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Recommended Books
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    What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
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    Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
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    Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do
    Plume
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    Modern Library
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    Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers
    by Ambrose Bierce, Jan Freeman
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    The Writer's Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century's Preeminent Writers (Modern Library)
    Modern Library
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    The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition
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    The Writer on Her Work, Volume 1
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    The Writer's Legal Companion: The Complete Handbook For The Working Writer, Third Edition
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    A Writer's Time: Making the Time to Write
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    Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past
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    Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Paperback)
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    Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular
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    Writing for Your Life
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    The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think And Work
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    The Writing Life
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    The Writing of Fiction
    by Edith Wharton
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    Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print
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    Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life
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    You're a Genius All the Time: Belief and Technique for Modern Prose
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    Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You
    by Ray Bradbury
  • Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives
    Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives
    by Lawrence Grobel

 

ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
May152018

Henry Hitchings

How did you become a writer?

I started writing at an early age. As an only child I needed to be good at amusing myself; I was always drawing and scribbling, as well as reading, and gradually the scribbling became more coherent. First there were illustrated stories, then poems (often rather earnest) and playlets (often quite mischievous). My parents were encouraging, and I never imagined a life without writing - although by the time I was in my teens and thinking seriously about my future I was enough of a realist to recognize that I had to have a Plan B. The Plan B ended up being to pursue an academic career, but that fizzled out while I was getting my PhD, an experience that extinguished my illusions about the pleasures of the scholar’s life. 

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

I think influence happens mainly by osmosis. I can’t point to a person or a particular work and say “This was my great inspiration”, but my ideas about what constitutes good writing have been shaped by just about every book I’ve read. Sometimes, of course, I’m reacting against a book rather than admiring it, but that’s a powerful thing. 

When and where do you write? 

At home, often on my lap or at the kitchen table. I tend to find I'm most productive in the afternoon and late at night.

What are you working on now? 

I have a newborn daughter, and she’s my main focus. But I have a new book out in June, so I still feel as though I’m in the literary swim. It’s about Samuel Johnson, an author I keep returning to, and it ponders how Johnson - Dr Johnson, as he usually is, though I like to call him Sam - can be a guide to (or through) the perplexities of life. On my computer there’s also a draft of a novel, set in the eighteenth century, that’s calling for a rewrite. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I’ve experienced setbacks and frustrations, but I wouldn’t say I have been blocked. Like most writers, I’ve from time to time found myself stymied by other people being less excited about an idea than I am. Sometimes they’ve been right to be sceptical!

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

Constantly challenge your tastes as a reader. My writing is stimulated by reading and especially by encounters with writers whose approach differs radically from my own. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

It’s a somewhat downbeat piece of advice, I’m afraid, but any emerging writer should definitely have another source of income. I don’t subscribe to the view that financial insecurity is a spur to creativity. The other thing I would say is “Look after your back.” That probably sounds as if it has some dark significance, but I mean it literally.  

Henry Hitchings was born in 1974. He has written mainly about language and history, starting in 2005 with Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Johnson's Dictionary, which won the Modern Language Association's prize for the year's best book by an independent scholar. The Secret Life of Words (2008) won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award, as well as seeing him shortlisted for the title of Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. 2011's The Language Wars completed what was in effect a trilogy of books about language. Since then he has published Sorry! The English and their Manners and edited Browse, a collection of essays about bookshops. He is a prolific critic and has made several programmes for radio and television, on subjects including Erasmus Darwin and the eighteenth-century English novel. 

Tuesday
May082018

Sally Franson

How did you become a writer?

Though it sounds trite, I knew I was a writer ever since I was little, the way you know you have blue eyes or hate canned vegetables. The trick, at least for me, was allowing this knowing to assume its rightful place in my life amidst the din of financial concerns and status concerns and my own aversion to uncertainty. In my early twenties, I was attempting somewhat half-heartedly to publish, and then at 25 I got diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. My life didn't so much as flash before my eyes during those long months of treatment as it did crystallize into almost unbearable clarity. I thought: okay, you have to go for this, and you can't hold anything back. And ever since then, with a few periods of notable exceptions, I haven't. 

