How did you become a writer?
Through genes and osmosis. My father, Alistair Cooke, was a writer -- a journalist who filed a daily piece for decades for the Guardian (the Manchester Guardian, when he began), as well as a writer of books. But I wasn't set on following in his footsteps while I was growing up. I learned to type at an early age and my first stories were often taken from movies I'd seen, written out in my own prose. While I was in college at Harvard I joined the Cambridge, Mass., based old-time and bluegrass band, the Charles River Valley Boys, and was very happy to be a musician in the height of the folk music boom. I got involved in filmmaking when I worked with D.A. Pennebaker as a member of his crew, filming the Monterey Pop Festival.
Writing came back into the picture through filmmaking. A friend had an idea for an off-the-wall independent film to be shot in 16mm. He needed a script to help find funding. I got my hands on a genuine feature-film screenplay and with that guide to the formatting and style of screenwriting, I came up with a rough script, really an extended outline. I wrote three original screenplays in the '70s and moved to L.A. to try my hand at the movie business. I got an agent and some writing jobs -- some rewrites and adaptations -- but I kept missing the brass ring of having something I wrote go into production. One day I was having lunch with my lawyer and he said "Have you thought of writing 'The Snowblind Moon' [one of my original screenplays] as a novel?" I had thought of it, but the fact that he supported the idea was catalytic. "The Snowblind Moon" became my first novel. Two more historical novels of the West followed, in which I put fictional characters in the midst of real historical events and true historical characters. I guess the pull of the real history was strong. I published my first book of nonfiction in 2007, "Reporting the War: Freedom of the Press from the American Revolution to the War on Terrorism." My latest, also nonficton, also historical, is in a very different vein. "On the Road with Janis Joplin" is my memoir of being Janis's road manager for the last three years of her life.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Good writing and good stories. For "The Snowblind Moon," James Clavell was an influence and an inspiration, because he is a master of shifting point of view, especially among characters who are from radically different cultures and world views. It's a good thing no one ever told me you shouldn't write a first novel with shifting points of view. I planned "The Snowblind Moon" that way from the start, I studied the best, and only one editor to whom we submitted very early on suggested I redraft the story from a single point of view. My agent wisely said "This is one man's opinion." We submitted elsewhere and no one else raised the same objection again.
Above all, good storytelling and good writing inspire me and bad writing puts me off.
When and where do you write?
In the morning. Every day. Seven days a week. After breakfast I take a walk to get some oxygen into my brain. I come home, sit down, and write. Once I had a publishing deal for "The Snowblind Moon" (based on 250 pages and an outline of the rest), I was on a deadline to submit a complete draft. I wrote ten pages each day before I allowed myself to quit for lunch. Sometimes lunch was late. The novel came in over 300,000 words. (You could publish epic novels in the '80s!) I've never since equaled that pace. I think Anne Lamott's advice that you give yourself "small assignments" is good. She recommends 300 words a day. If you ask of yourself 300 words a day and you write 900, you've had a great day. If you ask 1000 and you write 900, you've had a bad day. But you got the same amount of work done! This is why Lamott's advice is good: succeed at meeting the small assignments, have a lot of good days, and it keeps you going.
What are you working on now?
Another nonfiction book about another strong, independent woman. A lot like Janis Joplin in some ways. I can't say more because she is a historical figure, public domain, so I'll keep her name to myself until the book is done and under contract.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I've run into any number of problems in writing my novels and nonfiction works, but the way to get past them is to keep on writing. A screenwriter friend in L.A. put this sign on the wall over her desk: "Write the first draft for yourself." I modified that to "A rough draft is better than no draft." All this advice is intended to keep you from thinking that every new page has to be perfect. Just write. In "Living the Writer's Life," Natalie Goldberg recommends you keep your fingers moving on the keyboard, even if you write gibberish. One of my best tricks, for fiction, when I'm feeling stuck, is to jump ahead to the next scene with dialogue and write it very fast, letting the dialogue between (or among) the characters just flow. The characters say things you never planned and reveal things about themselves and the story that help it move forward.
Let me put it this way: I don't believe in writer's block, and I suggest you don't either.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Pay attention to the language! Re-read books you love and admire and _study_ the writing. How does the writer involve you in the narrative? How does the novelist make you care about the characters? How does she make you want to know What Happens Next? Above all, learn to write simple, straightforward, declarative prose. You can't do anything fancier until you can do that. Don't start a sentence with a dependent clause. Avoid clichés, avoid Latinisms ("prior to" instead of "before"), avoid pretentious words and phrases. They won't impress anyone worth impressing. Careless, sloppy, second and third-rate prose that falls into all the bad habits of the present moment isn't worth anyone's time. The ability to write well may be in part an inherent talent, but writing can be studied! And much can be learned.
The film director-writer Richard Brooks advised, "Humor. Character. Conflict. So get on with it!" (Note that he put humor first! Without it, life isn't worth a hill of beans.)
ON THE ROAD WITH JANIS JOPLIN by John Byrne Cooke