Daniel Paisner

How did you become a writer?

I've always thought of myself as a writer, going all the way back to elementary school. First grade or so, I used to publish a neighborhood newspaper with some friends, hand-written, which one of our mothers would run off on a mimeograph machine at work. Out of that, coming to political awareness in the Watergate-era, I wanted to be Woodward or Bernstein. And I did start out as a reporter, of a kind, although not the swashbuckling, muckraking kind I'd imagined. I was the editor of the student newspaper at college, and then I became a stringer for the New York Times and the Associated Press. In grad school, while I was pursuing a master's in journalism, I worked part-time for a local daily, covering school board meetings and suspicious fires - mostly ho-hum stuff. Alongside of that, I started writing fiction. I wrote my first novel while I was still in school, and it was apparently good enough to land me a venerable New York City literary agent but not quite good enough to land me a book deal. (Sigh.) Somewhere in there, I found I had a talent for capturing people's voices and personalities on the page, so I fell in to the collaborative work that has stamped my career.

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

I was introduced to Hemingway early on -- The Nick Adams Stories, back when I was still in middle school. Thank goodness for the teacher who turned me on to them. What struck me then, and since, was the simplicity of the language, the simplicity of the stories. Not a whole lot happened, and there was not a whole lot of adornment in the telling of what happened, and I thought that was exciting as hell. It ran completely counter to the ways we were invariably taught to write in class, in purplish prose, with big words we couldn't possible understand without a thesaurus. Soon, Hemingway led to Mailer, only not in the ways most people come to admire Mailer. I'd been struck by Why Are We in Vietnam? and An American Dream, but what really floored me was his long-form non-fiction. His magazine work. Miami and the Seige of Chicago. It was startling, vigorous. It was fresh. And he was a part of the story, as often as not. And then, with keen interest, I read The Executioner's Song as soon as it came out, and I was floored. Like Hemingway, the writing was spare, taut. But it was also electric. There was a current to it — you could feel it! I set that book down, probably the longest book I'd read to that point, and I came away thinking I wanted to write like that. The story read like an epic novel, but it was painstaking and true and intimate. Powerful. And what a lot of people forget was that the reporting of that book was well underway before Mailer ever signed on to the project. In many ways, he was like Gary Gilmore's "ghost," rooting around inside the head of this broken man and inviting his readers to join him. And so, for the work I would come to do in collaboration with others, the book became a kind of road map. It showed me what was possible, writing within the constraints of someone else's story.

When and where do you write?

Here and there. Now and then. When I'm working on a novel, the words seem to find me best at my desk, in the wee hours, when the house is quiet and the world has been put on pause. For the collaborative work I do, I'm able to work anywhere -- on the fly, if I have to. One of my favorite things is to sit and write on a plane, middle-seated, believing that my seat mates on either side are probably stealing a glance or two at the screen on my tray table. Or, not...and yet I get it in my head that I'm writing for an audience, in real-time, although of course this is only in my head, because I can't imagine there are too many idiots like me who like to "eavesdrop" on other people's work in this way.

What are you working on now?

I've just finished working on a book with Ohio governor John Kasich that is partly about the 2016 Presidential campaign, and partly a hopeful look forward at ways to set right the American pendulum. We've worked together on two previous books, before he was elected governor, but this time out he's occupying a somewhat more prominent place on the national stage, so we're looking forward to how that book will be received. He has an important message to share with readers, and it's an honor to be on board to help him do so. I'm also working on a motivational business book with FUBU founder and "Shark Tank" panelist Daymond John, who's become a leading voice for young entrepreneurs; and, a desperately sad true crime story that I keep putting off in part because it's so desperately sad but also because I need to put a little space between the heartbreak I felt in learning the facts of this story and the objectivity I'll need to put in its place in order to share it effectively with readers. Also, I've started in on a new novel, so the plan is to carve out month-long chunks of uninterrupted time for me to work on it, in and around these other projects.

Have you ever suffered from writer's block?

