How did you become a writer?
I was always writing and drawing pictures when I was a kid, but I never considered it to be a step in becoming…anything. It was just something I always did, implicitly and constantly, as it gave me more pleasure and peace than pretty much anything else. It felt very natural—and necessary—but looking back, I guess it was the beginning of it all.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
There are so many influences that have helped me, and kept me inspired, challenged, and humbled. Some writers in particular—William Maxwell, Penelope Fitzgerald, Mavis Gallant, Richard Hugo, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, Leo Tolstoy…there are too many to name. I am extremely fortunate to have had some excellent teachers, too. In graduate school I had the honor of working with the poet and translator Richard Howard. When he edited my poems, he was exacting and unsparing, underscoring the value of cleanliness and clarity, while still encouraging the voice I was beginning to craft for myself. Over time, I was able to absorb his editorial methods and make them my own. He gave me a huge gift.
When and where do you write?
I have no set schedule for when I write, but I try to only sit down at the computer when I know I can be productive. I’ve been at this long enough to know when it feels right, and if it doesn’t, I draw or play the guitar or read or walk in the park. Walking—thinking while walking—is work too; invaluable work that I can’t live without. When I do write, I usually work in my kitchen, which is a dark, cool room in the back of my apartment. From the window I can see Riverside Church’s stone spire and the flocks of seagulls that fly over from the Hudson River to rest on the water towers of the surrounding rooftops. It is a quiet room, except for when my neighbor, whom I have never met and must be a professional musician, practices the bassoon.
What are you working on now?
Right now I am working on designing the print version of my novel-in-stories, Nan. This summer I released Nan as an ebook with Harmon Blunt Publishers, a small publishing house I started with my brother years ago, and now I’m going to produce a limited run of first edition hardcovers. Nan is the story of a young woman named Nan who moves to NYC from rural Vermont for college in the wake of a family tragedy. There are 10 linked stories in the novel, 7 of which have been published in places like Narrative, Guernica, and Post Road. It’s been a lot of work to get this book out by myself, but the challenge has been enlightening and affirming. I’m proud of this book.
I’ve also been working on a series of poems and illustrations called “Unremembered” in collaboration with the incredibly talented composer Sarah Kirkland Snider. This song cycle will be her second album, which she hopes to start recording this winter. Alongside these projects, I’ve been trying to write new poems for what I hope will be my second collection of poetry.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I don’t think I have, but I think that goes back to not working when I know I won’t or can’t be productive. For me, forcing the work always makes for demoralizing results. Whenever I feel blocked writing, I usually turn to another form of artistic expression to see if I can make something of the creative impulse in another medium.
What’s your advice to new writers?
One thing I would say is this: If you’re interested in trying to publish your work, it’s important to figure out a strategy that helps to manage the constant rejection that’s endemic to this pursuit. The ideal is to convert each grim dismissal into inspiration and industry, but that’s often not possible. Feel these things, experience them, but don’t let them defeat you. Gain strength from the basic truth at the center of each disappointment: That you were brave enough to write something and put it out in the world.