Avery Chenoweth

How did you become a writer?

Before I ever wrote a line, I was a story-teller, and those very first stories were about the dreams I was having then in Kindergarten--so vivid and textured they seemed real. Some were nightmares, and I learned to control them--to go into the dream, run them back, and start them forward again but to a different ending. Years later, I would tell kids Twilight Zone episodes in school, and students and teachers would listen. A teacher in 8th grade finally put a pen in my hand and told me to write it down. In spite of the years, education, and professional work since then, that primal experience of seeing dreams and guiding them continues to be my path into writing.

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

We had some marvelous influences in our neighborhood when I was growing up, like the one night I climbed out on the garage roof on a summer night, and in my pajamas and sneakers went sneaking along until I came to the source of a crazy party going on, and watched all the 60s swinging hipsters out by the pool, having a great time drinking and dancing. Many years later I learned it was the pub party for Seven Days in May, by Fletcher Knebel, and got to know him well. So it was a social inspiration that connected with the books in my room and made the writing life a reality. In time I got to meet John McPhee and others--which made it seem a great career to pursue. As for the inspiration on the shelf, what lit me up was always the mood of the prose, the intimacy of place and character that gave me sweeping daydreams, so powerful I could hardly read more than a page or two an hour. Salinger and Fitzgerald gave me complete hallucinations, their prose was so evocative. At Hopkins, as a graduate student, I was fortunate to study with John Barth, who proved to be an inspiring writer, mentor, and friend.

When and where do you write?

At newspapers, I learned to write when and wherever it had to be done, and on deadline, but on my own, I prefer an early morning with coffee and darkness and even fog in the valley, if nature would only cooperate. Something alluring and not quite right in the world, and transporting--that takes me out of this leather chair to a place whose reality appears alive in front of me--those are great mornings.

What are you working on now?

My obsession now is a pair of connected novels about an old family here in Charlottesville. I believe I’m working on the one that is closest to being finished, though I’ve been wrong before.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Writer’s block has been an issue at times, and when it is, I realize that I’m writing about a situation, not a story, and that’s the cause of the block. As soon as the dream-scape opens again, the block vanishes, and the story is racing on.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Write a story as if you’re talking to a friend in a bar about something that has to be told, quickly, before the check comes. That tends to fire the imagination to the point of finishing the arc--and, for novels, always finish the first draft before re-working the beginning. Stick to what’s urgent--and always write to the one or two people who would get it, not to the “readers” or the “market.” Just keep it simple, like telling your mother a story about why you’re home late from school--cause you had to stop and explore a deserted house and what you found inside that made you so late coming home.

Avery Chenoweth is the author of four books, including the newly released novel, Radical Doubt, a darkly-comic literary thriller that is available on Amazon Kindle. His novel-in-stories, Wingtips, was short-listed for the Library of Virginia Prize, and his two non-fiction books, Empires in the Forest: Jamestown and the Beginning of America, and Albemarle: a Story of Landscape and American Identity together won almost two dozen national awards, including a 2007 Ippy Gold Medal for regional-nonfiction, for Empires. He has written for Harper’s, The Washington Post, and People magazine, and got his masters degrees in creative writing from Johns Hopkins and UVA.