Ben Dolnick

How did you become a writer?

I would say it started when I was eight or nine, first writing stories for school (on a giant Apple IIE attached to a dot matrix printer, incidentally). I discovered that I felt a greater freedom when I was writing than I did just about any other time -- I could do what I wanted to on the page (which happened to be largely tell stories about Nazis and dinosaurs) in a way that felt enormously pleasurable to me. Then when I was thirteen or fourteen my parents gave me Slaughterhouse-Five for my birthday, and I discovered that you could harness the pleasurable freedom of writing to an actual character, a voice, a set of concerns. At that point I was pretty much done for. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

The writers who have meant the most to me, at various times, are: Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Nicholson Baker, David Foster Wallace, Penelope Fitzgerald, William Maxwell, Denis Johnson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Roth. I've also had some great teachers in my day -- a high school English teacher named John Burghardt (who happens to be a great writer) stands out in particular. But mostly it's been books for me. 

When and where do you write?

I do my best writing in the morning, usually from the time I get back from the park with my dog until lunch time. That's when it's quietest, and I don't have any appointments, and my mind is more or less clear. Then in the afternoon I tend to do less focus-requiring stuff -- short pieces, or copy-editing, or research, or whatever happens to be needed.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a novel about which I won't say too much except that it involves ghosts and insanity and the 1800's. I'm at that point where I've been working on it so long, and still have so long to go, that it feels like the only thing I've ever done or ever will do.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Not in the sense of being unable to get anything down on the page, I don't think. I've certainly suffered from months- or years-long periods of not being able to really find the wind in my writerly sails, though. This for me just means casting unhappily about, not knowing who or what I want to write about, writing lots and lots of pages that do nothing much for me except, I hope, get me closer to the place where I will actually feel some sense of being impelled forward.  

What’s your advice to new writers?

The main thing is to read a lot and write a lot. That will teach you just about everything you need to know. Also, get yourself a copy of Bird by Bird. I avoid 99% of all books about writing and craft and etc., but this is one I turn to again and again, more for its compassion and wisdom about the process of writing than for its particular nuts-and-bolts advice, though it's good on that too.

Bio: I grew up in a suburb of Washington DC and went to college in New York City, where I studied English. I now live in Brooklyn with my wife and our beloved but insane mutt.