How did you become a writer?
I fall in the category of writers who claim they've always written. But first I was read to, and then began reading at a young age. An early poem exists fully in my memory, which I'd not recite at gunpoint. But reading was an early passion and has remained constant in my life. Through adolescence I dabbled in drawing and painting, handcrafts. In high school I seriously began to write, poetry and short fiction. At college I continued writing poetry but also took two serious stabs at novels. The process was exhilarating and I was still young enough to believe that being a writer meant the work would come easily and swiftly. Several years passed before I learned the truth, which is that the struggle of the work is daily, with every paragraph, every sentence. I don't work from detailed outlines, although the arc of the story is firmly in place before I can begin. First draft is also a pleasure, as I'm discovering who these people are and what they're really up to. Revision and rewriting is much more challenging and can be quite grim. But that part of the process also allows for the opportunity to get as close as possible to restoring the book to my original hopes for it. A good editor is priceless and my wife Marion is not only my first editor but also my best. For marital harmony and balance of ego I take about fifty percent of her suggestions, the other fifty percent usually work their way in as I revise further.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I had a couple of good teachers at college but the strongest lesson I gained, in different ways, from both of them was to avoid the academic world. There are a small number of writers who have successfully navigated those waters and produced outstanding work but it's terribly demanding to be first-rate as both a teacher and a writer. Again, from an early age, reading. I grew up in a house with books and long before I could understand the complexities of their work, I'd read Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dreiser, Conrad Richter, the poetry of Robert Frost. I was fortunate also to have a good public library that beyond the permanent collection had a bookcase devoted to a rotating selection of freshly published books. I was in the fifth grade when Charles Portis published True Grit and it impressed me so deeply that I ordered a copy from the local bookstore. This was the first contemporary book I read and owned. That same library later introduced me to Jim Harrison (A Good Day to Die) and Robert Stone (Dog Soldiers). I'd come back to both of those writers in my twenties. Harrison became a lifelong friend when I impulsively wrote him a letter at 23 and much to my surprise he wrote back. Stylistically he was less of an influence than his dedication to the pursuit of the writing life, although his poetry resonates deeply. Robert Frost taught me that art exists in stories from rural life and landscape. When I encountered William Faulkner's work at college it was as if a bomb had gone off. All three of those writers made me realize that writers and stories could indeed arise from rural America, an important part of my own process. I'd add here Mark Twain and Thomas Hardy, both writers that also wrote about those marginalized within those rural landscapes and cultures. At college I also discovered Toni Morrison when i read The Bluest Eye, which was my first exposure to African American culture as seen from the inside. I attended a small alternative high school that was evenly split between white middle class kids and black kids from NYC. All of us were terrified, it's quite safe to say, but the small size of the school, about seventy kids, made it impossible for us all not to get to know each other deeply and personally. In my college years I began spending time in rural North Carolina and therefore began to learn more about race in America. All of this coincided to gather force and produce my first published novel, In The Fall. Other women that remain important to my own understanding and therefore my work, would be Anne Carson, Alice Munro, Annie Proulx, Nancy Huston, Marilynne Robinson and Jennifer Egan. The early reading of The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett. Also of significance was reading the Russians in my late teens, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Goncharov. And finally, in the late 70's-early 80's there was a paperback imprint that published Latin American writers in translation, not only Garcia Marquez but also Vargas Llosa, Cortazar, Amado, and more. Reading modern work from the other America also built upon my sense of the importance of stories from beyond the metropolitan and cosmopolitan worlds of New York, London, Paris.
When and where do you write?
I work in a studio space that's separate from but attached to my house—when my daughters were younger I had a studio in the barn. I enjoy the separation but also appreciate being able to wander into the house and visit, or cook dinner or simply step away from the work for a few minutes. I work on new writing in the afternoons. Mornings I edit, respond to email and letters, errands, things of that nature. When I'm composing new work I often step outside for a few minutes, into silence for my own thoughts to clarify but away from the desk. This seems to help a great deal. I am a bear about writing every day. The entire rhythm gets broken by a day away. Planned vacations are both a luxury and a relief.
What are you working on now?
I never talk about a work in progress. My standard bad joke when asked what my new book is about, is to respond, about 280 pages, so far. The truth is that it takes about a year after finishing a novel before I can accurately sum it up in a couple of sentences.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Daily, but that's simply part of the job. Several years ago I went through a bad patch of depression where I no longer understood the value of telling stories. Oddly enough I read throughout this time but did not write. A bad combination of personal factors brought me to that point. It was very strange and difficult to have the way I'd identified myself no longer make sense. Finally I realized the only way out of the hole was to write my way out, which I did. Someone, probably Harrison, once said, "Write or die." I have no retirement plan, beyond the hope of going on as long as I can and hopefully going facedown on the keyboard.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Beckett's "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Truly sums up the writing life. I also like a line from a poem of Harrison, "I realized I'd never wake up in the morning and know how to play the piano." And a well-known critic once told me, "If you're not pissing some people off, you're not doing your job."
What’s your advice to new writers?
Read. Write and write some more. Read. Keep writing. Read more. Also this: If you have a Plan B, if you give yourself a year or five to write and if that doesn't pan out, you'll go on to something else, skip the wasted time writing and go to Plan B. It's a life, not a job. All work has high points and low points so expect those.
Jeffrey Lent grew up in Vermont and western New York, on dairy farms powered by draft horses. He attended Franconia College and SUNY College at Purchase. He lived in North Carolina for almost twenty years. His novels include In the Fall, which was a National Bestseller, Lost Nation, A Peculiar Grace, After You've Gone, and A Slant of Light, which was a finalist for the New England Book Award. His most recent novel is Before We Sleep. Lent lives with his wife and two daughters in central Vermont.