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    Modern Library
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    The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think And Work
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    Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You
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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Apr262016

Peter Rock

How did you become a writer?

1.  My father read to me. Most notably Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, but also The Chronicles of Narnia, etc.  (I now read these books to my daughters.)

2. I got attention for making things up and writing in school.

3. My mom gave me Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar for Christmas one year in high school and Brautigan--so simple, rather whimsical, attracting very attractive women--seemed like someone to emulate

4. Kept this idea of being a writer, seeing it as a kind of lifestyle, and followed my education so that I was unqualified to do anything else.

5. Worked on ranches, worked as a security guard in an art museum, read a lot, wrote many bad novels, wrote a lot of letters that were probably better than the novels.  Was delusional.

6. Does one become a writer? I like to think I've gotten better at writing, or at least more comfortable amid confusion, but I think of myself more as a person who likes to write. It's not an identity or a calling, really. It's a decision, an action. There are days when I could be called a writer and days when it wouldn't be right.

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

A few: Yasunari Kawabata, by far my favorite; Laura Ingalls Wilder, close second; Ursula Le Guin; Gertrude Chandler Warner; Elena Ferrante, recently; Alice Munro; Maggie Nelson; Hemingway; Julio Cortazar; Murakami; Octavia Butler; folktales of all sorts. Oh man, I just re-read Island of the Blue Dolphins the other day: pretty much a perfect book.

When and where do you write?

In my basement, usually between 4:30 and 7:00 in the morning; sometimes I get some other morning time. I have small children, though, and teach full-time, and am a housewife. I used to have the privilege of possessing many rules for when and under what conditions I could write, but now I just get after it whenever I can.

What are you working on now?

A long piece of narrative prose that revolves around artifacts of my past life in 1994 and involves open water swimming, the painter Charles Burchfield and his writings, floating in isolation tanks, letters to ex-girlfriends, etc; also a fragmentary novel-in-photographs, SPELLS, that has been a gallery show and hopefuly will be a book. It's a collaboration with five photographers. And secret projects that may or may not surface.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Have fun. Don't listen to the hype or worry about whether anyone will ever read what you're writing. Read a lot and give others your enthusiastic attention.

Peter Rock was born and raised in Salt Lake City. His most recent novel is Klickitat, which concerns mysterious writing, wilderness survival and the relationship between two sisters. He is also the author of the novels The Shelter Cycle, My Abandonment, The Bewildered, The Ambidextrist, Carnival Wolves and This Is the Place, and a story collection, The Unsettling. Rock attended Deep Springs College, received a BA in English from Yale University, and held a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. He has taught fiction at the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Deep Springs College, and in the MFA program at San Francisco State University. His stories and freelance writing have both appeared and been anthologized widely, and his books published in various countries and languages. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, an Alex Award and others, he currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is a Professor in the English Department of Reed College. His novel-within-photographs, Spells, was shown at Blue Sky Gallery in 2015 and continues to travel around Oregon; a book of that project is in the works.

Tuesday
Apr192016

David Quammen

How did you become a writer?

I was always, from the age of about 11, pointed toward being either a writer or a biologist. Then in high school and college I had some great English teachers and mentors. Never got the same mentoring in biology. So grows the branch.

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

Writing influences: Faulkner. After him, at a distance, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and of course Robert Penn Warren. I was from Cincinnati but my pantheon was full of Southerners. To a far lesser degree, once I turned to nonfiction: Haldane, Eiseley, Hughes Rudd, Ed Abbey, McPhee, Hoagland, Matthiessen, Gould. Did I say Abbey? He and Matthiessen and Hoagland are my adored big brothers. Hughes Rudd, wonderful man, taught me that it’s okay to be serious and funny. Among my own generation: Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams have been especially influential colleagues. Bill Cronon too. And of course others, who know who they are but I don’t mention right here. My writing pals.

Teachers: Two Jesuits in Cincinnati in the early ‘Sixties: Jerry Lackamp, S.J., and Tom Savage, S. J. Then at Yale in the late ‘Sixties: Robert Penn Warren, great friend, great writer, great mentor. Great and good man. Changed my life.

When and where do you write?

