How did you become a writer?
Though it sounds trite, I knew I was a writer ever since I was little, the way you know you have blue eyes or hate canned vegetables. The trick, at least for me, was allowing this knowing to assume its rightful place in my life amidst the din of financial concerns and status concerns and my own aversion to uncertainty. In my early twenties, I was attempting somewhat half-heartedly to publish, and then at 25 I got diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. My life didn't so much as flash before my eyes during those long months of treatment as it did crystallize into almost unbearable clarity. I thought: okay, you have to go for this, and you can't hold anything back. And ever since then, with a few periods of notable exceptions, I haven't.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
There are so many! The first influences that come to mind are the books I read as a child: The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, A Bridge to Terabithia, Judy Blume, Lois Lowry...and really the entire children's and young adult section of the Verona Public Library, since I used to take out entire duffel bags full of books, particularly in the summer. I was fortunate enough to have a number of teachers who nurtured both my interest and talent, from kindergarten through graduate school, most notably, and most recently, National Book Award nominee Charles Baxter.
The books that have influenced me the most in the past decade or so are by female authors with whom I can only dream of keeping company, and by whom I set my compass. Rachel Cusk's Outline changed the way I thought about fiction. Same goes for Eve Babitz's Slow Days, Fast Company, Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado, and Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love. All these works are either hilarious or gutting, and very often both.
When and where do you write?
When I'm drafting something, I write in the mornings in my home office, which has east-facing windows so I can watch the sun rise. My drafting process is intensely ritualized, and dare I say spiritual. Revising, on the other hand, feels more like an American definition of "work." I have to trick myself into putting in long hours, which generally means I head to a co-working space or coffee shop in an attempt to develop discipline by osmosis. I revise better mid-day and after I've exercised, so I'm less likely to get stir-crazy.
What are you working on now?
I'm in the early stages of research for a new novel about the women of Silicon Valley.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Oh, sure. Who hasn't? But I think there's a difference, as Tillie Olsen writes so eloquently about, between lying fallow and being silenced by forces both interior and exterior. During periods of major upheaval -- a move, a breakup, a death -- I have a great deal of trouble expressing myself through language. Or, to put it more kindly, the language for that particular experience hasn't yet revealed itself to me.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
One day, not long after I'd completed my graduate studies, Charlie Baxter sat me down and said that a first novel was a writer's attempt to answer the sphinx's riddle. The riddle, Charlie said, was the same for every writer: what has happened to me, and how can I be more than just the person to whom these things have happened? It's a beautiful image, so compassionate, and encouraging -- in the sense that it really gave me courage. Because I knew that if I could answer that riddle, the sphinx's door would swing open, and so much would be waiting on the other side.
What’s your advice to new writers?
I take heart in that old Samuel Beckett saw: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail Again. Fail better."
Sally Franson is the author of A Lady's Guide to Selling Out. Her writing has been published in The Guardian, Glimmer Train, NPR, and the Best American series, and has been honored by fellowships with The MacDowell Colony, The Ucross Foundation, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. She holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota and lives in Minneapolis.