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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Aug232016

Ken Atchity

How did you become a writer?

I don’t remember ever not being a writer, though I’m sure it was my mother’s fault. She’d sit me down at the kitchen table and insist that I write because she knew I had the storytelling genes of her Cajun family in me.

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

Aside from Mom, I was inspired and egged on by teachers in elementary, high school, and college—many through their example. My Yale mentor Tom Bergin published around 60 books BEFORE he retired, then another 20 or so after retirement, illustrating my favorite quote from Benjamin Franklin: “I see nothing wrong with retirement as long as it does not interfere with a man’s work.” Novelist John Gardner was my first and toughest editor, who weaned me from academic writing and taught me to write to be helpful or entertaining—or both. My favorite writers include Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Robert Ludlum (when he was alive), Carson McCullers (“I can’t stand the word ‘prose’; it’s too prosaic.”), and some of the writers I’ve managed or published including Martin Ott, Misti Mosteller, Jerry Amernic, Milton Lyles and John Scott Shepherd.

When and where do you write?

I write anywhere (right now I’m writing on a flight between Dublin and Newark), including at my desk every day I’m home, on the airplane, train, bus, car (while someone else is driving)—the more exotic location, the better. I also write any time of the day, though much prefer the early morning before the phone, email, and texts begin. You’ll never experience writer’s block if you follow my simple rule: Never sit down to write without knowing what you’re going to write when you sit down.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new nonfiction book about “how to get your story to the screen”; a second “romance of mythic identity,” this one set in Naples; and the Louisiana volume of my memoirs—as well as an article about “yoga and the myth of the world tree.”

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

See above. Norman Mailer said, “Writer’s block is a failure of the ego.” And Ray Bradbury: “Start doing more. It’ll get rid of all those moods you’re having!” When you think you’re blocked, you’re not. You just need to take a long walk and let your story figure itself out again so you can sit back down and write it. Good writing should be “automatic writing.”

What’s your advice to new writers?

Don’t confuse writing with rewriting. If you try to do both at the same time, you’ll sabotage yourself. Rewriting is what you start doing when you’ve completed your first draft. Good luck to you all.

Former professor Ken Atchity is a writer (of novels and nonfiction), producer of films for television and theater, literary manager, and publisher (Story Merchant Books). He can be reached at atchity@storymerchant.com.

Tuesday
Aug162016

Curtis Sittenfeld

How did you become a writer?

Like many writers, I wrote stories from the time I was literate, which I think was about age six. Now I have children who are becoming literate. I don't assume they'll be writers or even hope they will, but I suspect I'm more relaxed than some parents about the fact that what they write is often some mix of plagiarism and fan fiction, and that what they like to read is not necessarily high quality (picture books based on episodes of "Dora the Explorer," anyone?). And I'm relaxed because I was the same at their age—enthusiastically influenced by others' work, indiscriminate in my reading choices. As a sidenote, I think I could have had a career writing those picture books based on episodes of TV shows. Some are a mess, and some are quite artful, and I often think about their authors.

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

Alice Munro, Mona Simpson, Lorrie Moore, Andrea Lee, Susan Minot, Jane Austen, Tobias Wolff, Matthew Klam, Ethan Canin, Frank Conroy, Marilynne Robinson, Chris Offutt, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, The New Yorker.  

When and where do you write? 

I write in an office in my house, usually after my kids go to school. My brain is definitely sharpest in the morning. I almost never write in a public place like a coffee house, and I almost never write when I travel. I'm not philosophically opposed to either, but I have to really be able to concentrate to write fiction. 

What are you working on now? 

I've written a few pages of a new novel. Has anyone ever noticed it's a little daunting to start writing a novel? Just kidding, but it is funny to me that I can have faith in the process and my own abilities yet still feel riddled with doubt at the beginning. When I wrote my third novel, American Wife, which was a fictional retelling of the life of Laura Bush, I saw it as an experiment and decided I'd write about 100 pages and only then decide whether or not to continue moving forward. And this method worked so well (because I hadn't invested years and years, yet I'd also written enough not to hastily abandon it) that I decided I'd always use it going forward. Now I need to remind myself of this decision.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not in the profound way that I think people mean it. I do allow myself to write very bad sentences that no one ever sees. (Some critics might say I also allow myself to write very bad sentences that others do see? Heaven forbid!)

What’s your advice to new writers?

The usual: read a lot, protect your writing time, make sure you have something to say rather than writing just to be a writer. Because it's rewarding if you like the process, but (alas) it's really not that glamorous.

Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of the novels Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife, Sisterland, and Eligible which have been translated into twenty-five languages. Her nonfiction has been published widely, including in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, and Glamour, and broadcast on public radio’s This American Life. A native of Cincinnati, she currently lives with her family in St. Louis.

Tuesday
Aug022016

Laura McVeigh

How did you become a writer?

Writers are often readers first – writers second. At least that is how it was for me.

As a child, I read a lot from a very early age – often by torchlight after bedtime if a particular story had me in its spell. My parents also read to me a great deal and encouraged that love of reading and storytelling. My mother was an English teacher and lecturer so I grew up in a house full of books and poetry. I was always interested in how a writer had created a particular world and so, as soon as I could write myself, I started writing my own ‘books’ or often writing and directing plays that I would rope unfortunate siblings and cousins into – it was all very professional with parents and neighbours being given illustrated programmes and charged ticket entry.

As a student at Cambridge, I loved the libraries, discovering writers I hadn’t read before and reading very widely – more often than not books that had nothing whatsoever to do with the reading lists. Rather, they were books that interested me. And I could never go past a bookshop without coming out with a new find or two, tucked under one arm.

After college I was lucky to be offered a place on the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers’ Programme in London. That was a wonderful opportunity to try out ideas and discover what sort of a writer I was, or hoped to become. I love the collaborative nature of theatre and it was a long time before I attempted a novel but I worked my way up to it writing many short stories over the years.

I am not sure you ‘become’ a writer. It is just there, hardwired somewhere in the DNA. You can fight it for a while but eventually if you are meant to write you will.

When I finished my first novel, and then signed with my agent and with my publishers, I realised I had finally given myself permission to call myself what I had always been at heart – a writer.

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

My writing is informed by so many influences – not just books or other writers, but by life in general – the things you observe and realise as you go through life, the experiences you have that shape you into the person you become.

There are many writers whose work I admire or whose stories have in different ways – be it through tone, structure, playfulness, rhythm, or fearlessness, emotional heart, voice and character – helped shape me as a writer.

As a child I delighted in folk tales – anything with an underlying sense of menace or mystery appealed. I remember ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ by C.S. Lewis affecting me deeply – not least because it had been inspired by the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland near my home, and so the imaginative world of the novel was even more vivid and real to me. I would have to check inside the wardrobe in my room each night just to be sure (ruefully) that there was not in fact a secret door at the back through to Narnia.

I loved Shakespeare early on for the musicality and verve of the writing even though I often didn’t know what it meant – I enjoyed trying to decipher it like a secret code to be broken. As a young girl I discovered Tolstoy and that opened up new worlds – there is so much humanity in his writing. Poetry too was a big influence – Seamus Heaney, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost all enchanted me in the way they used nature, and our connection to the natural world, to give resonance and texture to the ideas they wanted to share. In fact, my publisher Lisa Highton’s imprint at Hodder is named Two Roads Books, after the ubiquitous Robert Frost poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, and that sign seemed a clear indication that I was indeed taking the right path.

Writers whose writing I have admired over the years include Virginia Woolf, Françoise Sagan, Federico García Lorca, Charlotte Brontë, Milan Kundera, Jean Rhys, John Steinbeck, Albert Camus, Gabriel García Márquez, Don DeLillo, Arthur Miller, E.M. Forster, Flannery O’Connor, Italo Calvino, Ian McEwan, Colin Thubron, Isabel Allende, Yann Martel, Tove Jansson, and countless others.

Contemporary writers whose work I particularly enjoy, and whose writing or articulate thinking about the act of writing always makes me pay heed, include Elif Shafak, Sjón, Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith and David Mitchell.

Usually I am drawn to stories with an intimacy of voice, with a natural, unforced storytelling quality but often overlaid with an original use of language, form or a fresh point of view. I like compassionately told stories with the capacity to startle and stay with you for a long time. Also books with a strong sense of place – stories that take you on a journey somewhere new or unexpected – appeal to me both as a reader and as a writer.

Growing up in Northern Ireland during the time of the Troubles in the 1980s, I was always drawn to both writing of exile and to Irish writing in general – both have been important influences for me and I am proud to add my voice to that of other Irish and Northern Irish writers. The political backdrop to my childhood and formative years also influenced me to seek to tell stories outside of a narrowly defined identity, and that desire is central to my writing.

Prior to writing full-time, I served as the Chief Executive of PEN International – the worldwide writers’ organisation defending freedom of expression and promoting literature. During that time I had the great privilege and joy to work with and know many of the finest writers from all around the world. I was influenced too by that, because as time went on, and I wasn’t writing at that time, I knew I really ought to be. So, all those writers, many who became friends over the years at PEN, helped encourage me in my own writing.

