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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Jan272015

Meghan Daum

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer by default. I had very few other skills. My only other skill, really, was playing the oboe and I wasn’t willing to put in the work it would have taken to go pro. My parents would have loved that, but it wasn’t in the cards (I probably had the only parents on earth who were disappointed when I didn’t become a professional oboist.) As for other pursuits, I now think I would have liked to join the FBI, but at the time I never would have considered it, partly because it might have required doing math in some way. I was terrible at anything with numbers and today probably do math on about a fourth grade level. The only time this is a problem is when I have to figure out how much to tip cabdrivers or nail salon technicians. Otherwise, I have found that as long as you have a good agent and a good accountant being a writer precludes doing any math. So this profession has worked out well for me.

But to answer your question precisely, I became a writer by writing anything and everything for any outlet that would publish me. After college I moved to New York and worked as an editorial assistant at Condé Nast – the whole Devil Wears Prada scene. I had no income other than the $18,000 a year they were paying me (the human resources person at the company informed me that most editorial assistants have their income supplemented by their parents) and I dressed horribly, like this kind of ragamuffin with shoulder pads. I was clueless about fashion – I literally pronounced Versace like “Versase.” But part of the job of being an assistant was writing up the minutes from the editorial meetings and eventually I got the editor-in-chief’s attention by writing the minutes in a funny, clever way. And one day a senior editor came to me and asked if I wanted to try my hand at writing a photo caption describing a bottle of shampoo. It was like the best day of my life.

And the next thing I knew I was writing for The New Yorker.

Oh, wait, that’s not how it went. The next thing I knew I was writing captions about shampoo. And then I worked my way up to 75-word “articles” about moisturizers and how many calories are in a giant muffin (this was the early 90s, when giant muffins were all the rage.) And after a year or so I quit that job and went to an MFA program and tried to write short stories until I figured out that I was an essayist. I got really lucky and sold an essay to The New York Times Book Review. That led to some other high-end publications but I was always still hustling by writing for women’s magazines and anyone else who would pay me. I wrote ad copy, random website copy, Publisher’s Weekly reviews for $30 a pop. Literally anything. I’ve always been a freelancer, and that requires finding a certain balance between being an egotistical snob and a shameless mercenary.

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

Many of my writing influences are the usual suspects, at least for women of my generation, demographic and sensibility: Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Lorrie Moore. I also loved Norman Mailer, Tom Wolf and Hunter S. Thompson, all those gonzo (or semi-gonzo) maximalists. I was hugely influenced by Woody Allen’s early writings, like the essays and stories in books like Without Feathers and Side Effects. The high/low technique that he employed, where you shift back and forth between very erudite references and really base, sophomoric concepts and rhetoric (The Whore of Mensa demonstrates this in the title alone) was something I internalized and still use to this day.

When and where do you write?

I write in my office at home. I’m not a big coffee shop person. I know a lot of writers love to sit there all day with their lattés, but I find it distracting. Also, I always drink too much coffee and then have to use the restroom a million times and then what are you supposed to do, just leave your computer and all your stuff sitting there unattended? At home this is not a problem. As for when I write, the answer is whenever I have a deadline, which is all the time. Mondays and at least part of Tuesday are totally taken up by writing my L.A. Times column, which runs on Thursdays. The other days of the week I’m usually juggling a number of projects, trying to prioritize things and making sure my dogs have been walked and are tired enough that they don’t bother me for most of the day.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m still doing a lot of promotional work for my book of essays, The Unspeakable, which came out last November. I’m also gearing up for an anthology I edited called Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not To Have Kids. I don’t need to describe it because the title pretty much does the job, but I will say that I have some amazing writers and I’m very proud of the project and I’m excited to talk about this subject in the thoughtful, nuanced way in deserves. Unfortunately, these days promoting a book means writing a lot of stuff that masquerades as journalism (blog posts and so on) but is really just a form of hawking your book. So I’ve been doing a lot of that. I’m also teaching in the MFA program at Columbia this semester, so that takes up some time. My next book will be heavily reported, so right now I’m trying to do research and background interviews in order to build a foundation. I’m not ready to talk about it yet, but let’s just say it’s not going to be personal essays.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

There was a period of a couple of years, from maybe 2003 to early 2006, when I was rather horrifyingly unproductive. I’m not sure if it was writer’s block or just some kind of protracted laziness, but it was awful. But then I started writing a weekly newspaper column and it was like shock therapy or something. Busyness begat busyness and I was back in action. But those were some tough years for some reason.

What’s your advice to new writers?

My advice largely falls into the “do as I say, not as I did” category. For starters, this: develop an expertise in some area other than yourself. Know something (know a lot, actually) about science or sports or medicine or fashion or human rights abuses or climate change or craft beers or anything other than your own neurotic navel. Become the person an editor thinks of when she needs someone to write about something in particular. I’m not saying you can’t also write about yourself, but if you have another area in which you’re really well-versed you’re going to be much better positioned for actually having a sustainable career.

My other advice, especially if you want to write essays, is to write pieces on spec. Write them on your own time, own your own terms, and then try to place them in a publication. Just about all of the big hits I had in my 20s, the pieces that wound up in The New Yorker or Harper’s and later in my first book, were things I’d written on my own and sold after the fact. And even now I do this. Because pitching can be deadly. The creative ventures that are the most interesting, be they in literature, film, visual arts, whatever, are the ones that are the hardest to pitch. So try to avoid pitching. Write first, sell later.

Oh, and if and when you publish a book, don’t read your Amazon or Goodreads review. Just don’t go near them. I’ve never looked at a Goodreads review in my life, but with this last book I added Amazon reviews to the no-fly list and it’s been great. If you’re desperate to read an Amazon review, go look at the nonsense some people are spewing about works of great literature. Is James Joyce sitting around stewing about someone calling him “drivel”? No, and neither should you.

Meghan Daum is an opinion columnist for The Los Angeles Times and the author of four books, most recently The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion. She is also the editor of Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids, which will be published in March. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Vogue. She lives in Los Angeles but is currently in New York teaching in the MFA writing program at Columbia University.

Tuesday
Jan202015

Beth Kephart

How did you become a writer?

I’m never quite sure what the word “writer” signifies. I am someone who has written since she was nine—but those early, bloated, watercolored sonnets were hardly works of art. I did not study literature at college. I wrote secret poems. I began to write and publish essays just after my son was born. I was close to forty before I published a book.

 

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

Weather, friendship, Michael Ondaatje, Colum McCann, good memoirists, my students at Penn, history, urban architecture, the news.

 

When and where do you write?

I run a boutique marketing communications business and I teach at the University of Pennsylvania in the spring; I write essays for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reviews for Chicago Tribune. All of that entails some sort of pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. Months will go by between the occasional other pages that I write, pages that accumulate until they seem like/look like a book.

 

What are you working on now?

A YA novel, One Thing Stolen, is due out in the spring. A collection of essays about the intersection of memory and place, Love: A Philadelphia Affair, is due out in the fall. I have a YA novel due out in the spring of 2016. The pages that sit and wait for me now are something like (possibly) a novel for adults. Too soon too tell.

 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I suffer from a lost faith in my ability to solve hard literary problems. And then I chip away at them.

 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Read far more than you write. Live even more than you read. Don’t measure yourself against a soul.

 

Beth Kephart is the award-winning writer of nineteen books of memoir, nonfiction, fiction, a corporate fable, and Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. She teaches memoir at the University of Pennsylvania and blogs daily at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com.

 

Tuesday
Jan132015

Deborah Reed

How did you become a writer? I had always been a reader, and a dreamer and dabbler of writing, but I never quite believed I could achieve it. Then something happened when I was 32 years old (nearly 20 years ago) when, perhaps it was just a matter of growing up, but I suddenly saw so clearly how I had a "now or never" choice staring me in the face. I was at a crossroad where if I took one path it would lead to a career (social work in women's health care) that would require all of my energy and I would give it all I had, and that would be that—I would never become a writer. I really hit me then that the thought of never becoming a writer was far more devastating for me than my fear of trying to become a writer and failing. So I stopped everything, turned my life around and began writing in earnest every day of the week, reading novels that inspired me when I wasn't writing, trying to glean from them all the elements of fiction I could understand on my own, and I wrote, wrote, wrote— a lot of bad stuff, I might add, during those early years, though it eventually got better. After ten years of this I decided to get an MFA in fiction. My undergrad was in cultural anthropology with a minor in German. I was accepted into graduate school the same week I signed a 3 book deal. But the short answer here is this: Tenacity and perseverance. I wanted it more than I wanted anything else.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.)Authors whose work has taught and inspired me tend to be those who pay close attention to rhythm and writing at the sentence level, such as Kent Haruf, Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, William Gay, and Per Petterson, the latter whose novel Out Stealing Horses, I have read many times and in fact wrote an essay about, which includes his influence on my work. It will appear in the March/April 2015 issue of Poets & Writers magazine. 

When and where do you write? I'm an early riser, usually up and writing by 6 am. I write in my home office here in Los Angeles, where I steal away until I can't bear to sit any longer. Some days are very long—ten hours or more. Others closer to 3, but on average I'd say I write about 8 hours a day, six days a week. 

What are you working on now? I just finished my fifth novel, Olivay, which will be published on July 7th. I'm so excited about this novel. It's my first to take place in Los Angeles, and it's a literary, psychological thriller between a couple against the backdrop of a terrorist attack. I just proofed the copyedits days ago, but am already in the early stages of a brand new novel with a plot I have been mulling over for years. This one needs a little bit of research as the scope of the plot is large, spanning the 1940s-1970s and includes a real historical figure whom I will not name. It's too early to talk about just yet. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? No. Not really. I'm such a creature of habit and a bit of a work horse that I just sit down and do the work without thinking too much about it. One reason I think I don't get blocked is that I'm not afraid to write bad, early drafts in order to get to the good. I know when something doesn't have merit but I put it down anyway. For example, when it comes to writing a very emotional scene, we all tend to reach for the clichés first. It's what we know. Tears streaming down faces, a racing heart, sweaty palms, and so on. That's fine. I put it all down and consider each cliché a place holder for the deeper truth of the scene, the true heartache that needs to take place between my characters. I will then go back and rewrite those lines to death (I have spent days and days on several sentences that make up a small paragraph--and it's worth it) until the emotional impact of the scene literally moves me to tears. That's when I'm sure I've given readers the kind of writing and story worth their time.  At least this is my hope and intention. 

What’s your advice to new writers? See above. Don't beat yourself up for those less than great scenes and lines. Don't let them block you from writing more. If you recognize the poor quality this means you have a standard and that standard will guide you to a more satisfactory rewrite of the work. Great sentences don't often come out fully formed. Same with the scenes those sentences build to create. You have to think of it all like a chunk of clay that will need a lot of sculpting to see clearly, to reveal its true beauty. And even then, once the shapes are recognizable, there's still more polishing to do. Writing is hard work. It's rewarding and satisfying, but if you want to be good at it, you have to keep going, write through the bad, and find pleasure in the tinkering, which is where I believe most of the art of fiction resides, the tweaking of the sentence, the final polishing that gives prose its true splendor and grace.

Deborah Reed’s novel, Things We Set on Fire, sold over one hundred thousand copies in the first six months, while Carry Yourself Back to Me was a Best Book of 2011 Amazon Editors Pick. She wrote the bestselling thriller, A Small Fortune, and its sequel, Fortune’s Deadly Descent, under her pen name Audrey Braun. Several of her novels have been translated or are forthcoming in German. Her nonfiction has appeared in publications such as the Literarian, MORE, and Poets & Writers. She holds a master’s degree in fine arts in creative writing, and teaches at the UCLA Extension Writing Program. She is also co-director of the Black Forest Writing Seminar at the University of Freiburg in Germany. She resides in Los Angeles.

Tuesday
Jan062015

Anna Davies

How did you become a writer?

I always liked stories and reading, but I didn't realize writing was a strength until I was in high school when I wrote a thinly veiled short story in English class about a summer romance gone wrong and my peers positively responded to it.

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

I had always had visceral responses to authors and writing, but seeing that my own work could promote that sort of response in peers was pretty powerful. So I guess I've thought of myself as a "writer" since high school. But I do think if you write and you share and you grapple with your work, then you're a writer. I think it's a term you can really take ownership of, it's not something you have to wait for someone to bestow upon you. Bottom line: A writer writes. So if you're sitting down and writing stuff that matters to you, even if you're not published yet? You're a writer. Own it. 

I majored in English at Barnard College, which was an amazing education. A visiting professor there was the Irish writer Roddy Doyle and he taught a great workshop where I learned to stop worrying about what other people thought and write what worked best for me. I would send him these frantic 2AM e-mails, asking him what he wanted in terms of assignment length or how he'd know if people were working hard enough. He just told me, and I'm paraphrasing, to write a f*cking story. And I did. I still think that's really the best writing lesson: Just stop asking questions and overthinking and write the thing!

Favorite authors that I'll read again and again are Mary McCarthy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Meghan Daum, Joan Didion. I also love reading plays as well for structure, rhythm, and dialogue: Tony Kushner, Richard Greenberg, Jane Martin, and August Wilson are some favorites. I feel like plays get to the heart of the matter, they are AMAZING tools in terms of learning structure and storytelling. Plus, you can read most plays in less than an hour (maybe not Tom Stoppard, he's pretty wordy) and I think that's really satisfying: Take an hour, read a major work. Can't do that with novels! 

When and where do you write?

I developed a system at one point when I was on deadline where I would aim for six to eight  two-hour time blocks a week: Usually from 10-12AM and 4-6PM on Saturdays and Sundays, and then two to four 12am to 2am writing blocks during the week. But that was when I was in my twenties and didn't need to sleep. Now I CAN write anywhere—and spent the summer traveling, where I was writing from crowded trains and packed hostels and, this summer, a few random Albanian bars—but I try to limit my "writing" time to an hour at a time, or else I start procrastinating and start hating on everything. I've found that SHOWING up and sitting down with the mantra "butt in chair" is really helpful in terms of just getting something on paper. I have definitely fallen victim and still fall victim to "waiting for inspiration" but it just isn't feasible. 

What are you working on now?

