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Recommended Books
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  • Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You
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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Jul222014

Ruth Gendler

How did you become a writer?

My first published piece (when I was 8) described how I wanted to go to the Louvre and see the paintings. The next year when we were asked to write a color poem I wrote three. In junior high I loved making illustrated reports about countries, the human body, plants, etc. I still have my human body notebook and am surprised by how substantial it is. I wrote for high school and college newspapers and literary magazines; in my twenties I worked in a variety of capacities for small California publishers. I also wrote some freelance articles. I wrote too slowly to be a journalist but writing profiles of writers, artists and craftspeople taught me how to march through a paragraph and allowed me to follow my curiosity about how people I admired made their lives.

 

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

My father loved stories, jokes and composing light verse for special occasions; my mom carefully edited my early writings; my mother’s father and I exchanged weekly letters when I was young. Both my parents read aloud to us. I vaguely remember making up sequels to The Wizard of Oz with a friend, and then being surprised a few years later to discover there were sequels when my mom started reading them to my sister.  My writing was intimately connected with people I loved and trusted. (I still believe that editing can be an act of love as well as refinement.) I was also blessed with an extraordinarily English teacher my senior year in high school and several excellent literature and journalism professors in college. 

 

There are too many books to list here but I have been especially inspired by what I call lyrical nonfiction which includes much nature writing as well as the letters and journals of artists like Paula Modersohn Becker, thinkers like Thomas Merton, essays by Ursula le Guin. I have also been tremendously influenced by the clarity, simplicity, and urgency of visual artists from ancient anonymous cave painters to Giotto and Fra Angelico to Japanese calligraphers. 

 

When and where do you write?

 I write in notebooks, I write on the computer. I think of myself as someone who writes best in the morning but it is not always true any more. I am almost always looking at a tree outside the window when I write. In my old house it was a palm, now it is my neighbor’s redwood. 

 

What are you working on now?

I have several pots on the stove. I am exploring how to turn my exhibit Befriending the Imagination which features children’s art and writing into a book. I am slowly working on short pieces about time and the rhythms of beauty, as a companion to my book Notes on the Need for Beauty. Many of my paintings feel like poems, and I am listening deeply to discover the words that go with the art.

 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I suffered from feeling like I don’t write enough until I recognized that what matters most is that I write when I have something to say. Sometimes I need to descend into a state almost like boredom to be quiet enough to hear what wants to be said. I am also a visual artist. When I’m making art, I often feel like I’m not writing enough (and vice versa.) When I was trying to resolve the introduction to my last book, I noticed that I was not only weeding my back yard but my neighbor’s back yard as well.

 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Read, walk, learn the difference between waiting and procrastination, listen for the questions under your questions, pay attention to your dreams. Learning a foreign language is a great way to discover the English language. Sometimes it is better to work in a field adjacent to your writing. Sometimes to do something completely different. 

 

J. Ruth Gendler is the author of three books which include her art work: the bestselling The Book of Qualities, the award-winning, Notes on the Need for Beauty, and the anthology, Changing Light. The Book of Qualities has been in continuous print since 1984, quoted in sermons and speeches, used as a writing exercise with students from rural 2nd graders to Yale English majors and translated into several languages. In 2007, Lineage Dance Company premiered Beneath the Skin, based on Qualities, at the Pasadena Arts Festival and invited Gendler onstage to draw with the dancers. Gendler’s art work, including paintings, drawings, and monotypes, have been exhibited nationally and featured on the covers of several books in the United States and Asia.

Tuesday
Jul152014

Ted Botha

How did you become a writer? By default. I'm a frustrated moviemaker. I wanted to go into movies from an early age, but there was nothing like studying movies in South Africa when I was growing up there. And the movie industry itself was heavily influenced by apartheid. I should have fled to California, I guess, but I didn't. I have dabbled in a few screenplays, but haven't pursued selling them. I sometimes think there's a cinematic quality to my books, but maybe that's just wishful thinking.  

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). Everyone. From early on I developed a bad habit of unintentionally mimicking the style of the writer I'd just read. No sooner had I put down Anna Karenina than there was a classic lilt to my writing, until my pen was taken over by a Fitzgerald clone and then Graham Greene. I think I've got that doppelganger effect under control now. Today I have more crushes than influences. Whenever I read good writing, I’m blown away, and sometimes it comes from the most unexpected sources. 

