Pamela Erens

How did you become a writer?

I feel as if I never became, always was. I remember car drives when I was four years old, telling my mother stories about a creature who lived at the bottom of Lake Michigan. I was fascinated by books and the idea of making them. I believe I had a brief wanting-to-be-a-ballerina stage somewhere in there, but by a quite young age I had decided I wanted to write novels. At the age of 10, I did write a novel on a hundred-some pages of school loose-leaf paper. It was about a slave girl in the South who escapes to the North and marries a Quaker. My mother, being my mother, thought it was pretty good, and she submitted it around. It ended up being published by a feminist press in California with a wonderful name: Shameless Hussy. The press was run by Alta, a feminist poet you can still find in some anthologies.

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

In college, I fell in love with the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novelists, above all George Eliot, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Tolstoy. They offered an internal, expansive view of character that remains an ideal for me. But it was only later that I found writers whose styles I could directly learn from. I studied at a non-degree program in New York City, The Writers Studio, which was (and is) run by the poet Philip Schultz, and which emphasized very close analysis and imitation of the techniques of established writers. The work of John Cheever and Eudora Welty showed me how to fashion a voice that was independent of the characters in my stories, that was stylized and idiosyncratic. That was the beginning of my understanding of the centrality of voice in fiction. Since then, I’ve learned from such a huge variety of books and writers that I would hesitate even to begin naming some.

When and where do you write?

Blessedly, I have a “room of my own” in my New Jersey home. It’s on the second floor and there are casement windows overlooking our back yard, which is dominated by a large spruce tree. I try to work first thing in the morning, because that’s when I’m freshest. I’m not a morning person, though, so “first thing” is not as early as it might be.

What are you working on now?

I’m into a new novel. Beyond that, my lips are sealed, because it steals the magic to talk about work in progress.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

It depends on how you define writer’s block. I never feel as if there are literally no words inside me. What I do feel, and more often than I like to admit, is that I just can’t bear to sit down to work. I’m tired, or I feel stupid, or I would really rather read a stack of magazines or take a long walk. I guess that’s procrastination or avoidance rather than block.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Patience. Oh, God, patience. There are wunderkinds who have success very quickly, but they are the exception. I thought I was on the wunderkind track (see childhood slave-girl story, above), yet through my twenties and thirties I wrote mostly unpublishable stuff. It took me a really long time to figure out how to find a viable form for my obsessions and my particular way of using language. Of course, I worried that I was insufficiently talented. Now I think that new writers should avoid thinking of themselves in terms or talent or lack of talent. Each writer needs to find the unique chemistry that works for her, the right combination of style and subject matter and practice (in the sense of “a writing practice”). For some this comes more quickly, for some, much more slowly.

Pamela Erens is the author of the novels The Understory, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, and The Virgins, which John Irving in The New York Times Book Review called “flawlessly executed and irrefutably true.” The Virgins was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal and Salon. Recently, Reader’s Digest put Erens on its list of "23 Contemporary Writers You Should Have Read By Now."