When and where do you write? 

When I am buried deep in an idea or a story I can write, and have done, just about anywhere – in the back of moving taxis, in parks sitting on the grass if the sun is shining, even standing in the queue at the bank. But when I have a choice I prefer to write early in the morning, undisturbed, ideally sitting in bed where I will jot down phrases and ideas for a while before moving to the computer. On a good working day I start at 8.30am when my daughter goes off to school and I write through until 2.30 or 3pm – often forgetting to stop for lunch if the writing is going well.

When I was writing my first novel Under the Almond Tree, my London neighbours were renovating their home. The drilling was horrendous for a year. I bought headphones and worked through the noise and dust – I think it actually helped with the writing. Music is very important to me when I write and if I have the right music it doesn’t really matter where I am. I finished the first draft of the novel at our house up in the mountains in Mallorca – sitting at the kitchen table, ignoring the sunshine and the beautiful views, until the writing was done. Then I sat outside and cried with happiness as I had reached the end.

For editing and rewrites I prefer to work late into the night, with a pot of coffee to hand.

What are you working on now? 

I am currently working on my second novel – The Plantation House.

You can hear a little bit about it and my path to getting published in my BBC interview here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b072hls1 (Pitching a Novel, 26 minutes in).

I am also writing the screenplay for my first novel. I am interested in writing screenplays, scripts, lyrics, plays, and short stories as well as novels. The idea that you should only write one thing, in one particular way, isn’t something I am particularly suited to doing. That said, I know at least the next five or six novels I would like to write and so it is just a case of getting those stories down and trying to push myself and my writing with each new story.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not really. I’m not convinced it’s a real thing. It can cover all sorts of issues a writer may be facing: difficulty finding their focus, a loss of confidence in their writing voice, a dearth of fresh ideas, even low energy. I think it was Isabel Allende who said you should just show up every day, and that works for me. Writing on the good days is like entering a state of grace – everything else just drops away. Well, that’s not going to happen every single day, so on the days it doesn’t I will go for a walk, talk to friends, get out of the house and go write somewhere new – anything to shake off lethargy or procrastination. Most writers I know are world-class procrastinators – but then again, when you are away from the desk that is when some of the best thinking happens. I also find having deadlines helps me enormously – when it just has to be handed in by a certain date, that is a wonderful motivator.

Writing is a vocation but it is also a real privilege to be able to write for a living and to connect with readers through your writing. I never take that for granted.

What’s your advice to new writers?

The advice that I follow is:

-       Show up every day and stop with the excuses

-       Believe in your voice

-       Be fearless, take risks, write what only you can write

-       Value your work – don’t look to others to do that for you

-       Understand that writing is different to the ‘business’ of writing – protect your creative space

-       Read, read, read and read critically to see how others write

-       Don’t compare yourself or your work to anyone else – just do your own thing

-       Remember, as screenwriter William Goldman said, ‘No one knows anything’

Also if you are a new writer currently submitting work and trying to find an agent, make use of opportunities to get your work read and noticed. When your work is ready, put yourself out there. Join writers’ groups. Submit your work to competitions – getting work listed in competitions and for awards will help your submissions stand out. The first draft of my first novel was listed in the Mslexia Novel Award – that early recognition helped give me the confidence to contact agents who I thought might be interested in my work. I also took part in an online Twitter initiative called PitchCB in which I submitted my novel idea to literary agency Curtis Brown in 140 characters. The CEO and leading literary agent, Jonny Geller, ‘liked’ the tweet and I was then able to send in work for consideration. He is now my agent. You can read more about it here: https://blog.twitter.com/en-gb/2016/how-one-talented-author-has-secured-her-debut-publishing-deal-through-the-power-of-twitter

Having worked with so many writers around the world during my time as the Director of PEN, I really appreciate how tough it can be as a new writer to believe that your work will break through. Persevere, have faith in your writing, and take the long view.

Colm Tóibín once, when asked about his writing routine, said, ‘I start and I finish.’

I can think of no better advice.

Laura McVeigh’s debut novel Under the Almond Tree will be published in Spring 2017 with Two Roads Books (an imprint of Hodder/Hachette UK). The novel is also being translated – to date – into French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and Chinese. Under the Almond Tree is the poignant story of an Afghan family fleeing the Taliban in the 1990s, journeying on the Trans-Siberian Express in search of refuge, narrated by the middle daughter Samar, a storyteller whose love of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina eventually helps save her life.

Laura is currently working on her second novel, The Plantation House, which has featured on a BBC interview: https://blog.twitter.com/en-gb/2016/how-one-talented-author-has-secured-her-debut-publishing-deal-through-the-power-of-twitter. The Plantation House is a story of freedom and slavery told across the generations – it is the untold story of the Irish and slavery in Montserrat.

