How did you become a writer?
My family has always been obsessed with language and words. My dad is a journalist like his father was and my mom was an English teacher. There were a lot of books and newspapers in our house. My mother was rarely seen without a book in her hand. I was a sensitive only child. I feel this is pretty much a recipe for becoming a writer. Also, it’s pretty good if you have failed at a lot of other things. I was a terrible editorial assistant, for instance. I would never have made it through law school.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
In my twenties I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Par Lagerkvist, Lawrence Durrell, Kazanzatkis, Isabel Allende, Carole Maso, Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson. And I also read and loved writers like Brett Easton Ellis, Mary Gaitskill, Joy Williams, Jay McInernay, Tama Janowitz, Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, and Iris Murdoch. My writing style in the SOLOMONS especially feels like a mash up of this kind of magical realism fairy tale writing and the gossipy, voice-y, dirty realist writing I loved so dearly in the Eighties and early Nineties. When I wrote WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE SOLOMONS I had just read Roberto Bolano’s Savage Detectives, Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. These three books had the biggest influence on the mine. I loved the scope of Flamethrowers, the loose structure of Savage Detectives, and the movement through character consciousness of Mrs. Dalloway.
When and where do you write?
I write anywhere and everywhere. I write on my phone if I’m struck by an idea, or a sentence or a phrase. I have these moleskin notebooks I carry when I’m actively working on new material, or revising drafts. I have an apartment in the city that I have use of sometimes and I will go there and write to get a head start on a project, or restart something I’ve had to put on hold. I write at home on my sofa after my kids go to school. I write in my kitchen waiting for water to boil or the oven to heat up. I have an office in my basement where I write and sometimes I write in bed with my laptop after my kids go to sleep. When I was working full time, I would wake up at 5 or 6 in the morning to write before work and I often worked at night and on weekends, partly because I never made enough money to have much of a social life.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a second novel. It’s set in Detroit and New York City in 1999 in the last weeks before New Years.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I’m sure I have but I’ve forced myself not to believe in it and pretend it doesn’t exist. If I’m struggling with a section or a book, I might switch gears and start something new. If I have sat myself down to write, I’m going to write. Whether it’s an essay or a new chapter or character, or starting another book altogether. I think writer’s block, for me, is fear of ruining a beautiful idea. But in art, everything must be risked.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
My thesis advisor David Hollander had a huge influence on me. When I first started at Sarah Lawrence, I brought him the big manuscript I’d been working on. He read about sixty pages and basically told me to throw it out. He pointed to a couple of paragraphs and said that I was doing something good there, something about paratactic short sentences and not a lot of connective tissue between them. That became my style. I’m forever grateful to him for helping me discover that. An MFA may be unnecessary, but a great writing teacher is gold.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Trick yourself into writing. I was recently listening to a writer talking about apps like Freedom where you block the Internet to better concentrate. I have used Freedom. But what I’ve realized is that I use the Internet as a kind of carrot to keep writing, to keep me in my chair. I waste a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook but it keeps me sitting in front of my computer with my fingers on the keyboads, and my Word doc open. Nanowrimo is coming up fast. Even if you never publish or even finish the book you write, you will learn so much just getting words down. You might not finish the month, but having a chunk of five or seven thousand words could get you started on a project. Know also that you can discard things you’ve written. Try not to be precious about pages and words.
And also, if possible, develop a practice of introspection or mindfullness. Just a few minutes a day. Prayer or meditation or yoga. When we are young, everything can be exciting and interesting, but we know very little. As we age, I believe we can lose the ability to see things in new and surprising ways. Meditation, mindfulness, yoga and the like can be antidotes to rote thinking.
Bio: I was born in and raised just outside Detroit and moved around for a few years before finally settling down with my family along the Hudson River. My first book What to Do About the Solomons was published last April with Grove Atlantic. You can find my work in LitHub, The Common, and The American Literary Review.