How did you become a writer?
Probably like most writers, by being a reader, almost to the exclusion of any other activity. I scribbled stories throughout my childhood and into adulthood, but didn’t get serious until my late 30s, when I signed up for Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Writers’ Workshop. It only took me another twenty years to get a book published.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
James Rahn, who heads the aforementioned Rittenhouse Writers’ Workshop, was a huge influence, with his constant advice to push well beyond my comfort zone. I have a number of craft books that I re-read from time to time to remind myself of the basics: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, Blake Snyder’s screenplay book, Save the Cat, etc. As for books, probably every one I’ve ever read. Put something by Toni Morrison or Cormac McCarthy or Alice Munro or Marilynne Robinson into my hands, and I dissolve into a puddle of admiration and hopeless envy.
When and where do you write?
The short answer is anywhere and anytime. At least a few times a week, I try to get to a coffeeshop across from my office at around 7 a.m., which gives me a couple of hours of focused writing. That’s the best. But the day job frequently interferes with that, so then I squeeze in a little while before I go to bed—or, even in the middle of the night if insomnia won’t let go. One of the benefits of years as a journalist is that I don’t need quiet or privacy to write. Writing time is so precious that even a free half-hour can be fruitful, if I’m smart enough to grab the opportunity.
What are you working on now?
A standalone about refugees, following up on (but not related to) my 2018 standalone, Silent Hearts, and verging back into crime novel territory.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Reporters don’t get to have writer’s block. It’s great training for a novelist. I’ve had spells—long, excruciating spells—where nothing I’m writing seems to make sense, where the novel just sits on the screen like a lump, refusing to cooperate. I’ve learned that if I just keep writing, my brain will get sick of writing crap, and I can go back and delete that junk. But at least I’m not paralyzed.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
You can’t edit a blank page.
There are so many excuses not to write. One of my favorites: I think I’ll just lie here and stare at the ceiling. But a terrible day writing is way better than no writing at all, because you can go back and whip that terrible page into shape. That’s a great day.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Put in the work. It takes a long time (sometimes discouragingly long) to get better, but every day you put in is a day closer to that time. Don’t wait for perfection—the perfect time, the perfect place, the perfect sentence. You can always go back and rewrite. (See above, re the blank page.) Read. A lot. Find a writing community—workshops, conferences, online critique groups. You don’t get anywhere in this business without a lot of help along the way, so be sure to pay it forward. Karma is a real thing. Oh, and have fun. This is a really hard business, but in the immortal words of Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, “The hard is what makes it great.”
As an award-winning journalist, Gwen Florio covered stories ranging from the mass shooting at Columbine High School, to the glitz of the Miss America pageant and the more practical Miss Navajo contest, whose participants slaughter a sheep. She’s reported from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, as well as Lost Springs, Wyoming, population three. She turned to fiction in 2013 with the publication of her first novel, Montana, which won the national Pinckley Prize for Debut Crime Fiction and a High Plains Book Award. Her sixth novel, Silent Hearts, set in Afghanistan, was published in 2018 by Atria.