Yes and no. Yes, when I'm working on a novel. I'll be brick-walled on a plot point, or a direction I may or may not want to be taking. I don't typically work with an outline, so even though I might have a sense of where a story is going, I have no idea how I'll get there. That feeling is a little bit thrilling, and a little bit terrifying, and I've learned over the years to trust in it and give myself over to it. And yet when I'm working on a non-fiction piece, especially in collaboration, on someone else's autobiography or memoirs, there's never a block. The story is the story - it's all so right there. The story has already been lived, it only falls to me to help tell it, and the writing at these times feels to me more like a craft than an art.

What's the best writing advice you've ever received?

I had a writing professor in college, really more of a mentor than a professor. His name was Alan Lebowitz — one of the world's great Melville scholars, and an accomplished novelist in his own right. He was the chairman of the English Department at Tufts University — and he was the one who turned me on to Mailer in a full-on way. Anyway, a group of used to sit around his coffee table for hours each week, sharing our work, breaking it down, pushing each other. I came to value Alan's opinion a great deal, and we stayed in touch for a while after I graduated. He'd weigh in from time to time on something I'd written, and I was always grateful for his comments. But then, a bunch of time went by, and I learned he was retiring, so I reached out to him and we fell in to talking. I told him I'd written a new novel and asked if I could send it to him. So I sent him my second novel, Mourning Wood, just to hear what he had to say about it. A couple weeks later, he sent me back a note that said, "Write another one." That's all. Now, maybe that meant he thought the novel was crap, and that I should set it aside and move on, but I took it to mean that the stuff of a writing life was to build a body of work, to look ever forward, to keep writing -- one way to look at it, right?

What's your advice to new writers?

Read. Read. Read. That's the groundwork, the foundation. When you read, you begin to see what's possible. When you read, you build a template. When you read, you absorb the language of literature, the structure, the form. You open your mind to new ways of thinking, new ways of looking out at the world. And so, read. It goes without saying, and yet it needs saying, so there's that. Also, this: write for yourself. Hold your own attention. Keep at it, and find ways to surprise yourself as you move along. Don't worry who will publish your book, who will read your book, who will review your book...just go ahead and write the damn thing. People will come to it, or they won't. People will spark to it, or they won't. But write the book you want to read. Print it out and hold it in your hands. Marvel at what you've accomplished. Then go ahead and write another one.  

Daniel Paisner is well-known to publishers (and somewhat less well-known to readers) as the author of more than 60 books, including 14 New York Times best-sellers. As a ghostwriter, he has written more than 50 books in collaboration with athletes, actors, politicians, business leaders and ordinary individuals with extraordinary stories to tell. He is co-author of the acclaimed Holocaust memoir The Girl in the Green Sweater, written with Krystyna Chiger and the gripping 9/11 diary Last Man Down: A Firefighter’s Story of Survival and Escape from the World Trade Center, with FDNY Deputy Chief Richard Picciotto –- both international best-sellers. He recently completed a campaign memoir with Ohio Governor John Kasich -- Two Paths: America Divided or United, to be published by St. Martin's Press in April.

He has also written several books of his own, including The Ball: Mark McGwire’s 70th Home Run Ball and the Marketing of the American Dream – a singular tale of the Rawlings baseball that stood for a few fleeting moments as the Holy Grail of sports memorabilia. He is the author of three novels: A Single Happened Thing ("... poignant and whimsical..." - The Millions); “Mourning Wood” (“… has the makings of a cult favorite…” – Booklist, starred review); and, Obit (“… a classic mystery novel…” – The Boston Globe).

Over the course of his ghostwriting career, Paisner has taken on the real-life personas of dozens of compelling individuals, including a World Series of Poker champion; the son of a Yanomami tribeswoman; a plus-size supermodel; an FBI hostage negotiator; a three-term Democratic Mayor of New York City; a three-term Republican Governor of New York State; a network television weatherman; a daytime television talk show host; a #1 ranked women's tennis player; a bilateral amputee mountaineer; an Oscar winner; an Emmy winner, a Tony winner; an "Apprentice" winner; a former First Daughter; a current First Daughter; a New York City bail bondsman; an undersea explorer; a world champion surfer; a foul-mouthed, misogynist comedian; an urban fashion mogul; a Cosby kid; an Olympic swimmer; an autistic high school student; and on and on. He has been nominated, improbably, for an NAACP Image Award, for his work on Daymond John's best-selling book, The Power of Broke.