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

There are so many! The first influences that come to mind are the books I read as a child: The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, A Bridge to Terabithia, Judy Blume, Lois Lowry...and really the entire children's and young adult section of the Verona Public Library, since I used to take out entire duffel bags full of books, particularly in the summer. I was fortunate enough to have a number of teachers who nurtured both my interest and talent, from kindergarten through graduate school, most notably, and most recently, National Book Award nominee Charles Baxter. 

The books that have influenced me the most in the past decade or so are by female authors with whom I can only dream of keeping company, and by whom I set my compass. Rachel Cusk's Outline changed the way I thought about fiction. Same goes for Eve Babitz's Slow Days, Fast Company, Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado, and Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love. All these works are either hilarious or gutting, and very often both. 

When and where do you write? 

When I'm drafting something, I write in the mornings in my home office, which has east-facing windows so I can watch the sun rise. My drafting process is intensely ritualized, and dare I say spiritual. Revising, on the other hand, feels more like an American definition of "work." I have to trick myself into putting in long hours, which generally means I head to a co-working space or coffee shop in an attempt to develop discipline by osmosis. I revise better mid-day and after I've exercised, so I'm less likely to get stir-crazy. 

What are you working on now? 

I'm in the early stages of research for a new novel about the women of Silicon Valley.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Oh, sure. Who hasn't? But I think there's a difference, as Tillie Olsen writes so eloquently about, between lying fallow and being silenced by forces both interior and exterior. During periods of major upheaval -- a move, a breakup, a death -- I have a great deal of trouble expressing myself through language. Or, to put it more kindly, the language for that particular experience hasn't yet revealed itself to me. 

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

One day, not long after I'd completed my graduate studies, Charlie Baxter sat me down and said that a first novel was a writer's attempt to answer the sphinx's riddle. The riddle, Charlie said, was the same for every writer: what has happened to me, and how can I be more than just the person to whom these things have happened? It's a beautiful image, so compassionate, and encouraging -- in the sense that it really gave me courage. Because I knew that if I could answer that riddle, the sphinx's door would swing open, and so much would be waiting on the other side. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

I take heart in that old Samuel Beckett saw: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail Again. Fail better." 

Sally Franson is the author of A Lady's Guide to Selling Out. Her writing has been published in The Guardian, Glimmer Train, NPR, and the Best American series, and has been honored by fellowships with The MacDowell Colony, The Ucross Foundation, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. She holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota and lives in Minneapolis.

Tuesday
May012018

Patrick Ryan

How did you become a writer?

I had a wonderful English teacher when I was sixteen, and she used to give us the weekly homework assignment of going out somewhere and observing people and writing one- or two-page vignettes about them. Not short stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, but little slices of life. I immediately heard that as an invitation to eavesdrop on strangers, and that’s what I did. Anywhere I went, I was listening in on people’s conversations and writing them down in a notebook. No one paid any attention to me, so I got away with it. I would then pad all that overheard dialogue with physical descriptions and mannerisms. It was a very enjoyable activity, and my teacher was encouraging, so I kept at it and eventually started writing stories about characters I’d invented as opposed to observed. 

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

I was given The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twainon my sixteenth birthday (I still have that copy, inscribed by my grandparents), and I read the whole thing and was blown away because I had no idea that short stories could be so much fun to read and be so funny. With the help of some great teachers in college, I discovered writers like Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, S.E. Hinton, James Baldwin, Truman Capote and Willa Cather. Raymond Carver was a big influence. J.D. Salinger, of course. Ann Beattie, Joy Williams, Edmund White. I was lucky enough to be a student of Jerome Stern’s when I was an undergraduate at Florida State. He would always have you come into his office after a workshop, and you’d sit down with him and your story and walk through it sentence by sentence. It might sound daunting, but it was extremely helpful. I loved hearing what I was trying to do and how it wasn’t working.

When and where do you write? 

I write at home. Sometime I write outside of home but not in public. Not in a coffee shop or any place like that. For one thing, I can’t stop eavesdropping. For another, I find writing to be a very private activity, and the idea of being observed while doing it seems awful and counterproductive to me. There used to be a little Italian bakery in my neighborhood with a back seating area that was usually empty and quiet, since most of their business was take-out, and I’d go there sometimes and work. But that place closed. Unless I’m revising, I usually only write in the first part of the day—early morning. If I’m revising, I get more mileage out of the different parts of the day.

What are you working on now? 

A novel. (Can I leave it at that?)