When and where do you write? I'm best early in the day, so long as I have a cup of really strong black coffee to kickstart me. I once read that Hemingway did most of his writing by midday and gave himself the rest of the day off. Wonderful advice, I think, to anyone who is fulltime writer. I used to write in coffee shops, until the third wave arrived (Google that term if there's any doubt what it means) and laptop users found the great hangouts. I still think trains and subways are wonderful places to write too. There's something very soothing about writing in the midst of all that movement and background noise. I still write longhand a lot for my first draft, and I still write a lot on spec rather than trying to get a commission for it. 

What are you working on now? I have just finished a book about the bizarre story of the tenement where I live in New York City and the characters who live/lived there, called Flat/White. Up next is a nonfiction book set in the 1930s that I have done the research for, which has an element of Devil in the White City about it and concerns two very different characters, a millionaire moviemaker and a woman who poisoned her family with strychnine. It is the first time my passions for writing and the movies are going to almost meet. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? I don't believe in such a thing. I certainly have bad days, but if you push through, you find you create some of your best stuff. 

What’s your advice to new writers? Believe in your idea. Full stop.

Bio: I was born in New York, but grew up in South Africa mostly, interrupted by several years here and there in Tokyo and Washington due to my parents being diplomats. At heart I remain an African, even though I have lived in New York for fifteen years. I have freelanced for most of my writing life, doing feature articles for newspapers and magazines, although I recently started a full-time job editing at Reuters. I like writing nonfiction as much as fiction, and I like dabbling in all manner of subjects, even though I've gotten the impression agents and publishers don't really like you to.

Tuesday
Jul082014

Anna Holmes

How did you become a writer? I don't know that I ever "became" a writer; I think I've always been in the process of becoming one.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.) Beverly Ballard, my high school English teacher; Joan Didion, who grew up in the same area of Northern California that I did; other narrative non-fiction writers like Susan Orlean, David Samuels, John McPhee. I haven't read that many books on writing - of course, I loved Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird" and Stephen King's "On Writing." And, of course, "The Elements of Style" is something I return to once every few years.

When and where do you write? When: Whenever I stop procrastinating. (I am very good at procrastinating.) I try to write first drafts of pieces when I feel wide awake and energetic, which is to say: Anytime after 11am. But for revisions/edits, I like to write in the very early morning. For some reason, I feel a lot looser and, perhaps strangely, sharper, in the hour or so after I've woken up. Where: Sometimes I jot down notes on my smartphone while riding the subway but that's more about ideas. The actual writing of prose usually happens when I'm sitting on my bed with my laptop in my lap. I used write at a desk with a proper desk chair and lamp and external monitor/keyboard and everything. I don't know what happened, but at some point in 2011 I took to my bed. I seem to be regressing a little.

What are you working on now? Figuring out what my next full-time job will be, which will probably *not* involve writing but editing/working with content creators and helping them to shape different types of stories. I am full of ideas but I am also aware that I am not always the best person to execute them.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Yes. I feel like I am in a constant battle with writer's block. And it's only gotten worse the older I get. That said, I've found that two things really help in terms of getting unstuck: Taking long walks, and writing as if I'm trying to simply explain an idea or a narrative to a friend in an email. Less performance anxiety that way.

What’s your advice to new writers? Read every day. Indulge your curiosity and sense of wonder about the world but don't shy away from examining life's uglier aspects. Ask questions — of yourself, and others. Writing is rarely easy or enjoyable, but it pretty much always ends up being rewarding.

Anna Holmes is a writer living in New York and the editor of two books, "Hell Hath No Fury: Women's Letters from the End of the Affair" and "The Book of Jezebel," based on the popular website she created in 2007. She is also a columnist for the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Tuesday
Jul012014

Maureen McGowan

How did you become a writer? About a decade ago, I decided to take a break from an entirely different career to explore my creative side. I signed up for a few drawing and painting classes, and one on writing novels. I'd always enjoyed writing, but until I took that class I had never considered pursuing it as a career. 

After seeing scenes turn into chapters and eventually a full manuscript, I was hooked. And although my road to publication was full of bumps, I've never looked back.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). I have fairly eclectic tastes when it comes to reading, but for a book to really hold my attention, it needs to have either a fabulous story, or a gripping voice--preferably both. That said, for me, fantastic storytelling skills trump beautiful sentences.

Some favorite authors include: Robertson Davies, John Irving, Margaret Atwood, Suzanne Collins, Rainbow Rowell, Joe Hill, Anne Tyler, Molly O'Keefe, Anne Rice... I told you I had eclectic tastes. 

