Anna Smith

How did you become a writer?

I was writing when I was a child and teenager, and then worked as a daily newspaper journalist covering stories and investigations all over the world. I gave up the day job to write full time.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

As a teenager I loved J D Salinger (Catcher In The Rye), and the poignant voice of the young character. Later, I would read everything from thrillers to romances, from Irwin Shaw to Harold Robbins to Michael Connolly. One of the great Scottish crime writers who influenced me was William McIlvanney who created the cop character Laidlaw, and that has spawned a raft of police procedurals from authors across Scotland and beyond. 

When and where do you write? 

I write mostly in Ireland where I have a house on the West coast, or I go to Spain to the Costa del Sol, mostly locking myself away to write. I do write sometimes here in Scotland, but I find it easier to work if I’m away from people. 

What are you working on now?

At the moment I’m working on the third novel of a gangland crime series, set in Glasgow, London and the Costa del Sol, featuring a strong female protagonist who is the reluctant head of a gangland family.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I never suffer from writer’s block, because I believe if you just sit and write something, then before you know it a character will speak to you. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

I’m not sure I’ve been given a lot of advice on writing. I write from instinct, maybe even from need. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

If you are a new writer, then the message is to keep going, keep writing, never stop believing. And even if you get knocked back from a few publishers or agents, go back to your characters and move the story on.

Anna Smith is an award-winning journalist who spent a lifetime in daily newspapers, reporting from the frontline all over the world. Her first series of thrillers featured a gritty Glasgow journalist Rosie Gilmour, and Anna used her vast experience as a journalist to create the popular character. Her growing army of readers are now enjoying Anna’s gangland crime thrillers, and the first novel Blood Feud introduces Kerry Casey, who becomes head of a Glasgow crime clan with contacts all over the UK. The sequel, Fight Back, is in Amazon Kindle’s top five for the past month. It’s published in paperback on May 2.

Mitchell Zuckoff

How did you become a writer?

First, I became a reporter. I wrote professionally for more than a decade, mostly for newspapers and wire services, before I began to truly consider myself a writer. Even now, after eight books and more than 30 years of doing and teaching this work, I still have a hard time separating my identity as a reporter from my writing. The latter doesn’t exist without the former. Good nonfiction writing is wholly reliant on research: interviews, observation, documents, etc. I became a writer by learning how to be a good reporter. Then I sat in front of a keyboard and tried (and tried, and tried) to communicate all that I’d learned in the most engaging way possible.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

When I was in college, I found a used copy of Lillian Ross’s book “Reporting” in a Cape Cod bookstore. I didn’t read The New Yorker, and I figured this tattered old book was an ancient textbook on how to work for a 19th century newspaper. I bought it almost as a gag. Then I read it and thought, “That’s reporting? How do I do that?” Soon after, someone pointed me toward John McPhee. I started with “Levels of the Game,” and since then I’ve read all his books and been influenced by every one. Scores of other writers and books come to mind (i.e., David McCullough’s “The Johnstown Flood” taught me so much), but only one teacher: the late Wilbur Doctor, who taught me newswriting in college and set my compass at true north.

When and where do you write?

I can write anywhere, a lasting effect of my work as a newspaper reporter. But I’m most productive in my home office, ideally with my dog sleeping nearby. It was originally a smallish bedroom, but now it’s filled with files and books and mementos. It’s a mess, but it’s my mess. I tend to “type” mostly at night, when the world is relatively quiet. But when I’m deep into a project I’m “writing” whenever I’m awake, if you include the time spent obsessively thinking about everything from the overall structure to the tangled sentences I need to rework. Hikes in the woods are especially good for that kind of writing.

What are you working on now?

I have a new book coming out April 30, a five-year project called “Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11.” I covered 9/11 for The Boston Globe and wrote the lead news story on the day of the attacks. This book is a comprehensive, character-driven narrative that includes all four hijacked planes, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, Shanksville, and the initial military and government response. Now that it’s complete I’ve got a few other ideas in mind, but for the moment I’m focused on teaching upcoming journalists at Boston University.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Not really. I’m repeating myself here, but so much of my work today is an outgrowth of my years as a daily reporter. Writer’s block isn’t an option when you’ve got a hole in the paper to fill, a looming deadline, and an editor losing patience. Having said that, I’ve definitely encountered periods where my writing is so lousy it should be blocked. The sentences don’t flow, the ideas are stale, and clichés grow like topsy (uh oh, wait, am I in one of those periods now?). The solution for me is to take a short break then get back to work, knowing that it’s usually easier to revise and rewrite junk than it is to face the blank page.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

When I was a member of the Boston Globe Spotlight Team, my editor, Gerry O’Neill, urged me to “write scared.” That is, push yourself beyond what you think is possible or safe, to the outer limits of your research and your ability, to the point where it feels exciting and a little scary. When it works, it’s exhilarating for you and for the reader.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Write scared.