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

No. I don’t believe in it. I think things get in the way of writing, and sometimes one of those things is me, my confidence, the level in my creative fuel tank. But I don’t believe in being creatively blocked. If I believed in it, I’d probably find a way to suffer from it. 

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

William Styron once said to a group of us that if you truly want to write, you have to set up your life so that you can write. Meaning, do what you have to do to create a life that facilitates writing—even if that’s only for an hour a day.

Paul Monette, in failing health and not long before he died, told me to keep writing because the good stuff would come to the surface. That was such a simple and wonderful idea to plant in my head as I wrote story after story and novel after novel, one unpublished manuscript after another.

I also like this quote from John Irving: “If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.” So many writers, I think, are afraid of finding the courage to write, because then it means they’d actually have to do it. And that means having to risk “failing” at it. Impatience and bitterness and distraction are far more attractive to a lot of aspiring writers than actually writing.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Write because you enjoy the act of writing, not because you want to get published. Of course you want to get published, and you should pursue that, but it shouldn’t be why you write. 

Patrick Ryan is the author of The Dream Life of Astronautsand the linked short story collection Send Me, as well as several novels for young adults. His work has appeared in The Best American Short StoriesTin HouseOne StoryCrazyhorseTales of Two Cities,and elsewhere. He grew up in Florida and lives in New York City.

Tuesday
Apr242018

Lauren Spieller

How did you become a writer?

I was working a job I didn't love, and I found myself reading YA novels for the first time. I decided to try my hand at one, and discovered that I absolutely loved it!

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

I'm influenced by almost everything I watch, read, or see, but I'll give a special shout out to YA authors Corey Ann Haydu, Morgan Matson, and Maggie Stiefvater.

When and where do you write? 

I like to write in the morning in my home office. My brain is quiet in those early hours, and I find it easier to think and create.

What are you working on now? 

My second novel, She's The Worst, which is coming out in Fall 2019 from Simon & Schuster. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

All the time. I find that it's usually because I'm trying to force characters to do something that isn't organic.

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

To read everything, everything, everything. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Don't be afraid to take risks, or to put yourself on the page. Who you are is what will make your writing special.

Lauren Spieller is a literary agent and author who lives in New York with her husband. When she isn’t writing, she can be found drinking lattes, pining for every dog she sees, or visiting her native California. Your Destination is on the Left is her debut novel. Follow her on Twitter @laurenspieller and Instagram @laurenspieller.

Tuesday
Apr172018

Michael David Lukas

How did you become a writer?
I had that urge to write since I was in elementary school and I occasionally wrote a poem or a short story for class. But the moment I actually became a writer, I think, was when I started writing regularly, a few hours every morning. That would be when I was about twenty. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
The writers exciting me most right now are those who mix together genre and literary fiction: Mohsin Hamid, Victor LaValle, Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan, and Kazuo Ishiguro to name a few. I also have a special place in my heart for fabulists like Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, and José Saramago. And I owe my love of literature, in part, to Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, and Ursula LeGuin.

When and where do you write?
For a long time, I wrote six mornings a week, from morning to lunch. Then my daughter was born, I started teaching more and that became more difficult. These days it's more like three or four. But I still write in the mornings at the same desk made out of an antique sewing machine and a tabletop from IKEA.

What are you working on now?
I'm working on post-apocalyptical retelling of the biblical book of Esther.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I've had hard writing days, really hard writing days, and long periods when I doubted myself in a profound way. But I don't really believe that there's such a thing as writer's block. The idea almost seems like an oxymoron. Though maybe I'm just cursing myself to years of writer's block with this answer.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Write the book you want to read.

What’s your advice to new writers?
Write every day. Believe in yourself. Figure out what you want to do, and do it.

Michael David Lukas has been a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey, a night-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv, a student at the American University of Cairo, and a waiter at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. Translated into more than a dozen languages, his first novel The Oracle of Stamboul was a finalist for the California Book Award, the NCIBA Book of the Year Award, and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize. His second novel, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, is forthcoming from Spiegel & Grau. A graduate of Brown University and the University of Maryland, he is a recipient of scholarships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Montalvo Arts Center, New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Elizabeth George Foundation. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Slate, National Geographic Traveler, and Georgia Review. He works at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley and lives in Oakland.