Witold Rybczynski

How did you become a writer?

Thirty-four years ago I was approached by a book editor who had read an essay of mine in CoEvolution Quarterly and asked if I would be interested in expanding it into a book. I said sure. The result was Paper Heroes. I found I liked writing, that is, long periods of solitude, digging in libraries, research. I have written a book roughly every two or three years since, as well as innumerable articles, essays, and book reviews.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I am a non-fiction writer, so probably that sort of writing has had the most influence. I admire V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, Jonathan Raban, Tracy Kidder—especially their language and clarity. Also historians: John Keegan, Simon Schama, Fernand Braudel, Niall Ferguson. Among art critics, Robert Hughes. For fun I read and re-read Ross Macdonald, Alan Furst, Charles McCarry, Philip Kerr, and John Le Carré—I don’t know if they count as an influence or not. Probably something seeps in.

When and where do you write?

I write pretty much every morning, from seven till noon. Occasionally I take holidays, but I consider writing like exercise—I have to do it regularly.

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing a book that contains everything I know about architecture after fifty years of studying it, looking at it, building it, critiquing it, and writing about it. That’s not the subtitle, but it could be.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Sometimes dead-ends and major re-writes, but no blocks. I often have trouble with titles, they either come immediately or very slowly. As I get older it’s gets harder to pin down a subject for the next book. Increasingly, I feel I have said all I want to say.

What’s your advice to new writers?

I learned the most about writing from listening to my editors, both book and magazine. They taught me how to edit myself, which is the most valuable skill a writer can have. Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite some more. The writing can always be clearer, shorter, more to the point. And Churchill, a very good writer, was right: “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”

Bio: Born in 1943 in Edinburgh, Scotland, grew up in England and Canada, now lives with his wife Shirley in Philadelphia. Studied architecture and taught at McGill University in Montreal and the University of Pennsylvania, where he is professor emeritus. Author of fifteen books, including Home, The Most Beautiful House in the World (a NYT bestseller), A Clearing in the Distance (which won the J. Anthony Lukas Prize), and Makeshift Metropolis. His latest book is The Biography of a Building. Has written for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the New York Review of Books. Writes a regular blog on his website, www.witoldrybczynski.com.