How did you become a writer?
It was mostly by a stroke of accidental masochism, which I think is how a lot of writers get started. I was an English major in college mostly by default (I was terrible at math, science and a lot of other things). My first job was as an editorial assistant in Boston, at the alternative weekly, the Boston Phoenix. I wasn’t led there by any particular hunger to get into journalism; I just needed a job. It paid nothing and involved mostly clerical work and sorting the mail of actual reporters, some of who had gone onto greatness (long-ago Phoenician Susan Orlean!). I loved the osmosis factor of being in a newsroom and listening to reporters talk. After a few years, I realized these were my people. Eventually they made me a reporter.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Dorothy Gonson, an English teacher at Newton South High School, in Newton, Massachusetts, encouraged me to get into journalism. She was the faculty advisor of the school newspaper. I’ve had too many great editors to name, but I will never forget the late great Caroline Knapp, my first editor – an amazing writer/editor and beautiful soul. Every year, I try to read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser, “Mr. Personality” by Mark Singer and “The Woman at the Washington Zoo” by Marjorie Williams.
When and where do you write?
I’m a newsroom guy – not one of those disappear-into-the-wilderness writers. I like being around other reporters and I miss it if I’m not. Even when no one is around – if it’s a weekend or something – I like to be in an office. There is angst in the walls of a newsroom. I like it.
What are you working on now?
Besides my day job, which involves finishing a profile of a presidential candidate, I’m embarking on a book about Tom Brady and the NFL.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Of course. It is part of the process. Or at least that’s how I’ve rationalized it. I don’t have any great remedies except to just fight through it and “keep your ass in the chair,” which is a great piece of wisdom I picked up from Richard Ben Cramer (he said that in some book). I’ve written that on many Post-It Notes and stuck it on many computers over the years.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Keep your ass in the chair. If it comes too easily, you’re disqualified.
Mark Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, based in Washington, D.C. He is known for his profiles on political and media figures, and is the author of three books, including This Town, about the gilded culture of contemporary Washington. The book debuted at #1 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list in July 2013 and remained on the Times best-seller list for 12 weeks. Leibovich was previously a national political correspondent in the New York Times' Washington Bureau. He came to the Times in 2006 from the Washington Post, where he spent nine years, first as a technology reporter for the Post's business section, then as a political reporter. He lives in Washington with his wife and three daughters.