Mark Harris

How did you become a writer?

Simplest answer: I wrote, and I read. I think that's how all writers become writers. I wanted to write from the time I could form letters. I think I was probably just out of college the first time I said, "I'm a writer" aloud and tried to own it as a profession or at least as an aspiration.

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

When I finished high school, I foresaw a very orderly future for myself in which I would go on to college and then to law school, after which I would be a lawyer. My father, who died when I was 14, had been a lawyer, and so this plan seemed somehow likely to fulfill my family's expectations. So I went to my high school prom, and I was dancing with a teacher I really liked, and she asked me what my plans were. I told her "I'll probably be a lawyer," and her face fell and said, "The world has enough lawyers. You should be a writer." Those words went into me like lightning; my life changed in that moment. It was the first time an adult had ever suggested to me that this was a choice I could make. As for influences, there wasn't one writer who made me want to be a writer. I'm a journalist, and therefore sort of a scavenger. Every writer who's ever written a sentence I wished I'd thought of has been an influence. 

When and where do you write?

I have a small home office, and I write there, or on the couch, or really anywhere--including in my head, on the treadmill, walking the dog, or in the shower before I ever sit down at my laptop. I don't have a routine; I wish I were one of those writers who got up at the same time every day, made breakfast, sat down, and wrote, but I never have been. I'm an evening person; I gain in competence as the day goes on, so I tend to write in the afternoon. I don't have a lot of rules; I think years of working on a magazine staff made me unfussy. I can't write in bed, and I can't write if music is playing. But otherwise, I don't need perfect atmospheric conditions to do what I do.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on my third book, a biography of Mike Nichols, and will be working on it for the next three years. I've also written a script for a documentary. Biography and scriptwriting are both new forms for me, and it's very exciting for me to try something I've never tried before. I've taken a break from writing journalism about movies and TV for the last few months in order to concentrate fully on those projects, but I think soon, I'll reincorporate some journalism into my working life. I like keeping one foot in the 21st century, and I also think it's dangerous--for me, at least--to go too long without writing. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I'm grateful not to have suffered from it in any sustained way--I think journalism beats that out of you--but of course, I've had days on which I've felt either that I didn't know how to get my ideas out of my head and onto the page or that the sentences just wouldn't come. So sometimes I walk away, just to think, because if I'm stuck, there's almost always an underlying problem with the idea itself. And sometimes I'll just start writing anyway--writing garbage that I know I won't submit but that will help me figure out why I'm having trouble.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Read everything. If you admire something and wish you'd written it, read it again--for style, for word choice, for thought, for construction, for how it makes you feel. And for new journalists; Rewrite yourself ruthlessly. If you're lucky enough to have the guidance of an editor, that's great; if you're not, learn how to be your own editor. It's easy to treat writing as a form of self-expression, but unless you're writing in a diary, it's first and foremost a means of communication. Rewriting your own prose honors the person with whom you're trying to communicate, so it's worth the extra effort and time. Try to put your best work into the world--and then, try not to beat yourself up when you realize, as you always will, that it could have been better. It will be better next time.

Mark Harris is a New York-based cultural journalist and the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008) and Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (2014).