How did you become a writer?
I became a writer when I had exhausted all the alternatives. My earliest ambition was to be a Beatle, but they weren’t hiring, and my attempts to be a more run-of-the-mill rock star after college ended in failure. I contemplated law school, worked a host of odd jobs – they got odder as I went along – and attended a pair of graduate schools and left them degree-less. Only then did it occur to me that I would have to write a sensitive and delicately etched novel because I was suited for nothing else. As it happened, I wasn’t suited for novel-writing either, but in the process of discovering this I stumbled into journalism.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
The first writing I remember being charmed by was the old (1928) Book of Common Prayer. I still think the burial rite is among the profoundest meditations on death anyone’s ever come up with, but from first to last the whole book seems magical in its ability to do things with words. Later, in high school, I had a wonderful English teacher who insisted I pay close attention to what I was writing – still a good strategy for success though in the age of blogs and tweets it is one that many, many writers reject. And I’ve spent countless happy hours reading and always being refreshed by the great New Yorker writers, from Alva Johnston to Liebling and Mitchell to E.B. White and Emily Hahn and John McNulty – writers-for-hire who could turn a magazine article into something more. This list isn’t exhaustive, of course.
When and where do you write?
I have a little office at home with a tiny window and not-enough shelving. But it holds a desk and computer and chair, which I guess are the essentials, and has floorspace for a dog – not essential but still nice to have around. In fair weather I’ll take my laptop onto our back porch and try to work while the lawn crews scour the neighborhood with their leaf blowers. The early morning hours are best for writing, but my world-class gift for procrastination means that I often don’t get started in earnest till it’s time for dinner, and I never write at night.
What are you working on now?
A proposal for a new book.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Yes, continually (or do I mean continuously?). In fact, it’s closer to the truth to say that I spend more time being blocked than I do writing.
What’s your advice to new writers?
The famous question (asked first by Jacques Barzun, I think) that should be pointed at would-be writers is: Do you want to write, or do you want to have written? The distinction is crucial, because if you truly want to write, you’ll write, and the kind of advice you need will find you sooner or later; if you just want “to be a writer” you’re probably in the wrong line of work and no amount of advice will square the circle. For myself, I detest the act of writing but it’s too late for me now. As Robert Benchley once said about his career as a hack: “By the time I realized I wasn’t any good, I was making too much money to stop.” He made more money than I do, but the principle is the same.
Bio: I was born in Hinsdale, Illinois, and had a very happy childhood that has made the writerly pose of deep feeling and inner turmoil extremely hard to pull off. Went to Occidental College in Los Angeles and graduated as a religious studies major. Been in the magazine business since the mid-1980s, with time spent at Fortune, TV Guide, the American Spectator, Time, National Review, Conde Nast Traveler, Forbes, Life, and lots of others, plus a couple years with Scripps Howard Newspapers (RIP, most of them) and Bloomberg News. Now a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and author of three books.