How did you become a writer?
I started my journalism career at The (Centralia) Chronicle, a small newspaper in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, where my title was “rural reporter,” meaning that I covered the goings-on in towns with fewer than 1,000 residents. Most of my stories were about logging accidents, mill accidents, meth lab explosions, and, even more harrowing, small-town politics. I covered events like the Toledo (Washington) Cheese Days festival and was later banned from the Morton Loggers Jubilee for writing about an 80-year-old retired logger who wasn’t allowed to compete in the spar pole climbing contest. He had proven to me, in a demonstration that I feared would become another logging accident, that he was still a force to be reckoned with on the spar pole. This was the best job I’ve ever had.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
One of my all-time favorite books is Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. I read it when I was just starting out in journalism, and it became the model for the kind of immersive literary journalism I wanted to do. Rebecca Skloot and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s books have also been immense sources of inspiration.
My freshman year in college, I was extraordinarily lucky to have Susan Rieger, the author of The Heirs and The Divorce Papers, as a writing teacher. She wasn’t a novelist then, but she was an incredible teacher whose advice and encouragement have fueled my writing career from the beginning. It’s funny; she read all these essays I wrote when I was 18, but I didn’t get to read any of her work until a few years ago, when she published her first book. And then I realized that our writing styles are nothing alike — I admire her writing enormously, but our voices are very different. I’m not sure why that surprised me, but I guess I had always assumed that she had taught me to write like her. Instead, she had helped me cultivate my own unique voice. I’m so grateful to her for that.
When and where do you write?
My favorite place to write is at a coffee shop. I spent eight years in newsrooms, and I find that the background noise is good for focus. I like having other people around — as long as they’re doing their own thing and ignoring me. The biggest drawback is that I never know what to do with my laptop when I go to the restroom. Do I take it with me? Ask someone to watch it? Cover it with napkins and hope nobody notices it? Usually I just hurry and hope for the best.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to come up with an idea for my next book. If you have any, let me know. My first book, The Boy Who Loved Too Much, is narrative nonfiction about a rare genetic disorder called Williams syndrome, which is sometimes called the opposite of autism: It makes people extremely outgoing and overwhelmingly affectionate. That project took seven years from conception to publication, and the immersive reporting, while incredibly rewarding and worthwhile, was intense. I can’t imagine spending that much time with people who aren’t so intrinsically kind and lovable — which is pretty much all of the rest of us. So I’d like to pick something that won’t take quite as long.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Often, but never for very long. The antidote is to have daily deadlines that your livelihood depends on. Luckily, I had those as a newspaper reporter; I’ve tried to impose them on myself now that I don’t have editors yelling at me. I set daily word goals and just imagine the irate editor.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
What’s your advice to new writers?
Jennifer Latson is the author of The Boy Who Loved Too Much, the poignant story of a boy’s coming-of-age complicated by Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that makes people biologically incapable of distrust. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote, “[Latson] skillfully interweaves the science — what we do and don’t know about genetic disorders such as Williams — with a powerful story line.”