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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
May312016

Shobha Rao

How did you become a writer?

The question is not how. The question is why. It is always why, because if you know the why, you will always figure out the how. So, why? Because I wanted to live. And I saw no other way than to write. To let it out. To fill the emptiness. To wake up in the mornings, or afternoons, or the long, long night of what is called childhood, and make myself brave enough to live. That is why. 

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

I learned English at the age of seven, and I have never - not for a single day - been less than amazed by its power. Maybe all language has that power, but English happens to be the one I’ve known, embraced, fought, alienated, and tried to woo back with promises of love. And in these efforts, Laura Ingalls Wilder was my first weapon. Then I climbed the library shelves and found the rest.

When and where do you write? 

In a perfect world (and by that I mean the one dictated by whims that have no basis in reality), I would write from nine p.m. to three or four a.m., just before the sun begins to consider wandering across the bar to our damp and desperate bodies, hunched on red barstools. As it is, I write from late morning to early evening, in my dining room.

What are you working on now? 

A novel about one woman’s journey from innocence to evil, or maybe from evil to innocence. So basically, what everyone is working on. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I like that it’s called writer’s block. It conjures up images of colorful wooden playthings scattered across a room carpeted in beige. The blocks could be words, and we are the baby: staring at them, alone, trying to figure out how to stack them. I suppose the answer is yes, but then again, I like the staring, and I like the alone.

What’s your advice to new writers?

My advice to new writers? I am a new writer. Every time I see a blank page, I am a new writer. So I have very little advice, except, maybe, that our only job is to fight oblivion. We won’t win, but we have to fight. And how much heart we put into that fight, knowing we will lose, is the measure of our lives.

Shobha Rao is the author of the collection of short stories, An Unrestored Woman, published by Flatiron Books. She is the winner of the 2014 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction, awarded by Nimrod International Journal. She has been a resident at Hedgebrook and is the recipient of the Elizabeth George Foundation fellowship. Her story “Kavitha and Mustafa” was chosen by T.C. Boyle for inclusion in the Best American Short Stories 2015. She lives in San Francisco.

Tuesday
May242016

Adam Hochschild

How did you become a writer?

I began as a daily newspaper reporter, with dreams, not fulfilled, of becoming a novelist. I began to find my voice doing magazine-length articles and personal essays, then have spent most of the last 35 years writing nonfiction books.

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

The best teacher I ever had was Prof. Albert Guerard, who taught a justly famous course on the modern novel. He was particularly interested in the process of how a writer finds his or her right voice and subject matter. Many writers have inspired me: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Orwell, the list could go on for a long time. A particular favorite of mine, not so well known: Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet novels about the last days of British India.

When and where do you write?

Whenever I can! I used to think that writers could only work in a quiet room, in the morning, with no distractions. But once I had children, I realized you have to seize every moment you can. Before they get up, when they’re sleeping, on airplanes, wherever.

What are you working on now? 

Some articles and book reviews while I try to figure out what my next book will be.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not really. But I have terrible subject-matter block. Sometimes it takes me a year or two to figure out the subject for my next book. There are many things I’m interested in, but figuring out how to write something different from the book or books that made me interested is always difficult.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Don’t quit your day job—now, or possibly ever. Be relentless in asking others to read what you write, and give you frank and honest feedback. Any time you encounter something that moves and inspires you—book, short story, article, radio piece, film—go back over, take it apart, figure out how it was put together and what you can learn from it.

Adam Hochschild’s writing has usually focused on human rights and social justice. His books include King Leopold's Ghost: a Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, which won a J. Anthony Lukas Award in the United States, and the Duff Cooper Prize in England. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. For the body of his work, he has received awards from the Lannan Foundation, the American Historical Association, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. His Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 appeared in 2016.

Tuesday
May172016

Emily Barton

How did you become a writer?

