Blake Bailey

How did you become a writer?

In college I surprised myself by writing a pretty good senior thesis on Walker Percy. "Maybe I can do this," I thought, then spent the next 15 years writing bad fiction and the occasional book review. Suddenly I stumbled into a number of lucky breaks, and before I quite knew what was happening I managed to sell a proposed biography of the novelist Richard Yates. Oddly enough I learned thereby that my main calling was to be a literary biographer.

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

In no particular order: Wodehouse, Strachey, Christina Stead, Waugh, Nabokov, Joseph Mitchell, A. J. Liebling, many others (including my own biographical subjects and their influences), various literary biographies such as Brian Boyd's superb two-volume work on Nabokov, Gerald Clarke on Capote, and (of course) Ellmann on Joyce.

When and where do you write? 

I try to stop farting around with email, Twitter, the NYT website, etc., by 10:30 AM or so, and write most of the day--when I'm writing. (Bear in mind biographers go through years of research without a properly stringent writing routine.) Then I write all day, allowing myself a break at lunch if I've managed to meet roughly half my daily quota, about 600-750 words. My office is on the third floor opposite my 12-year-old daughter's bedroom; she's very considerate and quiet and has her own work to do, after all.

What are you working on now? 

A biography of Philip Roth.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Oh yes. Especially when I was trying to write fiction. Nowadays I try to prepare my notes as meticulously as possible, precisely because I have a horror of getting stuck.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Writing is rewriting.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Find what interests you passionately and write about it. If, after a seemly interval, you find yourself hating your life, do something else.

Blake Bailey is the author of biographies of John Cheever, Richard Yates, and Charles Jackson. He's the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Francis Parkman Prize, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His latest book, The Splendid Things We Planned, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography.