How did you become a writer?
There are probably half-a-dozen “threshold” moments for any writer – the first book that really speaks to us, the first reader who encourages us – but a couple of significant early “becoming” moments for me include encountering a variety of “making-of…” “behind the scenes” articles and documentaries about movies I loved as a kid (Star Wars etc.), and reading a book of interviews called Who Writes Science Fiction, all of which turned me on to the idea that someone created all the stuff I loved to read and watch. That adolescent impulse to create was augmented in my late teens by some challenging family experiences (my grandmother’s senility) and the discovery of the power that lay in writing about something so emotionally close to home.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Kurt Vonnegut was my gateway drug. He got me from SF to literary fiction – from Slaughterhouse Five to Catch 22 to The Naked and the Dead to For Whom the Bell Tolls to…Gatsby. But we’re influenced I think as much by what we hate as what we love. We can emulate the latter, but also learn from the former, defining ourselves against something, and I’ve been (belatedly) grateful to some of my teachers for encouraging/allowing that.
When and where do you write?
Whenever and wherever I can. I used to be more precious about my writing routines and spaces – most writers tend towards a kind of magical thinking that says that we need to be “in the mood” – but since I had a child ten years ago I’ve been obliged to me more pragmatic. If I had my way, though, I’d write always at home, and in the mornings.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing the final edits on a new novel this week (which is something I only get to say about once every 6 or 7 years).
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Sure. Life intervenes, my head isn’t always in the right place, sometimes for weeks or months. The pace of life – the mental metabolic rate of e-mail etc. – isn’t always conducive to the slower more reflective pace of writing (reading fiction, actually, is a great way for me to slow down and I tend to write best when I’m also reading a lot). It’s easy too to get tense about writing, and I often have to remind myself that it’s supposed to be fun, which helps me past blocks. I try to think of blocks as part of the process – a necessary pause for my brain to negotiate some issue in the text. Blocks, in that sense, often precede breakthroughs and are perhaps even required for them.
What’s your advice to new writers?
I like Flaubert’s line: “Talent is long patience.” Patience – the patience to out-wait a writer’s block say, or to let a story reveal itself to us – is valuable for all writers, but new writers especially are often in a hurry, playing catch-up with everyone who’s come before us. My own MFA students are typically young and talented, and precisely because youth and talent are the enemies of patience (talent is supposed to be an accelerant after all), it’s the one (sometimes the only) thing most of them lack at first.
Peter Ho Davies is the author of a novel The Welsh Girl, and two story collections, The Ugliest House in the World and Equal Love. His work has appeared in Harpers, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review, and been selected for Prize Stories: The O. Henry Award and Best American Short Stories. A recipient of the PEN/Malamud award and one of Granta's "Best of Young British Novelists," he teaches in the MFA Program of the University of Michigan.