How did you become a writer?
I started writing when I was very young person. I started writing little stories, poems and jokes when I was four or five years old. I’ve always loved reading, and that has fueled my writing. When I was in high school I got encouraged by an amazing teacher when I wrote a parody of Clockwork Orange for a paper. It was all written in that weird Russian/English hybrid that Anthony Burgess invented. My teacher had read the book, so at first he thought there was something wrong with me. But when I showed the book to him, he changed my grade from an F to and A. That was the first time another actual human had said something nice to me about my writing. In college I started getting published in small poetry journals that no one reads, except the people published in them. The Angry Orangutan, I believe was the first place I got published. In fact, where I went to school, a place called Reed College, I was discouraged from being a writer, because the stuff that I wrote didn’t fit in with the dry, academic poetry that was filled with obscure literary references which was popular at the time. They wouldn’t let me write a creative thesis. I felt like I knew I was on to something, even though no one around me seemed to agree. Apart from turning me on to some great books, they did literally nothing to train me to be a professional writer in the world, and I’m afraid that’s very typical of institutes of higher learning in America. I went from writing poetry to writing songs, short stories, and in my 20s I wrote a bunch of short plays, all under seven minutes long, that I performed all over New York City. That was a tremendous education as a writer, to get up in front of a bunch of people I didn’t know, and perform these pieces I wrote. I really got a sense of what worked and what didn’t. I was a professional actor for many years, and that also helped me enormously as a writer. Learning how to write authentic dialogue, create tension, make people laugh, have a satisfying ending, and an attention-grabbing opening. I belonged to many writer’s groups, I found that very very helpful. In San Francisco I belonged to a group that contained incredibly inventive and hard-working writers, including Tamim Ansary, who has written many books, including East of New York, West of Kabul, which has been a fantastic international sensation, and which I recommend everyone, especially in these ridiculous, surreal times in which we find ourselves. Khaled Husseini, author of Kite Runner, was also a member of this group, before he was published. I spent time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and at one point had a three-picture deal with Disney. Studying under the Disney system was horrifying and helpful. Because of the way they tightly control their stories, every single beat, every single action, every single piece of dialogue, all had to be planned out beforehand. It was great in terms of organization structure, but I found it stifling because there was no room for improvisation. I felt like I really found my voice when I started writing prose in my 30s. There was a freedom in this kind of work that I never found writing for the stage of the screen. I also found that I absolutely loved writing books. It fills me with joy. Of course it’s frustrating and difficult, but those moments where the Muse fills you are absolutely magic. In my own life I control so little. I have a nine-year-old daughter who reinforces that daily. So I love inventing a world where I can control everything. Woody Allen once said the only things in life you can control her art and masturbation. I try to engage in both those activities daily.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.)
Kurt Vonnegut, Dr. Seuss, Mark Twain, Roald Dahl, Edward Albee, ee cummings, Charles Dickens, Charles Baudelaire, William Carlos Williams, Edgar Allen Poe Irvine Welsh, George RR Martin, David Mitchell, Maurice Sendak, Vladimir Nabakov, and the above-mentioned Anthony Burgess. Among many others.
When and where do you write?
I write my first drafts in longhand, with a special pen that has a tiny point called a rapidograph. Then I talk that into a computer, using voice recognition. So I spend a lot of my time in my upstairs office in my house, but recently I’ve written at the Betsy Hotel in Miami Beach, the Fairmont in San Francisco, Powell’s Bookstore in Portland Oregon, Aunt Charlie’s in the Tenderloin, the Santa Fe Writers Conference, and a very nice pastry shop on 23rd St. in New York City. I’m very lucky, I can write anywhere anytime. I have very strange sleeping habits, for instance today I wrote between the hours of 1-5 am, and after I take care of my business, and hang out with my daughter, I’ll probably start up again around 9 o’clock tonight, and God knows how long I’ll be doing it then.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a pilot presentation for my first memoir, Master of Ceremonies: A True Story of Love, Murder, Rollerskates and Chippendale’s, about when I was the master ceremonies at Chippendale’s in the mid-80s in New York City and my boss was assassinated with a bullet in the head. Putting the finishing touches on a YA novel about an orphan who gets shipped off to boarding school where the buildings were all built by Shakers, were famous for making exquisite furniture, and not having sex. Needless to say, there are no more Shakers. It’s a coming-of-age historical time travel neo-Goth murder mystery magic realism romantic black comedy ghost story. I’m one chapter away from finishing an epic, multi-character neo-noir story about a giant battle going on for control of the sex industry in the Tenderloin in downtown San Francisco. It’s kind of like Game of Thrones meets The Wire, only instead of drugs and swords, it’s got sex and guns.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
No. When I’m not writing, I’m constantly visualizing what I’m going to write, so that by the time I sit down, I have lots and lots of details about what I want to write next.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I once had a screenplay agent who said, “Stop sending me all the shitty scripts I can’t sell.” Still the best advice I’ve ever gotten.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Research, network, persevere, write write write write write and read read read read read.
David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, activist, and co-founder of The Book Doctors, who's helped dozens and dozens of writers get successfully published with his book The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published http://www.thebookdoctors.com/our-book. His first memoir Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition http://bit.ly/1ancjuE, has been translated into 12 languages, and is being made into a movie by the showrunner of Dexter. His book Hos, Hookers, Call Girls & Rent Boys http://nyti.ms/1FrRNfC appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. He has featured on NPR, the London Times, Washington Post, and the Wall St. Journal. He writes for the Huffington Post, Salon and Rumpus. He can be found at davidhenrysterry.com.