influences include everything from Stephen King to Kurt Vonnegut to Maeve Binchy.

Books I return to over and over again: Gone With the Wind, Stephen King’s The Stand, Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline, Evening Class by Maeve Binchy. But right now I’m judging the Barnes & Noble Discover Awards, so I’m reading an incredible variety of books I might never have picked up on my own, and I’m reminded of how much wonderful writing is being produced all the time.

When and where do you write?

I usually write during regular work hours at home, in my office, but I have learned not to be precious about where or when I write. If the only time I have to write on a given day is in the doctor’s waiting room, that’s when I write.

My personal favorite was when I was waiting to pick someone up at the airport, so I set up an impromptu standing desk at the back of the car and wrote 1000 words in the cell phone waiting lot until her flight arrived.

What are you working on now?

I am finishing edits on The Light of Paris, which will be published in summer of 2016, and I just started the next novel. It’s so new that I am afraid to even talk about it yet. There is this magical period when my work belongs only to me, and I try to preserve that for as long as I can. Once you let the world in, it destroys that creative honeymoon. I believe in Stephen King’s advice to “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

In various forms, yes. More often than total writer’s block, I’ve had creativity block, where I’m putting words on the page, but I’m not writing anything good. That was usually a function of writing the wrong thing. I think writers need to learn to finish things – the world is full of the brilliant beginnings of stories – but sometimes you need to take a break and figure out what you’re doing.

A few years ago, when I was really struggling creatively, I couldn’t make my 1000-word-a-day goal. A friend of mine suggested I make that goal 500 words a day. As I recall, I simply looked at her in misery.

“Can you do five words a day?” she asked.

And so that became my goal. Of course I wrote more than five words, but setting the bar that low eased the pressure long enough for me to find my way again.

What’s your advice to new writers?

1. Read.

2. Write.

3. Finish what you start.

4. Critique groups are hazardous to your creativity.

5. Write for yourself and worry about audience later.

6. Read some more.

7. Write some more.

8. Finish what you start.

Eleanor Brown (www.eleanor-brown.com) is the New York Times and international bestselling author of The Weird Sisters. Her second novel, The Light of Paris, will be published in summer 2016 by Putnam Books. She teaches writing at The Writers’ Table (www.thewriterstable.net).

Tuesday
Jul282015

Hilary Liftin

How did you become a writer?

I always wrote, starting when I was eight years old, but I never thought I would or could make a career of it. Instead I worked in book publishing, where I loved helping books find their way into the world and being surrounded by book people. I had written a couple of memoir-y books (DEAR EXILE and CANDY AND ME), but I was done talking about myself. It was only when I started collaborating with people on their books--ghostwriting primarily celebrity memoirs--that I unexpectedly found a kind of writing that I could see myself doing day after day, year after year. Telling very personal stories with people whose lives are more dramatic than my own turned out to be a perfect fit. I love the intimacy, the organization, the fast timeline. It was writing celebrity memoir that led me to my current book, my first novel, MOVIE STAR BY LIZZIE PEPPER. And so what had been a hobby became my career, and now I have no hobbies.

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

The idea of who or what has influenced my writing is so sprawling I hardly know where to begin and how to home in on any particular source. I have needed and had many supporters:  the high school teachers, who affirmed my efforts in a way that nothing else I'd ever done received affirmation; the random college administrator who sent me a handwritten letter about the only fiction piece I ever published in college (which was barely fictional); my first boss, the publisher Sam Lawrence who treated his authors like celebrities; the two writer friends who sat down with me before I wrote a word of MOVIE STAR BY LIZZIE PEPPER to help me break the story; my husband, who supports my writing in a million ways even when he has his own to do. 

Then there are books themselves--but where to begin? Because all my work to date has been memoir of one kind or another, that seems like the best place to focus. I've been inspired by Frank Conroy: STOP-TIME;  Jeannette Wells: THE GLASS CASTLE; Danny Sugarman: WONDERLAND AVENUE; Lena Dunham: NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL; and so many more. I love strong, original, fearless voices that remind me how unique and relatable each of our stories is. 

When and where do you write? 

I do best in the morning, the earlier the better, but I can write a full 8 - 6 day. I finish at dinnertime--if I get anything done after dinner it's email and filing. On days I don't exercise, I am vastly more productive (a good way to convince myself I shouldn't exercise). I always write at a cafe which is walking distance from my house. This particular cafe is amazingly generous with iced green tea refills, and neighborhood friends are often either coming in for lunch or to write at tables alongside me. I definitely need other people around and excuses to stop and talk.

What are you working on now? 

I've just started thinking about the proposal for my next novel. This is absolutely the hardest part. My first novel has just been published and I'm still so wrapped up in that book that the idea of envisioning an entirely new story with all new characters and an original arc is a daunting prospect, to say the least. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I'm not sure I believe in writer's block. I would just call it procrastination. Or being stuck. The practice of writing celebrity memoir, where there is always a tight deadline and my material is handed to me, has trained me to plow through. It's much more difficult to do that with fiction, but I'd rather write in a wrong direction than end a day with nothing at all. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

I have two pieces of advice for new writers. The first is to outline. I know that there are many novelists who create characters and let them carve their own paths, but I think it's very important to know from the start why you are writing the book, what story you want to tell, and the major milestones along the way. That doesn't mean it can't all change. But having a strong direction from the start will keep you moving forward and give the reader the sense that s/he is in expert hands. The second advice I have is to write it fast without worrying about the art of it. Crafting sentences, choosing images, tightening ideas--all of that is the fun part. Especially when the length and structure of a novel is new to you, my strategy is to hurry to the end, then go back and revise at leisure. 

Hilary Liftin is a collaborator specializing in celebrity memoir. Since 2006 she has worked on fifteen books, ten of which hit the New York Times bestseller list. Hilary has also written three books under her own name. The first, DEAR EXILE, is letters that she exchanged with her co-author, Kate Montgomery, when Kate was in the Peace Corps in Kenya and Hilary was in New York. CANDY AND ME: A Love Story is Hilary’s memoir told through different kinds of candy. Before becoming a full-time writer in 2006, Hilary worked in the publishing industry for ten years. MOVIE STAR by Lizzie Pepper is her first novel.