How did you become a writer? As a kid, I hated school. I had trouble paying attention because I was a daydreamer. I got poor grades and I had to repeat third grade. What I now realize is that all day long there was a narrative running through my head, one so strong that I often lived in an imaginative haze, one that made it difficult for me to see the “real” world around me. This is not the worst place for a writer to start.
What saved me was sports. I grew up in the hockey rinks of Greater Boston. In high school I had some good English teachers and I discovered literature in the sense that it was recorded daydreams. I read Hemingway, Salinger, Poe, and Sherlock Holmes novels. I remember reading John LeCarré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and finding it far more interesting than James Bond. The novels of Albert Camus, The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall had a profound effect on me; they were simply told, yet incomprehensible. The Stranger concludes with the phrase “the benign indifference of the universe”—and I realized that language can transport you into the incomprehensible. Even when you may not fully understand something, you can believe it to be true. It’s an act of faith.
At Boston College I studied literature and began writing short stories. There was only one creative writing course offered in those days. My professor, a wonderful teacher named Leonard Casper, must have seen something in me because after I took his creative writing course junior year he arranged for me to continue to write stories for him during my senior year, at a time when things such as independent study was rare at BC. The year after I graduated from college I began to publish stories in little magazines. When I received a check for five dollars (for a five page story called “Sea Rescue”), my father said, “You’re on your way.” He could be a funny guy.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). That would take up an awful lot of space. While in college I met Andre Dubus, who was teaching at Bradford College, which was north of Boston, and was where my girlfriend was going to school. My senior year at BC Andre and I shared an apartment, and he was a friend and mentor for many years. We read stories and novels together and talked about them constantly. Countless short stories, because that’s primarily what he was writing at the time. Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer was enormously influential—I believe that was a novel written by someone who was a serious daydreamer. I read a lot of Nabokov and Chekhov at the time, and Flannery O’Connor and Peter Taylor, though growing up in Massachusetts I found the South quite alien. (Percy also wrote about the South, but in a way that I felt as though I’d been there.) Many of John Cheever’s stories and novels were set on the Massachusetts coast and, among other things, I think they helped me appreciate how important a sense of place was in a work of fiction.
When and where do you write? For decades I’ve been a very early riser—I’m frequently up between three and four a.m. I inherited this from my mother, because many nights as a kid she’d be sitting up in bed reading, while my father was sawing away. At four a.m. the phone doesn’t ring; it’s me, a cup of tea, and the page. I usually work for three, sometimes four, hours. I frequently watch the sun come up before going back to bed. When I was young I swung a hammer for a living, and I’d take a short nap before getting off to work, which usually started at 8 o’clock. Since I’ve been teaching, I’ve been lucky to be able to schedule my classes for afternoons and evenings.
What are you working on now? I’m primarily focusing on three manuscripts these days: a collection of short stories called Water and Stone, a novel called Incognito, and a novel called Out. Incognito is about an Italian army officer who is captured and sent to a POW camp in the United States during World War II. He escapes, falls in love with an American woman, and changes his identity so he can remain in America after the war ends. The story spans nearly 60 years, and it’s about whether we really have an identity. Out is about four people who are brought together during a fierce blizzard. The stories in Water and Stone are set in places I’ve been—though they’re not autobiographical: Michigan, Italy, Scotland, Massachusetts.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? There are plenty of days when I don’t get much done. Sometimes it’s more productive to reread what you’ve got; tinker with sentences, or maybe rearrange a sequence of scenes. But stopping all together, that rarely happens because I use what I’ll call my bullpen approach—I’ll work on several things over the course of several years. When one manuscript seems to have a weak arm, so to speak, I’ll bring in another from the bullpen. It keeps me working. I also think that the time spent not working on something is valuable. I don’t quite know how, but I know that my subconscious—that thing that’s the adult version of my boy’s daydreaming—is working on unfinished stories and novels that have been put aside in a drawer (or these days in a file).
What’s your advice to new writers? Three things come to mind:
1. Avoid trends. By the time a literary trend has been recognized, it’s time to move on. When I was young it seemed I was reading a lot of stream-of-consciousness stuff that felt pretty worn out because it would never be James Joyce. And a little later there were stories written in the present tense, which is fine sometimes, but if they’re not handled well—particularly in the way the passage of time is handled—such stories can plod along, bogged down in the minutiae of the moment. The Car Thief, a novel by Ted Weisner, handled present tense well, I thought, as did Jayne Anne Phillips’s stories in Black Tickets. Gabriel Garcia Marquez died recently, leaving us with a remarkable oeuvre, but it has spawned so much magical realism that I wonder if there shouldn’t be a moratorium on magical realism for a generation, maybe two, or at least until the angels fall to earth, battered, bruised, and exhausted
2. Read, read, read, not just with your eyes but with your ears. Listen to what you read. There are such distinct, and distinctly different, voices out there—listen to the sound and the rhythm of the language. Read William Trevor and Alice Munro and Jim Harrison, and listen to them. If you’re real quiet, you can hear them breathe.
3. At the desk: don’t count words. Instead, think in terms of time. Nail your butt to the desk chair for a specific period of time—30 minutes, an hour, three hours—and stay there. Sometimes you’ll get 50 words, sometimes 500, sometimes 1,500. My students often get hung up on word counts, causing them to lose sight of the words. Forget word counts. Writing is a matter of time. Really, it’s a matter of stopping time, stopping the rest of your life so you can just write. Turn the phone off, close the door, pull down the shades—whatever it takes—so that it’s just you and the page. Your page, your words. It’s better than daydreaming.
John Smolens has published eight works of fiction: Quarantine, The Schoolmaster’s Daughter, The Anarchist, Fire Point, The Invisible World, Cold, My One and Only Bomb Shelter (short stories), Angel’s Head, and Winter by Degrees. He is a professor of English at Northern Michigan University. In 2010, he was the recipient of the Michigan Author of the Year Award from the Michigan Library Association.