When? Get up early-ish, coffee and fruit, read a little to open the brain like a splash of water in malt whiskey; then write. Write. Write. Take a break for peanuts and an errand, clear brain. Come back and write. Stop at dark and get some exercise.

Where? In my wonderful book-lined cave of an office in Bozeman, Montana. Harry the Maremma, noble dog, sometimes snores in the office while I write. Soothing.

What are you working on now?

Finishing chores on the book version of my big Yellowstone project for National Geographic (I wrote the entire May issue, devoted to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, related to 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service). But the real heavy lifting right now is on my next major book, for Simon & Schuster, on the idea of the Tree of Life, as radically challenged by shocking new discoveries from gene sequencing. Hope to finish it this year.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No. Nor jet lag. Not much insomnia either. Knock wood. Some writers cultivate these anxieties as vanities. Just do the work. Writer’s block, in my agnostic view, is a fancy way of saying “Writer is insecure or empty.” Lots of people have demons, freeze-ups. I sympathize with that. If it’s a person who has published one book, we call it “writer’s block."

What’s your advice to new writers?

Don't quit your day job. Don’t do it because you “think” you “might” want to be a writer. Go elsewhere. It’s not a life style. It’s not an answer to your financial problems. It won’t make you famous, almost certainly. It’s a vocation and a damn tough way to make a living over a lifetime. Now that I’ve said that: Good luck, and have fun!

David Quammen is an author and journalist whose fourteen books include The Song of the Dodo (1996), The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2007), and Spillover (2012), a work on the science, history, and human impacts of emerging diseases (especially viral diseases), which was short-listed for eight national and international awards and won three (including the Merck Prize, given in Rome). More recently he has published Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus and The Chimp and the River: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest, both drawn largely from Spillover. Quammen is a Contributing Writer for National Geographic, in whose service he travels often, usually to wild places. He has also written for many other magazines, ranging from Harper’s, The Atlantic and The New York Times Book Review to Rolling Stone, Outside and Powder. Much of his work is focused on ecology and evolutionary biology, frequently garnished with history and travel. In 2012 he received the Stephen Jay Gould Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution. Quammen has lived in Montana for 43 years, and in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for most of that time. His home is in Bozeman, where he shares a house and a small lot with his wife, Betsy Gaines Quammen, a conservationist at work on a doctorate in environmental history, and their family of other mammals.

Tuesday
Apr122016

Karan Mahajan

How did you become a writer?

Through bad poetry and a love of dissonant music. My interest in prose is primarily musical. I have a failed musician’s attitude toward my art. In high school in India, tilting on a wave of Agatha Christies and PG Wodehouses, I wrote rhythmic, rhyming poetry. The milieu in Delhi encouraged flowery writing.

All of that fell away in the US in college. I took a fiction-writing workshop, discovered I was bad at telling stories, experienced a massive competitive urge, spent the next summer in Delhi writing stories, and came back and became addicted to fiction.

Reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in college—it is sort of the Indian Augie March—played a freeing role. Naipaul’s Half A Life had a huge impact on me, particularly its folktale-ish aspects and surging but compact storyline that spans several continents. Later came the genius Jewish writers: Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow.

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

I was reading the other day in Zia Haider Rahman’s novel that the true influencers are those who give you permission to do certain things you would have considered taboo. In this sense, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, VS Naipaul, and Cynthia Ozick were formative. Tonally I have an affinity for RK Narayan and Saul Bellow; I might be closest to them in worldview. I read The Corrections as a young man, and seeing my bourgeois background reflected in Franzen’s was tonic.

When and where do you write?

I write in a sort of a manufactured chaos. I try to go to a coffee shop first thing in the morning—not to write, but to establish my presence as a human being in a city. Then, with the Americano still fuming in my hands, I head back to my living room and scribble in a notebook. I get frustrated and tired after the writing ends, around eleven. I’m inconsolable after that, bored. The only solution I’ve found is to drink more coffee—which makes me more inconsolable and bored—or to write non-fiction or to read. I write best in the presence of friends. A lot of my second novel was written on the sofa of a friend in Austin, who was also very disciplined with her work. We wouldn’t talk to each other except at lunch and we’d work in the same room. When I hit a block I would discuss it with her. She’s a screenwriter, and therefore sensible and no-nonsense about events in a novel. She’s moved to LA, alas.

