How did you become a writer?
At first, I tried not to be one, because writing didn't seem like a stable way to make a living. I tried teaching high school, guiding anglers, and many odd jobs, but writing kept drawing me nearer and nearer--like gravity draws a river to the sea. At first, I started writing articles for outdoor magazines, and soon found luck. Within a year, I had started a how-to book on fly fishing, which seemed like the perfect way to learn the craft of writing a big project. At about that point, I applied to MFA programs, lured by the promise of knowledgeable mentors and a small writing stipend. I got very lucky to get into one program at Oregon State University.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
My early influences were all fishing related: Norman Maclean, David James Duncan, and Ted Leeson. Leeson taught at OSU, so I immediately sought his wisdom and guidance in person once I arrived; he has remained a friend and mentor over all these years since. As I turned toward writing fiction, my list of influences grew widely. I count Annie Proulx, Marianne Robinson, Charles Portis, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Larry McMurtry as major influences; however, if I'm totally honest, I feel like I learn something from every great novel I read, and I try to read widely, at the pace of 3-4 books a month.
When and where do you write?
Six days a week I "commute" about 50 yards to a cabin I built with my parents behind my house in Oregon's Coast Range. I have big windows overlooking a creek and field, and books on three walls. I use a stand-up desk, but spend large amounts of time on the floor or in a chair thinking through what will come next. I show up at the cabin with two big thermoses full of hot water for the green tea I brew on-site, and once the water is gone, I return "home" for lunch and a refill; usually that takes 4-5 hours. After lunch, I go for a hike on the hill above our house, then return to the office with fresh hot water, for another 2-3 hours. When I'm drafting something new, I will usually return to the cabin after the kids go to bed in the evening for another hour of thought, but not writing. The trick for me is to find the inspiration, then keep it stoked for as long as possible; my friends know me to be a flake when the writing is going well.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a novel called Peacemaker, which is set in 1924 in remote Oregon and follows four kids who are on a journey to find their mother. It's after WWI, and the historic West was, then, missing a generation of young men, including the characters' father. The novel is set in a world that remembers the characters from my last novel, Whiskey When We're Dry, as historic figures, which allows for me to build on the world I created in that novel. I'm loving the characters and the story, and so are my early readers. So fingers crossed!
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not really, though there are definitely times when I couldn't write if I wanted to. September is one of those times. In September, my mind is consumed with the garden, the salmon in the rivers, the mushrooms in the hills. I cut myself a break, and follow my whims, which all have to do with harvesting the bounty of fall. I read a lot between outings, but I don't write much. I justify the break by thinking that I'm storing up energy for the hard work coming during the winter. Most of me thinks that's true.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
The how is the shape of the what. David Keplinger, an American poet, offered that advice during a reading I once attended. I was blown away with it at the time; I couldn't understand what he meant, but the phrase wouldn't leave my mind. I count it as the most significant single line of advice I have ever encountered. In a writing context, consider this breakdown: if you want to write a great story, create a great story-writing process. The trick, of course, is learning what kind of process works for you. It took ten years, but for me, I've learned that good sleep, minimal alcohol, daily reading, and lots of walking are essential for my process. I never give myself a hard time when the writing ("the what") isn't going well; instead, I tweak "the how" of my writing life.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Beyond Keplinger's gem, I advise my students to read more than they write. I believe that before we can write great stories, we have to have internalized the largely ineffable movements of great stories. Personally, I sometimes think the first year of any MFA should be spent reading seven hours a day and writing for one hour. In the very least, I advise budding writers (of any age) to locate their first novel between three or four other published works of fiction; these books can serve like lighthouses when the waves are leaving you dizzy.
John Larison is the author of Whiskey When We're Dry, a September 2018 Indie Next Pick. Whiskey When We're Dry has been selected a Best Book by Entertainment Weekly, New York Post, Goodreads, O Magazine, and many others, and is currently being developed into a feature film by Shinbone Productions. He lives and writes in the mountains of western Oregon.