How did you become a writer?
The first thing I ever wrote was a straight up rip-off of a Ray Bradbury story (I think it was Bradbury), because of its cool surprise ending: "In the living room, someone coughed." I was 12 or so. I didn't think of it as plagiarism. I believe I thought it was like singing somebody's song, and making it your own. Fortunately for me, the teacher who read it had not read the original story, and praised me greatly. I had never been praised before. It rather went to my head. Then I wrote bad poetry for a while, which I never showed to anybody. In college I learned that a brazen attitude can trump actual knowledge when writing an essay. Then I wrote plays, and fiction. And joined a sketch comedy group, which greatly colored my life. I slowly realized that, really, writing was the only thing I knew how to do. Kind of sad really. Oh, I can act and sing a bit.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
S.J. Perelman was the biggest influence as a kid. His parodies were amazing, and led me to the things he was mocking. Also: comic books, and the original Mad magazines. Later, it would be Borges, PK Dick, Kafka, Neal Stephenson, Flannery O'Connor, Nabokov, Dickens. And movies. I love movies. I had a teacher in high school who was very encouraging of my writing, though we had a falling out, because he was also kind of a dick. As was I. In college I had an amazing teacher who was very smart and always emotionally engaged with the books he taught. My way of reading changed as a result of his class (depending on the book, of course - slow for Nabokov, fast for Edgar Rice Burroughs).
When and where do you write?
Every weekday, in my office at home. Pretty much nine to five, with frequent interruptions, as I wander around the house sipping coffee.
What are you working on now?
Something unusual. I am writing a short first person novel in the persona of Sterling Del Zell, who is a character created by Jim Turner, one of my partners in Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre. Del Zell is a loon, running for president. The book is his personal memoir ("ghost written" by me), along the lines of Sarah Palin's GOING ROGUE, or any of dozens of self-serving celebrity autobiographies (all of which I adore, and devour avidly). The fun and challenging part is writing from the point of view of a total nutcake, who doesn't think he's nutty at all.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
No. I have had trouble with certain passages, transitions, or moments in specific works. When that happens, and the frustration gets to be too much, I'll close the document, and work on something else. Either a solution will come to me, or not. So I have many not-quite-finished projects in the works at any given time. But I'm always writing something. And every week I finish something.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Thanks to the Internet, there sure are a lot of them now, and they all seem to have the same breezy self-importance. Get over yourself. And don't write a memoir until you're seventy.
Merle Kessler is a founding member of Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre, which still does things from time to time, if allowed to bring walkers. He also co-created (with Dan Coffey) the long-running radio feature, ASK DR. SCIENCE. In his persona of Ian Shoales, he has written several books, and his commentaries have aired on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, MORNING EDITION, ABC NEWS, and NIGHTLINE. Currently, Ian Shoales is part of the public radio program, PHILOSOPHY TALK. His commentary has also been published in the NEW YORK TIMES, SALON, the SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER, the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, the WASHINGTON POST, and other venues. Kessler also writes the scripts for the nationally syndicated radio show, THE BLUESMOBILE, hosted by Dan Aykroyd (in his persona of Elwood Blues).