How did you become a writer?
My path to actually finishing a novel was a haphazard one, but I’ve been writing since I can remember, always fascinated by storytelling and utterly in love with reading and the other worlds reading let me inhabit. I was a quiet kid, and one who loved nothing more than being immersed in a book, and I remember trying to tell my own stories at a very young age, doing these elaborate (and mostly stick-figure-drawn) narratives on the scrap paper my dad would bring home for me from his office. And from then on I was always doing writing of some kind—I wrote for the school newspaper, edited the literary magazine in high school, and when I had down time I’d write long, meandering stories that never seemed to reach a visible end.
But it never seemed like something I could pursue wholeheartedly. Now, still, though my first novel,The Most Fun We Ever Had, came out a few months ago, I hesitate a little any time someone asks me what I do, because until lately writing has always felt like a secreted-away source of pleasure rather than a professional pursuit. I ended up—very, very happily— working in social services in Chicago for a number of years, and then I went through half of a masters in social work before I decided that the novel I’d been writing—the secreted-away pleasure I kept coming back to—might be worth having a real go at. So I dropped out of grad school, took a job as a nanny, and applied to twelve MFA programs, telling myself that if I got rejected I’d go back and finish my masters in social work. And I ended up getting some acceptance letters, and I moved out to Iowa, where I got paid to write fiction for the first time in my life, and I really put my head down and gave the novel my all.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro are the writers whose work I turn to when I’m stuck, when I want to be reminded of the extent of what fiction can do. I also love John Cheever’s stories, which feel utterly timeless to me—honest explorations of the human psyche. And Shirley Jackson’s memoiristic writing (about, among other things, raising children) not only brought me a great deal of pleasure, but was wonderfully helpful as I was writing The Most Fun We Ever Had, which focuses in part on the highs and lows of motherhood. I love writing that toes that line between humor and gravitas, that acknowledges that most sad moments are funny in some way and that there’s often heartbreak in amongst real joy, and those aforementioned writers have a knack for nailing that balance over and over and over again.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to study with a number of extraordinarily lovely and talented writers, and those whose voices constantly kick around in my head as I’m writing are Margot Livesey and Ethan Canin. Margot is one of the most generous writers I’ve ever encountered, both emotionally generous and generous with her time and her seemingly infinite knowledge, and she seems to have read—twice!—everything ever written, for which she has both an infectious enthusiasm and boundless capacity for understanding. And Ethan has, in some ways, a very mathematical, regimented approach to fiction writing, which I—a rule-follower—find so comforting and strategically helpful, but he’s also someone who prioritizes empathy and humanity over everything else, and I think this is probably the most important thing we can focus on as fiction writers—being empathetic toward our characters (and, by extension, toward the world at large).
When and where do you write?
I write whenever and wherever I can! My writing life used to consist of moments I’d steal away from whatever else I was doing—I’d write on the subway, during lunch breaks at my office job, at home in the evenings when I finished my nannying job for the day—and it made me very flexible, work-wise.
In the last couple of years, though, I’ve had the greatest gift in the world for a writer, which is a lot of time specifically dedicated to writing. And while I’m still not very regimented in terms of time of day or space, I tend to write in the afternoons and volley back and forth from coffee shops and my home office (where—my one quirky writerly tendency—my desk is an old red picnic table that was passed down from my grandparents to my parents to me).
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m returning to a project I started when I was in graduate school, a close-range exploration of four characters and the ways that their lives intertwine; and when I’m not doing that I’m either unpacking from my recent cross-country move, or I’m reading. I just finished Anne Tyler’s delightful novel Clock Dance and am currently blissfully immersed in John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I’ve never experienced the inability to write, period, but I definitely have gone through times of blockage in terms of specific projects. I have a few dozen short stories on my computer desktop that are all at varying stages of unfinished, stories I was having fun with and still care about but for whatever reason can’t fully work through at present. And I’ll confess that the transition from my first novel to my second has been difficult in terms of creativity and momentum—it’s been hard to shift gears from something I’ve been living closely with, emotionally, for years and years. But my antidote to these things, ultimately, is to just keep writing—writing anything, even if it’s not part of something larger—and reading the writing of others.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
This isn’t something that was given to me directly, but one piece of advice I think about a lot is from Anne Lamott, something to the effect of “Just do it. Butt in chair.” I tell my students this religiously, too. Ultimately, as a writer, the thing we have to do is the writing. There’s no way around that.
A more concrete piece of advice I’ve gotten from many different people has to do with determining the so-what factor for every single scene in a story or a novel. This is something I used to harp on a lot when I was a teacher working with students studying business: that sort of straightforward, no-nonsense why the hell are you telling me this? But it applies to fiction too! Everything in a story—from individual characters to individual scenes to individual lines of dialogue to the ways you attribute those individual lines of dialogue—has to be there for a reason, and you, as the writer, have to be able to vouch for it. This has been a saving grace for me in terms of identifying the emotional heart of stories andparing down long projects (which was especially helpful because my first novel was, at one point, over 900 pages!).
What’s your advice to new writers?
Write as much as you can, whenever you possibly can, and make sure that you’re actually interested in whatever it is you’re writing about—if you aren’t, the reader can tell. Also: keep at it! And try not to get wrapped up in the political, competitive minutiae that tends to surface among writerly communities. If you can find one or two (or ten, if you’re lucky!) people who get what you’re doing, and support what you’re doing, and make you feel happy to be a person in the world, that’s the best thing ever. Also: be nice to yourself! Writing is a solitary and often very lonely gig, and it can be hard to measure progress or maintain motivation or be patient with the process. So my advice to those starting out is to just keep at it, and extend yourself as much kindness and courtesy as you’d extend to anyone committing him or herself to something new. I remind myself frequently of an adage my mom has been telling me since I was a kid: “most things worth doing aren’t easy.”
Claire Lombardo’s debut novel, The Most Fun We Ever Had, is out now from Doubleday Books and was an instant New York Times bestseller. She spent several years as a social worker before studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Born and raised in the Chicago area, she now lives in Philadelphia, where she is working on a second novel.