How did you become a writer?
I decided when I was about seven or eight years old that I wanted to be a writer and that has always been my identity. If when I was ten years old someone had asked me I would have told them, “I am a writer.” The great thing about being a kid is that you can fly under the radar because no one asks you. They only ask pointlessly “How’s school?” And you don’t even have to answer because you know they don’t really care.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
When I was growing up my big influences were Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Jack London the beats and Ferlinghetti. But then there was Dostoyevsky and the French classic , especially Zola and Hugo. My tenth grade teacher Walt Taylor who played a jazz alto sax and said things like “Can you dig this, cats” and loved literature and great writing was a great influence. And I am only beginning to realize how much of an influence my father was. He was a dentist with an office within walking distance. No receptionist or hygienist, he worked very long hours alone with his patients listening to opera.
When and where do you write?
I write in an apartment across the street from the one I live in for ten to twelve hours a day if I am in town.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a book about milk, ten thousand years of recipes and arguments about health, environment, treatment of animals and more. Lots of very old recipes. And a YA book on disappearing insect—a huge threat to the natural order. And a book about salmon, magnificent poetic animal threatened by urbanization, deforestation, dams, pollution, climate change, mismanagement, and a few other things.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Cant imagine it. Just the opposite, I am incapable of stopping. Maybe it is not always good but I always have to do it.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Since I am not big on writer advice this is a hard one for me to answer. It is always said that you should write about subjects with which you are familiar and this is good advice. To me this has always meant that to be a writer you had to have lots of experiences. Going to the right college, making a connection and getting a book contract as soon as you are out of school is not a good path to great writing.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Two things. Write constantly. It's like playing a musical instrument. You won’t get there if you don’t practice. And the other piece of advice is don’t listen to me. Or anyone else. A writer has to find her or his own way. Nancy Miller, who has edited about eighteen of my thirty books, once said to me that my great strength was that I didn’t listen to my teachers in school. Major in something else in school. Use that time to learn something useful like philosophy or art or history or biology. I majored in theater. Don’t spend a lot of time on courses and workshops. Spend that time on writing. A writer works alone, if you don’t like being alone it will be very hard for you to be a good writer.
Mark Kurlansky’s thirtieth book, Havana: A Subtropical Delirium, is coming out in March from Bloomsbury. His web site is markkurlansky.com.