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ATW INTERVIEW

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.

Tuesday
Mar142017

Daniel Paisner

How did you become a writer?

I've always thought of myself as a writer, going all the way back to elementary school. First grade or so, I used to publish a neighborhood newspaper with some friends, hand-written, which one of our mothers would run off on a mimeograph machine at work. Out of that, coming to political awareness in the Watergate-era, I wanted to be Woodward or Bernstein. And I did start out as a reporter, of a kind, although not the swashbuckling, muckraking kind I'd imagined. I was the editor of the student newspaper at college, and then I became a stringer for the New York Times and the Associated Press. In grad school, while I was pursuing a master's in journalism, I worked part-time for a local daily, covering school board meetings and suspicious fires - mostly ho-hum stuff. Alongside of that, I started writing fiction. I wrote my first novel while I was still in school, and it was apparently good enough to land me a venerable New York City literary agent but not quite good enough to land me a book deal. (Sigh.) Somewhere in there, I found I had a talent for capturing people's voices and personalities on the page, so I fell in to the collaborative work that has stamped my career.

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

I was introduced to Hemingway early on -- The Nick Adams Stories, back when I was still in middle school. Thank goodness for the teacher who turned me on to them. What struck me then, and since, was the simplicity of the language, the simplicity of the stories. Not a whole lot happened, and there was not a whole lot of adornment in the telling of what happened, and I thought that was exciting as hell. It ran completely counter to the ways we were invariably taught to write in class, in purplish prose, with big words we couldn't possible understand without a thesaurus. Soon, Hemingway led to Mailer, only not in the ways most people come to admire Mailer. I'd been struck by Why Are We in Vietnam? and An American Dream, but what really floored me was his long-form non-fiction. His magazine work. Miami and the Seige of Chicago. It was startling, vigorous. It was fresh. And he was a part of the story, as often as not. And then, with keen interest, I read The Executioner's Song as soon as it came out, and I was floored. Like Hemingway, the writing was spare, taut. But it was also electric. There was a current to it — you could feel it! I set that book down, probably the longest book I'd read to that point, and I came away thinking I wanted to write like that. The story read like an epic novel, but it was painstaking and true and intimate. Powerful. And what a lot of people forget was that the reporting of that book was well underway before Mailer ever signed on to the project. In many ways, he was like Gary Gilmore's "ghost," rooting around inside the head of this broken man and inviting his readers to join him. And so, for the work I would come to do in collaboration with others, the book became a kind of road map. It showed me what was possible, writing within the constraints of someone else's story.

When and where do you write?

Here and there. Now and then. When I'm working on a novel, the words seem to find me best at my desk, in the wee hours, when the house is quiet and the world has been put on pause. For the collaborative work I do, I'm able to work anywhere -- on the fly, if I have to. One of my favorite things is to sit and write on a plane, middle-seated, believing that my seat mates on either side are probably stealing a glance or two at the screen on my tray table. Or, not...and yet I get it in my head that I'm writing for an audience, in real-time, although of course this is only in my head, because I can't imagine there are too many idiots like me who like to "eavesdrop" on other people's work in this way.

What are you working on now?

I've just finished working on a book with Ohio governor John Kasich that is partly about the 2016 Presidential campaign, and partly a hopeful look forward at ways to set right the American pendulum. We've worked together on two previous books, before he was elected governor, but this time out he's occupying a somewhat more prominent place on the national stage, so we're looking forward to how that book will be received. He has an important message to share with readers, and it's an honor to be on board to help him do so. I'm also working on a motivational business book with FUBU founder and "Shark Tank" panelist Daymond John, who's become a leading voice for young entrepreneurs; and, a desperately sad true crime story that I keep putting off in part because it's so desperately sad but also because I need to put a little space between the heartbreak I felt in learning the facts of this story and the objectivity I'll need to put in its place in order to share it effectively with readers. Also, I've started in on a new novel, so the plan is to carve out month-long chunks of uninterrupted time for me to work on it, in and around these other projects.

Have you ever suffered from writer's block?

