How did you become a writer?
It’s funny, but even after my first books were published, I didn’t call myself a writer. Maybe it was because I live in Hyde Park and work at the University of Chicago, where real writers are a dime a dozen. I felt like a trainee. I thought children’s books didn’t count. In any case, at some point enough people called me a writer that I finally thought, what the hell, I’m a writer.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I like stories. My father and uncles told great stories. My first favorite writer was Ray Bradbury. When my children were small, I fell in love with children’s book writers, especially those with real humor and heart: Cynthia Rylant, Beverly Cleary, Christopher Paul Curtis, Richard Peck, Mildred Taylor, Karen Hesse—all great storytellers. Hesse’s Out of the Dust was always within arm’s reach when I was writing Eddie’s War. The Subversive Copy Editor is more like a personal rant, probably most influenced by advice columnists—I’ve been addicted to them since I learned to read.
When and where do you write?
At this moment I’m writing in a dark theater at a rehearsal for a play I’m in. (I’m a minor character, so I have lots of down time.) I can write blog posts and interviews and articles anywhere I have my laptop, which is getting to be a problem, because I increasingly resent toting it around. I wish I could write on paper napkins and gum wrappers, but I can’t think properly with pen and paper, even nice paper. Yellow legal pads intimidate me. For me, there is simply no substitute for multiple Undo. That said, book writing seems easier at home in the quiet.
What are you working on now?
I wish I were writing something. Typically I go a long time between ideas, and I’m not interested in working on something I don’t feel strongly about. Eddie’s War and The Subversive Copy Editor were both intensely personal books, one rooted in my family and the other in my work. I more or less spewed the latter in four months, I was so excited and knew so clearly what I wanted to say. Eddie took six years (I once calculated I averaged eleven and a half words a day) because I loved writing it and didn’t want to stop honing. So how do I top all that? I miss having a project, but I don’t want to be the writer who sits around desperately trying to think up something that will sell. So I’m keeping busy with other things; I’m reading and listening. For a while now I’ve been interested in the topic of women who were put in insane asylums against their will, and I’ve been casually reading fiction and nonfiction about that, hoping something will come of it. Because I’m acting in a play and have a lot of time to observe professional actors and directors, I’m secretly excited about the possibility of writing a play. In Chicago it’s not impossible for a new playwright to get a staged reading.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Yes, I’ve been terribly stuck at times. The worst block was when I was four years into writing Eddie’s War and almost threw it away. But with encouragement and advice from my writers group and my editor, Stephen Roxburgh, I was able to carry on. When I was writing my first children’s book, The Bridge Dancers, I wrote my little heroine to the edge of a chasm and then realized that it would be too, too stupid for her to find the courage to cross the rickety rope bridge and save the day. I put it down for months until I figured out what she would actually do.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Everyone advises new writers to read, because unless you’re some kind of idiot savant, the only way to write well is to get great writing into your ear and imitate it (whether you realize you’re doing it or not) until you hit stride and launch into your own style. My second piece of advice is more a quality-of-life issue: Writers will never be happy until they realize that getting published is not a worthy goal. Writing is the best part of being a writer. Getting published gives you moments of happiness, but it’s nothing compared to the extended happiness of writing itself. When your book is finished and published, there’s a big hole in your life and a lot of pressure to market your book and to already be cranking out the next one. So if you’re lucky enough to be writing something you love, don’t let a longing to finish intrude on your process.
Carol Fisher Saller is a manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press, where she also serves as an editor of The Chicago Manual of Style and the CMOS Online Q&A. Her young adult novel Eddie’s War was named a Best Children’s Book for 2011 by Kirkus Reviews and a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of 2012. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly Online named The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Colleagues, Your Writers, and Yourself) its Pick of the Week, calling it “a singular survival guide to the copy editor’s trade. . . practical, relentlessly supportive and full of ed-head laughs.”