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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Dec162014

Jacqueline West

How did you become a writer? I was a secret writer for many years. From age nine, when I wrote my very first unicorn-y story, until the end of high school, I kept my notebooks hidden beneath the clothes in my dresser drawers. When I went off to college, I majored in music (with an English lit minor) and started publishing a few poems in small journals—but I would never have dared to call myself a “writer,” and I still kept most of my writing safely hidden from others. There was a lot of it to hide by then; besides reams of poetry, I was writing short stories, working on adult novels, and trying my hand at comic books and plays. In my fourth year of college, I started work on a story for young readers that would eventually grow into my first published book: The Books of Elsewhere, Volume One: The Shadows. I dropped out of grad school when I finally realized that I didn’t want to be an opera singer, found a paid writing gig with a local arts weekly, and published more stories and poems. Within a couple of years, I had finished my English teaching certification, gotten a chapbook of poetry accepted by an academic press, polished up my manuscript for young readers, and found an agent. So that’s how I became a writer: secretly. Or sneakily.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). Because of the whole secret/sneaky thing, I’ve taken very few writing-focused classes. Most of what I learned about writing came through extensive reading and lengthy, sloppy, sometimes embarrassing practice. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books—my mother was an English teacher—and I started reading early and voraciously: fairy tales, Milne, Carroll, Tolkien, Dahl, Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, Bill Watterson. As a teenager, I fell head-over-heels for poetry, devouring Plath and Sexton and Eliot and Shakespeare, with hearty helpings of Salinger, Bradbury, Dickens, Vonnegut, Poe, Atwood, and the Brontes in between. Eventually I sought out books by writers on writing: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, Plath’s journals, Stephen King’s On Writing, everything by Annie Dillard. It’s a weird stew of influences, but that’s what has fed me.

When and where do you write? I’ve turned out to be a morning writer. Generally, I write at home, either in my office or at the dining room table. When I need a change of scene or an absence of homey distractions, I’ll head to a coffee shop. If I’m drafting something new, I try to cross the thousand-word threshold every day…although this doesn’t always happen. (I blame the internet. And the dog. And then I go to the coffee shop.)

What are you working on now? The fifth and final volume of my middle grade fantasy series The Books of Elsewhere was released this summer, so I’m getting to delve into some new projects at last. My still untitled YA novel will (probably) be published in early 2016, and between bouts of revision, I’m making headway on a draft of the first book in what I think may be a whole new MG fantasy series.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? The kind of writer’s block in which you stare, paralyzed, at the blank page?—no. The kind in which you are certain that everything you write is so humiliatingly awful that the authorities will arrive at any minute to take away your pens and paper and ban you from writing anything ever again?—yes. Accepting the fact that my first, second, or thirteenth drafts may be light-years away from what I had intended to write is a daily struggle. But the struggle is getting easier. 

What’s your advice to new writers? Read widely and write widely. Experiment with genre and form. Try everything. Expect your first million words to feel like dreck; expect to spend ninety percent of your time revising and rewriting. You’ll get there. 

Jacqueline West is the author of the New York Times-bestselling middle grade series The Books of Elsewhere (Dial Books for Young Readers). The series has been selected by the Junior Library Guild, received a CYBILS Award, and was named a “Flying Start” by Publishers Weekly. Her short fiction for young readers has appeared in venues including Spider and The School Magazine. A former English teacher and occasional musician, Jacqueline currently lives in Red Wing, Minnesota, surrounded by large piles of books and small piles of dog hair. Visit her at www.jacquelinewest.com.

Tuesday
Dec092014

Michele Filgate

How did you become a writer?

I grew up on a lake in a small town in Connecticut, and supposedly it was built over an Indian burial ground. Who knows if that’s true or not, but it was enough to charge my imagination. I used to write stories about kids who lived in the murky depths. What can I say? I loved books by R.L. Stine and more traditional ghost stories.

I became a writer when I became a reader. From early on, I felt like writing was a superpower.  Words did have a power—and literature became a kind of religion for me. I wrote Babysitters Club fan fiction in which I inserted myself as a character. I made up my own mythological tale after reading the D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths.

I think the moment I really realized I was a writer was in high school. I read an (admittedly) terrible poem to my classmates, and afterward one of them told me I was really talented. The fact that I could move someone I wasn’t even friends with (or related to!) meant the world to me.

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

Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf. Have I mentioned Virginia Woolf? I wasn’t even a fan of hers until a couple of years ago. I first read Mrs. Dalloway when I was an undergraduate, and for some reason the book didn’t resonate with me. I could kick myself, but I’ve realized that certain books can’t be appreciated until the right time in our lives. I read The Waves on a friend’s recommendation, and I felt like the whole world opened up to me in a way I had never seen it before. Her sentences can momentarily knock the wind out of you. The way she writes about the interior life is extraordinary: “How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”—from The Waves.