In India, I write either in my childhood bedroom at night, or in a lobby area that has been turned into a makeshift study for my father. The country of my writing is really my laptop and my moleskine. I find it easy to fall into the fictional universe in those pages.

What are you working on now?

A third novel. With each novel I’ve been zooming closer and closer to the place I grew up in and I think I’m going to smash right through it.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Yes, though the thing about a block is that you don’t actually recognize it as such. For four years, while writing The Association of Small Bombs (then called Contempt), I was revising furiously. I had many sections, written independently, with independent characters, connected by the idea of “terror,” but not even in the same universe of tone. Every few months I’d try to jam these people and sections together. I’d go back and cut and paste and rewrite. I ended up with 1,400 files in my “Novel 2” folder. No one could have said I was “blocked.” In fact I was. A blockage is a failure to move forward, that’s it. It’s a failure of the ego, as Norman Mailer said. To avoid being blocked you have to write badly for a while. You have to accept that there will be languors in the prose, as in life. As long as you are building honestly toward something, readers will stay with you. We don’t live antic lives; prose shouldn’t strive to ingratiate itself, but rather to convey people forward, slowly, toward a destination they couldn’t have foreseen when they waded into the river of your thoughts.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Be kind to other writers. I was very judgmental as a young writer; this judgment inevitably turned on myself. Nothing was good enough.

I would also say that it is dangerous, emotionally, to become a writer. There’s a lot of despair and disappointment involved. It takes courage to get through it. The courage doesn’t guarantee money or fame or anything. Perhaps the best way to think of it is as a sort of religious act. You have to believe you’ll achieve something from you writing beyond pure aesthetics. Even if this is not true, even if this is hubris, it is important to believe. At the core, you have to believe writing is noble.

Karan Mahajan was born in 1984 and grew up in New Delhi, India. His first novel, Family Planning, was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize and was published in nine countries. His second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, was published by Viking in March 2016. Karan's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR's All Things Considered, The New Yorker online, The Believer, n+1, and other venues. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.

Tuesday
Mar292016

Larissa MacFarquhar

How did you become a writer?

My mother always thought I should become a writer. When I was a kid she forbade me to read Enid Blyton books because she thought Blyton’s writing was revoltingly cute and sentimental and would be a bad influence. Naturally I read as many of them as I could find. It’s true that reading bad writing can have an insidious effect on you (I think I’m more susceptible to this than most—I tend to mimic what I hear). But I also think that analyzing what bad writing does badly can be very helpful in learning how to write better. When I was seven or so I loved a book about a boy who accompanied his father on long-distance trucking hauls, and I read it over and over again. Then I picked it up a year or two later and noticed that the writing was quite ham-fisted. At first this was a disappointment, but then it was exciting: I realized that I had a better sense of writing than I’d used to, and I thought, I am growing up.

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

Probably everything you read influences you to some extent, but the book I’ve read most often as an adult is The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. I must have read it fifteen or twenty times. I love not only the writing (which is beautiful and hilarious) but also the story: I find the struggles of people trying to live up to a constricting morality very moving (which is why I wrote about them in my book, Strangers Drowning). I love fiction writers who deal with such characters—Marilynne Robinson, Graham Greene, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky.

When and where do you write? 

I’ve always wanted to be one of those writers who takes a laptop to a café and writes while people are talking and the door’s banging and cutlery’s clinking and the espresso machine is making that loud noise it makes. But unfortunately I’m too easily distracted for that—I find even a window distracting—so I usually work alone in a room. I don’t care what room it is, as long as it’s impersonal and boring. Cheap hotel rooms are the best.

What are you working on now? 

