Merle Kessler

How did you become a writer? The first thing I ever wrote was a straight up rip-off of a Ray Bradbury story (I think it was Bradbury), because of its cool surprise ending: "In the living room, someone coughed." I was 12 or so. I didn't think of it as plagiarism. I believe I thought it was like singing somebody's song, and making it your own. Fortunately for me, the teacher who read it had not read the original story, and praised me greatly. I had never been praised before. It rather went to my head. Then I wrote bad poetry for a while, which I never showed to anybody. In college I learned that a brazen attitude can trump actual knowledge when writing an essay. Then I wrote plays, and fiction. And joined a sketch comedy group, which greatly colored my life. I slowly realized that, really, writing was the only thing I knew how to do. Kind of sad really. Oh, I can act and sing a bit.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).  S.J. Perelman was the biggest influence as a kid. His parodies were amazing, and led me to the things he was mocking. Also: comic books, and the original Mad magazines. Later, it would be Borges, PK Dick, Kafka, Neal Stephenson, Flannery O'Connor, Nabokov, Dickens. And movies. I love movies. I had a teacher in high school who was very encouraging of my writing, though we had a falling out, because he was also kind of a dick. As was I. In college I had an amazing teacher who was very smart and always emotionally engaged with the books he taught. My way of reading changed as a result of his class (depending on the book, of course - slow for Nabokov, fast for Edgar Rice Burroughs).

When and where do you write? Every weekday, in my office at home. Pretty much nine to five, with frequent interruptions, as I wander around the house sipping coffee.

What are you working on now? Something unusual. I am writing a short first person novel in the persona of Sterling Del Zell, who is a character created by Jim Turner, one of my partners in Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre. Del Zell is a loon, running for president. The book is his personal memoir ("ghost written" by me), along the lines of Sarah Palin's GOING ROGUE, or any of dozens of self-serving celebrity autobiographies (all of which I adore, and devour avidly). The fun and challenging part is writing from the point of view of a total nutcake, who doesn't think he's nutty at all.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? No. I have had trouble with certain passages, transitions, or moments in specific works. When that happens, and the frustration gets to be too much, I'll close the document, and work on something else. Either a solution will come to me, or not. So I have many not-quite-finished projects in the works at any given time. But I'm always writing something. And every week I finish something.

What’s your advice to new writers? Thanks to the Internet, there sure are a lot of them now, and they all seem to have the same breezy self-importance. Get over yourself. And don't write a memoir until you're seventy.

Bio: Merle Kessler is a founding member of Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre, which still does things from time to time, if allowed to bring walkers. He also co-created (with Dan Coffey) the long-running radio feature, ASK DR. SCIENCE. In his persona of Ian Shoales, he has written several books, and his commentaries have aired on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, MORNING EDITION, ABC NEWS, and NIGHTLINE. Currently, Ian Shoales is part of the public radio program, PHILOSOPHY TALK. His commentary has also been published in the NEW YORK TIMES, SALON, the SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER, the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, the WASHINGTON POST, and other venues. Kessler also writes the scripts for the nationally syndicated radio show, THE BLUESMOBILE, hosted by Dan Aykroyd (in his persona of Elwood Blues).

Laura van den Berg

How did you become a writer? I came to writing through reading. Unlike many writers, I wasn’t a big reader growing up. In college, I took a fiction workshop on a whim and started reading short stories by people like Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Charles Baxter, Denis Johnson, Jim Shepard, and A.M. Homes. I fell in love with these stories and soon wanted to write my own.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). Joy Williams has been a huge influence for me. I love both her novels and her stories. Michael Ondaatje, Amy Hempel, Alice Munro, Marguerite Duras, Jim Shepard, Kazuo Ishiguro, Virginia Woolf, and Haruki Murakami—just to name a few—have all been really important at different times as well.

