How did you become a writer?
I always wanted to write but I became a fiction writer by process of elimination. I tried being a journalist, a political writer (blogger for Obama), a marketing writer — but none of those careers felt quite right to me. I didn’t like being held down by rules or message discipline. Once I started writing fiction, in my early thirties, I immediately felt this surge of freedom and excitement and I knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I had the privilege of studying fiction under a lot of great writers at the Columbia MFA program including Sam Lipsyte, who showed me how much fun I could have playing around with the music and meaning(s) of words. I also took a seminar with Richard Ford, who raised my ambitions as a writer and showed me what it looked like to take writing dead seriously as a calling, not just a career.
No writer’s work has had more of an impact on me than Philip Roth — the way he alternates between total silliness and utter seriousness has made a huge impression on me. Also his fearlessness and willingness to go to the most humiliating places.
Huck Finn is my favorite book of all time and had a huge influence on GREEN, specifically my decision to have a young narrator who speaks in an American vernacular voice.
Other writers who’ve had a big influence on my work: Ralph Ellison, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Thoreau, Alice Munro, Paul Beatty, George Saunders, Zadie Smith, David Grossman, and Homer.
When and where do you write?
I go to a shared office space and sit in a boring cubicle. The more boring the space, the better. I used to obsessively fantasize about the perfect writing space — a shack next to a pond, a house on a cliff overlooking the ocean with a vast window, etc. But if you’ve got a good view, you’re gonna be looking at the breathtaking vista instead of the page. Much better to face a wall.
I get into my office around 9:30 AM and leave at 1:30 PM and spend the rest of the day taking care of my young son until my wife gets home.
What are you working on now?
I’m mapping out a new novel in my head. Haven’t started writing it yet. To me, writing isn’t hard at all compared to thinking. Coming up with good characters, good plot, good themes, to me, is a lot more challenging than coming up with good sentences (though writing good sentences is damn hard too!).
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Yes but now I prefer to not think of it that way. It’s like Voldemort — better not to say its name. I used to spend long stretches of time agonizing and trying to make something that wasn’t working work. Now, if I’m feeling stuck, I’ve learned to just move on and try something else.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
“Be regular and ordinary in your life, like a good bourgeoisie, so that you can be violent and original in your work.” Flaubert said that.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Don’t worry about getting published. Worry about writing something you’re proud of. Publishing is something of a crap shoot. I know a lot of unbelievable writers who haven’t been published and may never get published. But they are still unbelievable writers creating amazing stuff and that’s what matters most. Getting published is out of your control. But writing is in your control. Write and write and write and eventually you’ll have a story or novel. Then revise and revise and revise and it’ll be a better story or novel. Keep revising until you can’t possibly revise a single word in a single sentence and you’re done. You can and must be proud of finishing a work of fiction — something many people aspire to do and don’t end up actually doing.
1. Sit down, be humble. Stay curious and open and learn constantly.
2. Don’t try to be the fastest.
3. You will want to quit. You can’t quit. Stay.
Sam Graham-Felsen is the author of the novel Green, out now from Random House. He was Barack Obama’s chief blogger on the 2008 campaign, and has written essays and journalism for the New York Times Magazine, The Nation, The Washington Post and elsewhere.