How did you become a writer?
My fifth-grade teacher, Miss Knox, had us write what she called a creative story every three weeks, and I loved it. From that point on I was always writing stories. Most went unfinished, but I kept writing. I knew it was the only thing I really wanted to do.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Books have always been my great teachers, but I don’t learn from them directly. It’s more that the voices and the sentences excite me: Dickens, Elizabeth Bowen, Isak Dinesen, William Maxwell. Or the perceptions: Chekhov, Turgenev, George Eliot, Tolstoy that moment in War and Peace where Nikolay Rostov is suddenly in the middle of a battle, and he thinks, How can they be shooting at me? My mother loves me. I love those moments of small weirdness, where the writer shows you something you recognize as true, even when it’s an experience you’ve never had.
When and where do you write?
I need to go away. I get my best work done when I’m at a colony and I can just be in a studio all day long without any distractions or interruptions, and can sustain the trance from one day to the next. My last book, The News from Spain, was written entirely at colonies, a month here, a month there. Right now I’m teaching, and the job comes with an office, which is wonderful. Sometimes I’ll go to a coffee shop, or a friend will lend me a house for a while. Anyplace really, that isn’t home. When I am home I tend to become preoccupied with laundry.
What are you working on now?
After years of saying, “I’m working on a book about my father’s suicide, and having people recoil; and then some years of saying, “I’m writing a book of stories each of which is called, The News from Spain, but the title means something different in each story, and having people look puzzled or bored, I’ve learned that I don’t know how to answer that question in a way that doesn’t demoralize me.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
All the time! It is very hard to push past my own perfectionism and self-doubt. I really believe that all the bad drafts, and all the times when I sit down and nothing happens, are investments in that lovely time when the writing wakes up and starts galloping, and my job is just to ride it. But that boggy, ploddy, stage of blah writing or no writing is just about unbearable while it’s going on.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Keep going, and one day you’ll be an old writer. That sounds facetious but really, I had a hard time as a young writer and find it better now. Not easier, but definitely a lot more interesting.
Joan Wickersham’s most recent book of fiction is The News from Spain. Her memoir, The Suicide Index, was a National Book Award finalist. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading, as well as magazines including Agni, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and One Story. She also writes an op-ed column for The Boston Globe and her pieces have run in The International Herald Tribune. She is currently teaching fiction at Harvard and nonfiction in Bennington’s MFA program.