When and where do you write? I write in the mornings, wherever I happen to find myself. On my non-teaching days, I write for several  hours at the desk in my apartment living room. I have a nice window that overlooks a tree-lined street.  On my teaching days—I live in Baltimore but teach in DC—I write for the hour I’m on the commuter train, headphones on, laptop balanced in lap. 

What are you working on now? I’m working on new stories and a novel.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? I haven’t suffered from writer’s block per say, but have suffered from periods where everything I'm writing is irredeemably terrible. It’s an awful feeling.

What’s your advice to new writers? This is an intensely difficult vocation, both the art and the business. The good news is that it can also be intensely rewarding, but there are many ups and downs. My advice is to take your work seriously. Not in the sense that you lose your sense of humor—I beg you to hold onto humor!—and become overly self-serious, but the world will never make it easy for you to write: you have to make the time, you have to keep doing it when it’s hard and unrewarding, to seek out opportunities, to make the necessary sacrifices. If you believe in yourself, even just a little, if you take your work seriously, the people in your life will follow your lead.

Bio: Laura van den Berg’s stories have or will soon appear in One Story, Conjunctions, American Short Fiction, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, Best New American Voices 2010, and The Pushcart Prize XXIV. Her debut collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, longlisted for The Story Prize, and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. She is also the author of the chapbook There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights (Origami Zoo Press, 2012). She currently teaches creative writing at George Washington University and lives in Baltimore.

Steven Raichlen

How did you become a writer? Simple: I followed a twelve-step program:

1. Earn a degree in French literature (or other discipline with equally poor job prospects) from a university that doesn’t offer an MBA, like Reed College. When asked what you want to do for a living when you grow up, state your ambition to become a novelist

2. Turn down a Fulbright for a Watson Foundation Fellowship to study medieval cooking. (Why go to graduate school when you can eat, drink and read your way through Europe?)

3. Move to a rent-controlled tenement in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where you decide to become a freelance food writer. Publish your first story in the Washington Post (on the misanthropic chef you trained with in Paris). Translate a Marquis de Sade short story for Playboy. If you’re lucky, you’ll earn $4000 your first year writing. Enjoy it: you’ll never feel so affluent again. 

4. Improve your diet by becoming the restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. Improve your disposition by becoming wine and spirits editor for GQ. Start freelancing for the New York Times and Esquire. None of this will make you rich, but it looks good on your resume.

5. Don’t listen to your mentor (French cuisine authority Anne Willan) when she tells you you’ll never earn a decent living writing cookbooks. Write one, two, three cookbooks, none of which will sell more than 5000 copies. Contemplate enrolling in a school that does offer an MBA.

6. Move to Miami, where in addition to better weather, you have the opportunity to write about the emergence of a sizzling new cuisine. Local chefs (the “Mango Mafia”) call it Floribbean. You’ll call it Miami Spice and sell the cookbook to Workman Publishing. 

7. Concoct a crazy scheme to travel the world’s barbecue trail, documenting how people grill in different countries. Sell this idea to Workman, too, and don’t complain when they change your brilliant working title (Barbacoa) to the more saleable Barbecue Bible. Take four years writing a book you planned to bang out in nine months, boosting the manuscript from 200 to 600 pages. Spend your advance in the first nine months and write three books on low-fat cooking to fund the completion of this one.

8. Whine when your publisher sends you on a 30-city book tour, with stops on the Today Show, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and the Howard Stern Show. OK, don’t whine too much. Sell a million-plus copies, proving your mentor wrong. Thank your lucky stars you stumbled onto a topic people actually want to read about.

9. Leverage one bestselling book into a bestselling series (Planet Barbecue; BBQ USA; Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades, etc.) Sell a million plus copies of How to Grill by taking advantage of the chronic male inability to ask for directions. (Hint: Lest you overestimate the compelling quality of your prose, acknowledge that the real selling point of the book is the 1000 step-by-step color photos.)

10. Leverage the book series into TV shows on PBS (Barbecue University and Primal Grill). Use your college French and German to sell your books in Europe and Canada (where you land a French language TV show called Le Maitre du Grill). Challenge Iron Chef Rokusbura Michiba to a barbecue battle on Japanese TV and beat him, landing translations in Japan and China.

11. Wake up one day midway through life and remember that you always wanted to write a novel. Take a six-month leave of absence from cookbooks to bang out the first draft. You’ll think you’ve written a masterpiece: you haven’t. Wait for that seven-figure advance offer. You’ll wait a long time. Call your book The Hermit of Chappaquiddick, convinced that your title is as brilliant as your story. If you’re lucky enough to have an honest spouse and good agent, if you’re persistent enough to survive eight more drafts and forty rejection letters, you might actually get it published. Don’t complain too loudly when your publisher changes the title to Island Apart.

12. Always remember, you could have gotten that MBA, but that might have meant actually working for a living.

Name your writing influences  (writers, books, teachers, etc.). In my infinite wisdom as an undergraduate, I never took a writing class. But I did major in French literature. I still read in French as a way of maintaining my languages skills, so what (little) I know about writing I learned mostly from French fiction.

For novel writing, you can’t beat the great nineteenth century masters, Balzac and Zola. Both aimed high—not just to write stories or novels, but to chronicle the country and era they lived in huge romans-fleuves (“river novels,” literally)interlocking series novels that follow generations of characters.

Among contemporary French writers, I like Max Gallo’s use of historical flashback to fill in back story, and Patrick Rimbaud’s wry sense of pathos and humor. (No one has ever written more poignantly about Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow than Rimbaud in Il Neigait (“It Was Snowing”).

My favorite French writer these days is Stephane Audeguy, who writes page-turning novels that sweep across vast expanses of geography and history, seamlessly merging fictional characters and real life figures into quirky stories that span generations. Where else could you read about Swiss watch-making, ancienne regime sex toys, the Marquis de Sade, and the demolition of the Bastille in a single novel—Le Fils Unique (“The Only Child”), a fictionalized account of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s brother.

In terms of my food writing, I owe much to my mentor, Anne Willan, for her perspective on food history, and Julia Child, of course, for the concision of her recipes. For straight (non-recipe) food writing, MFK Fisher and Grimod de la Reyniere wrote compelling narratives that happen to be about food.

Fellow Floridian John Dufresne writes the best the best books I’ve read on how to write. In particular, I recommend Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months. It covers everything you need to know, from building character, plot, and dialogue to pacing, mood, and tone. It’s the sort of book you start rereading the minute you turn the last page.

When and where do you write? I am an early riser (5:00 a.m.) and I like to write before the phone starts ringing and the workday starts. However, when I’m deep into a project, I pretty much write 24-7 in the sense that I’m always scribbling in a notebook or talking to Siri on my iPhone. (The latter records accurately about 60 percent of what I say, which means that I’m the only one who can make sense of a transcript and even that is never a sure thing.). I’m a restless writer—I write on a Macbook Pro, which I move from my desk to the couch to the Adirondack chair by the pool to the local Starbucks. The only place I won’t write is in the bedroom. (I do, however, keep a notebook and pencil on my night table.) I travel four months a year for research and promotion, so I do a lot of my writing on airplanes. I’m the only person I know who actually enjoys flying because it’s one of the few places I can write undisturbed.  When I’m behind schedule on a deadline, my kids tell me to take a trip.

What are you working on now? Two novels and two cookbooks. The first novel, set in an artisanal bakery in Portland, Oregon, tells the story of a man who gets the opportunity to reinvent his life. The question will be does character, circumstances, or free will determine the course of your existence? The second novel, set in Amsterdam, follows a stolen Rembrandt painting from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. It, too, features protagonists who have lost their way in life and find it in part through really good food.

The cookbooks include a book on cooking for and by men, which I’m calling Men Who Cook. I’m also working on a book on the art of barbecuing and smoking I call Up in Smoke. Those are working titles, of course, because the publisher will likely have a different idea of what sells best.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? That’s putting it mildly. Especially when writing fiction. The blank page is the misery of any writer’s existence, and every day I wonder if I’ll be able to fill it. So far I’ve been lucky (I’ve been writing for 35 years and I’ve managed to write 29 books), but there’s no guarantee my luck will continue tomorrow.

Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks for overcoming writer’s block. Stuck on one chapter? Work on another. Can’t seem to manage a sentence much less a paragraph? Work on your outline. Make a time line. Write biographies of your characters. Do research you’ll need later. If all else fails, write your acknowledgments or bibliography. No matter how blocked you are, you can always write the acknowledgments or bibliography. Or write the jacket copy or a press release to promote the book when it comes out. Writer’s block isn’t fatal. Often, your subconscious needs the time to work out the details for your next burst of creativity.

What’s your advice to new writers? My advice could fill a book, but I’ll give you the CliffsNotes:

1. To paraphrase Nike, just do it. The best way, the only way to write, is to write. If you keep at it long enough, words will become sentences, sentences paragraphs, paragraphs chapters, and chapters become whole books. Bad writing eventually becomes acceptable writing and if you stick with it, eventually the words start to flow on their own. That’s when the best writing happens (for me, it was Chapter 10, “Giving Thanks” in Island Apart.)  I only wish I knew how to turn it on and off.

2. Set concrete goals with realistic timetables. Write a mission statement. When I started Island Apart, my mission was to use the skills I had acquired writing food stories and cookbooks over the years to start, write, and finish a publishable novel within a year. Note the words “start”, “finish”, “publishable” and “within a year.” These dictated a course of action, goal, and deadline, which made me take the process seriously.

3. There’s no one “right” way to write a novel. Some writers start with a plot (vague or detailed); others use as their point of departure a phrase, character, situation, or moral dilemma. Some writers craft meticulous outlines before they start writing; others let the characters drive the story. Island Apart began as a title (not the one that wound up on the cover, incidentally. I originally called the book The Hermit of Chappaquiddick). Once I had that title, I knew the who of my story (my protagonists) and the what (what would happen). What I didn’t know was how to get from the beginning to the denouement. Fortunately, I didn’t have to make the journey alone—I had the characters to guide me. They knew where they needed to go. 

4. Get it down on paper (or on your computer screen or in your iPhone). A chapter title. A paragraph. A sentence. A line of dialogue. A few words. Anything. It’s easier to write more once you have a place to start, and even if you wind up jettisoning your initial phrase (and you often will), at least it got you started. 

5. Write locally; plan globally: When I’m working on one chapter, I also have a future ideas file open. I toggle back and forth between them. As I advance through the chapters, ideas for new characters, plot twists, and chapters occur to me. I write them down in a “TK” (to come”) file. Who knows: you might even get the idea for your next novel this way.

6. To make your characters real, write their biographies. When and where they were born; what they studied; where they live; what they read; what they like to eat; etc. You may wind up using all or none of this material, but it will help you build vivid characters who behave in a believable manner.

7. To make your plot real, write a timeline. Figure out the year(s) the action starts and ends and the time and place of your back story. Write down what people wore at the time; the cars they drove; the music they listened to; the technology they used; the headlines they read in the newspapers. Your time line helps keep you accurate and makes your story credible. 

8. To make your setting real, draw a map. Walk the places you describe. Visit the stores your characters visit.

9. To make your narrative feel real, write in the active voice. In my first draft of Island Apart I used a lot of passive constructions—“it must be said,” for example, or “if the truth be told” or “the Hermit was seen walking down Litchfield Road.” Rewriting the story in the active voice gave the novel a lot more energy and power. Similarly, in real life, people may declare, opine, state, explain, cry, laugh, or chortle. Characters say or ask. Anything more than “he said” or “she asked” is distracting.

