How did you become a writer? I can't remember not wanting to be a writer. I was fortunate, I think, to have been an only child, with a doting mother and an indifferent father. My mother read to me whenever I was sick, and in the 1930s all of us kids were afflicted with measles and chicken pox and whooping cough and scarlet fever—illnesses modern children are mostly spared—so my mother had ample opportunity to read to me. If I'd been a hundred percent healthy in those days, I might never have read a book. Later, I read Albert Payson Terhune's dog stories, and when the war came along I was an avid reader of war stories. We lived in my paternal grandmother's house during the Depression, and I recall finding a pictorial history of World War One that fascinated me. Most of my childhood seems to have been spent in my room with battalions of toy soldiers.
I referred to my father as "indifferent"—and he was—but he was responsible in a way for the first piece of writing I ever published. He was a great baseball fan, of the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Braves, and we would listen to the games on radio. In those days, the away games were broadcast as "telegraphic re-creations"—which meant the announcer sat in a Boston studio and read the Western Union ticker tape that described the game. You could hear the machine ticking away in the background, and you realized the announcer knew before you did what was happening in Chicago or St. Louis; the pleasure came from how well the announcer dramatized events he couldn't see, building up suspense to feed your imagination. What sometimes happened was that a game would run long, and when that happened, the station—I think in those days it was WHDH in Boston—would have to return to its "regularly scheduled programming'" at five or five-thirty in the afternoon. Usually, the program was "Superman", a staple of radio in the '40s.
The Boston Post—a newspaper now long dead—ran a weekly column called "All Sorts." It was edited by a guy named Joe Harrington, and consisted of rants and verse and general comments sent in by his readers. It was an eclectic feature, and I was a regular reader. After a Superman interruption of an especially riveting extra-inning ballgame, I wrote a bit of doggerel expressing my annoyance, and I sent it to the Post. It was printed, and it was my very first published work and byline. I must have been 14 or 15 years old. All through high school I sent work to Collier's and Saturday Evening Post, but nothing came of it. I did get wonderful encouragement from Phoebe Lou Adams, an editor at The Atlantic, and that kept me going.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). All credit to my mother. She had only a high-school education, but she was a sensitive and lovely woman, and she admired every bit of writing I showed her. After she died, my father passed on to me a sheaf of poems she had written off and on over her lifetime. They were amateur, but they were heartfelt and honest and, I must say, moving.
I wasn't much of a reader, as I've said. It was college that finally got me into books—Thomas Wolfe was my favorite, and Hemingway, and Somerset Maugham. At Bowdoin in my freshman year, my best friend was a fellow named Richard Secrest. We both planned to write the great American novel, and during our first semester we competed, showing each other our newest poems and stories, and critiquing them over our beer. I dropped out of school at the end of that semester (that got my father's attention) and after a brief foray to New York City—which taught me a lesson in humility—and four years in the Air Force, I re-entered Bowdoin, where my best and most helpful professors were Stephen Minot, Lawrence Sargent Hall and Louis Coxe. Much later, at the Iowa Writers Workshop, I worked with George Starbuck, C.D.B.Bryan, Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut. I'm not sure any of them were "influences," but they were great friends and, I suppose, role models.
It was while I was in the Air Force, stationed in Germany, that my first short story was accepted by a magazine in Paris, called New Story. It was a quarterly, with a list of patrons that included Jean-Paul Sartre, Martha Graham, and Tennessee Williams. I was ecstatic, of course, but the story was never published; the magazine folded before it could appear. (Never think the writing life is going to be easy.) I wrote stories all through my enlistment, and submitted them to various magazines. None sold. When you're in the military, any writing you want to show the world has to be read by your commanding officer; mine respected me, but he seemed to think I was a little weird.
When and where do you write? Nowadays I do most of my writing in bed, propped against a couple of pillows. Is this important? I doubt it. I wrote my first novel on a yellow legal pad at the dining room table; the second using Word Perfect on a computer in an upstairs study; the third partly on a laptop in bed, partly in a notebook at the mall while my wife did her daily walk.
What are you working on now? I'm trudging through a novel to be called Bloodweed, an extended riff on death and dying. It's already in its fifth year, and I'm not sure I see the end of it—although it's entirely blocked out; I simply have to write it.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? There are two kinds of writer's block. One is procrastination/laziness. The other is when you've written yourself into a corner and need time away from writing to work yourself out of it. Neither is a serious problem.
What’s your advice to new writers? Read. Read. Read. And never ask your relatives to look at what you've written.
Robley Wilson has been a Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction and a Nicholl Fellow in Screenwriting. He was for some thirty years editor of the North American Review, a literary quarterly which twice won the National Magazine Award for Fiction. His novels are The Victim's Daughter (Simon & Schuster), Splendid Omens and The World Still Melting (both St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne); the most recent of his six story collections is Who Will Hear Your Secrets? (Johns Hopkins). He lives in Cape Canaveral with his wife, novelist Susan Hubbard.