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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Jan222019

Alyson Hagy

How did you become a writer?

I was always a reader, but the idea of becoming a writer never occurred to me until I left home for college and my head and heart began to overflow with language. My freshman English professor, a poet, suggested I take a creative writing class after reading the wild tangle of my required essays. I was petrified…and transfixed. I fell flat on my face more times than I can count, but I kept at it. I just couldn’t stop playing with language.

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

Reading fiction by Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers gave me permission to write about the rural South. George Garrett, one of the most generous writing mentors around, provided affirmation and counseled patience. Richard Ford kicked me in the behind when I needed it. Writing isn’t supposed to be easy. We don’t deserve easy. He reminded me of that fact. Joy Williams has been a powerful recent influence. Her fiction probes what’s truly existential, the unknowable and forever strange.

When and where do you write? 

I work best in the mornings…in a small, quiet study with a window that keeps the weather and birds right at my shoulder. But my process has shifted when it’s had to. When I had a baby at home, I grabbed any hour I could find. When I was working 60-70 hours a week at my job, I scribbled on the weekends and during holidays. Turns out I can write under less than ideal conditions when not writing at all is the alternative. It’s been good for me to discover (and rediscover) that truth.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a collection of very short stories, some of which look more like fables or parables than “regular” stories, at least to me. And I’m reading a lot, trying to blaze a trail for the next novel.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No. I’ve always been able to find a short story to work on. I love the form. It just cries out liberation to me. Whenever I feel stickiness setting in, especially if I’m clawing at a novel, I try to counter it by reading—classics I love, crime novels, exciting new fiction, anything that shuts down my editorial mind and takes me into that reader’s kingdom of wonder.

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

Don’t believe that graduate school will somehow make you a writer. Go into the world, get a job that sustains you, and write. If you are writing because you haveto, if you are writing when no one is looking and no one cares, then you may indeed be a writer—and you need to cope with that. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Read. Read like a crazy person. And read what you love. Don’t shackle yourself with other people’s tastes. Just bury yourself in all the great work that’s out there. Reading is the foundation we all need, and we’re building, and repairing, that foundation each and every day.

Alyson Hagy is the author of eight works of fiction, most recently the novel Scribewhich is a finalist for the Southern Book Prize. She lives and works in Laramie, Wyoming.

Tuesday
Jan152019

Victoria Johnson

How did you become a writer?

I’m a professor (my PhD is in sociology), and academic writing is a big part of my job description. American Eden ismy second book, but it’s the first book I had the freedom to write exactly how I wanted—as a work of narrative nonfiction with character development, pacing, and sensory depth. When I first stumbled across a mention of David Hosack and his lost garden at the heart of Manhattan Island a decade ago, I instantly knew I wanted to write a book that would reach readers of narrative nonfiction. To do this, I needed a kind of mentorship that was not available from my immediate circle of academic colleagues, wonderful as they were. I had the fortune of becoming friends at just the right time with Scott Ellsworth, the author of the brilliant book The Secret Game. He strongly encouraged me to write the book I was dreaming about. He has been my weekly “writing buddy” for many years now, and I couldn’t have written American Eden without his support and ideas. Every new writer should have a Scott Ellsworth in their lives—someone who is cheering you on, talking shop, and keeping you on track with deadlines. 

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

Among nonfiction writers, my three big influences are Ron Chernow, Erik Larson, and Andrea Wulf. I’ve studied their books over and over on my own and have also had the pleasure of conversations about writing with two of them. Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is indispensable for me, not just because David Hosack was Hamilton’s (and Burr’s) doctor, but because Chernow knows how to make a 700-page book utterly riveting. Larson’s Devil in the White Cityis a masterclass in how to sweep a reader up in the emotional stakes of a character’s life and ambitions. Wulf has written gorgeous, rigorous works of scientific history whose narrative pacing makes the heart pound—especially TheInvention of Nature, her biography of the great Alexander von Humboldt. 

I also read novels constantly; my favorites are Dickens, James, Trollope, and Woolf, and they have definitely shaped my tastes as a writer. But in terms of direct writerly influence from novelists, my sister Elizabeth Kostova (author of The HistorianThe Swan Thieves, and The Shadow Land) is at the top of the list. She’s an incredibly imaginative and generous person, and she’s taught me so much about both the craft of writing and the practical aspects of being a writer. 

