How did you become a writer?
I studied art (painting, design, photography, drawing, printmaking) in college, then worked in the publishing industry for many years as a book designer and art director. But I can’t remember a time when I didn’t also write, mostly clandestinely, for reasons that escape me now. It wasn’t until about twelve years ago that I began thinking of my writing in the way I’d always thought of visual art, as something for others to see. With the encouragement (the pushing, to be more accurate) of my writing group in Boulder, I began submitting stories to literary journals.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
There’s a regular choirloft full of voices singing in my attic, so thank you for not asking me to pick a “favorite.” Here’s a short list of some writers whose work made me want to write in the first place, and still does: The dark examinations of Flannery O’Connor and the sweet pain of life painted by Eudora Welty; the subtle complications Alice Munro employs to lay bare the gap between what we think we’re supposed to feel and what we actually feel; Virginia Woolf’s brittle people trying to survive in social straight jackets; Louise Erdrich for showing me that good writing can cause a reader to inhabit the mind and experiences of someone very different from herself; Marilynne Robinson’s—wait, I just realized there may not be words for what reading Marilynne Robinson's work does to my head. Incandescent? Quintessentially American? None of those suffice.
Not to neglect the menfolk: Richard Bausch and Tim O’Brien seem always to be writing about people I know (psychically, of course, not literally); Faulkner is the literary papa one can be grateful she didn’t have, but godalmighty, the sentences that make you flat-out sweat from the heat and humidity; Barry Hannah, ditto. Steve Yarbrough is southern ex-pat brethren.
Some writers I’ve read in the last couple years who I love to recommend to other writers: Paul Harding’s “Tinkers” was transportive; reading Laird Hunt’s “Neverhome” is one of my favorite memories of 2014; Cara Hoffman’s “Be Safe, I Love You” gave me deeper insight into PTSD; Dylan Landis’s “Rainey Royal” reveals a girl who grew up at the same time I did, but whose experience of American adolescence was a polar opposite to my own, and thus reminds me of our country’s multivalent nature, and how where we live and who we love shapes us. I could go on, but I’m sure you wish I wouldn’t.
When and where do you write?
When? All the time. I write every day but, full disclosure, I've expanded my definition of the term to include reading and research. Otherwise, I’ll look at my word count at the end of the day and berate myself if it doesn’t meet my expectations. Where? All over the place. I’m lucky to have a cozy study in the attic of our old Chicago two-flat. Our little front parlor has a fireplace, and because there’s a foot of new snow outside, I’m parked fireside just now. And, at the risk of sounding like the stereotypical cafe writer, I’ll admit to this: Wicker Park is just lousy with coffee shops I do haunt sometimes. My good friend, the brilliant writer/artist Jessica Chalmers, sits and works with me once a week—which has the triple benefit of making me talk to someone about the work, getting me out of the attic, and flushing the bats out of my belfry. In fine weather, there’s the postage stamp courtyard, back of the house, where I’m known to scratch in the dirt, threaten neighborhood cats who’re nervy enough to stalk my bird feeder, and write.
What are you working on now?
The first draft of a new novel is about two-thirds of the way there. Or one-third left to go. And no, I don’t want to say a lot more, and yes, I am superstitious.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Most of the time, it’s the opposite problem: too many ideas and too much attention deficit disorder. But if a blocked feeling does creep in, it’s usually because I’m afraid. I rely on friends who will not mollycoddle me, who'll tell me to just suck it up and plow through the passage of work I’m dreading. What works sometimes is to tell myself that getting it on the page comes first, and getting it down doesn’t mean anybody else has to see it. I never want to really believe anything is off limits.
And can we talk about distraction? Because sometimes I think boredom with your own work is more horrifying than being blocked. If jumping on some social network site has more pull than the story I’m writing, it’s time for me to look hard at the work and see where it became so boring that it can’t compete with somebody’s cute puppy or new haircut or the latest prize that I did not win (see above re fear and dread). If I’m not interested in what I’m writing, why would someone else be?
If I’m not afraid of what I need to write next, and I’m not bored by what I’ve already written, things are generally cooking right along. Or at least simmering on a low flame.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Writing programs are fine and good, and I’m never sorry for the time I’ve spent studying with great teachers. But there’s no substitution for reading really good work. Find the writers whose sentences make your heart beat fast. Beyond that, it’s a matter of keeping your butt in the chair. Ron Carlson says: The writer is the person who stays in the room (see above, re fear, re distraction, re honesty, re plowing through). Disconnecting from Wi-Fi for a set number of hours per day can exponentially increase what goes on the page. Lastly, have trusted readers look at your work. Let go your defenses and listen to what they have to say. Oh, and put on your thickest suit of skin. You’ll need it.
Paulette Livers is the author of the novel Cementville (Counterpoint Press, 2014—out in paperback on March 15th) winner of the Elle magazine Lettres Prize, finalist for the Center for Fiction's Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and the Chicago Writers Association Fiction Book of the Year. She has received awards, residencies, and fellowships from the Artcroft Foundation, Aspen Writers Foundation, Center for the American West, Denver Women’s Press Club, Key West Literary Seminars, and Ox-Bow Artist Residence, among others. Her stories have been awarded the Meyerson Prize, Honorable Mentions from Hunger Mountain, Red Hen Press, and Writers at Work, and have appeared in Southwest Review, Dos Passos Review, Spring Gun Press, Bound Off, and elsewhere. A member of PEN America and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, she lives in Chicago.