How did you become a writer?
In my late teens I took a literature class from a man named Roger Blakely at Macalester College. It was the only literature class I’ve ever taken, and in it I made my first real discovery of books (I didn’t read much as a child, nor was I read to, there were few books in the house where I grew up and reading wasn’t emphasized). At that moment, in Roger Blakely’s class, I fell so in love with fiction I realized this is what I want to do: I want to tell stories, to write books. I taught myself to write by reading and studying various authors in an attempt to learn how to put together a story. Like Chandler, I believe you learn to write by studying and emulating other authors. It took twenty years of working odd jobs and trying to write in my spare time, but I finally published by first book, a collection of stories, when I was 39 years old.
Name your writing influences.
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles thrilled me when I first read it---that sense of landscape, those deep moral/religious questions, his well-drawn characters, the portrayal of the rural world as a kind of “character” itself. In his work I could see all the complexities of the human condition, how there were no easy answers, how novelists work the gray areas, how important it was to set a scene and draw a reader into another world. Willa Cather was important to me also, she wrote about what I felt was my landscape---the West. Ditto Stegner. William Trevor, Alice Munro, and Joy Williams are my short story masters. Muriel Spark early on, later Virgina Woolf. I admire Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s stories very much. Cormac McCarthy is someone I continue to learn from.
When and where do you write?
I write in the mornings, for three or four hours, sitting in an Eames chair in the living room of my apartment in L.A., working with a Mont Blanc fountain pen and spiral notebooks. I wrote my first four books directly onto the computer: the last two have been written in long hand for a first draft. I like the way my brain and hand seem so directly connected when I write in longhand, how the story seems to flow forward like the ink flowing onto the paper. I feel I descend into some deeper imaginative space without the Machine. I love going to the computer later and entering what I’ve written. I tend to write a few chapters in long hand and then enter them into the computer, then go back to moving the story forward in long hand, but I try not to change too much when I put the work into the computer. I’ve found sometimes “first is best,” and I like having that original draft to work with. I also write at a ranch my husband and I own in Idaho, in a little two-room schoolhouse that’s been converted into my study: I can write equally well in the city or the country. All I need is to be settled in my own space, and the quiet and dedicated time to focus. I don’t write in hotel rooms or on airplanes.
What are you working on now?
Some short stories. Also revising a non-fiction book on jazz and noir that came out of my interest in Raymond Chandler and L.A.
Have you ever suffered from writing block?
No. Just a lot of uncertainty!
What’s your advice to new writers?
Understand that it takes a lot of time and dedication to write anything good. The most important thing is to just keep writing. Study and emulate writers you admire. Write what you really want to write. Don’t get too fancy with the language, be clear and true. Remember there are many subjects other than yourself you can draw on: you don’t have to write what you know, you can write what you’re passionate about. The life of Chekov can make a novel, as well as your own experience. Research can be a writer’s best friend.
Judith Freeman is the author of a collection of short stories (Family Attractions), four novels (including The Chinchilla Farm and Red Water), and one work of non-fiction, The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, named one of the ten best books of 2007 by Newsweek magazine. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction in 1996, and for the last ten years has taught in the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC.