How did you become a writer?
By accident. I thought I wanted to be a journalist, but that ambition ran aground against the diminishing opportunities and pathetic wages of the internet age. That, and the moment when a hawk-nosed editor at a London news agency asked me to doorstep the parents of a dead child – I believe I told him to go f*ck himself – which betrayed that my hunger for the story was nowhere near as voracious as it needed to be to make it in the reporting game. After that, I started doing a lot of travel writing, in part because travelling was something I loved, and because it was a discipline I could nurture while holding down a more regular job. Slowly, that morphed into a broader purview as my confidence grew, and I came to appreciate that I occasionally had something of value to contribute to other, more urgent, conversations, such as the impending heat-death of the planet.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Encountering the American ‘New Journalism’ of Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson et al, and, later, the luminous writing of the Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinszki, helped me understand that non-fiction could be beautiful and experimental as well as true. More recently, Karl Ove Knaussgard’s ‘My Struggle’ cycle, with its pages of exquisite banality, exposed the power of confessional writing like nothing I’ve encountered before. But, as a general rule, it’s rare that I’ll linger on any particular canon or genre, rarer still that I attempt to directly transpose another writer’s style onto my own page – emulation is no substitute for the necessarily long process of finding your own voice. Day to day, I find morsels of inspiration in almost everything I read, from glib ad-copy to nineteenth century Russian literary epics. There is seldom a week in which I don’t stumble across a piece of writing that fills me with the cocktail, painfully familiar to any writer, of awe mixed with envy, usually in The New Yorker, those bastards.
When and where do you write?
I tend to write a day a week, normally Mondays, more if I’ve got multiple assignments on the go or deadlines looming. I work from home, at a ground floor desk which is usually semi-submerged beneath my kids’ toys. For the rest of the week, I’m a landscape gardener. I find that the manual labour and zen-like repetition are a perfect counterweight to the gruelling intellectual heft of writing about spider webs and 1990s American wrestling. I use an old Nokia phone, meaning that, for the eight hours a day that I’m pruning flowers and erecting fences, I am not beholden to the internet, and thereby free from the temptation to refresh my email inbox every thirty seconds to check whether that heartless editor has got back to me about my pitch. I see this as integral to my ongoing project to stay sane.
What are you working on now?
Some travel features from Mongolia; yet another essay about the inescapable purgatory of the Great British Culture War in the age of Brexit. As always, I have a couple of amorphous, state-of-the-world essays that I will keep chipping at until they start to resemble something coherent, and which I usually farm out when I stumble on some kind of topical hook, or when I haven’t had anything published for a while and the self-loathing sets in. Like every writer, I have a hopelessly ambitious book idea simmering. I have little doubt that it will win a bevy of international prizes, and secure my fame and fortune, though it’s hard to envisage when personal circumstances might permit the necessary time (at least three months in the Indian Himalayas plus a year of writing) or financial liberty (bills to pay, kids to clothe, and sundry other inconveniences) that I need to pursue it.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Less writer’s block, more writer’s derangement syndrome. I can usually get some words out, it’s just that they won’t always be very good words, and they might not appear in the right order. In my mind, the more formidable adversary is procrastination. I suffer from an unfortunate malady in that every time I nail a sentence or paragraph, I like to congratulate myself by flicking through all of the seventy-five other tabs I have open, or getting up from my desk to pillage the snack drawer.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Around one thousand editors have implored me to tone down my logorrheic predilection for baroque grandiloquence. I know it’s a sage piece of advice, albeit one that I have tended to ignore, if only because using big words is a symptom of writerly diffidence, and my imposter syndrome knows no bounds.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Cherish good editors. Push back against bad ones. Hone your versatility – what stimulates editor interest one week may encounter a wall of silence the next. Believe in your own mind, by which I mean have faith that if you find a subject interesting there will be readers out there who feel the same. Understand that the modern media landscape is in constant flux; don’t become overly dependent on one or two outlets because they will shutter and you won’t be able to feed your children. With this precarity in mind, perhaps the most sensible advice would be: do something else? I don’t want to stifle peoples’ aspirations, but anyone looking to take writing seriously nowadays should know that only members of the elite firmament of generational voices and prolific legacy-publication staffers are still making a decent living at this game. For everyone else, a side-gig or lavish trust fund is probably essential.
Henry Wismayer is a writer based in London. His essays, features and commentary have appeared in over 80 publications including the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The Guardian and Time Magazine. He tweets at @henrywismayer.