I always wanted to write, but I came from a background in which I didn’t know any actual writers. How they found the time to write and how they supported themselves seemed mysterious. I knew I would have to make money somehow; I assumed that because I did well in school, I would enter one of the professions and write in my spare time. Then, two years after I graduated from college, I decided to apply to MFA programs in the arts. I applied to three programs in fiction writing and three photography programs that concentrated on alternative processes. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop was the only place I got in. I took that as a sign and went. While there, I worked on short stories. In my final workshop session before graduation, I presented a piece in the form of an interview between, well, me and The Guy Who Invented the Harness. (Reading J. B. Jackson’s The Necessity for Ruins had left me with questions about how the invention of the harness had influenced the development of the urban grid. I wanted to explore that in fictional form.) During workshop, Goldberry Long asked, “Do you think it’s possible this story could be a novel?” I said no, but her comment stuck with me. Shortly after I graduated, my mother died, suddenly and unexpectedly. Her death plunged me into despair. Instead of applying to law school, I found myself struggling to get through each day. I managed to sell one of the short stories I’d written at Iowa: a glimmer of hope. I enrolled in a yoga teacher training course, thinking this would be a healthy way to get stronger, help others, and make a little money while I figured myself out. At the same time, I began writing the novel that would become The Testament of Yves Gundron. I sold it about two years later, and have been writing ever since. I also taught yoga for about a decade, and now teach creative writing to help make ends meet.

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

By category, in not-really-chronological order: Virgil, Catullus, Horace, Sappho, St. Jerome. Chaucer, a bunch of Middle-English lyric poets, some of whose names are lost to history, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Sidney, Barnabe Barnes. Benvenuto Cellini. Ben Franklin’s autobiography, John and Abigail Adams’s letters. Jane Austen, all three Brontë sisters but especially Anne, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot (most of all – she is my favorite novelist). Charles Brockden Brown, Herman Melville, and Wilkie Collins. Gertrude Stein! F. T. Marinetti. J. B. Jackson and Paul Fussell. Suzanne Keene, Michael Martone, Marilynne Robinson, and Deborah Eisenberg. Sylvia Plath, Audre Lord. Akira Kurosawa. Gilda Radner. Chris Adrian, Ellis Avery, Pat Barker, Kirsten Bakis, Alison Bechdel, Michael Chabon, Alexander Chee, T. Cooper, Felicia Luna Lemus, David Mitchell, Julie Otsuka, Richard Powers, Nina Revoyr. Hayao Miyazaki.

When and where do you write?

I usually write in my office, which is up in the attic. I often work by hand though sometimes on my computer. I write on various couches and chairs if no one else is home, but if anyone else is here, I retreat to my office. Although I recommend keeping a regular or at least rhythmic schedule to writers who are starting out, at this point in my life, I use whatever time is available. On weekdays, I am either getting kids out the door myself or helping my husband do so, so it seems natural to take care of other business (laundry, errands, exercise) before settling down to work. Likewise before picking them up. Sometimes I settle down earlier or later or not at all. Some days I get a long work day. I seldom write on the weekends. This works for now. As our children grow older and grow up, perhaps I’ll get back to having more regular writing time.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a series of essays and trying to decide if I want to go back and look through the novel I “took a break from” to write The Book or Esther or simply want to find something new.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No, because writer’s block strikes me as an imperfect, catch-all term for various problems that should not be confused or conflated. It is possible, for example, not to have anything that you’re working on at a given time, no ideas at all; I’d call that a fallow period. Or say that every time you sit down to write, it feels like torture. Are you ignoring something that the text in question wants you to do? I’d call that stubbornness; or, if you simply haven’t solved the problem or even defined what it might be yet, I’d call it a mysterious problem that you need to puzzle through. If you are flattened by depression or anxiety, those are medical conditions. They require treatment, compassion, and not being labeled as a block.

What’s your advice to new writers?

To be very brave—to go for the most difficult form, style, or subject matter that attracts you—and to be humble and kind to yourself at the same time. To speak your truth. To listen with a calm mind and heart to critique, and then to judge what parts of it resonate with you and what parts you can discard. To work hard at your craft while you take good care of the rest of your life and the people and world around you. Perhaps most of all I’d encourage new writers to cultivate interests beyond writing and craft. After all, you need something to write about.

