How did you become a writer? My parents came to America after World War II filled with secrets. I was the worst kind of kid they could have had. Too curious, always pecking away at them with questions. It must have been like having a six-year-old demanding to see their papers all the time. But, man, I wanted those stories, and since I couldn’t get them they became more valuable to me than anything in the world. The whole time I wrote everything down. By the time I was 12 I ran out of places to hide the composition books I kept journals in, before I knew they were even called journals.
The other part of becoming a writer happened on a summer job out of high school reporting for a weekly in New York. I covered so many rent strikes, rate hikes, stuck elevators and flooded basements that the paper quit using my byline half the time so no one would figure out their staff consisted of one skinny teenager in thick glasses. My editor enjoyed using a blue pencil the way you would a shiv on a squealer. He slashed at my copy and gutted it before he sailed the sheets back over his desk at me. “Clean it up and make it interesting,” he’d say. Then he’d make me pay for the writing lesson by going to the deli and getting him a can of Rheingold.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). My high school English teacher, Mike Ingrisani was the biggest influence of all. I still think of him every day. Harriet the Spy. My editors at [MORE] Magazine, the journalism review that was shut down over a rigged-Pulitzer scandal, who showed me what selling out looked like. Fred Friendly at Columbia. Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, The Gulag Archipelago, Bukowski’s Post Office, Selby’s Requiem for a Dream. 100 years of Solitude. Casablanca. The Adventures of Tintin. Le Carré. Eric Ambler. Mandolinist Andy Statman, competition pilot Clint McHenry. More recently, Robert Littell’s The Stalin Epigram.
Where and when do you write? Almost every day, and at different times of the day. In the past six months I’ve driven across the country twice and now down into Mexico with my dog Roo. I write wherever we wind up. Scrivener software is a part of that. It creates a virtual desktop and organizational structure that makes it easier to contend with not having a real desk. I used to carry an Olivetti portable at the bottom of my backpack. This is better.
What are you working on now? The Dog in the Clouds, a memoir about a dog I saw in the Kathmandu clouds two years before he was born on the Colorado prairie. He helped me heal from a decade of serious injury, paralysis from a spinal tumor, a hard hit on the head, war, and other things yet lousier. He taught me a lesson that I didn’t learn until after he gave me his life, a lesson that helped get my life back when I finally understood it.
After that, I want to see how much of my parents’ story I can get out of intelligence archives that are now open. Between the two of them they ran the gamut from seeing the first shot of the war fired into Danzig to a bizarre ménage à trois in New York with a KGB agent in an atomic spy case that changed all of our lives forever.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? No, but more than my share of revisor’s block, which is just as deadly. It might be worse, like letting someone die because you couldn’t quite manage a tourniquet.
What’s your advice to new writers? Clean it up and make it interesting. This involves rewriting until you feel like you need a bone marrow transplant. Also, save yourself some trouble and regard anyone who tells you they write better drunk as a phony.
Bio: I grew up in New York and went to Columbia College and Journalism School. I directed Lines of Fire, a documentary about revolution and heroin trafficking in Burma that was just added to the NY Museum of Modern Art’s film collection. After being injured in a jeep wreck in the Himalaya and then paralyzed by a spinal cord tumor, I drifted away from writing to work in aviation, but have now returned to writing full time. I just published a Kindle book about my dog Roo, Notes from a Dog Rescue in Progress. I blog at www.thedogintheclouds.com.