I think she’s the greatest writer of all time.

Other influences: Roald Dahl, Marcel Proust, Joan Didion, George Eliot, Fernando Pessoa, Paul Harding, Marilynne Robinson, Ali Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Kate Zambreno, Mary Ruefle, and Valeria Luiselli. (I could go on and on!)

When and where do you write?

I really like writing at a local bar that’s more of a café during the day. They have long picnic tables and good cappuccinos and the music isn’t over-whelmingly loud. I also like to write in bed or on the chaise lounge. My favorite time to write is in the afternoon or late at night, when I can ignore my inbox and social media for a while.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a memoir about fictional characters and their influence on me. I’m also working on a bunch of personal essays.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Of course! Every single day. Sometimes I’d rather vacuum or empty the dishwasher or respond to emails I’ve been putting off rather than sit down with my own thoughts for a while. I have to push through that resistance all the time.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Many writers give this advice, but that’s because it’s true: you have to write as if you are just writing for yourself. If you are only thinking about the end result (getting published) you will find endless ways to self-sabotage. I spent a year struggling to find the right voice for the book I’m currently writing, and I had to scrap what I wrote and start all over again. That laborious effort was worth it, in the end. Have patience. Be good to yourself. Write what you need to say. Write what you have to say. Read as many books as you can.

Michele Filgate is an essayist, critic, and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, The Rumpus, Salon, Buzzfeed, Poets & Writers, The Brooklyn Quarterly, Time Out New York, The Daily Beast, O,The Oprah Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Capital New York, The Star Tribune, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation, The Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.

Tuesday
Dec022014

Noah Berlatsky

How did you become a writer?

I've wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, just about. I got a creative writing degree in college, and when I got out I failed at being a poet and then failed at writing zines. I started doing freelance criticism and arts writing and blogging, and haven't failed at that yet, so here we are.

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

I had a wonderful third grade teacher, Mrs. Stone, who encouraged me to write and told me I was good at it; I'm still thankful for that. As far as writers, James Baldwin is certainly a hero of mine; he's someone who believed, and demonstrated, that criticism could be art. Carol Clover, Sharon Marcus, and Julia Serano are all folks whose work has inspired mine. And of course William Marston and Harry Peter, the creators of the original Wonder Woman comic; I love their work so much I wrote a book about it.

When and where do you write? 

Writing’s a job. I work from home and write every day, sometimes work for hire, sometimes criticism or essays, often both.

What are you working on now? 

My current gigs are working on articles for a business/economics encyclopedia and an online literature study guide. I'm always working on articles and criticism of various sorts. I also have a couple of potential book projects percolating that may or may not happen.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

When I was working on poetry and fiction, I'd sometimes get stuck. That hasn't happened in a long while though. Again, I write every day, and if I don't write the bills don't get paid, so you learn to forge ahead, and if it's not perfect…well you finish it anyway, and move on to the next thing.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Read a lot, practice, and remember that success in anything involves a lot of luck, of various sorts. Folks will tell you that if you really want to be a writer, you'll be one, and that if you don't end up as one, it was because you didn't want it enough. This is nonsense. You try your best, and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't, often depending on whether you know the right people, are in the right place at the right time, and/or have enough resources that you can afford to take risks and not earn a whole lot while you struggle to get your feet. Think of writing as any other job, not as a spiritual calling. And think broadly about what being a writer can mean. Work-for-hire isn't necessarily very glamorous, but it's a living.

Noah Berlatsky has written for The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Reason, and Splice Today, among other venues. He is the editor of the comics and culture blog The Hooded Utilitarian. His book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, is out in January 2015 from Rutgers University Press.

Tuesday
Nov252014

David Hair

How did you become a writer?

I'd always wanted to write, but for various reasons — some practical (young family, busy and stressful work life) and some psychological (lack of confidence) — it took a while to get started. I finally found the space to write, and to my quiet amazement my first novel (a YA fantasy called The Bone Tiki, set in my homeland of New Zealand) got published in 2009, won an award and spawned a six book series, which set me off into fulltime writing, both YA and adult fantasy novels. I'm now 13 books into what I hope will be a lifelong new career.

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

When I was trying to kick-start my writing I attended some writing courses at night school in Wellington, one with Frances Cherry and another with Chris Else. They were invaluable in finding my 'voice' and thinking about technical aspects of character development and story structure, as well as helping to give me the confidence to write. In terms of books, I've never read 'how to' manuals on writing, but tried to learn by reading widely and seeing what works for me as a reader. In terms of writing role-models, I loved Alan Garner's YA books (written before 'YA' was a category) and the way he blended the mythic with the modern; and I fell in love with fantasy after reading Tolkien, Eddings and Donaldson.

When and where do you write?

I write at home, in an upstairs office with a skylight, and a window looking out over the rooftops to Totara Park in Auckland, where I go running most days around midday to clear my head and freshen up. I like to be up early and am usually at my desk by 7.30 am, and will chip away at whatever project I'm busy with for most of the day.

What are you working on now?

I'm currently finalising Book 4 of my adult fantasy series, The Moontide Quartet. It's the last book of the series, with lots of wrapping up and big events, and the deadline is looming!

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Not really - unless you count all the years before I began writing! Some days things don't flow, and I step away, work on something else or do jobs around the house, and before long I'm back in the mood. Sometimes I'll run up against a problem with a particular scene or plot device, and will simply skip ahead in the story and keep writing, then go back to the problem scene later to find it's more or less resolved, because looking at what happens after the problem scene helps me focus on what was important in that scene, and enables me to finish it.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Write! Have a go, and believe in yourself. You'll never find out what you are capable of if you don't try.

David Hair is a YA and Adult fantasy writer living in Auckland, New Zealand. After a career in financial services, he became a fulltime writer following the publication of his first novel in 2009. He has a degree in History and Classical Studies, and a Diploma in Financial Planning, two grown children and is on the feline side of the cats versus dogs debate. He has two writing awards:

'Best First Book' award, for The Bone Tiki, NZ Post Children's Book Awards 2010

'Young Adult' award, for Pyre of Queens, LIANZA Childrens Book Awards 2012

David has lived in the UK and India and is inspired by travel, history and folklore.

Tuesday
Nov182014

Jacob Appel

How did you become a writer? I wish I could claim I'd had a great epiphany like Martin Luther in his outhouse or that I'd had a typewriter delivered to my house by accident like Penny Sycamore in "You Can't Take It With You," but I have no such dramatic story to offer. I suppose I became a writer because I was always afraid of not being a writer -- of ending up one of those hopeless souls out of John Cheever's stories, boarding the 5:48 train to Westchester. I watched those unfortunate men and women disembarking from the commuter train as a child, returning to the safety of a town with (to pilfer from Hemingway) wide lawns and narrow minds, and I am so glad I did not become one of them.  How can you argue with a job you can do in your bathrobe?

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). I've been very fortunate to have a series of brilliant teachers -- essayist Andre Aciman, playwrights Tina Howe and Richard Schotter, bioethicist Edward Beiser -- who have taken the time to share their wisdom. I also had a handful of high school teachers (among whom Julie Leerburger, Eric Rothschild and Neil Ginsberg remain living) who tolerated and even encouraged my unconventional ways. I'm reluctant to credit any living writers with influencing me, because I'm not so sure they'd want the "credit"; among the dead, Phillip Larkin has certainly been a profound influence. His appreciation for disappointment and diminished expectations dovetails well with my own innate cynicism. (I can overlook his politics for his poetry.) I'm also a great admirer of Willa Cather, whose slow banishment from the canon is a cause for considerable grief, as well as Shirley Jackson, whose sudden resurrection merits much joy.

When and where do you write? I'm a psychiatrist at a busy New York City hospital, so I do a lot of my writing in the nursing stations. So do many of my literary-minded colleagues. When you see a doctor typing away in the emergency room, odds are 50-50 that he's working on his novel and not a patient chart.

What are you working on now? Seducing Sophia Loren through my prose -- she hasn't responded to my novels yet, but I tell myself she's just playing hard to get. On the subject of novels, I have two novels on my agent's desk--one about a sociopathic cardiologist and the other about a teacher who discovers that the American Civil War is a hoax. If you're a publisher interested in buying them, please be in touch. I'm also scribbling away on more stories, all well below the radar screen.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Not really. I'm fortunate in that I always have another bad idea for a story or a novel up my sleeve--although it often takes me several hundred pages and months of work to realize how truly deplorable my idea is.

What’s your advice to new writers? Marry wealthy. And if you marry wealthy, ask your spouse if she has a younger sister who'd be interested in meeting a ne'er-do-well physician-writer in New York City.

Jacob M. Appel is a physician, attorney and bioethicist based in New York City. He is the author of more than two hundred published short stories and is a past winner of the Boston Review Short Fiction Competition, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the Dana Award, the Arts & Letters Prize for Fiction, the North American Review’s Kurt Vonnegut Prize, the Missouri Review’s Editor’s Prize, the Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, the Briar Cliff Review’s Short Fiction Prize, the H. E. Francis Prize, the New Millennium Writings Fiction Award in four different years, an Elizabeth George Fellowship and a Sherwood Anderson Foundation Writers Grant. His stories have been short-listed for the O. Henry Award, Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best American Mystery Stories, and the Pushcart Prize anthology on numerous occasions. His first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Prize in 2012. His second novel, The Biology of Luck, was short-listed for the Hoffer Society's Montaigne Medal. Jacob holds graduate degrees from Brown University, Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Harvard Law School, New York University’s MFA program in fiction and Albany Medical College’s Alden March Institute of Bioethics. He taught for many years at Brown University and currently teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.