Right now, after 13 young adult novels, as well as a bunch of personal essays and first-person pieces for various outlets, I'm slowly working on a "grown up" novel. I'm also working on a personal-essay type collection, which is going so easily and is so much fun I hesitate to call it work. I don't know if anything will come of it, but the main thing is that I'm gingerly edging back into finding the fun in writing.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Yes! I ghostwrote for five years for a major young adult book packaging company. I wrote ten books in five years, all of which ended up on the NYT children's bestseller list, but my name wasn't on any of them them. I kept wanting so badly to write my own work, but finally, my editor made it clear it just wasn't going to happen with that company. I was devastated and really began doubting myself. I felt betrayed, burned out, and really unsure about my voice. And I didn't write for almost a full year. I traveled, I kept journals, I read—but I didn't write. I missed it and was angry at it and knew I WOULD get back to it, mostly because there's really nothing else I'd want to do—but in the moment, I also knew I just COULD NOT muscle my way through it. I was DONE.

I would feel SO JEALOUS when I heard about friend's projects. But I let myself miss it. And little by little—and I hesitate to say this, because I am still getting over the block—I began writing for fun again. I've always worked as a writer, either on staff at a magazine or freelancing for magazines or writing copy for various outlets, and I think the thing that can be hard about that is when writing is how you get paid, it can be hard to see beyond the paycheck. I think part of the reason I've been able to begin to get over the block now is because I recently took a copywriting job at an office. I love the work, I love the coworkers, and not having to worry that an after-hours creative project has to lead to a major payday has made me really excited about writing stuff that makes me excited and passionate. It also lets me structure my day much better. When you potentially have the whole day to write, it's really hard to sit down and do it. When you know you only have an hour or less, you'll take the time to get it done. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

I think you hear the same advice to new writers—read everything, learn to revise, develop a discipline—over and over again because it WORKS. But I think the advice I wish I had learned is that there are agony days and hate days and days you just can't turn off that "writer" voice in your head. Sometimes, you really don't know why you're doing this—but you keep doing it. And I think if that's how you feel: The having to do it, that inner drive, then you ARE a writer, and then the rest is just the details of refining and homing your skills.

Anna Davies is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, New York, Glamour, Cosmo, Women's Health, Men's Health, salon.comrefinery29.com and others. She's ghostwritten ten bestselling young adult novels for Alloy Entertainment and has written three young adult novels under her own name—Wrecked (Simon & Schuster), Identity Theft, and Followers (Scholastic). Anna has spent the last year backpacking around the world, and is thrilled to have recently settled back in New York City. 

Tuesday
Dec302014

Suki Kim

How did you become a writer?

I don't think I became a writer. I feel that I was always one because I remember writing little stories even as a little girl. But I immigrated to the U.S. when I was 13 and did not speak a word of English. So that presented a problem for many years. But despite all that, I ended up writing. It was never a choice.


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

It's difficult to name influences since they change all the time. For a long time I was influenced by films. I loved Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad and Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating because those films questioned time and space and challenged my thought process. I loved early Tarkovsky films for the same reasons. For a while, I loved reading Joan Didion because I was a 28 year old New Yorker when I first read her essay, "Goodbye to All That" which was about being 28 and in New York and crying all the time, and I felt like I was her. I loved some of the modern Japanese mystery novels because they made me think about the great puzzle of solving plots. I loved Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go because for me, his characters feel truly alive, and I admire that. But these influences all seem to pass, and I get over them. Currently, nothing moves me, and I am a bit worried about that. 


When and where do you write?

Generally, I write at home, but it really does not matter where. When I write well, I could write on a subway. When I do not write well, I could be given a quiet cabin in New Hampshire for a month and not produce a word. It's all in my mind.


What are you working on now?

I have spent the past few months answering emails… and repeating the same information about my newly released book for all the media network. But this is the glorious part of post publication where I have an excuse to not write. We are always procrastinating, and right now I have an excuse.


Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Of course; my second book took 11 years.


What’s your advice to new writers?

Giving advice makes me feel like an old person, so I refrain from that because in my heart, I am still the 13 year old girl who came to this country without a word of English and feel overwhelmed with everything. I could however relate an advice from a bigger writer, now deceased Doris Lessing who made a great impression on me when I, as a young writer, went to watch her speak at the 92nd Y. She said -- probably not her exact words -- Writing should be hard. If it is easy, be suspicious. It's the hardest thing in the world, and it should be if it's any good. Now that I am no longer a young writer, I see that she spoke the truth.

 

Suki Kim's first novel, The Interpreter, was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Prize. She is the recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Open Society fellowships. She has been traveling to North Korea as a journalist since 2002, and her essays and articles have appeared in the New York Times, Harper’sand the New York Review of Books. Born and raised in Seoul, she lives in New York. Without You, There is No US: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite, a book of investigative memoir, is her second book.