10. Do your homework. One of the protagonists in Island Apart is recovering from breast cancer. I had no first-hand experience with breast cancer (thank goodness), so I interviewed oncologists, nurses, plastic surgeons, and dozens of cancer survivors. Another of my protagonists lives off the grid and off the land on Chappaquiddick. So I joined a local foraging group. I learned to fish and dig clams and went out with a peep box and dip net to harvest scallops.

11. Write with your eraser (or delete button). In the course of writing Island Apart, I jettisoned whole characters, situations, and chapters. I probably wrote 1000 pages of manuscript to wind up with a finished book of just under 300 pages. It hurt and I fought every deletion (my wife was a ruthless editor), but the final book is better for all the cuts.

12. The first chapter—or even the first 200 pages you write (to paraphrase Tolstoy)—may not be the beginning of your final story. My first draft of Island Apart opened with a trip from New York City to Martha’s Vineyard. I wanted to take the reader on the same journey I’ve made so often—waiting in traffic to cross the Bourne Bridge; lining up with all the other cars at Steamship Authority Ferry Terminal in Woods Hole; driving up the rickety ramp onto the boat; feeling the sea breeze in your hair crossing Vineyard Sound; and finally, the surreal calm you experience on arriving on Chappaquiddick. There was just one problem: The guy whose journey I chronicled was one of my secondary characters and I wasted 60 pages to get to my protagonist and the real story. Once I cut the first two chapters, the book took off.

13. Writing requires equal parts inspiration and endurance. (Perhaps even more of the latter.) Novels are hard work (a lot harder than cookbooks) and part of that hard work is keeping yourself in a chair long enough to crank out the 300, 500, or 1000 pages that will eventually become your story. It’s supposed to be hard work. If it were easy, everyone would write a novel instead of talking about it.

14. Take the time to celebrate the milestones in your writing process. When you finish a chapter, take yourself and your spouse or a friend out for dinner. When you finish the first draft, uncork a bottle of Champagne. (Not Prosecco, real Champagne.) I timed the completion of the first draft of Island Apart (at the time, still titled The Hermit of Chappaquiddick) to coincide with my birthday and made great ceremony of typing the words “The end” just before the celebratory dinner.

15. Be extra nice to your spouse or significant other. The deeper you get into the story, the more you’ll withdraw from everyday life. Your spouse will miss you and complain that you seem absent—even when you’re sitting together the dinner table. Your significant other may get jealous. When you write a novel, you need all the help and support you can get from your loved ones. Make sure you love them back.

16. Don’t quit your day job. Yet. Maybe you’ll knock it out of the park on your first novel. More likely, you’ll write several novels before the public takes notice in a big way and the royalties start to gush.

 

Steven Raichlen is a multi-award winning author, journalist, television host, and now novelist. In June, 2012, Forge Books (MacMillan) published his first novel, Island Apart. Set on Chappaquiddick Island in Martha’s Vineyard, Island Apart is a story of love, loss, redemption and really good food. Booklist called the book “a sweet grown-up love story … a beach book for smart people.”  New York Times bestselling author William Martin (Cape Cod and Back Bay) described it as “A triumphant fictional debut.”

Raichlen’s previous books include the international blockbusters The Barbecue Bible and How to Grill and the New York Times bestselling Planet Barbecue. Translated into 17 languages, his books have won 5 James Beard Awards and 3 IACP-Julia Child Awards and have sold more than 5 million copies. Raichlen’s popular PBS TV shows—Primal Grill and Barbecue University—have redefined American barbecue.

Raichlen holds a degree in French literature from Reed College and hosts a French language TV show called Le Maitre du Grill in Quebec. He studied medieval culture and history on a Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowship. He has lectured at the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and Harvard. He and his wife Barbara divide their time between Martha’s Vineyard and Miami. His websites are www.stevenraichlen.com and www.barbecuebible.com