How did you become a writer?
I started writing shortly after I started reading. I was five or so and hungry for stories and wanted more of them than the adults around me were willing to waste time telling, so I learned to read. Then I wasn’t satisfied with the stories others had written, so I had to write my own. I remember reading a Comics Illustrated edition of Moby Dick, in which Moby Dick gets away scot free. Around the same time, in the Book of Knowledge, read the impressive fact that the biggest animal in the world was the Blue Whale. I decided to put Moby Dick in his place by writing a novel called Moby Dick vs. Mr. Blue: the two whales go head to head and Mr. Blue wins! Ha ha! The novel was two pages long and illustrated. My writing life went from there.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I don’t try to write like anyone else, so I don’t spend time thinking about who my influences are. My focus is on the thing I want to write and on how to get it told. Obviously I have influences but my work has nothing to gain from figuring out what they are. They’ll operate on me, through me, whether I’m conscious of them or not.
When and where do you write?
I kinda write all the time. I have an office in my basement. When I’m not writing, I’m fixing that room to be exactly how I want it: with a light I can shine right where I need it, and a shelf to put papers I might need soon but don’t need now, and a shelf for my coffee cup exactly where it will be accessible but not in the way, and so on. Over the years it’s turned into a sort of writing cockpit: I’m down there any old time. No pattern except that I’m down there a lot.
What are you working on now?
Mostly a history of the world called Ripple Effects, How We Got to Be So Interconnected and Why We’re Still Fighting.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
All the time. Every day. It’s inherent to the writing process. Dissolving the block to move forward is the job. Succeeding at that job requires, strictly speaking, something other than writing. It requires “getting into a state.” That state is one in which the thing I’m creating by writing is everything I see, and it blocks out my awareness of my own self writing it. Whenever I am not in that state (which is often) I consider myself blocked.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Peter Elbow wrote a couple of brilliant books, the names of which I’ve forgotten, but you can look ‘em up: Peter Elbow. His brilliant advice was to separate writing from editing. Pour your efforts into writing well rather than into writing something really good; be good at the process and the product will take care of itself. This has become more or less a standard line now, but Elbow said it first and said it best, at least to me.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Join a writer’s group. You know what you’ve written but you also have to know what other people have heard. That doesn’t mean they’re right, but it's information you can use. Also, writing is such a solitary activity that it’s good to seek out company; and if you’re a writer, you’ll find that other writers tend to have interesting to say (and not just about writing). But the most important piece of advice? Talking about writing is fine but not as a substitute for writing. You gotta write.
Afghan-American author Tamim Ansary’s latest book is Road Trips, Becoming an American in the vapor trail of The Sixties, a memoir set in the Age of Nixon.