How did you become a writer?
I became a writer by first being a reader. I read a lot, and because I was very poor in my twenties, I often read the same books several times in a row. I would finish the last sentence on the last page and then flip right to the front again and start all over. I wanted to understand books and so I would read them once through to get the effect, and then a few more times to understand their secrets and how they were put together. Then I tried and failed to write a lot of things. Lots of tries and lots of failures. Eventually I got better at marshaling my ideas in a way that other people would enjoy. Generous people helped and encouraged me. Working at a weekly newspaper helped me get better at finishing things—every week I had to think up, report, and write at least one long feature story, plus shorter news items, and that was excellent practice. I wrote (or tried to write) three nonfiction book proposals before finally finishing one that I sent to agents. The first person I sent it to became my agent, and my first book, The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics and the Future of Wilderness in America, was published less than two years later. I'm now working on my second an third books.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Writers who have had the most direct influence on my work include critics, literary reporters and memoirists, although as an adolescent I read mostly novels, poetry and plays. I loved novelists that presented richly immersive worlds like Dickens, Tolkien, or Le Guin. As a teenager I especially adored Shakespeare, and was in love with the poetic rhythm of language; how the musical impact of a word could convey as much if not more than just its definition. I then discovered Diane Ackerman, who is a master of sensual and romantic science writing. From there I fell for book-length works of literary journalism that I found by hanging around in bookstores, like Philip Gourevitch'es We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families or The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. I read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and thought, "that's the kind of thing that I want to do." Other works of narrative nonfiction that have strongly influenced me include The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer, The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson, and Devil in the White City by Eric Larson. My favorite books last year were H is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald and Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich. I have also been influenced by the books and essay collections of Rebecca Solnit, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Eula Biss, and Leslie Jamison, to name just a few.
When and where do you write?
I write whenever I can, but I prefer the early morning when it's still dark and quiet. When I was finishing my first book, I often woke up at 3am so that I could write before going to work at nine. That was last year, and I think I'm still catching up on sleep. I mostly write at home; at my kitchen table while drinking tea, or in my office which has one wall covered in bookshelves and another that is a chalkboard for plans and ideas, or (quite often) I write in bed on my laptop. My most common writing outfit is pajamas. I'll sometimes go to cafes to write, but I would rather be at home.
What are you working on now?
Right now I'm writing a short work of cultural criticism for Bloomsbury publishers called High Heel: An Object Lesson, as part of their Object Lesson series done in partnership with the Atlantic Monthly. It's about choice, consent, feminism, and performing femininity in the labyrinth of modern womanhood. I am also working on a longer work of investigative narrative nonfiction about an art mystery. My agent will be pitching it to editors soon. In the meantime, I have a few magazine articles I'm trying to finish.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Nearly every day. I get writer's block quite severely. No matter how much I tell myself that it's all in my head, it still insists on doing a marvelously lifelike impression of reality. For me it isn't usually a case of not having an idea, but more that I can't get my ideas to behave themselves and show up on the screen in readable English sentences. The worst writer's block I ever had lasted about six weeks. I was on deadline for The Oyster War and needed to write more than I ever had in my life, and yet I could hardly write anything. One chapter in particular was giving me trouble. I ended up going for walks and speaking my ideas into a tape recorder, and then writing the whole thing down 100 percent verbatim. It was a mess, but I sent it to my editor as a placeholder, and then four months later I went back and edited it. It ended up being one of my favorite chapters, and was excerpted in Scientific American.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Before becoming a writer, make sure that it isn't possible for you to become anything else instead. Only write if you have to. Once you decide that you must write, try to write something. An essay, a short story, a book, a novella. Whatever it is, make sure you push through and finish it, because only by doing that will you be able to see the places where you are weak. Obsessively read in the genre in which you want to write. If you want to write a memoir, then read memoirs like a maniac. If it's dystopian science fiction, then read that. Find a few books that are your favorite and read them again and again until some of their secrets are made known to you. I think of it a little like how, when you're very little, your parents will sometimes dance with you by letting you stand on their shoes and hold their hands while they waltz around the room. Reading great writers works in this way, too. Stand on the shoes of people bigger than you. Let yourself be carried along by good plots and good sentences, and after a while you'll be able to dance through them on your own.