I’m writing a piece for The New Yorker about a hospice nurse and trying to figure out my next book.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not really—I have a method for avoiding it. When I’m sitting down to write something new, I figure out which bits are going to be easy and which are going to be hard. I start with the easiest bit (which, when I’m writing an article, is usually a scene, because it involves transcribed dialogue, so it’s half-written already), then go on to the next-easiest, and so on, finishing, once I’ve got plenty of momentum, with the hardest bit, which is usually the beginning. Then I stitch it all together.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Don’t have too many friends, and live somewhere cheap. Also: I know a lot of people say you should write every day, but that never made any sense to me. Write no matter what? Even when you have nothing to say and are just going to produce a lot of blather? The idea behind the write-every-day thing seems to be that writing uses muscles that can atrophy, but to me, writing is just another form of thinking. If you didn’t think every day, that would be bad. Maybe it’s different for novelists, but as a nonfiction writer I spend quite a lot of time researching and interviewing and reading before I start writing. I scribble lots of notes, but nothing more than that.

Larissa MacFarquhar is the author of Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. She has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998, where her profile subjects have included Hillary Mantel, John Ashbery, Barack Obama, and Noam Chomsky.

Tuesday
Mar152016

Ellen Urbani

How did you become a writer?

By accident and by yearning, in equal measure. Which is to say that as a young person the things I wrote won some acclaim, which made writing seem like a good fall-back skill, so I put myself through college and such working as a writer for various publications but for whatever reason never considered it my ‘profession.’ I went on to a career in other arenas. These many years later, I’ll say I’m an author if someone asks me what I do — because I have a new book out and it seems a reasonable assessment of my present time investment/commitment — but I also feel that I am just as much a farmer (I own my own tractor and can mow an enviably straight row in a hayfield!) and a mother and a beast-wrangler (dogs, llamas, horses, and the occasional errant guinea pig) as I am a writer. When I sit down to write a book or an essay, I do so only because I am no longer capable of holding the ideas inside me anymore. It’s like my gut has caught on fire and I have to spit the flames out of me onto paper to get any relief. That burning/yearning is the only reason I write. 

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

I could name a handful of gifted authors — Wallace Stegner, Michael Chabon, Pat Barker, Anne Fadiman — and go on and on about the ways in which their talent captivates and inspires me. But I believe the non-literary lessons of confidence, tenacity, and perseverance have, more than anything else, influenced my writing. My 10th-grade AP English teacher, Dr. Elizabeth Tarner, taught me to believe in myself because she so fiercely believed in me that I couldn’t fathom letting her down. My aunt, Joan Urbani Vance, with the help of her mother Jeannette McSorley Urbani, raised four children on her own while battling mental illness and yet every day found the strength to get out of bed and face the world. The women who sheltered me in Guatemala lived lives rife with poverty and illness and child-loss and violence (domestic, national, racial) but daily laughed and loved anyway. Every one of these women — all of whom have made their way into my books — modeled for me the sort of courage and self-determination that serves me well in my writing and in all the rest of my life. 

When and where do you write?

In bed or on the sofa, with my laptop balanced on a pile of throw-pillows. The throw-pillows drive my husband mad, for they are everywhere in our home; enough to make a pile must always be within arm’s-reach. 

What are you working on now?

I’m still touring a good deal with Landfall, which came out this summer, and am otherwise working at detaching myself sufficiently from promotions and social media so as to turn my attention to other things. I recently had a personal essay appear in The Rumpus but am focused now on the impending task of churning out a new book of historical fiction … in which my miniature donkeys may very well have a cameo!

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Naturally. I can be a terrible procrastinator, and also, moreover, I find that I tend to write about weighty subjects that I sometimes need to remove myself from for a spell in order to get some emotional or psychological reprieve. I’ve gotten better about allowing myself that distance without ruing it, or feeling guilty about it, as I’ve gotten older. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Ignore all the advice. If you’re inclined to write every day, write every day. If you’re inclined to write only when you feel like it, write then and harvest vegetables or walk your dog or love your spouse or read a book in the other spaces. No one else can tell you how to live your life or express your passions, so stop giving others egress and opportunity to try. Heed the burning in your own gut, and tend your own flames. 

Ellen Urbani is the author of Landfall, a work of historical fiction set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the memoir When I Was Elena, a Book Sense Notable selection documenting her life in Guatemala during the final years of that country’s civil war. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and numerous anthologies, and has been widely excerpted. A Southern expat, she now resides on a farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley with her family and a passel of barnyard pets.