Todd Hasak-Lowy

How did you become a writer?

Indirectly, because I first wanted to be a professor, something I decided to become around the age of 20. I also knew that I wanted to study Israel and the Middle East. But it took me a while to decide which field or discipline I wanted to pursue.

I wound up settling on Comparative Literature. I attended the University of California, Berkeley for graduate school, where I started in 1994. There I studied Hebrew and Arabic literatures, though by the time I was writing my dissertation I was only working on Hebrew literature. The weird thing about being at Berkeley, especially at first, was that I really had no idea how to study literature. My undergraduate major had been interdisciplinary, with an emphasis on history. I had always loved reading novels, but had never much systematic instruction. Suddenly I was attending one of the top literature programs in the world, and I was lost. My first few semesters at Berkeley, were, needless to say, difficult.

But when I started making sense of fiction (and narrative in general), the payoff was huge. I still remember, sitting in my younger brother’s apartment (both my brothers moved to San Francisco around the time I moved to Berkeley), reading some comic or graphic novel that was clearly in the tradition of R. Crumb or Harvey Pekar. I was amazed how the author was able to represent an entire imagined world, and that this world was utterly specific and alive, and that the author was creating all this through some remarkable combination of decisions, techniques, ideas, etc.

I guess that was an epiphany of sorts. I suddenly realized, Oh, this [this=writing stories] is really interesting, and somehow no longer 100% mysterious, and so maybe I could do it. I had always had a creative impulse (one that largely manifested itself from a young age with my behaving like a clown), but I never had a form or a medium to work in. Now I sensed I may have found one. I started writing a few months later, my voice somehow mostly formed right from the beginning.

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

Two novels that I read around the time I started writing had a big impact on me: Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine and Yaakov Shabtai’s Past Continuous. These two works, each in its own way, offered me very particular models for forging my own prose. They were both highly analytical, which has always been central to my prose.

My main teachers were the people I was studying with at Berkeley at the time. Robert Alter, Chana Kronfeld, Miki Gluzman, and Naomi Seidman. None of them were creative writing teachers per se (I’ve only taken one creative writing class in my life, and that was back in undergrad and didn’t really lead anywhere), but they all taught me to be a better reader, which is probably just as important. 

When and where do you write? 

My most productive hours are 9 am-noon. Sometimes I’ll revise in the afternoon. I don’t write every day, but during the school year I’ll usually write every weekday morning except Thursday (when I teach). If possible I write in the sunroom in our house. This is one of my favorite places in the world, because of all the windows and because it’s my space and no one else’s. Unfortunately, it’s not winterized (or air conditioned), so the weather must cooperate for me to work out there. Otherwise, it’s our living room. I used to like writing in cafes, but now I’m too sensitive to sound to concentrate in such places.

What are you working on now? 

I’m finishing up a draft of a book currently titled We are Power: Nonviolent Activism in the 20th Century. This is a history for young readers, a follow-up of sorts to a book I co-wrote (with Susan Zimet) that came out in January 2018, Roses and Radicals: The Epic Story of How American Women Won the Right to Vote. I’m also working on a novel for adults about the prime minister of a fictional country that’s been locked in a conflict with another fictional country for decades and who decides one day to apologize to the other country. Last, I also recently started translating a Hebrew novel called Aquarium, by Yaari Shehori. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I rarely if ever suffer from writer’s block. But I do somewhat regularly suffer from what might be called “sitting down to write at all block.” The distinction being: something (in the latter) is keeping me from bothering in the first place. So not a lack of ideas or lack of desire to write, but some other set of concerns (self-doubt, anxiety, other obligations) sort of tell me I shouldn’t write at all. It’s annoying, to say the least.

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

I don’t think I’ve heard anything that isn’t pretty cliched at this point, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t (and isn’t) valuable. For me the most valuable thing that others can give me is encouragement. Writing is lonely, the process is slow, and you’ll never know about or hear from 99.9% of your readers, which makes it easy to assume that no one is reading you at all. So anytime someone tells me to keep writing, well, that helps. The voice in my head telling me not to bother (even after publishing a bunch of books) is insanely loud and persistent at times.

What’s your advice to new writers?

First, read a lot, trying to find a balance between what you love and what you suspect you “should” be reading. The ratio of input (reading) to output (writing), especially early on, should probably be something along the lines of 10:1, maybe even 100:1. You just need to steep yourself in literary language and storytelling/literary techniques. And read reverse-engineering style: don’t just “like” and “dislike” things—try to figure out what exactly it is you’re liking and how the writer is creating that effect (whether it be a character, a description, the structure of a scene, etc.). Read like a writer, in other words.

Second, just write. Many aspiring writers (for reasons good and bad) expend a lot of energy agonizing over whether they should write at all, what to write, why to write, etc., etc. Either write or don’t write. And if you’re going to write, then just commit to it (indeed, schedule it into your week) and write. And early on simply produce pages. Focus on the process and don’t think about what it all might lead to. The inertia of not writing is formidable, so overcome and don’t look back.

Last, write what you want to read. Or, if children are your audience, what you think a younger version of you would have wanted. In seems crazy to me to write any other way for any other reason. 

Todd Hasak-Lowy has published two books for adults: a short story collection, THE TASK OF THIS TRANSLATOR (2005), and the novel CAPTIVES (2008). His first book for younger readers, a middle grade novel called 33 MINUTES, was published in 2013. In 2015 he published a young adult novel, ME BEING ME IS EXACTLY AS INSANE AS YOU BEING YOU. That same year, a narrative memoir for ages 10 and up that he co-wrote with and about Holocaust survivor Michael Gruenbaum called SOMEWHERE THERE IS STILL A SUN came out. In early 2018 a young person's history of the women's suffrage movement, ROSES & RADICALS, which he co-wrote with Susan Zimet, was published. In addition to writing, he teaches literature at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago and translates Hebrew literature into English. Todd lives in Evanston, Illinois (just outside Chicago), with his wife, two daughters, a dog, and two cats.