How did you become a writer?
I was a reader first, obsessed with books from a very young age. Of course I was a daydreamer too, and writing just seemed to follow naturally from that. I started my first “novel” when I was ten, a murder mystery titled “Sisterly Betrayal” in which the bad sister (based loosely on my sister Katie) gets murdered in a really gruesome way somewhere in the first ten pages. I left it out for Katie to find, but she did not have the response I’d hoped which was for her to weepingly beg forgiveness for the many cruelties she’d inflicted on me throughout my young life, and I abandoned the project soon after. It is telling that from the very beginning, my writing has been driven by an interest in provoking the reader as much as possible.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I was a poet first, so many of my influences come from the world of poetry—Sharon Olds, Beth Ann Fennelly. I’ve loved T.S. Eliot forever, and the musicality of Byron and especially Shelley is a tremendous influence. Even in fiction, I pay close attention to rhythms and repetitions.
When and where do you write?
I’ve never been a very disciplined writer, so I don’t have a routine. I’m either writing or I’m not. By that I mean I’m either deep in a project, or I’m at some other stage that is less about putting words on paper. Sometimes it’s more about gathering sparks—reading a lot, watching movies, thinking through the possibilities of a project—and that might come with some little dabblings of writing, but most of the time, it’s not much. When it clicks and the project is in motion, then I’m never really not writing. I write from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed and in every spare minute I can snatch from my day, and I’ll write absolutely anywhere. I’ve written in my car. I’ve written on the floor of an auditorium while my kids practiced for a performance ten feet away. It’s exhilarating but it’s also sort of terrifying and there’s always a part of me that stalls on going into that space again.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on not stalling.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
There are so many ways of not-writing. I’m good at many of them. We have to live in the world if we want to write it. We have to live and we have to consume and we have to read and look at art and listen to music, and for me at least, these are things I don’t really do while I’m writing, so I need time between projects to do the work of thinking about other interesting things, and I think this is a really productive way of not-writing. The other way of not-writing that I’m particularly skilled at is the way in which a project seems too hard and I haven’t figured it out yet and I don’t want to do the work and so I think I probably just need to read 7 or 39 more novels, and this is not a productive type of not-writing. I’m trying to learn how to distinguish between the two.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I’m drawing a blank, and not because I haven’t been given advice but it’s never been advice that’s helped me to grow as a writer. I’ve never gotten encouragement and then somehow improved from that. I’m a big proponent of obstacles actually. Obstacles force me to assess whether I want to do the work of getting the skills to get over the next hurdle or not. For me, I’m most appreciative of the times I’ve heard “No,” the times I’ve been told the work wasn’t good enough, the times I’ve been closest to giving up.
What’s your advice to new writers?
My best advice to new writers is to try very hard to think of something else to do instead. If you can’t think of anything else and you’re convinced you really want to be a writer, then read everything you can get your hands on.
Liz Kay is the author of the novel Monsters: A Love Story (Putnam). She is a founding editor of Spark Wheel Press and the journal burntdistrict, and her poems have appeared in such journals as Willow Springs, Nimrod, RHINO, and Beloit Poetry Journal.