How did you become a writer?
In some sense, I suppose, through a failure of imagination, or at least a failure to choose any other course. I had always enjoyed writing, in elementary and junior high school, and in my eighth-grade year, I won an award for writing an article about the courthouse in my small hometown in Illinois. A friend of my family's sent me a note of congratulations, asking, "Do you plan to be a writer? It would seem that you could be!" No one had ever suggested that before -- and I'm sure I didn't know any professional writers. But something must have stuck in my head. I became the editor of my high school newspaper, and in college was a campus stringer for several newspapers, including The New York Times, which I joined as a copyboy upon graduation. I figured I might have to go to law school, or get a real job, but eventually I got promoted and the rest, as they say, is history.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I'm sure like everyone else, I was terrifically influenced by E.B. White, and his elegant brand of heightened conversational English. That is to say, he wrote very naturally, and engagingly, in the way we'd like to hope that the most entertaining people talk but seldom do.
When and where do you write?
Any time I have to, and over the years, I've done it on laptops and legal pads, on buses and planes, in hotel ballrooms and aboard Air Force One. But mostly I write at my own desk, in our bedroom at home, or in a small office in a building in downtown Washington that I recently rented.
What are you working on now?
At the moment, I'm occupied with my regular work for Vanity Fair, which now involves a monthly print column on politics and another online weekly column on the same topic. I'm also at work on a book about the 1964 Civil Rights Act to be published by Times Books/Henry Holt in 2014, in time for the law's 50th anniversary. It's been inspiring to learn about a time when Washington could still accomplish something great.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Yes, any time I lack a firm deadline!
What’s your advice to new writers?
Just write, and then write some more. Put a lot of periods in the paragraphs. Avoid stuffy Latinisms, as The New York Times used to advise me. Mary McGrory, the great Washington columnist, once said that the secret of her brilliant and heart-rending columns about the Kennedy assassination was to "write short sentences in the presence of great grief." I've always thought that was a good formulation. I also admire the maxim of Red Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist: "Writing is easy; you just open a vein and bleed."
Todd Purdum is the National Editor of Vanity Fair, based in Washington, where he mostly writes about politics and politicians, with an occasional detour into pop culture and Hollywood. He spent 23 years at The New York Times, starting as a copy boy, and covered New York and national politics, the White House and the State Department, and served as chief of the paper's Los Angeles Bureau. He is a native of Macomb, Illinois and a graduate of Princeton University. He lives in Washington with his wife, Dee Dee Myers, the political commentator and former White House press secretary, and their two children.