How did you become a writer?
By default. I'm a frustrated moviemaker. I wanted to go into movies from an early age, but there was nothing like studying movies in South Africa when I was growing up there. And the movie industry itself was heavily influenced by apartheid. I should have fled to California, I guess, but I didn't. I have dabbled in a few screenplays, but haven't pursued selling them. I sometimes think there's a cinematic quality to my books, but maybe that's just wishful thinking.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Everyone. From early on I developed a bad habit of unintentionally mimicking the style of the writer I'd just read. No sooner had I put down Anna Karenina than there was a classic lilt to my writing, until my pen was taken over by a Fitzgerald clone and then Graham Greene. I think I've got that doppelganger effect under control now. Today I have more crushes than influences. Whenever I read good writing, I’m blown away, and sometimes it comes from the most unexpected sources.
When and where do you write?
I'm best early in the day, so long as I have a cup of really strong black coffee to kickstart me. I once read that Hemingway did most of his writing by midday and gave himself the rest of the day off. Wonderful advice, I think, to anyone who is fulltime writer. I used to write in coffee shops, until the third wave arrived (Google that term if there's any doubt what it means) and laptop users found the great hangouts. I still think trains and subways are wonderful places to write too. There's something very soothing about writing in the midst of all that movement and background noise. I still write longhand a lot for my first draft, and I still write a lot on spec rather than trying to get a commission for it.
What are you working on now?
I have just finished a book about the bizarre story of the tenement where I live in New York City and the characters who live/lived there, called Flat/White. Up next is a nonfiction book set in the 1930s that I have done the research for, which has an element of Devil in the White City about it and concerns two very different characters, a millionaire moviemaker and a woman who poisoned her family with strychnine. It is the first time my passions for writing and the movies are going to almost meet.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I don't believe in such a thing. I certainly have bad days, but if you push through, you find you create some of your best stuff.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Believe in your idea. Full stop.
Bio: I was born in New York, but grew up in South Africa mostly, interrupted by several years here and there in Tokyo and Washington due to my parents being diplomats. At heart I remain an African, even though I have lived in New York for fifteen years. I have freelanced for most of my writing life, doing feature articles for newspapers and magazines, although I recently started a full-time job editing at Reuters. I like writing nonfiction as much as fiction, and I like dabbling in all manner of subjects, even though I've gotten the impression agents and publishers don't really like you to.