How did you become a writer?
Back in high school, I already had an idea. I had a history teacher who said I had “a knack” for writing, which kind of got me going. The next year I became editor-in-chief of my high school paper, but then had nothing to do with journalism during college. My college was a place where we only read primary source books: Marx, Freud, Hegel, Kirkegaard, Sartre, Plato, that sort of thing. I loved exploring ideas and the works of great thinkers, even if I didn’t see many models of great writing. I wasn’t trying to “be” a writer: I was more focused on making sense of a world that wasn’t making a lot of sense.
But eventually I realized if I wanted to continue exploring ideas and how people live—and make a living—I better get some training and start writing, every day. After getting a graduate degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and writing dozens and dozens of stories, some of which were published in newspapers, I started on a path of writing full-time for newspapers and magazines. The way I saw it, it took about seven years of writing professionally before I began to believe this was real—that I wasn’t going to have to quit and get a regular job, that I really can tell stories and pay my bills.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I loved big biographies like Carl Sandburg’s series of books on Lincoln and social commentary like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. Early on, my mind was opened up by absurdist writers like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Franz Kafka. I also loved the engaging style and humanity of J.D. Sallinger and, later, stylists and explorers of the human experience like Milan Kundera, Don DeLillo, Martin Amis and Sigmund Freud. Joan Didion’s carefully observed and gracefully written essays/stories have been important, as have deeply researched and beautifully crafted narrative non-fiction works by Erik Larsen and Hampton Sides.
When and where do you write?
Almost every day in my office with a window, preferably beginning early in the morning when my mind is fresh, uncorrupted by the day’s distractions.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on three non-fiction books. One is a fairly big book about American character, largely told through historical sketches and contemporary stories of remarkable Americans who represent the best of us, some famous, most not. The second, smaller book focuses on a single day in the year 1909, a project that’s taken shape by chance, after I bought a copy of The New York Times from that day. The third is a love story and crime story, based on an airplane hijacking in the 1970s.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
If your family’s survival depends on it, you just keep going, even during those days, weeks or months when the spirit is not moving you. At least that’s how it’s been for me.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Two thoughts: Historian David McCullough has said, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly.” So a lot depends on your work before you hit the keyboard. I’ve also benefited from the writing process of Hemingway, who said to “always stop when you know what is going to happen next.” That way you have momentum the next day when you pick it up.
What’s your advice to new writers?
The difference between writers and people who talk about being writers is this: Writers write, a lot. As long as you’re curious, hard-working and continue developing your craft, you can keep getting better for a lifetime. If you’re genuinely passionate about writing, don’t give up.
Steven Beschloss is an award-winning writer, journalist, and filmmaker. He is the author of The Gunman and His Mother: Lee Harvey Oswald, Marguerite Oswald and The Making of an Assassin, a bestselling Amazon Kindle Single, and co-author of Adrift: Charting Our Course Back to a Great Nation. His writing on international and urban affairs, politics, economics, art, culture, and history—from the US and overseas—has been published by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New Republic, Smithsonian, Parade, National Geographic Traveler, The Economist and its Economist Intelligence Unit, and dozens of other print and online outlets. His film work as writer and producer includes “Paris,” a noir love story, and “The Miracle,” a fictional documentary shot in St. Petersburg, Russia, about a TV journalist who goes to Russia with the impossible assignment of filming a miracle. You can follow him on twitter at @stevenbeschloss or check out his website, www.stevenbeschloss.com.