How did you become a writer?
Writing is less like a career choice and more like a disease; it’s like finding out you have asthma at age six, and then figuring out how to fit your life around it. If you are a writer, not writing isn’t really an option. You are writing all the time, no matter what or how and regardless of whether anyone is reading any of it.
I became a writer because I was obsessed since childhood with time. I would get into bed at the end of the day and wonder, What happened to this day that just ended? Where did it go? To me, writing was a kind of technology designed to solve this problem. I started writing—journals, notebooks-- because of a desperate need to stop time, and only later became interested in how storytelling works.
Because I was interested in preserving time rather than in making up stories at first, I decided in my teens that the way to do this was to become a journalist. Around age fourteen or fifteen I started publishing articles in magazines and newspapers, starting with local or special-interest magazines. One of my pieces for Hadassah Magazine, a national Jewish publication, was nominated for a National Magazine Award, which gave me a lot of exposure and enabled me to write for more publications. I worked at magazines like Time and Newsweek over the summers during college, still convinced I was going to be a journalist. But after college I won a scholarship to spend a year in England—and then got engaged to someone who couldn’t join me there. I found myself having an extremely lonely and depressing year, but I also suddenly had the time and mental space to experiment. I wrote my first novel that year, and published it when I came back to America, so that year was quite worth the heartache. I’ve now been married to my transatlantic fiance for almost 18 years, and with 5 novels and 4 children to show for it!
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I love novels that bend time, and novels that travel through multiple generations. When I was a teenager I came across certain books that really shaped my work. One was A.B. Yehoshua’s novel Mr. Mani, about five generations of a Jerusalem family with a suicidal gene. That book is written backwards: it starts with the most recent generation and works its way back to the 19thcentury, and it’s also written “sideways” in that we never meet the main characters directly, but rather hear about them through conversations with people who have encountered them by chance. That book is a kind of amazing archaeological puzzle where you peel back each layer to discover something astounding. I also read a book by Alan Lightman called Einstein’s Dreams, in which each chapter presents a different concept of time: in one chapter people live forever; in another people live for just one day; in another entropy moves backwards and chaos tends toward order; in another everyone knows the world will end at a particular time; in another people can travel to a place where time stops. There are no characters or plot in this book at all, but it amazed me just to see the possibilities of the imagination.
One author who influenced me enormously is Cynthia Ozick. My books all deal with Jewish history and culture, and at the time when I started writing, there were very few novelists in English who wrote about Judaism at all seriously; “Jewish” writers like Philip Roth were only interested in Judaism as a social identity and not at all in the actual content of Jewish tradition. Ozick, though, was writing novels that dove deep into the content of that tradition—not presenting this culture like it was an anthropological study, but engaging you through the plots of her stories in the philosophical questions posed by an ancient tradition that insisted on the meaning of the past, all while situating these stories in an American culture where the past is irrelevant. The idea that one could do this for an English language audience was revelatory to me.
When and where do you write?
My personal life does not allow me to be picky about when and where I write. Before I had children, my natural schedule was to write from around 1 in the afternoon until around 9 or 10 at night. With four young children, I have been forced to become a morning person and to write while my children are in school. Likewise with place. Now I write in my living room at home while my house is empty, but when I lived in a small city apartment I wrote my books in libraries and coffee shops. It’s important for me to be alone, whether that means actually by myself or surrounded by strangers. I now live in a smallish town, so writing in public is harder because I am more likely to see people I know.
What are you working on now?
Oh no, don’t ask me that! I have a few creative projects on deck, though none of them are books: one is a TV show, and another is a card game. (If you know people in these industries, contact me and I’ll tell you all about them!) I tend to take about a year between finishing one novel and settling into another, because I’m busy promoting the new book and also because every time I finish a book it seems impossible to me that I will ever do that again. I’ve now been through this five times, so I’ve learned to be slightly less panicked about the lag between one book and the next, and to use that gap to experiment with other things.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I do go through periods between books where writing another book seems unfathomable, but it no longer scares me. As for the daily kind of “block,” well, having four young children took care of that for me. When you only have a few hours a day when you can realistically work, you have no choice but to make the most of that time! Once I’m involved in a book, I obligate myself to write at least four pages for every day I’m able to work (translation: every school day when no one is home sick, the school isn’t closed for snow, there isn’t some kind of kids’ event or doctor’s appointment or teacher meeting....with four kids, these things take out an alarming number of days!). These pages don’t have to be good. They just have to be done. Raising four children is frankly so intense and demanding that a novel can’t even slightly compare. It’s a pleasure to be writing, and it’s certainly no longer something I voluntarily avoid!
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I only took one writing class in my adult life, during my freshman year of college, and I got worse grades in it than I got in economics. After the class ended, I went to see the professor. I told her I had always wanted to be a writer, but now I was doing better in economics than I was in her class, and I wanted to know if she had any advice for me. She advised me to become an economist. That was the first and last time anyone ever gave me any writing advice.
What’s your advice to new writers?
My advice to new writers is to get published before you attempt to publish a book. (Let’s be real about this. No one wants advice about writing. They want advice about publishing!) You can be secretly writing a novel for years, but no one is going to publish your novel unless you already have a track record of getting your name out there, in really any form possible. Concentrate on slapping your byline in as many places as possible—pitch to everyone and everywhere until things start to land, and then keep going. Then, when you finish the book, you’ll be giving whoever sees it a reason to actually open it.
Dara Horn is the author of five novels and has received numerous national awards, including two National Jewish Book Awards and recognition as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. A scholar of Hebrew and Yiddish literature, she has taught these subjects at Harvard University, Sarah Lawrence College and City University of New York, and lectures frequently around the country. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.