How did you become a writer?
When I graduated from the University of Wisconsin, I was eager to move to Manhattan and write for a magazine. Not knowing that Condé Nast was the sort of company that employed any number of socialites, I applied there. I never would have tried, had I realized it was so soigné, because I certainly wasn’t. Nonetheless, Mademoiselle, which was far more than a young woman’s fashion magazine—it had a sharp literary edge--hired me as an editorial assistant; my mom had insisted that both my brother and I study typing in high school, so I passed the company’s typing test with a high score. Writing wasn’t part of my job description, but I proposed a short piece on poetry therapy, wrote it on my own time, and eventually got promoted to a job that included writing profiles of colleges and career fields. After I had my first child I stayed at home for a few years and freelanced for Ladies’ Home Journal, Glamour and other magazines, usually reporting on sex—loveless marriage, unconsummated marriages, incest… In the ‘80s I returned to magazines, this time as an editor, but editing is essentially rewriting. One of my sub-specialties was writing coverlines and titles, which while only six or eight words long require some of the same muscles that I later learned to flex as a novelist. Only when my magazine editing life came to a screeching halt did I try to write my first book. It was about a magazine editor who was fired.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
As a kid I was an avid reader. The week of my Bat Mitzvah, instead of practicing my Torah portion, I read Gone With the Wind. I took my cue from my mother, who was the library’s best customer in Fargo, North Dakota. She steered me to Rebecca and Jane Eyre along with popular sagas by Leon Uris—Marjorie Morningstar, Exodus, and Mila 18. In high school, my English teachers encouraged me, one going as far as telling my parents that I had “a gift.” This was exactly what I needed to experiment with writing, spewing a lot of weltschmerz-y poetry and editing the school newspaper and new literary magazine; the teacher who advised it, Edward Raymond, named it Of Toadstools and Russian Olive Trees, taking a line from one of my poems. I believe my high school epitaph was “Cut her throat with her own pen.” Or maybe it was “tongue.”
When and where do you write?
In my life as a magazine editor-in-chief, I had a lux office and assistant, but now I’m happy cluttering my dining room table with a laptop and piles of papers. The morning is when my creativity is juiciest--I never compose anything decent between two to six o’clock-- but I get a second wind after dinner. Once I’ve composed a draft, I can tweak it any time. I rewrite every time I reread, which I do endlessly.
What are you working on now?
The first germ of novel.
Have you ever suffered from writer's block?
Writer’s block? No. Laziness? Yes. Each book has taken about two years, with lots of holes in my schedule for writing magazine articles, reading, trolling the internet, exercising, seeing movies, cooking, socializing. People think I’m more disciplined than I am.
What's your advice to new writers?
Everyone needs deadlines, something I learned as a magazine editor, so seek out a simpatico writing workshop. At the very least it will give you structure, but most likely you’ll also get honest feedback and warm encouragement. Obviously, don’t follow every suggestion you receive because comments will conflict and you’ll wind up with a mess. Use your own judgment. Also, read your work aloud so you hear the cadence—or lack of—as well as unintentional word duplication. Start keeping a list of words you tend to repeat: just, always, really, so, whatever. Print your work out more than once, changing fonts, to trick yourself into reading it as if it is fresh.
Sally Koslow is the author of four novels published in twelve languages: The Widow Waltz; With Friends like These, selected by Target as an Emerging Writer pick; The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, a bestseller in Germany and Target Book Club pick; and her debut Little Pink Slips, inspired by her years at editor-in-chief of McCall’s Magazine. She is also the author of a non-fiction book, Slouching Toward Adulthood, as well as reported articles and essays in venues including The New York Times, More, Real Simple, O the Oprah Magazine, The Huffington Post and many others. Sally teaches at The Writing Institute of Sarah Lawrence College and the New York Writers’ Workshop and works with private students as a coach and editor. She invites you to visit her website, www.sallykoslow.com and follow her on Twitter, @sallykoslow. She lives in New York City.