Ayşe Papatya Bucak

How did you become a writer?

Age old story of falling in love with reading and eventually going to an MFA program.

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

Toni Morrison for ambition/scope, Michael Ondaatje for style. A lot of my favorite novels fall into the girl coming of age narrative: Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. My short story influences are Anthony Doerr, John Edgar Wideman, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Steven Millhauser.

When and where do you write? 

Some friends of mine, when they had a baby, tried to train the baby to sleep through anything. They refused to be quiet during naps, etc. Eventually they had to give that up—poor baby wasn’t getting any sleep. But I’ve adapted their attitude for my writing. I am capable of getting some work done—maybe just a small bit of work—anywhere at anytime. But my preference is first thing in the morning while everyone else is still asleep.

What are you working on now? 

A novel, but I’m one of those people who prefers not to talk about it. I’m also working on some stories and some essays. I like to have a couple of things going at once, at various stages. A novel alone would be hard for me because it’s a long time before there is a payoff.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

In the sense that I have written poorly or not much for periods of time, yeah, of course. But I never really consider it a block. It feels like a natural ebb and flow to me. Sometimes the writing comes more easily than others. If I am feeling uninspired that can usually be solved by reading, or traveling, or taking a walk. Going to a museum. Doing some research. Sometimes by taking a nap. Or coffee, coffee often helps.

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

Tortoise beats hare.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Tortoise beats hare.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak is the author of The Trojan War Museum: And Other Stories. She is an associate professor in the MFA program at Florida Atlantic University.

Claire Lombardo

How did you become a writer?

My path to actually finishing a novel was a haphazard one, but I’ve been writing since I can remember, always fascinated by storytelling and utterly in love with reading and the other worlds reading let me inhabit. I was a quiet kid, and one who loved nothing more than being immersed in a book, and I remember trying to tell my own stories at a very young age, doing these elaborate (and mostly stick-figure-drawn) narratives on the scrap paper my dad would bring home for me from his office. And from then on I was always doing writing of some kind—I wrote for the school newspaper, edited the literary magazine in high school, and when I had down time I’d write long, meandering stories that never seemed to reach a visible end. 

But it never seemed like something I could pursue wholeheartedly. Now, still, though my first novel,The Most Fun We Ever Had, came out a few months ago, I hesitate a little any time someone asks me what I do, because until lately writing has always felt like a secreted-away source of pleasure rather than a professional pursuit. I ended up—very, very happily— working in social services in Chicago for a number of years, and then I went through half of a masters in social work before I decided that the novel I’d been writing—the secreted-away pleasure I kept coming back to—might be worth having a real go at. So I dropped out of grad school, took a job as a nanny, and applied to twelve MFA programs, telling myself that if I got rejected I’d go back and finish my masters in social work. And I ended up getting some acceptance letters, and I moved out to Iowa, where I got paid to write fiction for the first time in my life, and I really put my head down and gave the novel my all. 

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

Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro are the writers whose work I turn to when I’m stuck, when I want to be reminded of the extent of what fiction can do. I also love John Cheever’s stories, which feel utterly timeless to me—honest explorations of the human psyche. And Shirley Jackson’s memoiristic writing (about, among other things, raising children) not only brought me a great deal of pleasure, but was wonderfully helpful as I was writing The Most Fun We Ever Had, which focuses in part on the highs and lows of motherhood. I love writing that toes that line between humor and gravitas, that acknowledges that most sad moments are funny in some way and that there’s often heartbreak in amongst real joy, and those aforementioned writers have a knack for nailing that balance over and over and over again. 

I’ve also been fortunate enough to study with a number of extraordinarily lovely and talented writers, and those whose voices constantly kick around in my head as I’m writing are Margot Livesey and Ethan Canin. Margot is one of the most generous writers I’ve ever encountered, both emotionally generous and generous with her time and her seemingly infinite knowledge, and she seems to have read—twice!—everything ever written, for which she has both an infectious enthusiasm and boundless capacity for understanding. And Ethan has, in some ways, a very mathematical, regimented approach to fiction writing, which I—a rule-follower—find so comforting and strategically helpful, but he’s also someone who prioritizes empathy and humanity over everything else, and I think this is probably the most important thing we can focus on as fiction writers—being empathetic toward our characters (and, by extension, toward the world at large). 

When and where do you write? 

I write whenever and wherever I can! My writing life used to consist of moments I’d steal away from whatever else I was doing—I’d write on the subway, during lunch breaks at my office job, at home in the evenings when I finished my nannying job for the day—and it made me very flexible, work-wise. 

In the last couple of years, though, I’ve had the greatest gift in the world for a writer, which is a lot of time specifically dedicated to writing. And while I’m still not very regimented in terms of time of day or space, I tend to write in the afternoons and volley back and forth from coffee shops and my home office (where—my one quirky writerly tendency—my desk is an old red picnic table that was passed down from my grandparents to my parents to me). 

What are you working on now? 

Right now I’m returning to a project I started when I was in graduate school, a close-range exploration of four characters and the ways that their lives intertwine; and when I’m not doing that I’m either unpacking from my recent cross-country move, or I’m reading. I just finished Anne Tyler’s delightful novel Clock Dance and am currently blissfully immersed in John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I’ve never experienced the inability to write, period, but I definitely have gone through times of blockage in terms of specific projects. I have a few dozen short stories on my computer desktop that are all at varying stages of unfinished, stories I was having fun with and still care about but for whatever reason can’t fully work through at present. And I’ll confess that the transition from my first novel to my second has been difficult in terms of creativity and momentum—it’s been hard to shift gears from something I’ve been living closely with, emotionally, for years and years. But my antidote to these things, ultimately, is to just keep writing—writing anything, even if it’s not part of something larger—and reading the writing of others. 

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

This isn’t something that was given to me directly, but one piece of advice I think about a lot is from Anne Lamott, something to the effect of “Just do it. Butt in chair.” I tell my students this religiously, too. Ultimately, as a writer, the thing we have to do is the writing. There’s no way around that. 

A more concrete piece of advice I’ve gotten from many different people has to do with determining the so-what factor for every single scene in a story or a novel. This is something I used to harp on a lot when I was a teacher working with students studying business: that sort of straightforward, no-nonsense why the hell are you telling me this? But it applies to fiction too! Everything in a story—from individual characters to individual scenes to individual lines of dialogue to the ways you attribute those individual lines of dialogue—has to be there for a reason, and you, as the writer, have to be able to vouch for it. This has been a saving grace for me in terms of identifying the emotional heart of stories andparing down long projects (which was especially helpful because my first novel was, at one point, over 900 pages!). 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Write as much as you can, whenever you possibly can, and make sure that you’re actually interested in whatever it is you’re writing about—if you aren’t, the reader can tell. Also: keep at it! And try not to get wrapped up in the political, competitive minutiae that tends to surface among writerly communities. If you can find one or two (or ten, if you’re lucky!) people who get what you’re doing, and support what you’re doing, and make you feel happy to be a person in the world, that’s the best thing ever. Also: be nice to yourself! Writing is a solitary and often very lonely gig, and it can be hard to measure progress or maintain motivation or be patient with the process. So my advice to those starting out is to just keep at it, and extend yourself as much kindness and courtesy as you’d extend to anyone committing him or herself to something new. I remind myself frequently of an adage my mom has been telling me since I was a kid: “most things worth doing aren’t easy.” 

Claire Lombardo’s debut novel, The Most Fun We Ever Had, is out now from Doubleday Books and was an instant New York Times bestseller. She spent several years as a social worker before studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Born and raised in the Chicago area, she now lives in Philadelphia, where she is working on a second novel.

Rachel Monroe

How did you become a writer?

Ever since I can remember, I've negotiated the world through writing. From a very early age, it was how I made sense of my feelings, my experiences, and the world around me. As for how I became a person who makes a living as a writer, though -- I studied writing in college, got my MFA in fiction, and promptly stopped writing fiction and started writing essays. Slowly, I began incorporating more and more reporting into my essays because I discovered I really enjoyed it. Nowadays, I most enjoy writing what I think of as "reported essays" -- pieces that allow space for reflection or analysis or rhetorical flourishes, but that also incorporate information I've gathered through reporting.

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

There are so many! This week, I'm feeling particularly grateful to a number of women who also write perceptively and humanely about crime and related subjects: Rachel Aviv, Alice Bolin, Janet Malcolm, Debbie Nathan, Sarah Marshall, and Sarah Weinman come immediately to mind. The past few non-crime books that I read and loved were by Jamel Brinkley and Renee Gladman.

When and where do you write? 

I try to get to it shortly after I wake up, when my brain is not yet clogged by the day. But I'm not one of those writers who gets up at 5AM or anything like that. Usually I'm at my desk in my office by around 9AM. Then I procrastinate with the crossword puzzle as long as I can before getting down to writing.

What are you working on now? 

Since my book just got published, I'm allowing myself a bit of a break before I plan my next big project. In the meantime, I'm working on a number of magazine features that are really fun and intriguing to think about -- and, fortunately for my peace of mind, they have nothing to do with crime.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I've had periods when it's hard to get started, or when everything I write feels like it comes out stilted and ugly. But one of the nice things about writing non-fiction is that when I'm feeling slow or stuck, I can do other parts of the work -- research, say, or transcribing interviews. Generally approaching the subject from a different angle is enough to inspire me to get going again.

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

My college writing teacher used to spend an hour of our three-hour seminar on grammar. We'd pick apart bad sentences from last week's assignments and he'd help us identify the grammatical problems. At the time, I remember rolling my eyes, thinking this was excessive and boring -- but looking back at it, I'm really grateful for that education. Solid, clear, elegant sentences are so fundamental to good writing. I'm grateful he encouraged me to slow down, be deliberate, and aim for clarity.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Don't pay too much attention to anyone else's path. Discover what fascinates and compels you, and dig down into it. And then keep going.

Rachel Monroe is the author of Savage Appetites, a book about women, crime, and obsession that the New York Times called "enthralling" and NPR described as "necessary and brilliant." She was a 2016 finalist for a Livingston Award for Young Journalists and was named one of the "queens of nonfiction," along with Susan Orlean, Rebecca Solnit, and Joan Didion, by New York Magazine in 2016. Her essay about murder fandom and adolescence, "Outside the Manson Pinkberry," originally published in The Believer, is anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing 2018, and she regularly writes for the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Esquire, New York Magazine, Texas Monthly, The Guardian, and others. She lives in Marfa, Texas.