When and where do you write? 

Every day that I don’t have to be on campus for teaching or meetings, I work in my Manhattan apartment, which is on the top floor of a 21-story building. There’s a lot of sky. I am a cocooner—I have to have music playing in my noise-canceling headphones to settle into my manuscript. I stayed off social media almost completely for years, because it would have ruined my concentration. Some people can toggle back and forth easily. I can’t. Some days I write for ten hours; other days I get only an hour, or even nothing. On days when I don’t get any time to write at all, I try to at least open my writing file and read a little of what I’ve done. It keeps the story and people alive in my imagination until I can write again.

What are you working on now? 

I’ve got some new book ideas percolating, but I’m currently on a sixty-stop book tour, and I also teach full-time. In my spare moments, I’m working on a very short documentary about David Hosack with the graphic artist Markley Boyer. Our video will include a virtual-reality version of Hosack’s botanical garden, which he built on twenty acres of rural Manhattan he purchased in 1801. Today that land is home to Rockefeller Center. You will be able to “walk” toward 30 Rock and suddenly find yourself strolling through Hosack’s fields of grain and up the hill into his conservatory (now the site of Radio City Music Hall). I find it thrilling that we are always moving through layers of history when we go about our daily lives. I tried to convey that thrill in the pages of American Eden. Now I want to make it visually immediate for people.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not in a way that lasted more than a few hours. I had a ritual while writing American Eden. If I was stumped on how to bring an event or character to life with my words, I would open Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City to a random page and read for a while. Because that book is so vivid and intense, this ritual always shook loose whatever had gotten stuck in my own writing. American Eden is a very different kind of book from Devil, and I’m not Erik Larson. But as a way to keep me writing, it worked every time. I think it’s called inspiration. Everyone can find some version of this technique; it’s just a matter of figuring out what unfreezes your imagination.

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

“Write relationships.” A truly great biographer suggested this to me beforeI started writing American Eden. (Eternal gratitude.) He pointed out to me that people are absolutely fascinated by watching humans interacting. Will they love each other? Hate each other? Snipe behind one another’s backs? Reconcile after falling out? I rushed to apply this advice to my mountains of archival documents and realized that it was the secret to both the structure of my book and its emotional core. After that, I never had any doubts about the form it should take.  

What’s your advice to new writers?

First, if you haven’t read it yet, read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. The title story of this book helped me get my first draft written. The other seven or eight drafts were easy compared to that one—and often very fun. When writing is going well, there’s almost no feeling more joyful and absorbing. Second, if you feel driven to write and would be unhappy if you can’t, you should feel fine about protecting your writing time. It’s not a comfortable choice to make, often, and it’s not without consequences, but it’s legitimate. It might even preserve your sanity and bring you intense happiness, which is good for everyone around you.  

Victoria Johnson is the author of American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic (Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2018), which was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award in nonfiction and a New York TimesNotable Book of the year. She is an Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College of the City University of New York. For more go to americaneden.org.

Tuesday
Jan082019

Joseph Finder

How did you become a writer?

Not an easy question to answer. In one sense I decided to become a writer when I was eight years old and discovered a book in the Albany Public Library called The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, by Eleanor Cameron. I fell in love with the book — an adventure story about a couple of boys who build a rocket ship and discover a planet — and wrote the author a letter. Eventually she replied, and we corresponded over the course of several years. That was my realization that behind stories and novels are human beings who make all these narrative decisions, and I thought, what a cool job!

   But I really became a writer during grad school, right after college. I was at the Harvard Russian Research Center and came to the realization that I didn’t want to be an academic. Or work for the CIA, as some of my classmates did. In my free time I read Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett and Stephen King and some of the older suspense fiction novelists like Eric Ambler and Graham Greene when he was slumming. I really wanted to write a thriller, but couldn't summon the courage to try it. So I had an idea for a nonfiction book, about the most powerful American businessmen and their personal connections to the Kremlin. I submitted it to an agent and got a publisher . . . and I was a writer. I was twenty-two.