Mitchell Zuckoff is the Sumner M. Redstone Professor of Narrative Studies at Boston University and the author of eight nonfiction books. His forthcoming book is Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11, to be published by HarperCollins on April 30. His previous book, 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and became a movie from Paramount Pictures. His books Frozen in Time and Lost in Shangri-La also were New York Times bestsellers. Lost In Shangri-La received the Winship/PEN Award for Nonfiction. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and numerous other publications. He lives outside Boston with his family.

Alan Ziegler

How did you become a writer? 

My identity as a writer was forged in fifth grade because I couldn’t sing (or so the music teacher determined). He selected all but five to be in the chorus, and my classroom teacher (perhaps to soften the blow) made us the newspaper staff. I wrote song lyrics (influenced by Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley, and the like) and journalism throughout college, until the spring of my senior year (1970), when I began writing fragmentary poems (influenced by Richard Brautigan) during respites from anti-war protests. An English professor told me the poems “weren’t good but you could become a good poet.” Two days after graduation I was a reporter on a daily newspaper, which lasted only a few months. A senior editor advised me to get out and “be a writer” while I was young and could deal with insecurities and frustrations. He pointed to an aging colleague and said, “He waited too long before he quit. Went to New York, thought he’d write for The New Yorker. He forgot to clear his plan with them. Came back with his tail between his legs.” I went (back) to New York, and many times I had my tail between my legs, but I never had the nerve to quit.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

In college, Professor Jocelyn Harvey introduced me to the Imagist poets and the legitimacy of colloquial language in poetry. David Ignatow was my first mentor and, since he had been a protégé of William Carlos Williams, I consider WCW to be my grandmentor. I also studied with Kurt Vonnegut, who said I was becoming “a man of letters” (which continues to fuel me); Joel Oppenheimer, who encouraged me to become “less of a tummler and more of a poet”; and William Burroughs, who didn’t say much beyond his presence. Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen and Max Jacob’s The Dice Cup are two of the most influential books. Other writers include James Baldwin, James Tate, Borges, Luisa Valenzuela, Sei Shōnagon, Paul Krassner (for inventive journalism), and, later, the flash trinity: Diane Williams, Amy Hempel, and Lydia Davis.

When and where do you write? 

I often take catwrites during the day: a few minutes here and there, perhaps in the rear corner seat of a New York City bus. Sustained sessions usually start at home, until the choice becomes to nap or go to a café (I know I’m in a groove when the café wins). I like having the TV or radio on in the background—the sound disappears while I’m concentrating, and it’s nice to have the company when I pause. On the night Kafka wrote “The Judgment,” he last looked at the clock at 2 a.m.; when the maid arrived—with the bed “undisturbed”—he stretched and declared, “I’ve been writing until now.” A version of that—minus the maid—occasionally happens for me.  I can never write before I teach: even if I’m not scrambling to get ready for class (which I usually am), my focus is outward.

What are you working on now? 

For many years I’ve been writing short memory pieces, with the hope that eventually they would morph into a book. I think I’m close to that happening, with the working title Based on a True Life: A Memoir of Sorts. I’ve also been working on Squibs, a collection of fragments. My fantasy is for the two books to be published as a boxed set. Many of the pieces in both manuscripts can be found on The Best American Poetry blog, which is my write-to place: Ziegler at Best American Poetry. I’ve also resumed writing songs, collaborating with Steve Noonan (one of the Orange County Three, along with Tim Buckley and Jackson Browne): In My Dream

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Three or four times a day, but rarely for many days in a row. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

I crossed paths with the poet Gerald Stern, who spent a couple of days at the Interlochen Arts Academy when I was writer-in-residence. Over lunch, I gave him a book of my poetry, and at dinner he had some nice things to say about it. He especially liked a poem that I had added to the manuscript out of fondness though I wasn’t sure it would hold up to critical scrutiny. I asked Stern why he liked the poem, hoping he would articulate some literary quality to support my fondness for it, and he replied, “Because I got the feeling you didn’t know what the hell you were doing.” I did feel affirmed, and this attitude has helped me spawn many subsequent pieces. I treasure the luscious feeling I get when I don’t know what the hell I am doing but I really want to keep doing it.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Yes, writing has its pitfalls and pratfalls. Dorothy Parker (among others) has been quoted as saying that she hates writing but loves having written. I was a bit milder when I used to say (thinking I was the first), “I don’t always like writing but I love having written.” Now, more and more, I cherish the act of writing as its own reward. I try not to focus on the value of my creations so much that I lose touch with the joy of creation. The opinions of others and the occasional attendant perks remain coveted, but are not essential. Here’s the advice: Write because you love writing, even if you don’t always like what you have written.

Alan Ziegler’s books include Love At First Sight: An Alan Ziegler Reader; The Swan Song of Vaudeville: Tales and Takes; and The Writing Workshop Note Book. He is the editor of Short: An International Anthology of 500 Years of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms (Persea Books), and his work has appeared in such places as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Tin House. He is Professor of Writing (and former chair) at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where he received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching.