How did you become a writer? It was just a natural outgrowth of being a reader. I can’t pinpoint a moment when I declared myself a writer because in my mind I already was. I began writing a diary at six. Recently I came upon it and began searching it for evidence of precocity. There was none—obviously I didn’t think being a writer meant you had to be good at it.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.) As a child, I loved stories in which characters enter a portal into another world, like Alice in Wonderland. But also influential were the biographies of the Siamese twins Chang and Eng, Babe Didrikson, the first female superstar athlete, and Christine Jorgensen, the first transsexual. I’d love to write a novel that would encompass all that.
When and where do you write? Anywhere and anytime. For a while I could only work in my attic office, but when it seemed too solitary, I began writing in public places. I find the background hum a reassuring reminder that normal life goes on.
What writing tools do you favor? (Specifically: computer, word processor, dictionary, thesaurus, apps, etc.) I’m loyal to the Macbook Pro.
What are you working on now? I'm writing a book about the human/dog bond, which I don’t see as sentimental. Its more like the relationship between Frankenstein and his monster. As the only species created by humans, dogs reflect our dreams. prejudices and values. Take the purebred/mongrel distinction, which arose during the waves of immigration. Or dog fancy, a mirror of our own stratified society. It’s funny—we’re surprised at and praise dogs’ responsiveness to our needs—but it’s breeders who’ve made them that way.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? In graduate school I was practically aphasic. A Ph.D. in English literature is a mixed blessing. You’re introduced to the “canon,” i.e., works by “real writers” who inhabit a very different sphere from your own. At the same time you’re honing your critical skills. I was constantly comparing myself to great writers, and when I did write, my prose sounded like that of a senile Oxford don.
What’s your advice to writers? This goes back to the last question. A professor of mine asked me to tell him what I wanted to write, to pretend we were having an informal conversation. I probably wasn’t very coherent, but when I was finished, he said, “Write all that down.” I was stunned. I asked, “I can do that?” “Absolutely,” he said. And that’s my advice: Pretend you’re talking to a sympathetic listener and just write it down.
Norrie Epstein is the author of The Friendly Shakespeare and The Friendly Dickens; she is the editor of The Technique of the Love Affair by Doris Langley Moore and, with Jon Winokur, Happy Motoring: Canine Life in the Fast Lane. After receiving a Ph.D. in Victorian Literature, she taught at UCLA, Goucher College, and Stevenson University. She is currently writing a book about dogs and people.