How did you become a writer?
I was always writing something or other. In middle school and high school I played bass guitar in a punk rock band called Corm, and though I was never more than a mediocre bass player, I managed to contribute to the group by writing most of the lyrics. In college I wrote for the school newspaper, engendering a minor scandal by satirizing the fraternity system (I was straightedge, meaning I didn't drink, a holdover from the brief career in D.C. punk rock), and then post-college I wrote and performed standup comedy and then musical theater. In all of these efforts I was balancing a narcissistic desire to be public/performative against my real ability, which was always just sitting alone in a room and writing. My first gigs in publishing were on commission for Quirk Books in Philadelphia, doing various nonfiction things, and it was through that connection that I became a novelist—first with parody fiction (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters) and eventually with the novel I think of as marking the beginning of my real career, The Last Policeman.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I learn from what I read, and what I read depends on what I'm trying to write, so for each book there tends to be a different set of influences. So for example, for Underground Airlines which just came out, I would say I was very influenced by John Le Carré and Ralph Ellison and Octavia Butler. Reliable permanent influences include Patricia Highsmith (the Ripley novels) and Walter Mosley (the Easy Rawlins books) and Richard Price (everything); and books about writing by Stanley Fish (How to Write a Sentence) and Stephen King (On Writing). For day to day inspiration I turn to the Paris Review archives of writer interviews—endlessly inspiring and fascinating. It's hard to stop once you get in there. I recently read the Ellison one and it's just so beautiful: "All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel—and isn’t that what we’re all clamoring for these days?—is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance." Yes, sir. Yes, yes, yes.
When and where do you write?
In a perfect world, I write for the six or seven hours between when my kids start school/camp/preschool and when they're done. In reality, at least a third of that time is taken up by emails or errands or all the other dull subroutines of life, but I strive to get a three hour stretch of real solid work time on each work day. And though I think about what I'm writing every day, I generally do not have time to work on the weekends.
When I am deep in a book I get very obsessive about work time and time management and the fear of wasted minutes. I'll make a list of tasks for the next day, and carefully slot them into work-time periods: from 8:25 to 10 I'll work on chapter 1, from 10 to 11 I'll revise the restaurant section, from 11 to 11:15 I'll take a brisk walk during which I'll think about how I want the ending to work—and etc. etc. I find having that road map in my head for each work day is as valuable or even more valuable than having the road map for the novel itself.
In terms of location, I'll write anywhere. Laptop, headphones, a cup of coffee, I'm fine. I'll work in a public library a lot, because I like to be surrounded by books, old-fashioned nerd that I am. My favorite place I've ever had to work was when we briefly lived in the Boston area, and I had a membership to something called the Boston Atheneum. It's this large gorgeous historic landmark building, adjacent to some kind of revolutionary graveyard, as I recall, and it's stuffed with books from the basement up. I wrote a lot of The Last Policeman in there, and I still think about what pleasure it gave me, wandering around in those stacks, solving my mystery.
What are you working on now?
A new novel, tentatively called The Prisoner. So far I know it's a legal thriller, or some kind of legal book, but that's about all I know so far.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Well, no, not really, or only very temporarily. And while I don't question people who say they have it, I tend to view the idea of writer's block with a lot of suspicion. I see it as the corrosive flip side of the muse myth, this whole romantic idea that writing is some sort of magical supernatural process involving no real agency or work on the writer's part—you open the floodgates and it flows through you when it feels like it. If you accept that, then you've accepted there are times when the taps are closed, and oh well I guess no more writing today. Because of course there is an element of magic to the writing process, the a-ha moments and the tapping of the subconscious and all that, but at base writing is a craft that requires knowledge, dedication, persistence, and perseverance.
Writing can be extremely difficult—as can be anything worth doing—and I think saying "I have writer's block" is a way of saying "this is too difficult for me to do right now." Which is a totally valid thing to say, but that's not a "block," a word suggesting permanent immovability—that is a problem you have, which has to be solved.What’s your advice to new writers?
Carve out time for writing and be ruthless about protecting that time. The best advice I ever got about writing was not writing advice, it's just general advice, from William Penn (Quaker founder of Pennsylvania): "Time is what we want most and use worst." Find the time to write, and then write during that time. Don't sit there checking your email and checking your Facebook page and texting your friends and then walk around the rest of the day bemoaning how you never have time to write. Because it is time—time to exercise your imagination, time to think freely, time to do the hard logistical and emotional labor of writing—it is time that is your key resource. Time is precious; treat it that way.
Ben H. Winters is the author most recently of Underground Airlines (Mulholland/Little, Brown); his previous work includes the Edgar-winning, Philip K. Dick Award-winning Last Policeman trilogy (Quirk Books). He has written extensively for the theater and has also published numerous works for children. Originally from the Washington, D.C. area, Ben has lived all over the country and is now in Los Angeles.