How did you become a writer? When I was 11 I was curious about a certain old house in my suburban neighborhood and disguised myself as a reporter for my nonexistent elementary school paper, knocked on the owner’s door and got invited in to ask anything I wanted about the place. I then became an actual reporter for and then editor of my high school newspaper. I entered an essay contest sponsored by Newsday and won a watch, a trip to Washington D.C, to meet the head of the FBI, my two N.Y. U.S. Senators, and Attorney-General Robert Kennedy. I saw that writing “paid.” In college I wrote for both the newspaper and the humor magazine, joined the Meredith Mississippi March with Dr. King and called in my (unpaid) observations to a Newsday editor. In the Peace Corps I had plenty of time to write a novel and a book about my life in Ghana, neither of which was shown to anyone. When I returned to the States after 4 years abroad I convinced the editor of Newsday’s new Sunday magazine that I could write for him and wound up with some assignments which kept me busy and, when accepted, gave me the confidence to approach the N.Y. Times with some story ideas. They took two of them, and then I turned to magazines—got plenty of rejections but never gave up. Once Playboy took a chance with me, I convinced Barbra Streisand that she should give me an in-depth interview…that led to Marlon Brando and I haven’t stopped talking to people for 35 years.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). My piano teacher, Ted Harris, was a great character who believed in me when I was 9. I started reading James Joyce at an early age, along with Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow. At UCLA I studied independently with the novelist Bernard Wolfe and used to hang around his office in Beverly Hills and his home as well, talking about what he was working on and what I was. He turned me on to reading J.P. Donleavy, whom I eventually interviewed at his home in Ireland. Also at UCLA I became friends with my Spanish teacher, Enrique Cortes, who was sort of like a Don Juan figure for me. He read everything I wrote and rarely liked anything, but when he once asked if he could keep one page of something I had written, I was elated.
When and where do you write? I work in an office in my home in the Hollywood Hills. I’m not good at writing at coffee shops or hotels or on planes or in foreign places. I try to be at my desk every day, whether I accomplish anything or not.
What are you working on now? I’m starting a script based on my last novel, Begin Again Finnegan. I also went back to some fiction I wrote years ago about Africa—I screwed that up by introducing the wrong characters in the middle of it, so I am rewriting it and seeing where that goes. I’m doing some short pieces for the Saturday Evening Post. I started a story last week based on something I heard that got my attention. And some producers in Singapore contacted me about writing a script for them, so we’re talking about that. But I probably spend more time trying to figure out how to market and promote the 15 books I self-published on Amazon these last few years…and I wish I didn’t have to do that.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Rarely. But I did stop working on the last chapter of my memoir (dealing with my time with Brando on his island) because I was afraid that I was going to hear from the person who was featured in the previous chapter, Barbra Streisand, since I wrote about all the behind-the-scenes stuff that happened between us over 9 months, when I was interviewing her for Playboy. I could hear her calling me and saying, “I never said that.” Or, “You’ve got it all wrong.” Or, “Why would you write about that, it’s mean.” Just thinking about that kept me from finishing the book for over five years. Until I just said, to hell with it, it’s my life. (I think Truman Capote helped me here, when he said about how he felt writing about his rich friends, “Who did they think I was? I’m not a court jester, I’m a writer.”) So I finished it, and self-published it on Amazon. Kind of a quiet way to put it out, I know. Maybe I’m still thinking about her.
What’s your advice to new writers? The same advice Bernard Wolfe gave to me when I first told him about a novel idea I had. “Write 100 pages, and if it doesn’t work, fuck it.” I couldn’t believe it when he said that—100 pages?? And yet, he was right. Sometimes you need to write a lot just to find out what it is you are really writing. And sometimes you need to throw away a lot to keep the good stuff. Writing is really rewriting, which every writer learns only by doing. You just need the self-confidence to believe in yourself. And not let anyone convince you otherwise.
Lawrence Grobel is a novelist, journalist, biographer, poet and teacher. Four of his 22 books have been singled out as Best Books of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly and many have appeared on Best Seller lists. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for his fiction. PEN gave his Conversations with Capote a Special Achievement Award. James A. Michener called his biography, The Hustons, “a masterpiece.” His The Art of the Interview is used as a text in many journalism schools. Writer’s Digest called him “a legend among journalists.” Joyce Carol Oates dubbed him “The Mozart of Interviewers” and Playboy singled him out as “The Interviewer’s Interviewer” after publishing his interviews with Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, Henry Fonda and Marlon Brando. He has written for dozens of magazines and has been a Contributing Editor for Playboy, World (New Zealand), and Trendy (Poland). He served in the Peace Corps, teaching at the Ghana Institute of Journalism; created the M.F.A. in Professional Writing for Antioch University; and taught in the English Dept. at UCLA for ten years. He has appeared on CNN, the Today Show, Good Morning America, Charlie Rose and in two documentaries, one on J.D. Salinger, the other Al Pacino’s Wilde Salome. His blog, books and articles can be found on his website: www.lawrencegrobel.com and at Amazon.com’s Kindle Store.