How did you become a writer?
I decided I wanted to become a writer when I was 17 in two steps, one that was rational and the other less so. At the time, I wanted to be filmmaker, but I read Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and loved it, and then saw the movie, and thought it was so weak compared to the book. Knowing that it had swept the Oscars the year it came out--in other words, that it was a masterpiece, but felt paltry compared to to the novel it was based on--I decided that books were the superior form. Then I read Kerouac's On the Road, and as a bored suburban teenager, the writing life portrayed in that book seemed heady and wild, which appealed to me. Of course, I grew out of that when I went from wanting to be a writer to actually becoming one, which took years and years of hard work sitting at my desk, failing at a few novels, getting experience as a reporter, researcher, and essayist, and then finally landing on the non-fiction project that felt custom-made for me, my first book: The Age of Disenchantments.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Fiction writers I adore, who I've tried to learn from, include: Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon, Kafka, Marilynne Robinson, Deborah Eisenberg, Vladimir Nabokov, Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Luis Borges, Joan Didion, Elena Ferrante, Enrique Vila-Matas, Ben Lerner, Javier Marías, Javier Cercas, James Salter, Megan Abbott, Rachel Cusk. Non-fiction writers include: Stacy Schiff, Joan Didion, Jon Lee Anderson, Michael Paterniti, Catherine Bailey, Janet Malcom, Tom Reiss, Brendan Koerner, Alice Bolin, Emmanuele Carrere, Maggie Nelson. By those writers, some especial favorite books are: White Noise, Pale Fire, 2666 and The Savage Detectives, A Heart So White, Leaving the Atocha Station, Housekeeping, Outline, The Journalist and the Murderer, Vera, The Skies Belong to Us, The Secret Rooms. As an undergraduate, I studied with Alice McDermott and Stephen Dixon, who gave me a lot of important encouragement, and for non-fiction the journalist Tina Rosenberg mentored me at key points.
When and where do you write?
Most days I'm at my desk in my home office from around 8am to 5pm, though not all of that is writing time. There's email, escapes to go surfing for an hour or two, time set aside for reading, and occasionally a bit of procrastination.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a longform magazine piece and doing research for a possible new non-fiction book.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not really in the kind of clinical way people often talk about it. I'm very disciplined about just sitting down and getting stuff onto the page, but often I have periods of reading and research during which I don't write, storing up ideas and information so that when I do finally sit down it comes pouring out of me.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Oof, so many good nuggets I've heard it's hard to choose. In terms of storytelling, that it's very important to always keep at the front of your mind what your characters/subjects want and are going after, since if you know that usually you won't get blocked because you'll know what happens next. As for process, that you have to be prepared for more hard, tiring work than you want to do or are likely prepared for.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Work really hard. Be patient. And try all the different forms (fiction, essays, journalism, screenwriting) to discover where your strengths are--and know that your strengths might not lie where you want them to.
Aaron Shulman is the author of the non-fiction historical narrative The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War (Ecco/HarperCollins, March 2019). After growing up in Michigan, Aaron attended Johns Hopkins as an undergrad and then the University of Montana, where he received his MFA in creative writing. A former Fulbright scholar, his work has appeared in The Believer, The New Republic, The American Scholar, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among many other places.