How did you become a writer?
My parents read aloud to me for a bizarrely long time. Even when I was eight or so, and literate, we would share books: I’d be reading, and I’d hand the novel over to them, and they’d read a few pages out loud.
At one point, I handed my mother The Hound of the Baskervilles, and she read aloud the scene in which Watson first arrives at Baskerville Hall. There’s a great description of the hall’s façade. My mother paused and said, “See how he does that?” By “he,” she meant the author, Doyle. Until then, I had always thought that writers transcribed stories from their minds onto the page. The idea they were making decisions, that there was a dazzling way to “do" a description, that you could change readers’ experiences through the words you chose—basically, that there was a craft to it all—came as a revelation to me. I immediately began writing down my own terrible things, mostly Arthur Conan Doyle knockoffs. I lived in California. I was constantly describing people wearing "dressing gowns."
For years after that, I worked to become something other than a writer. But every time I had a break from school, I seemed to spend it writing things. I felt most confident and capable and useful when I wrote. Eventually, I'd surrendered.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
The list would be manageable if I named people who haven’t influenced me. I remember that one summer, when I was fifteen or sixteen, I read two very unlikely books back-to-back: Swann’s Way and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I read the Proust because I had recently seen two adulatory mentions of Proust in magazines or something—I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I read the Kuhn because I saw the book at a garage sale and liked the cover. I missed just about everything about their contexts, but I was old enough to “get” them in a basic way. I could see what they were doing, and it blew my hat off. Even today, I feel as if those two books are most responsible for the architecture of my brain, the way I think (to the extent I think).
Some of my best influences these days are my colleagues at The New Yorker. I’m constantly studying how so-and-so did such-and-such, trying to incorporate a version of the move into my own stuff. I would name names, but we’d be here forever. You could basically run down the roster of staffers.
When and where do you write?
The apartment I live in came with a basement storage room. I turned the room into a kind of derelict office. There are two half-sunken windows. People with elaborate strollers often peer in at me as I work. Around the neighborhood, I am thought to be like Ruprecht, in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels—someone’s loony brother underground.
I work at the first desk—the only desk—I bought after school. It is an Ikea breakfast table, about thirty inches square. That's what I could afford at the time, and it still works well. The important thing about a breakfast table is that it has no drawers. Desks with drawers seem insane to me. You cannot move your legs, and you are constantly banging your knees. You put things in the drawers and forget about them. No thank you!
I have always wanted to be an early-morning writer, but most of the writing I do in the early morning seems to have been composed by a demented person. I am better by ten or eleven. I often work into the night, because it’s beautiful, private, quiet time. At 1 a.m., nobody calls, and nobody e-mails. There is no news and no "viral content." You can drink coffee and focus on the page. It's heaven.
What are you working on now?
I have jobs at two places, The New Yorker and Vogue. At any given moment, I usually have two or three things on the burner at each, in various stages of production. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m wrapping up a critical essay, writing a couple of midlength profiles, and, I hope, travelling to launch a reporting project.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not in any protracted way, but I am blocked-ish every day. Writing is very hard for me. A blank page is, literally, blank. Unless you’re, say, a newswriter and know you have to get X, Y, and Z in the first paragraph, you are working without models or cues. The way you start, the route you take, the tone you use—all of these are willed out of the great eternal nothingness. That doesn’t even account for all the smaller calculations. (What word comes next? Will this slow down the paragraph?) You’re perpetually making tiny choices, each of which affects other choices. It’s an inefficient, brain-taxing process, full of dead ends and wasted hours. But the more you work, the faster, lighter, and more effortless the result seems. Blocks are a part of the writing. If you do it well, they leave no trace.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Don’t do it! It’s a difficult, vulnerable, obsessive, unglamorous, financially imperilled, often thankless, generally crazy-making vocation. Almost anything would serve you better. Get out now. You’ll thank me.
If you proceed despite this wise and excellent counsel—if the idea of writing nothing seems, inexplicably, more distressing and disturbing than the terrifying fate I’ve just described—then you are probably a writer, and you don’t need advice. You’ll be fine.
Nathan Heller is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a contributing editor at Vogue. He has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in essays and criticism.