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Tuesday
Feb252014

Lauren B. Davis

How did you become a writer? A deceptively complicated question. Does one ‘become’ a writer, or is one born a writer? I’ve written ever since I was a kid, a great deal of bad poetry in my twenties, which was wisely refused by all the best lit mags. I stopped writing when my career as an alcoholic reached its pinnacle in my mid-late thirties, however, and it wasn’t until I got sober on March 21, 1995 that I began writing anything even remotely publishable. It was then I realized I couldn’t simply sit down as free-write and expect it to be any good. I had to study. I had to learn the craft and practice, just as a great pianist must practise, or a brain surgeon, or a carpenter. It took time. It took effort. None of that mattered. I simply couldn’t imagine doing anything else for an extended period of time.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). The books of my childhood were C.S. Lewis's Narnian Suite, the original version of Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan (not the dreadful Disney version) and The Water Babies - lots of dark Victorian children's literature. There are always wonderful new authors, but the ones who found me first were James Agee, Gabrielle Roy, Margaret Laurence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Graham Greene, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin...

Timothy Findley – the wonderful Canadian writer – was my mentor and having him work with me through the Humber College Mentor Program was a turning point in my career. His encouragement of my work, and his always-valuable criticism, allowed me to think of myself as a Real Writer, or at least one in the making.

As for book, there are many worthwhile how-to-write books but the one I keep returning to is Janet Burroway’s WRITING FICTION.

When and where do you write? I’m very lucky. I have my own book-shelf lined office with a fireplace and a view of the back garden and fish pond. I get regular visits from deer, rabbits, foxes, a thousand birds (including a highly territorial hummingbird and a pair of wrens who return every year to the same nest), wild turkeys, and the occasional coyote and bear. Princeton, NJ is far more exciting than I thought when I first moved here!  

I’m a fairly early riser -- about six-thirty or seven o’clock. Then it's out to walk Bailey, our dog (known around the house as The Rescuepoo). I've also taken up an hour of exercise in the morning, since I'm told that sort of thing is good for you. Thus, whereas I used to be at my desk at 8:30 a.m., between the dog and the elliptical machine, it's now more like 9:30. But, cup of tea in hand, I start work. I work a regular “business” day, a discipline I suspect is the result of many years spent as an office worker. (The reason I’m not still working as an admin assistant somewhere is that my Best Beloved is gainfully employed and very encouraging of my work.) If I’m writing a novel it must go forward by 1,000 words each day. Often, of course, I write more than that, and since I start every day rereading previous sections and deleting a great deal of it, it’s probably more like 2,000 words each day.

Writing is a practice, like meditation or prayer. You have to keep at it, day after day, even when it seems like absolutely nothing good is happening. Perhaps especially then.

What are you working on now? I’m editing my next novel, to be published by Harper Collins in Canada and Chizine in the US. It’s set in 7th century Northumbria (England) during the reign of King Edwin, and explores the clash between the pagan faith and Christianity, really a clash between dogmatic theology and experiential faith. I’d tell you the title but I haven’t found the right one yet.  

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? I can’t say as I have, at least not since I got sober. Have I written a vast amount of crap? Absolutely, but I keep writing until something worthwhile happens, and so far, so good.

What’s your advice to new writers? Writers make meaning of the world through writing, we write because writing is in our marrow. We can no more stop writing than we can breathing. (Spurred by rejection and depression, I've TRIED to stop writing, and found I couldn't. I'm far saner when writing than not, even given the insanity of the publishing industry.) If you can stop writing now, you probably ought to. The writing life is bloody hard. Lots of people want to be ‘authors,' with their books in the shop windows and their face on the television, but few people want to be writers. Writers write, and frankly, that's about all we do. Every day. For hours and hours, often with little to show for it. We spend enormous amounts of time alone, we generally have to work at other jobs to support ourselves since the pay is stupefyingly low, we suffer rejection and criticism with alarming frequency, and rarely get much support or recognition. If these truths haven't put you off, if you still feel compelled to write, then get on with it -- Learn your craft. It takes years to be a decent writer, just as it does to become a fine tennis player or neurosurgeon. Find a mentor, take classes and workshops (yes, I do think they help, if the leader is good and the participants supportive yet honest), study from good books like WRITING FICTION by Janet Burroway, write EVERY DAY and….

Read. READ EVERYTHING. I can't tell you how many students show up in my classes wanting to be writers, but when I ask them what they read, tell me "Oh, I don't read much." Good Lord. Then you aren't a writer.

Slow down. Forget about publishing until you actually have a completed manuscript ready to send out to agents. Again, so many students want to spend all their time asking about how to get agents and how to market their blogs and set up book tours. I ask them what their book's about and they reply, "Oh, I haven't written it yet." Really? Again, good Lord. First things first. Write the book; and make it the best possible book it can be.

Accept that you will fail, often, and don't let that stop you. Accept that the book you imagine before you write it won't be the book you write. It's like trying to capture the essence of that startlingly vivid dream you had last night - you might come close, but its purity will always evade you. Every writer must come to terms with that. Becket said, "All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

When you are ready to publish, try not to attach too much of your ego and psyche to the business. Great reviews are wonderful, but they won't sustain you. Only more writing will sustain you. Bad reviews are corrosive to the writer's energy and last forever. Put limited time into fretting about how low/high your advance was compared to others, book sales and awards and market share and platforms and all the stuff that doesn't have anything to do with your life as an actual writer-at-the-page. Of course, there will always be business to attend to, but what I'm saying is, don't let it replace the love and vigor you put into your art.

If you are a real writer, then just surrender to the writer's life, all of it, even the bad stuff. When you do that, the beauty appears: the peace, the meaning, the joy, the fulfillment, the sense that you are doing what you were born to do and what could be better, in the end, than that?

Lauren B. Davis’s most recent work is the bestselling novel, THE EMPTY ROOM (HarperCollins, 2013), a searing, raw and powerful a portrayal of the chaos and pain of alcoholism. Named one of the “Best Books of the Year” by The National Post, and the Winnipeg Free Press, “Editors’ Pick” by Amazon and a “Critics’ Pick” by The Coast (Nova Scotia). Her previous novel, OUR DAILY BREAD, was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and named as one of the “Best Books of the Year” by The Globe & Mail and The Boston Globe.

She is also the author of the bestselling and critically acclaimed novels, THE RADIANT CITY, a finalist for the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize; and THE STUBBORN SEASON, a named as one of the Top 15 Bestselling First Novels by Amazon.ca and Books in Canada. She has also published two short story collections, AN UNREHEARSED DESIRE and RAT MEDICINE & OTHER UNLIKELY CURATIVES. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards, the ReLit Award and she is the recipient of two Mid-Career Writer Sustaining grants from the Canadian Council for the Arts. She leads monthly SHARPENING THE QUILL writing workshops in Princeton, New Jersey.

Lauren was born in Montreal but lived in France for ten years from 1994-2004. She and her husband, Ron, moved to Princeton in 2004, where they now live with their dog, Bailey, known as the Rescuepoo. For more information, please visit her website at: www.laurenbdavis.com.

Reader Comments (6)

Thanks for this inspiring interview. Lauren B. Davis has clearly overcome many of her own challenges, and she's doing what she is meant to do, which is write. I look forward to buying The Empty Room, and diving in. Janet

February 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJanet McAndrews

Great interview. Really felt like Lauren was in the same room with me. I just went to her website and her essays are very good. regards, Angela

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAngela Winters

Fascinating interview. I appreciate how clear Lauren is in her responses, truly inspiring!

March 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie Gartner

Great interview. Lauren's comments really hit the mark for me, many thanks. Look forward to reading her work. cheers, SR

October 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Riordan

Thanks for this inspiring interview with Lauren B. Davis. I'm an aspiring writer and much appreciate these insights. I wish I lived closer to Princeton and I'd take her writing classes.

April 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAbigail Drew

Dear Advice To Writers, this is an excellent interview, packed with useful insights. There are many misconceptions about what the writer's life is about, and I've lived with many of them for a number of years. Lauren B Davis tells it like it is, and I appreciate her honesty. Count me in as a new fan of hers. And by the way, I love this site.
with regards, Jane

September 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJane Goodman

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