Sue Halpern

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer by being a reader. I started visiting the library every Saturday from about the age of five on, having fallen in love with books. At some point I started getting interested in not only the story, but how the writer made the story work. I was the kid who read the last page first. 

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

In college I studied with John Hersey, who impressed upon us that writing was about voice and immersed us in different writers' voices. When we read Flannery O'Conner I decided I wanted to become a fine lady writer from the South. The only problem was that I wasn't fine, or a lady, or from the South or, at that point, a writer. But I kept reading for voice, even so. I loved discovering Grace Paley, Annie Dillard, the poetry of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams.

When and where do you write?

I have a small office at home where I type, but I write by hand, in a notebook, so I tend to migrate to the living room, or the porch, and lie on my back and compose. But then I take the notebook back to my desk and basically rewrite everything when I am at the computer.

What are you working on now?

I'm poking around at a new non-fiction book--top secret of course--as well as a long piece for The New York Review of Books about how the quants are taking over and eliminating mystery and serendipity from our lives.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I haven't suffered from writer's block in any profound way, but I find that when I can't seem to "use my words" I pull a book off my shelf, something I love, and read that for a while and it always gets me going. Or I go out and walk the dog or go for a bike ride.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Go to the library or a book store and look around. Understand that many, many other people have written books, and you can, too. Then pick a realistic number of words you promise yourself to write every day--maybe it's 500, maybe it's 200--and stick to it. If you do that, the words will accumulate, and you will have something other than a blank page to work from.

Bio: My first published work, for which I received $75, was a poem I wrote as a high school sophomore. It took a while before I made that much money again. I graduated from Yale and went on to Oxford, where I received a doctorate in political theory. My first job after college was working with people coming out of prison. My second job was teaching ethics to medical students. I've written for a wide range of magazines, from Parade to The New Yorker, from Rolling Stone to Conde Nast Traveler to The New York Review of Books, and have published six books, most recently "A Dog Walks Into A Nursing Home: Lessons on the Good Life From and Unlikely Teacher," about working as a therapy dog team at a public nursing home in Vermont.