How did you become a writer?
I’ve become a writer many times. Decided at 13 I had to write. Wrote poetry for years, always feeling bad that I wasn’t writing more. Became serious at around age 30—an emotional change brought on, I think, by motherhood. Published one poem, then nothing for years. Published a book of poems in my late thirties. Started writing fiction at 34 or 35, published stories for the first time in my forties. Stories in magazines, then books of stories, then a novel (age 50), then more novels. I had one big break: The New Yorker took several stories, one after another. Other than that, slow shifts in direction, small failures and successes.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I was turned into a writer first, as a child and young woman, by reading a lot of poetry, studying Latin and some Greek, and reading a great deal of Henry James. Dubliners. Jane Austen’s Emma. Around the time I started writing fiction, books by Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, William Maxwell, Peter Taylor, and, more recently, Edward P. Jones affected my writing of short stories. As for novels—E.M. Forster, Lore Segal, Paule Marshall. But I was also made a writer by friends: the writing friends who have read my manuscripts over the decades, talked writing, talked books, showed me their work, rivaled my anxieties with theirs. THE KITE AND THE STRING is dedicated to my novelist friend Sandi Kahn Shelton, who writes as Maddie Dawson. We’ve been yanking each other along for almost forty years, since we met and said we were writers (on slim evidence back then), then slowly began to do it for real.
When and where do you write?
I’m the world’s only afternoon writer (and of course it’s often hard to free afternoons). I rarely have a good idea before lunch, and close down around suppertime. I usually write in my house. I have a room for writing but it’s crowded with rational thoughts: I’ve written so much nonfiction, emails, letters to students (my job in the Bennington low-residency MFA program requires writing many letters to students) that it’s hard to write fiction there. To think incoherent, messy, fictional thoughts, I retreat to a different room, with soft furniture.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing a novel about friendship in a difficult world. Three women protested the war in Vietnam. One became a violent revolutionary. One wrote a novel about the revolutionary. The third is the main character. The book is also about her friendship later in life—that is, now—with a woman who runs a social services program. Also her marriage, to a man whose conscience is even more vigorous than hers, and all the trouble that causes. Also about the novel within the novel, which causes even more trouble.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not enough writer’s block. Being stuck is good—it means that what needs to be written is intense, maybe painful. Or it’s complicated and requires careful consecutive thought. It’s often possible to get unstuck by asking oneself simple, sensible questions (like, “What do I already know about this story?” or “about the next scene?”). But maybe I’d write better books if I let myself remain stuck longer.
What is your advice to new writers?
KITE is all advice, so it’s hard to choose. Also, not everybody needs the same advice. My guess is that the five things I say to students most frequently are: 1. Never mind whether it’s good. Write it whether it’s good or not. 2. Protect your writing time. 3. Plot is whatever provides forward momentum, and, yes, you can make up a plot. 4. If you say what’s happening, the reader will know how it feels, so you don’t have to say. 5. Write when you’re sleepy and stupid, so your strongest feelings get into the work.
Alice Mattison’s new book is THE KITE AND THE STRING: HOW TO WRITE WITH SPONTANEITY AND CONTROL—AND LIVE TO TELL THE TALE. She is also the author of six novels, four collections of stories, and a book of poems. She teaches fiction in the low-residency MFA program at Bennington College.