Peter Guralnick

How did you become a writer?

I always wanted to write — started writing every day when I was 15 or 16, after reading Hemingway’s Paris Review interview. It was all fiction — I wrote my first novel when I was 19, published a couple of collections of short stories, Almost Grown and Mister Downchild, over the next couple of years. The non-fiction came about almost by chance, when I was offered the opportunity to tell people about this music that I thought was so great — James Brown and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Skip James and Solomon Burke and Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, etc.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

Here’s a totally non-inclusive, off the top-of-my-head list. Joyce Cary, Henry Green, Zora Neale Hurston, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Italo Svevo, Don Carpenter, Sigrid Undset — there are just so many others, including contemporary writers like Jess Walter and Elena Ferrante and Jhumpa Lahiri and Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith that I so much admire. Here are some more. Dawn Powell, My Home Is Far Away; Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (I liked the movie, too); Philip Roth: Sabbath’s Theater, Nemesis, American Pastoral; Richard Holmes, Footsteps; Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence; Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man; Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters; Paul Hendrickson, Hemingway’s Boat; George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle; Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End; Anna Karenina (Pevear-Volokhonsky translation); Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty; Donna Tartt, The Little Friend; Kem Nunn, The Dogs of Winter; Chekhov’s stories; August Wilson’s plays; William Carlos Williams’ poetry; James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

When I was in the 9th grade, I had Omar Pound as an English teacher. He assigned three stories a week — and it was a wonderful opportunity to put some of my inchoate thoughts, ideas, and aspirations into practice.

When and where do you write? 

I’ve always written at home — in a room of my own! No, seriously, that’s been the one thing I’ve been most concerned about in every move I have ever made. Where will I write?

What are you working on now? 

Some short stories, a profile of Dick Curless that I’ve been meaning to do for the last 10 or 15 years (I interviewed Dick and his wife extensively for the album my son, Jake, produced on him, Traveling Through, in 1995. One of the most soulful albums I know.)

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not really, but kind of. Sometimes I’ve been overwhelmed by how much I think I have to say (this is with non-fiction particularly), and I have to wait a little for it to settle. In a way it’s become more difficult for the years — though I may not be remembering the past that well. (We all tend to skate over remembered difficulties.) With these recent short stories I just sit there sometimes and think, What is this shit? This is just never going to go anywhere. And maybe it won’t. But all I know to do is just to keep my head down and work my way through it. My grandfather always said, “Keep your eye on the ball,” good advice for baseball and life. And, you know, when I look back at my writing notebooks from 20 or 30 years ago (or more), I guess it’s always been the same. But it’s hard sometimes.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Write every day that you can. Live a real life. Don’t look for validation. Trust yourself. Always be ready to make that empathetic leap.

Peter Guralnick has been called "a national resource" by critic Nat Hentoff for work that has argued passionately and persuasively for the vitality of this country’s intertwined black and white musical traditions. His books include the prize-winning two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love; Sweet Soul Music; and Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. His latest work, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, was a finalist for the Plutarch Award for Best Biography of the Year, awarded by the Biographers International Organization.