How did you become a writer?
My grandparents owned a small-town bookstore just blocks away from my childhood home. I tried to weasel everything I could out of them, from Isaac Asimov to S.E. Hinton and Nancy Drew to Tolkien. Some things they wouldn’t give me, of course. I was eight years old when Interview with the Vampire came out. I remember going to the county library and sneaking it off the display case when the fiction lady wasn’t looking.
In the sixth grade, I won a Daughters of the American Revolution contest with an essay on Benjamin Franklin. Already sold on the writing life, I should have taken more note of the fact that the prize was a check for $5. I wish I still had that check.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.)
Beverly D’Orazio introduced me to Yeats and Joyce, and seemed to think it was perfectly normal to be obsessed with words. She also let me eat lunch in her high school classroom when I was beyond poor and had no friends.
The wonderful poet Roland Flint revealed the glories of Theodore Roethke and Elizabeth Bishop during my freshman year at Georgetown—and locked me out when I was late to his class. He demanded a similar accountability to writing, insisting on an unbelievable level of specificity when discussing how a given piece worked (or didn’t). George O’Brien helped me with fiction, and taught me be wary of using any character as an easy mark. Dan Moshenberg opened up whole new worlds of literature (Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Leslie Marmon Silko) and spurred me to think about the intersection of politics and literature.
As for writers whose work has influenced me...Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Bruno Schulz’s stories, and Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding were all important to me early on—not to mention Philip Levine’s wild love, Lucille Clifton’s smarts, and Breece Pancake’s sorrow.
Walker Percy’s fiction and nonfiction were formative, too. His books taught me how to work with despair as literary material. I once did a portrait of him as a gift, and he wrote the kindest note in response.
More recently, I’ve been taken with Edward Jones, Michael Chabon, Aminatta Forna, Colm Tóibín, Katherine Boo, and Vladimir Nabokov. Five years ago, I started a collection of short stories in which I realized all the protagonists were unlikable. There’s no one quite like Nabokov for driving to the heart of that.
And then there are the beautiful one-offs—single poems or stories so good they make me afraid to look at the rest of the writer’s work for fear of disappointment. Two of my favorites are Tessa Rumsey’s “Poem for the Old Year” and Jim Shepard’s story “Sans Farine,” about the man who was Royal Executioner to Louis XVI during the French Revolution. I’ve been thinking about that story for five years.
I also adore Flann O’Brien without sense or discrimination, and wish he would influence me more.
When and where do you write?
I write anytime and anywhere I’m alone, which is harder than it sounds, because I have two small children. So I drag my laptop to an upstairs room in our home on weekends and write standing up at the dining room table during the day when the kids are at school. I stay up after everyone goes to bed, and my best stuff tends to surrender itself between 11PM and 2 AM.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, a narrative nonfiction project for Pegasus Books. The story of Nabokov’s family is the story of his century, and he folded both into his fiction in ways that have been missed. Forgotten concentration camps, Nazi film sets—it turns out the magician kept some things hidden up his sleeve.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
When I was in college, I composed poetry obsessively but was never able to write a short story longer than four typed pages. Now I can make myself write without difficulty. I’ve come to accept that a lot of the time I’m going to write badly at first, and then fix it or toss it.
What’s your advice to new writers?
In the short run, set a schedule and write something. In the long run, find a story you can’t not tell, and keep faith with it.
Bio: I grew up on the Ohio River in West Virginia, where a sizable chunk of my childhood was lifted from a second-rate hard-luck novel. I snookered a degree from Georgetown University, and as a respectable adult, founded Nieman Storyboard, a site on narrative journalism, for the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. In recent years, my writing has been online at Storyboard and HiLobrow.com, and in print with USA Today and The Washington Post Magazine—where my fondest hope is to be remembered for a brief piece about an underwear mishap at a law firm.
I’m married to a science reporter, and we live with our two children in a tiny house outside Washington, DC. It’s a pretty quiet life, which suits me. But I once tried to foil an armed robbery, taught self defense in gay bars, and had a terrible joke flop and die in front of Mick Jones, formerly of the Clash.
My poetry has appeared in Poet Lore, and The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov will be my first book.
You can follow me on Twitter at @andreapitzer.