When and where do you write? I do most of my writing in the afternoon and early evening. I can write anywhere in a pinch, but I do most of my first draft work in coffee shops. I happy anywhere with a socket to plug in my (almost antique) MacBook, good coffee, and something other than sweet food for fuel.

What are you working on now? I am working on a few projects simultaneously. But the one currently on the top of the stack is a realistic, contemporary-set teen novel. I say realistic, but like most of my stories, it will include high stakes, suspense and fast-pacing.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? I've definitely had LOTS of days when it was difficult to get past a point in a story. But I don't like to think of these days as writer's block, per se. I think it's too easy for writers to fall into the habit of using that affliction to legitimize not working--that, and the absence of their "muse". I think the mark of a professional writer is the ability to push through and work, even on the days when nothing seems to be working. 

To get through the hard days, I sometimes brainstorm about possible solutions to my problem. Or, if I've lost confidence that day, (or simply don't feel like writing), simply venting my frustration and other feelings via the keyboard can often get things flowing again.

What’s your advice to new writers? Learn your craft. If you were entering any other profession, you'd expect to spend years studying before finding success. Writing is no different. These days, because self-publishing has become such a viable option, I fear too many writers will dive into publishing before they have honed their craft. I, for one, am glad that my first 2 or 3 manuscripts never saw the light of day. I'm glad that I got to learn how to write fiction in relative privacy, with only my teachers, critique partners, and eventually publishing professionals seeing my early efforts. Not that they were terrible. They simply weren't good enough.

It's also important to learn about the world and business of publishing, which is a moving target these days. Only by understanding all the options, and the most professional way to approach each, can you make educated decisions about whether and how to pursue publishing your work.

Maureen McGowan is the award winning and bestselling author of two popular YA series including the dystopian thriller series: The Dust Chronicles. She writes exciting, fast-paced novels, enjoyed by teen and adult readers alike.

Maureen always loved writing fiction, but side-tracked by a persistent practical side, it took her a few years to channel her energy into novels. After leaving a career in finance and accounting, she hasn’t looked back.

Aside from her love of books, she’s passionate about films, fine handcrafted objects and shoes. She lives in Toronto, where she attends the film festival every year.

Her most recent titles include: Deviants (Skyscape, 2012), Compliance (Skyscape, 2013), and Glory (Skyscape, June 10, 2014). Contact her, or join her mailing list at www.maureenmcgowan.com.

Tuesday
Jun242014

Michael M. Hughes

How did you become a writer? I can’t remember not being a writer. From childhood to adulthood, I have always written. It’s like breathing or walking—something I just do and don’t think about too much. I decided to get serious (i.e. professional) about my writing, however, when I was nearing 40 and had a bit of an existential, early mid-life crisis. I knew that I needed to focus on my primary talent because the guilt of not doing it was eating me alive. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). My influences are all over the map—I feel lucky that I’ve never felt bounded by any style or genre of writing. I was lucky to have read many classics as a kid, back when they were marketed at kids—Jules Verne, Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells, Poe, Lovecraft, Shelley, and other staples of imaginative literature. Since there was no such thing as YA as a monolithic category like it is today, I read adult books with adult themes and ideas. I also had great English teachers throughout my public school education, and I give them enormous credit for nurturing my talents and introducing me to some life-changing works. And I have to credit Stephen King for showing me that dark, supernatural fiction could still be relevant to modern audiences. 

When and where do you write? Since I have two young children, I tend to write in the evenings, until late at night, in my basement with my pet rabbit keeping me company. I also like to hole up in university libraries when I’m in crunch-mode. 

What are you working on now? I’m working on the sequel to my first novel, Blackwater Lights. I’m also working on some invited pieces for anthologies. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Every writer feels like the well is drying up occasionally. But I keep pushing forward and eventually the muses show up. My brain is usually roiling with ideas—far too many to shape into stories—so I don’t worry too much about it.

What’s your advice to new writers? Don’t stop. Keep writing and don’t get caught up in marketing and all the other stuff people tell you have to do. All you have to do is write. That’s the definition of who you are and what you do. And read often, and widely, and write the stories that can only come from the unique individual that is you. 

Michael M. Hughes lives in Baltimore with his wife and two daughters. He writes fiction and nonfiction, and his bestselling debut novel, Blackwater Lights, was released by Hydra (Random House) in 2013. He is currently at work on a sequel. When he’s not writing, Hughes performs as a mentalist (psychic entertainer) and speaks on Fortean and paranormal topics. http://michaelmhughes.com