Emily Barton’s novels are The Testament of Yves Gundron, Brookland, and The Book of Esther, which will be published by Tim Duggan Books (Crown) this June. Her reviews, essays, and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Kveller.com, The Jewish Daily Forward’s Sisterhood blog, The Massachusetts Review, and The Threepenny Review among many other publications. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. This past year, she taught a graduate fiction workshop at Columbia, and she’ll be teaching one at NYU this fall. You can follow her on Twitter @embleybarton, on Facebook at http://facebook.com/barton.emily, or on her website, http://emilybarton.com.

Tuesday
May102016

Sonia Shah

How did you become a writer?

When I was little, I wanted to be a doctor, like my parents. When I was in high school, I aspired to be a painter or an actor. But writing was always in the background. I maintained a tortured journal as an adolescent. I wrote for the school newspapers, in high school and in college. And reporting and writing always felt natural. I'm shy--as a child I was painfully so--but also very curious and opinionated. Fading into the background, bearing witness, and then writing about it resolves that temperamental paradox. When I was finally able to devote myself to writing full-time, it was almost a relief.

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

My dad gave me a copy of "Lives of a Cell" by the physician and essayist Lewis Thomas when I was around 14 years old. I'll never forget it. I spent the next five years shamelessly trying to copy his style and his ideas. I wouldn't say that my writing teachers encouraged me. It's more that they failed to discourage me. Certainly, I got the signal from my pre-med, art and theater teachers that it would be best to drop my non-writerly aspirations. 

When and where do you write?

We have a weirdly large bedroom, which we've split into two spaces with some strategically placed bookcases. On one side is the sleeping area and on the other my study, which consists of a second-hand chaise lounge, more bookshelves, and a unfinished wood door balanced on two short file cabinets, which serves as my desk. It's comfortable and functional, with plenty of room to spread out various source materials. 

My books are a mix of reporting, research, and writing, so I rotate between the three, spending a few months reporting, then doing research, then writing. Most days, there's writing of some kind or another to be done. I think posture makes a difference in how I write. If I'm synthesizing research, I'll sit upright at my desk, balanced on a yoga ball. If I'm writing narrative, I prefer to lean back, either on the chaise or in bed. 

What are you working on now?

An article for a magazine elaborating on some of the ideas in my last book and research for a new reporting project on the migrant crisis in Europe. I'm also slowly developing my next book. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I wouldn't say I've been blocked, but there are days when writing feels like pulling teeth. There's no flow. I take it as a sign that either I'm not feeling brave enough to say what I want to say, or I don't really know what I want to say yet. If I can take a break, I will. But often I keep writing anyway, with no expectation that I'll keep what I write. At that point, it's therapy. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

I agree with what Ta-Nehisi Coates said a few years ago, which is that if you can stick it out for the first ten years, it gets easier. 

Sonia Shah is a science journalist and prize-winning author. Her fourth book, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond has been called “superbly written,” (The Economist) and was selected as a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Her writing on science, politics, and human rights has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Scientific American and elsewhere and has been featured on CNN, RadioLab, Fresh Air, and TED.com, where her talk, “Three Reasons We Still Haven’t Gotten Rid of Malaria” has been viewed by over 1,000,000 people around the world. Her 2010 book, The Fever, which was called a “tour-de-force history of malaria” (New York Times), “rollicking” (Time), and “brilliant” (Wall Street Journal) was long-listed for the Royal Society’s Winton Prize.

