How did you become a writer?
My mother always thought I should become a writer. When I was a kid she forbade me to read Enid Blyton books because she thought Blyton’s writing was revoltingly cute and sentimental and would be a bad influence. Naturally I read as many of them as I could find. It’s true that reading bad writing can have an insidious effect on you (I think I’m more susceptible to this than most—I tend to mimic what I hear). But I also think that analyzing what bad writing does badly can be very helpful in learning how to write better. When I was seven or so I loved a book about a boy who accompanied his father on long-distance trucking hauls, and I read it over and over again. Then I picked it up a year or two later and noticed that the writing was quite ham-fisted. At first this was a disappointment, but then it was exciting: I realized that I had a better sense of writing than I’d used to, and I thought, I am growing up.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Probably everything you read influences you to some extent, but the book I’ve read most often as an adult is The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. I must have read it fifteen or twenty times. I love not only the writing (which is beautiful and hilarious) but also the story: I find the struggles of people trying to live up to a constricting morality very moving (which is why I wrote about them in my book, Strangers Drowning). I love fiction writers who deal with such characters—Marilynne Robinson, Graham Greene, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky.
When and where do you write?
I’ve always wanted to be one of those writers who takes a laptop to a café and writes while people are talking and the door’s banging and cutlery’s clinking and the espresso machine is making that loud noise it makes. But unfortunately I’m too easily distracted for that—I find even a window distracting—so I usually work alone in a room. I don’t care what room it is, as long as it’s impersonal and boring. Cheap hotel rooms are the best.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a piece for The New Yorker about a hospice nurse and trying to figure out my next book.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not really—I have a method for avoiding it. When I’m sitting down to write something new, I figure out which bits are going to be easy and which are going to be hard. I start with the easiest bit (which, when I’m writing an article, is usually a scene, because it involves transcribed dialogue, so it’s half-written already), then go on to the next-easiest, and so on, finishing, once I’ve got plenty of momentum, with the hardest bit, which is usually the beginning. Then I stitch it all together.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Don’t have too many friends, and live somewhere cheap. Also: I know a lot of people say you should write every day, but that never made any sense to me. Write no matter what? Even when you have nothing to say and are just going to produce a lot of blather? The idea behind the write-every-day thing seems to be that writing uses muscles that can atrophy, but to me, writing is just another form of thinking. If you didn’t think every day, that would be bad. Maybe it’s different for novelists, but as a nonfiction writer I spend quite a lot of time researching and interviewing and reading before I start writing. I scribble lots of notes, but nothing more than that.
Larissa MacFarquhar is the author of Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. She has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998, where her profile subjects have included Hillary Mantel, John Ashbery, Barack Obama, and Noam Chomsky.