Yes and no. Yes, when I'm working on a novel. I'll be brick-walled on a plot point, or a direction I may or may not want to be taking. I don't typically work with an outline, so even though I might have a sense of where a story is going, I have no idea how I'll get there. That feeling is a little bit thrilling, and a little bit terrifying, and I've learned over the years to trust in it and give myself over to it. And yet when I'm working on a non-fiction piece, especially in collaboration, on someone else's autobiography or memoirs, there's never a block. The story is the story - it's all so right there. The story has already been lived, it only falls to me to help tell it, and the writing at these times feels to me more like a craft than an art.

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

I had a writing professor in college, really more of a mentor than a professor. His name was Alan Lebowitz — one of the world's great Melville scholars, and an accomplished novelist in his own right. He was the chairman of the English Department at Tufts University — and he was the one who turned me on to Mailer in a full-on way. Anyway, a group of used to sit around his coffee table for hours each week, sharing our work, breaking it down, pushing each other. I came to value Alan's opinion a great deal, and we stayed in touch for a while after I graduated. He'd weigh in from time to time on something I'd written, and I was always grateful for his comments. But then, a bunch of time went by, and I learned he was retiring, so I reached out to him and we fell in to talking. I told him I'd written a new novel and asked if I could send it to him. So I sent him my second novel, Mourning Wood, just to hear what he had to say about it. A couple weeks later, he sent me back a note that said, "Write another one." That's all. Now, maybe that meant he thought the novel was crap, and that I should set it aside and move on, but I took it to mean that the stuff of a writing life was to build a body of work, to look ever forward, to keep writing -- one way to look at it, right?

What's your advice to new writers?

Read. Read. Read. That's the groundwork, the foundation. When you read, you begin to see what's possible. When you read, you build a template. When you read, you absorb the language of literature, the structure, the form. You open your mind to new ways of thinking, new ways of looking out at the world. And so, read. It goes without saying, and yet it needs saying, so there's that. Also, this: write for yourself. Hold your own attention. Keep at it, and find ways to surprise yourself as you move along. Don't worry who will publish your book, who will read your book, who will review your book...just go ahead and write the damn thing. People will come to it, or they won't. People will spark to it, or they won't. But write the book you want to read. Print it out and hold it in your hands. Marvel at what you've accomplished. Then go ahead and write another one.  

Daniel Paisner is well-known to publishers (and somewhat less well-known to readers) as the author of more than 60 books, including 14 New York Times best-sellers. As a ghostwriter, he has written more than 50 books in collaboration with athletes, actors, politicians, business leaders and ordinary individuals with extraordinary stories to tell. He is co-author of the acclaimed Holocaust memoir The Girl in the Green Sweater, written with Krystyna Chiger and the gripping 9/11 diary Last Man Down: A Firefighter’s Story of Survival and Escape from the World Trade Center, with FDNY Deputy Chief Richard Picciotto –- both international best-sellers. He recently completed a campaign memoir with Ohio Governor John Kasich -- Two Paths: America Divided or United, to be published by St. Martin's Press in April.

He has also written several books of his own, including The Ball: Mark McGwire’s 70th Home Run Ball and the Marketing of the American Dream – a singular tale of the Rawlings baseball that stood for a few fleeting moments as the Holy Grail of sports memorabilia. He is the author of three novels: A Single Happened Thing ("... poignant and whimsical..." - The Millions); “Mourning Wood” (“… has the makings of a cult favorite…” – Booklist, starred review); and, Obit (“… a classic mystery novel…” – The Boston Globe).

Over the course of his ghostwriting career, Paisner has taken on the real-life personas of dozens of compelling individuals, including a World Series of Poker champion; the son of a Yanomami tribeswoman; a plus-size supermodel; an FBI hostage negotiator; a three-term Democratic Mayor of New York City; a three-term Republican Governor of New York State; a network television weatherman; a daytime television talk show host; a #1 ranked women's tennis player; a bilateral amputee mountaineer; an Oscar winner; an Emmy winner, a Tony winner; an "Apprentice" winner; a former First Daughter; a current First Daughter; a New York City bail bondsman; an undersea explorer; a world champion surfer; a foul-mouthed, misogynist comedian; an urban fashion mogul; a Cosby kid; an Olympic swimmer; an autistic high school student; and on and on. He has been nominated, improbably, for an NAACP Image Award, for his work on Daymond John's best-selling book, The Power of Broke.

Tuesday
Mar072017

Lisa Yee

How did you become a writer?

Since I was about ten-years old, I’ve wanted to be an author. But I was too scared to do anything about it. So after college I wrote ads, jingles, commercials, TV shows, menus, everything but books. It wasn’t until I had kids that I realized that writing novels was something I still dreamed about and needed to try. So, I got The Writers’ Market and looked up editors, then sent a manuscript to Arthur Levine, the editor of Harry Potter. He pulled me out of the slush pile. We’ve done eight books to date.

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

Beverly Cleary, Harper Lee, Thomas Wolfe, Anne Lamott, Sharon Creech, Mary Calhoun, my mom, Mr. Glick (7th grade teacher).

When and where do you write? 

When I was working full time and the kids were young, I got into the habit of writing late at night when the house was quiet. These days, I’m still at my most productive in my studio from 11p.m. to 3a.m. However, I also write in libraries and coffee houses. I tend to goof off a lot during the day, so knowing I’ve paid of coffee somehow makes me stay in the chair.

What are you working on now? 

I’m working on the fifth book of the DC Super Hero Girls series. These are original novels featuring DC Comics most iconic female superheroes. Previous books were about Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, and Katana, which will be out this summer.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Yes.

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

Stop thinking about your audience and just write the story it needs to be.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Read, write, write, read, read, read, and then write some more. Also, your goal should not be to write a bestseller. Your goal should be to write a great sentence, then another one, and another one.

Lisa Yee’s debut book, Millicent Min, Girl Genius, won the prestigious Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Her 18 novels for young people include Warp Speed, Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time, the Bobby series, and several American Girl books. A Thurber House Children’s Writer-in-Residence, Lisa's books have been named a NPR Best Summer Read, Sports Illustrated Kids Hot Summer Read, and USA Today Critics’ Top Pick. Lisa also writes for NPR Concierge's Best Books. The Kidney Hypothetical is Lisa's latest novel for teens. She is the author of the DC Super Hero Girls middle grade novel series. Visit Lisa at www.lisayee.com.

Tuesday
Feb282017

Tamim Ansary

How did you become a writer?

I started writing shortly after I started reading.  I was five or so and hungry for stories and wanted  more of them than the adults around me were willing to waste time telling, so I learned to read. Then I wasn’t satisfied with the stories others had written, so I had to write my own. I remember reading a Comics Illustrated edition of Moby Dick, in which Moby Dick gets away scot free. Around the same time, in the Book of Knowledge, read the impressive fact that the biggest animal in the world was the Blue Whale. I decided to put Moby Dick in his place by writing a novel called Moby Dick vs. Mr. Blue: the two whales go head to head and Mr. Blue wins! Ha ha! The novel was two pages long and illustrated. My writing life went from there.

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

I don’t try to write like anyone else, so I don’t spend time thinking about who my influences are. My focus is on the thing I want to write and on how to get it told. Obviously I have influences but my work has nothing to gain from figuring out what they are. They’ll operate on me, through me, whether I’m conscious of them or not.

When and where do you write?

I kinda write all the time. I have an office in my basement. When I’m not writing, I’m fixing that room to be exactly how I want it: with a light I can shine right where I need it, and a shelf to put papers I might need soon but don’t need now, and a shelf for my coffee cup exactly where it will be accessible but not in the way, and so on. Over the years it’s turned into a sort of writing cockpit: I’m down there any old time. No pattern except that I’m down there a lot.  

What are you working on now?

Mostly a history of the world called Ripple Effects, How We Got to Be So Interconnected and Why We’re Still Fighting.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

All the time. Every day. It’s inherent to the writing process. Dissolving the block to move forward is the job. Succeeding at that job requires, strictly speaking, something other than writing. It requires “getting into a state.” That state is one in which the thing I’m creating by writing is everything I see, and it blocks out my awareness of my own self writing it. Whenever I am not in that state (which is often) I consider myself blocked.

