How did you become a writer?
I became a writer, if by that we mean someone who writes every day whether she wants to or not, when I was a child. Everything I wrote then mortifies me now. I became a published writer with the appearance of three catalogue essays in an architectural monograph published by the art museum where I worked after college. And I became a novelist while procrastinating on my PhD. I am still a novelist. I am still - for another week or so, anyway - procrastinating on my PhD.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Edith Wharton, who is my favorite novelist. She was an American woman who wrote historical fiction, won the Pulitzer, created detestable characters who are sympathetic, and opened tuberculosis hospitals for the poor, all while wearing incredible hats. Margaret Fuller, who was a total badass. Matthew Pearl, without whose direct intervention in my life, writing, and poker game I would never have become a novelist. He always wants to split the pot, though. Annie Dillard, whose The Writing Life I read as a teenager, to which I return periodically when I need a reminder that everything I'm feeling is normal. And Pat Scherrieb, my fourth grade English teacher. He taught me the power of writing every day, whether you want to or not. And right now I'm reading On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner. I'm reading it slowly, because I can tell it will be important.
When and where do you write?
I usually wake up, make coffee, and then go straight to work in the office in my house. My office used to face the roof of an auto repair shop and a sign that reads "Not a Through Way." Now my office overlooks a lake, which while objectively better, occasionally makes me nostalgic for the auto repair shop. When there are a lot of books needed for immediate reference, I'll take over the dining table, because my desk is very small. Sometimes I will resort to a cafe, because the presence of other people who aren't talking to me, but who are there and who might judge me for procrastinating, can be incredibly useful. Plus, food. When I work at home I'll usually go a couple of hours before discovering that I'm out of coffee, haven't showered, and haven't eaten.
What are you working on now?My next novel, an updating of The Crucible set in a contemporary Massachusetts prep school, is called CONVERSION, and will be out from Penguin next summer. Right now I'm working on a ghost novel, set around the Marble Cemetery in New York City. There's a play that I'm planning to finish before too long. And I might even finish my dissertation this summer. You never know.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
No, fortunately. But I'm a relentless procrastinator. I've written three novels all out of an attempt to put off working on my dissertation. Once my dissertation is done, what will I write novels while putting off? I'm a little worried about it. But I generally am working on at least two projects at once, so perhaps I can trick myself into writing novels while procrastinating on something different.
In truth, the best trick I have ever learned about writer's block came out of that fourth grade English class. I was taught "If you don't know what to write about, write about the fact that you don't know what to write about." I use that trick all the time. All. The. Time.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Writers write. If you're not writing, you're not a writer. No, really, I mean it. I know you have to pick up the kids and it's fun to go sailing and your friends want to have you over for dinner, but you have to write. The time must be found. It will help if you can surround yourself with people who understand this.
Write every day, even if it's not in the service of a greater project, and even if no one will ever read it.
Being published is different from being a writer. It will be easier to face the publishing gauntlet if you know that you'll write anyway, whether you are published or not.
Revise. Revise a lot.
That being said, a finished project is better than a perfect project, because there are no perfect projects. Be a finishist, not a perfectionist. (cf. Grad school. I'm an expert, obviously, at taking my own advice.)
You are different from your writing. Criticism and rejection of your writing can feel terribly personal, but they aren't, really. And sometimes they help.
Katherine Howe is the New York Times bestselling author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and The House of Velvet and Glass. She hosted "Salem: Unmasking the Devil" on the National Geographic Channel in 2012, and she will be discussing witches and writing in a MOOC on historical fiction coming from the University of Virginia in the fall. Her fiction has been published in more than twenty languages. Her third novel, Conversion, will be published by Penguin in summer 2014. She lives in New England and upstate New York with her family, where she teaches in the American studies program at Cornell University, and where she is at work on her fourth novel.