But I still wanted to write fiction. I read a novel by Frederick Forsyth with scenes that took place in the Politburo, in the Kremlin, and I thought, now I’m an expert in this stuff and I could try my hand . . .

I took a job teaching writing, and in the meantime I wrote and rewrote and rewrote a political thriller. I gave myself a deadline of three years — if you can sell a novel and be able to support at least yourself on the advance, I told myself, you can quit teaching and write full time. Just days before my deadline I managed to sell the twenty-third draft of my first novel for a lot of money, and the next day I went in to work and quit.

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

Everything I read influences me in some way — I learn from every book I read, good or bad, literary to “popular” — but the authors who come to mind, in no particular order, are John le Carré, Ira Levin, Eric Ambler, Robert Ludlum, William Goldman (Marathon Man), Ken Follett, Stephen King, Thomas Harris, John Grisham, Lee Child, James M. Cain, Ring Lardner. I had a great and terrifying history teacher in college who gave me my first D and made me work on the writing until I got it right. I’m also influenced by good TV (and there’s lots of it these days) and a well-made thriller movie. The classic noir film The Sweet Smell of Success was a major inspiration for my book Guilty Minds.

When and where do you write?

Writing is my job, and I treat it that way. I have an office in a townhouse in Boston a few blocks from where I live, where I keep more or less regular business hours, except toward the end of the writing of a book, when the writing takes over my life. I also have a writing shed at my home on Cape Cod.

What are you working on now? 

My next novel, Judgment, will be out in January 2019, so I’m working on some advance publicity for that. But mainly I’m writing the fourth Nick Heller novel.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I used to, for sure. But I learned to approach it diagnostically: do you need to think about the scene more, do you need to do more research, do you need to leave the office and work out? What I always say is that plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, so I don’t let myself get writer’s block. I don’t get it any more. 

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

Just write it. The Russian proverb says, “The first pancake is always a lump.” The first draft is always going to be lousy, but you have to write it so you can fix it. You can’t fix something that’s not on the page.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Whatever you’re working on, finish it. Commit the time. Ideas are actually the easy part of writing, and it happens to all of us — we get 10,000 or 20,000 words into a book and then have a great idea for something else. It’s happened to me (and on at least one occasion, it turned out to be a good thing, but do as I say, not as I do). Almost every idea can wait. What matters is that you finish the story or novel you’re writing now.

Joseph Finder is the New York Times bestselling author of fifteen suspense novels, including JUDGMENT, a stand-alone thriller (available on January 29), and GUILTY MINDS, the third to feature “private spy” Nick Heller. He lives and works in Boston.

Tuesday
Dec252018

Claire Cock-Starkey

How did you become a writer?

I have always written, ever since I was a little kid but my opportunity to make it a career came by chance. Ben Schott, author of the hugely successful Schott's Original Miscellany, was looking for a researcher. I had been working in radio, researching programmes for, amongst others, the BBC and so a friend of a friend suggested me. We hit it off straight away and I worked with Ben, learning from him and honing my skills, for seven years on Schott's Almanac. After the project came to an end I had a notebook full of ideas for books and decided the time had come to go freelance. It took a lot of work, a few rejections and a great deal of perseverance to get my ideas in front of the right people, but once I did things started to come together. I have since had 10 non-fiction books on arcane history, libraries, books and words published.

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

As someone who is fascinated by history I spend a lot of time researching ideas in the rare books room of the British Library. Immersing myself in old books, especially from the Victorian era, has undoubtedly influenced my style. That said as a non-fiction writer clarity is key and although I love the content of old books the verbose style is to be avoided.

When and where do you write?

I am super fortunate that writing is my job and so I get to write every day. I spend hours researching in the British Library and the Cambridge University Library but I like to write best in my little study in my house. It is full of useful reference books and is nice and close to the kettle, allowing me to fuel my work with numerous cups of tea.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on the edits for my upcoming book on museums which should be out in the spring 2019 and juggling this with starting research on a new and very exciting (but currently secret) project.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Not for any great period of time. If I feel stuck I usually just make myself start writing because sometimes just getting something, anything, on the page makes me feel better. The beauty of writing is that you can go back and edit and tweak until that initial try has been transformed from an incomprehensible jumble of thoughts into a neat, concise and enlightening sentence.

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

I like George Orwell's advice to writers (which I featured in my book The Book Lovers' Miscellany), especially his exhortation: 'If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.' As a non-fiction writer, often writing to a tight word count, this advice has been invaluable.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Read, read, read! Read everything from books to leaflets to magazines to blogs. The more widely you read the greater your vocabulary will become, your ability to understand style and form will improve and you will collect ideas and inspiration. Writing non-fiction might not appear as creative as writing fiction, but curating words to form beautiful sentences to convey a great idea or communicate a complicated explanation in a easy-to-read fashion is, I believe, very creative.

Claire Cock-Starkey lives and works in Cambridge, England. Claire has published 10 books on history, libraries, books and words including Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins, The Book Lovers' Miscellany and The Real McCoy and 149 Other Eponyms.

Tuesday
Dec182018

Sonya Sones

How did you become a writer?

I used to be an animator. And after that, I worked as a film editor. But when I became a mother, I quit. Editors worked very long hours, and I didn’t want to be away from my baby twelve hours a day. Instead, I started a hand-painted baby clothes company, which was quite successful. But after a while I wasn’t finding it creatively challenging. I looked around at my life and thought about what to do next. I loved reading to my kids more than anything else, and so I decided to try to write and illustrate books for kids. Turns out I was better at writing than illustrating, so I became a novelist. And by the time I was good enough to be published, my daughter was a teenager, and I was immersed in that world, and in memories of my own teenage years. So, I began writing novels in verse for teens.

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

I learned everything I know about writing poetry from Myra Cohn Livingston. I studied with her at UCLA Extension. She set me on the path to writing my first novel in verse, Stop Pretending. Sadly, Myra passed away before it came out. But she left behind a terrific book that you can still find online: Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry. It’s almost as good as being a student in her class.

When and where do you write? 

I write in a lovely spot I call “my secret office”— a public place with an ocean view, comfortable chairs, shade, and a plug. I write in the mornings, and sometimes all through the day, depending on deadlines. But three or four hours a day, four or five days a week is my sweet spot. After that, I’m usually less productive.

What are you working on now? 

I am switching gears entirely, but I don’t want to talk about it yet.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Nope. I bypass it by not worrying about how good what I write is going to be. I simply assume that what I write will really stink. And the first drafts of my poems always do. But I’ve learned that I have to write that awful version first, so that I have something that I can work on and eventually make better. I remind myself that even if what I write is terrible, I can revise it and keep on revising it, until what I’ve written is good. And it’s this attitude that helps me keep writer’s block at bay.

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

“Show, don’t tell.” My poetry teacher, Myra Cohn Livingston, told me that. But for the longest time, I just couldn’t get it through my head. I felt like an idiot because it was just those three simple words…

What’s your advice to new writers?

Show, don’t tell.

I’ve finally figured out what Myra meant! Don’t tell us your character is happy, by having her say, “I’m happy.” Show us, by having her say something like: “It’s lucky I’m holding onto to his hand, or I’d float right up into the air like a balloon.” Don’t tell us your character is scared, by having her say, “I’m scared.” Show us, by having her say something like,” My heart is fluttering in my throat like a trapped bird.” Similes work great for this.

Also, don’t be afraid to write about the worst thing that ever happened to you. Don’t be afraid to be honest. And be very afraid of adjectives and adverbs. Don’t say, “She lived in a cute little house by the sea.” Say, “She lived in a cottage by the sea.” “He ran quickly down the street.” Say, “He zoomed down the street.” This will make your writing richer. Oh, and avoid clichés like the plague.

Sonya Sones has been writing young adult novels in verse for nearly twenty years. Her books have received many honors, including a Christopher Award, the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award, and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize nomination. Her novel entitled One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies earned her a Cuffie Award from Publisher’s Weekly for Best Book Title of the Year. Her novel for adults, The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus, was optioned by Michelle Pfeiffer. But the coolest honor she ever received was when her novel What My Mother Doesn’t Know landed her a spot on the American Library Association’s list of the Most Frequently Banned Authors of the 21st Century. (To find out why, see page 46.) Her latest novel, The Opposite of Innocent, was published in September, 2018, by HarperCollins, and is a Junior Library Guild selection.