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

Peter Elbow wrote a couple of brilliant books, the names of which I’ve forgotten, but you can look ‘em up: Peter Elbow. His brilliant advice was to separate writing from editing. Pour your efforts into writing well rather than into writing something really good; be good at the process and the product will take care of itself. This has become more or less a standard line now, but Elbow said it first and said it best, at least to me.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Join a writer’s group. You know what you’ve written but you also have to know what other people have heard. That doesn’t mean they’re right, but it's information you can use. Also, writing is such a solitary activity that it’s good to seek out company; and if you’re a writer, you’ll find that other writers tend to have interesting to say (and not just about writing). But the most important piece of advice? Talking about writing is fine but not as a substitute for writing. You gotta write.

Afghan-American author Tamim Ansary’s latest book is Road Trips, Becoming an American in the vapor trail of The Sixties, a memoir set in the Age of Nixon.

Tuesday
Feb212017

Peter Guralnick

How did you become a writer?

I always wanted to write — started writing every day when I was 15 or 16, after reading Hemingway’s Paris Review interview. It was all fiction — I wrote my first novel when I was 19, published a couple of collections of short stories, Almost Grown and Mister Downchild, over the next couple of years. The non-fiction came about almost by chance, when I was offered the opportunity to tell people about this music that I thought was so great — James Brown and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Skip James and Solomon Burke and Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, etc.

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

Here’s a totally non-inclusive, off the top-of-my-head list. Joyce Cary, Henry Green, Zora Neale Hurston, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Italo Svevo, Don Carpenter, Sigrid Undset — there are just so many others, including contemporary writers like Jess Walter and Elena Ferrante and Jhumpa Lahiri and Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith that I so much admire. Here are some more. Dawn Powell, My Home Is Far Away; Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (I liked the movie, too); Philip Roth: Sabbath’s Theater, Nemesis, American Pastoral; Richard Holmes, Footsteps; Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence; Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man; Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters; Paul Hendrickson, Hemingway’s Boat; George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle; Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End; Anna Karenina (Pevear-Volokhonsky translation); Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty; Donna Tartt, The Little Friend; Kem Nunn, The Dogs of Winter; Chekhov’s stories; August Wilson’s plays; William Carlos Williams’ poetry; James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

When I was in the 9th grade, I had Omar Pound as an English teacher. He assigned three stories a week — and it was a wonderful opportunity to put some of my inchoate thoughts, ideas, and aspirations into practice.

When and where do you write? 

I’ve always written at home — in a room of my own! No, seriously, that’s been the one thing I’ve been most concerned about in every move I have ever made. Where will I write?

What are you working on now? 

Some short stories, a profile of Dick Curless that I’ve been meaning to do for the last 10 or 15 years (I interviewed Dick and his wife extensively for the album my son, Jake, produced on him, Traveling Through, in 1995. One of the most soulful albums I know.)

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not really, but kind of. Sometimes I’ve been overwhelmed by how much I think I have to say (this is with non-fiction particularly), and I have to wait a little for it to settle. In a way it’s become more difficult for the years — though I may not be remembering the past that well. (We all tend to skate over remembered difficulties.) With these recent short stories I just sit there sometimes and think, What is this shit? This is just never going to go anywhere. And maybe it won’t. But all I know to do is just to keep my head down and work my way through it. My grandfather always said, “Keep your eye on the ball,” good advice for baseball and life. And, you know, when I look back at my writing notebooks from 20 or 30 years ago (or more), I guess it’s always been the same. But it’s hard sometimes.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Write every day that you can. Live a real life. Don’t look for validation. Trust yourself. Always be ready to make that empathetic leap.

Peter Guralnick has been called "a national resource" by critic Nat Hentoff for work that has argued passionately and persuasively for the vitality of this country’s intertwined black and white musical traditions. His books include the prize-winning two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love; Sweet Soul Music; and Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. His latest work, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, was a finalist for the Plutarch Award for Best Biography of the Year, awarded by the Biographers International Organization.