How did you become a writer? The luxury of a lot of time, space, and parental support, some talent, near-delusional persistence, and—a factor not to be underestimated—great luck.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). Probably the deepest influences are the earliest. The Martian Chronicles and The Princess Bride are still some of my favorite books. I absorbed a lot of lessons about the cadence and construction of humor from Douglas Adams. My old film professor (more recently a political writer), Mark Crispin Miller, taught me a lot about understanding art, as well as writing ekphrasis and explication. Jim (more recently Jenny) Boylan taught me a lot about being not only a writer but a grownup. I’m sure I’ve absorbed some prose rhythms and tics of diction from all the recent or contemporary writers I like most: Mencken, Nabokov, Robert Stone, Hunter Thompson, Barry Hannah, Charles Baxter, Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, Kim Stanley Robinson, Lionel Shriver. Michael Herr’s Dispatches is probably the best nonfiction book I’ve ever read. Far and away the greatest living writer in English is Cormac McCarthy. I wish I could say I’d been influenced by him but he’s too good to even try to imitate. Maybe he gave me some license to go ahead and shoot for the moon, occasionally. I learned a lot about the mechanics of euphony from the ancient Greek dramatists, Beowulf, Shakespeare and Fitzgerald. The biggest influence on my thinking has been Nietzsche, by whom I read almost everything when I was in my twenties. But my main role model as an artist has been Stanley Kubrick: keep your life austere, devote yourself to your art, be obsessive and perfectionistic but open to spontaneity, inspiration and brilliant collaboration, and don’t ever be rude or raise your voice but make absolutely certain you get every last little thing your own fucking way.
When and where do you write? Morning, from 8:00 - noon or so, over three cups of coffee. Either at my cabin in an Undisclosed Location on the Chesapeake Bay or another undisclosed location in New York City.
What are you working on now? A second book of essays, working title: I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. Specifically, researching an essay on a famous psychology experiment my mother and I participated in when I was an infant.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Not exactly--only as a side effect of being too depressed to do anything. It can sometimes take a while to find something worth writing about, something both interesting and universal, but this isn’t quite the same thing as writer’s block.
What’s your advice to new writers? I first have to say that whatever moderate success I may have achieved has been so much a result of dumb luck that I feel fraudulent presuming to offer any advice to young writers, as if I did any of this on purpose or according to plan.
I’m afraid the only real advice I have to give is so obvious as to be hardly worth reciting. Write a lot, thousands of pages: stories, essays, long letters, reviews, really good liner notes for mix CDs or playlists. And read a lot — I mean a lot a lot. And not just whatever your contemporaries are reading and reviewing and talking about this month. Like Thoreau says: “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” The more time you spend immersed in the shitstream of TV/internet/social media the stupider and more boring and just like everyone else you will be. Hang out in real life having good conversations with brilliant and hilarious people, so you can steal their ideas and all the clever things they say. Spend a lot of time alone so you can think up some original thoughts of your own. Have adventures. Get paid.
Bio: Born in 1967 in Baltimore, MD. Adopted. Attended public schools and Johns Hopkins University. Self-published minicomics and drew a weekly cartoon for the Baltimore City Paper, both called “The Pain—When Will It End?”, since collected into three books by Fantagrpahics. Quit cartooning and started contributing to the New York Times in 2009. First collection of essays, We Learn Nothing, published by Simon & Schuster in 2012. I live alone in a dilapidated cabin in an Undisclosed Location with an aged cat. I regret everything.