Prior to writing full-time Laura was Chief Executive of PEN International – the worldwide writers’ organisation promoting freedom of expression and literature. During her time at PEN, Laura set up the PEN New Voices Award to help foster new writing talent internationally. She has also served as director of the Global Girls Fund and is a passionate advocate for girls’ education. Laura has worked in human rights and the charity sector for a number of years internationally, often travelling extensively, and this global outlook is reflected in her writing. She is an alumna of the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers’ Programme and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Laura read Modern & Medieval Languages at Cambridge University and also has an MSc in Global Politics. Born in Northern Ireland, Laura now lives in London and Mallorca with her husband and daughter.

You can find out more about Laura’s writing: @lcmcveigh, www.lauramcveigh.com.

Tuesday
Jul262016

Mary Elizabeth Williams

How did you become a writer?

I've always written. When I was a kid, I would come home from field trips and review the places we'd gone. When I got out of college I took an office job working for a film studio, but fortunately after a few years I was laid off. I started writing and sending pieces out to zines and alternative newspapers while I temped for money. Writing was all I ever really wanted to do -- and all I've ever really been good at.

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

I was always a big reader, but when I was 15 I read an essay by Nora Ephron about Jane Austen. That's when everything clicked. I suddenly realized that being funny was a revolutionary thing for a woman to do. I got obsessed with Cynthia Heimel, Fran Lebowitz, Fay Weldon, Lynda Barry. I'm not a humorist, but my humor is in everything I do and it's at the core of how I communicate. Right now I think everything on TheToast is brilliant.

When and where do you write?

I have a daily column so I plunk down every morning at my desk -- which is in the living room of my family's tiny NYC apartment -- and just start banging from there.

What are you working on now?

I have my column and a few freelance pieces, and I'm trying to figure out my next book. I have some ideas but I'm also still deep in the "I just wrote a book and the thought of doing another one kills me" mode.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Writer's block is a luxury that people who need to make a living don't suffer. Writing is a craft but it's a job.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Read passionately and often. Write something every day. It will not be perfect. It might suck. That's what Anne Lamott calls your "shitty first drafts." Don't be afraid of them and don't despair. You have to write the bad version before you get to the good version. It's in there.

Be reliable. Be honest. Meet your deadlines -- even your self-imposed ones. Check your work. 

And if you want to write your novel or your personal thoughts for yourself or your friends for free, that's fine. But don't give your writing away to businesses that can and should pay you. "Exposure" is a lie used to treat meaningful work like a hobby.

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a journalist and the author of a new memoir, A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles.

Tuesday
Jul192016

Simon Garfield

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer at school (English was the only subject I was any good at, unless you count fidgeting). I first worked for the school magazine (I loved seeing my name in print), and then, while at the London School of Economics as an undergraduate, I worked on the paper there. I won a student journalism prize from The Guardian, started freelancing for various magazines, edited Time Out, and worked for the Independent and the Observer as a features writer. All the while I was also writing books, occasionally taking extended leave. Books were always the thing for me, but it’s only in the last ten years that I’ve been able to concentrate on them full-time.

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

Two main sources of early influence: the NME (New Musical Express) at the time of punk - that gave me a political sensibility. And the New Journalism - Hunter S Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, etc. Those are dangerous writers to emulate, so I had to find my own style in my late 20s. I’ve always been a big fan of tight narrative reporting, especially in book form, so I’ve always loved Tracy Kidder and John McPhee. 

When and where do you write? 

I write most days, usually I’m best in the afternoons and evenings. My favourite spot is a small house I have in St Ives, Cornwall, right by the sea, and right away from all the London madness. 

What are you working on now? 

I’m just correcting proofs of a book called Timekeepers: How The World Became Obsessed With Time, due out in September in the UK and probably the year after that in the US. It includes chapters on trains, movies, photography, music, the whole damn culture. And watchmaking...lots of stuff about watchmaking!

Have you ever suffered from writer's block? 

Not really, but there are obviously uninspired patches, and periods where I just need a break from my screen for a month or six. 

What's your advice to new writers?

Keep on at it. Really, that’s the best advice: if you want to write, write. Don’t talk about writing, just write it. And then rewrite it. 

Simon Garfield is the author of 17 acclaimed books of non-fiction, including Mauve, Our Hidden Lives and To The Letter. His study of Aids in Britain, The End of Innocence, won the Somerset Maugham prize, while Just My Type and On The Map were New York Times bestsellers. www.simongarfield.com.