Tuesday
May032016

Summer Brennan

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer by first being a reader. I read a lot, and because I was very poor in my twenties, I often read the same books several times in a row. I would finish the last sentence on the last page and then flip right to the front again and start all over. I wanted to understand books and so I would read them once through to get the effect, and then a few more times to understand their secrets and how they were put together. Then I tried and failed to write a lot of things. Lots of tries and lots of failures. Eventually I got better at marshaling my ideas in a way that other people would enjoy. Generous people helped and encouraged me. Working at a weekly newspaper helped me get better at finishing things—every week I had to think up, report, and write at least one long feature story, plus shorter news items, and that was excellent practice. I wrote (or tried to write) three nonfiction book proposals before finally finishing one that I sent to agents. The first person I sent it to became my agent, and my first book, The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics and the Future of Wilderness in America, was published less than two years later. I'm now working on my second an third books.

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

Writers who have had the most direct influence on my work include critics, literary reporters and memoirists, although as an adolescent I read mostly novels, poetry and plays. I loved novelists that presented richly immersive worlds like Dickens, Tolkien, or Le Guin. As a teenager I especially adored Shakespeare, and was in love with the poetic rhythm of language; how the musical impact of a word could convey as much if not more than just its definition. I then discovered Diane Ackerman, who is a master of sensual and romantic science writing. From there I fell for book-length works of literary journalism that I found by hanging around in bookstores, like Philip Gourevitch'es We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families or The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. I read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and thought, "that's the kind of thing that I want to do." Other works of narrative nonfiction that have strongly influenced me include The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer, The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson, and Devil in the White City by Eric Larson. My favorite books last year were H is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald and Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich. I have also been influenced by the books and essay collections of Rebecca Solnit, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Eula Biss, and Leslie Jamison, to name just a few.

When and where do you write? 

I write whenever I can, but I prefer the early morning when it's still dark and quiet. When I was finishing my first book, I often woke up at 3am so that I could write before going to work at nine. That was last year, and I think I'm still catching up on sleep. I mostly write at home; at my kitchen table while drinking tea, or in my office which has one wall covered in bookshelves and another that is a chalkboard for plans and ideas, or (quite often) I write in bed on my laptop. My most common writing outfit is pajamas. I'll sometimes go to cafes to write, but I would rather be at home.

What are you working on now?

Right now I'm writing a short work of cultural criticism for Bloomsbury publishers called High Heel: An Object Lesson, as part of their Object Lesson series done in partnership with the Atlantic Monthly. It's about choice, consent, feminism, and performing femininity in the labyrinth of modern womanhood. I am also working on a longer work of investigative narrative nonfiction about an art mystery. My agent will be pitching it to editors soon. In the meantime, I have a few magazine articles I'm trying to finish.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Nearly every day. I get writer's block quite severely. No matter how much I tell myself that it's all in my head, it still insists on doing a marvelously lifelike impression of reality. For me it isn't usually a case of not having an idea, but more that I can't get my ideas to behave themselves and show up on the screen in readable English sentences. The worst writer's block I ever had lasted about six weeks. I was on deadline for The Oyster War and needed to write more than I ever had in my life, and yet I could hardly write anything. One chapter in particular was giving me trouble. I ended up going for walks and speaking my ideas into a tape recorder, and then writing the whole thing down 100 percent verbatim. It was a mess, but I sent it to my editor as a placeholder, and then four months later I went back and edited it. It ended up being one of my favorite chapters, and was excerpted in Scientific American.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Before becoming a writer, make sure that it isn't possible for you to become anything else instead. Only write if you have to. Once you decide that you must write, try to write something. An essay, a short story, a book, a novella. Whatever it is, make sure you push through and finish it, because only by doing that will you be able to see the places where you are weak. Obsessively read in the genre in which you want to write. If you want to write a memoir, then read memoirs like a maniac. If it's dystopian science fiction, then read that. Find a few books that are your favorite and read them again and again until some of their secrets are made known to you. I think of it a little like how, when you're very little, your parents will sometimes dance with you by letting you stand on their shoes and hold their hands while they waltz around the room. Reading great writers works in this way, too. Stand on the shoes of people bigger than you. Let yourself be carried along by good plots and good sentences, and after a while you'll be able to dance through them on your own.