Mark Childress

How did you become a writer?

When I was in the second grade our classroom had an aquarium. One morning we came in to find that a swordfish had jumped out of the tank and died on the floor. The teacher was putting together a little mimeographed "newspaper" with stories written by us students. My three-sentence narrative of the death of the swordfish was printed, along with my name. I was thrilled to see it, hooked for life. It made me feel immortal.

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

I was influenced a lot by the books I loved to read as a child and especially as a teenager - I was besotted with Latin American writing of the 60s and 70s, and with Dickens and Capote and with certain obscure short-story writers. I had many terrific English teachers who introduced me to writers I still love. English teachers are especially wonderful people, in my experience. Then I went to college to learn to be a writer. I had a famous writer, Barry Hannah, as a teacher, but mainly he taught me how not to be a writer because he was in an alcoholic haze at the time. So that was a powerful influence too and I promised myself I would never write drunk. Luckily I had a graduate student as a teacher called Kitty Johnson. She took my stories seriously and made me feel like a real writer for having written them. She was one of the first people to tell me I had talent as a writer.

When and where do you write?

I have a large and cluttered desk which is really a huge sheet of Formica-covered particle board laid across two filing cabinets. I look out on my little yard here in Key West where I like to grow orchids, which always need a bit of tending when you are stuck for the next sentence. I start out after coffee and email and go as long as I can through the day. I almost never work past four o'clock.

What are you working on now?

At the moment I am writing a piece for the Wall Street Journal about Alabama football, and I am also writing the libretto of an opera that will be produced in 2014 but can't quite be announced yet.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Yes, every day since I started writing. Sometimes it only lasts a few seconds, in which case it is called "writing." Sometimes it lasts days or weeks, when it becomes "writer's block." The key is to always have something else to work on if you run out of juice on the main project. Usually letting it get cold and going back is the only solution - you have to divorce yourself from the person who wrote it before you can find the mistakes by yourself. If you have a good editor, you are blessed.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Read read read read read read. Write write write write write. All else is madness or pose.

Mark Childress is the author of seven novels: A World Made of Fire, V for Victor, Tender, Crazy in Alabama, Gone for Good, One Mississippi, and Georgia Bottoms, and three books for children. He wrote the screenplay for the Columbia Pictures film of "Crazy in Alabama," a main selection of the Venice and San Sebastian film festivals.