Julie Langsdorf

How did you become a writer?

I was an incessant reader as a child, and started writing as soon as I learned how to string words into stories. I plotted out a few novels in elementary school, and wrote short stories during my teenage years. When I graduated from college, I worked as a features writer for magazines and newspapers for my day job, and wrote fiction after hours. I’ve tried to give it up a few times, but it’s like any addiction…

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

I’m a huge fan of, in no particular order: Evan S. Connell, Elizabeth Stout, Richard Yates, Tom Perrotta, Kate Atkinson, Jess Walter, Alice McDermott and Meg Wolitzer among countless others.

When and where do you write?

I am a morning writer. I work at an antique, Mission style desk in front of French doors with a view of a beautiful tree and the gorgeous old coop across the street. I often get distracted by the birds on the branches--cardinals, blue jays, or, the other day, a dove who sat on the railing about two feet away from me and stared at me till I got back to work.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new comedy set in another fictional Maryland town. This novel, like White Elephant, is told from multiple perspectives and deals with a topical issue.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Yes. Even thinking the words “writers block” makes me tremble. I think it’s just a form of anxiety. Every time, I panic that I’ll never write again, but it always passes. Sometimes I need to stay at my desk and ride it out, but other times I need to step away from the computer for a while, to just live my life, experience all the world has to offer, and to trust that the words and ideas will flow again. 

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

Well, I didn’t get this advice directly from the source, but I think Henry James had it right when he said: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” It’s important to pay attention to the texture of life, to notice the particulars, to find the humor and poignancy in the world around you if you hope to get it right on the page.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Put your phone away.

Julie Langsdorf’s debut novel, White Elephant, was published by Ecco in March.

Robert Dugoni

How did you become a writer?

Answer: I became a writer because I’ve always loved stories. When I was twelve, my mother, a former English teacher would hand me all these classic books to read. The Count of Monte Cristo, The Old Man and the Sea, Of Mice and Men, and others. I fell in love with stories. As I got older, I began to reader John Irving’s novels, like A Prayer for Owen Meaney and The World According to Garp. I read Patrick Conroy’s books, The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides and The Lord’s of Discipline. I loved Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

I fell in love with characters and stories and when I got to high school I had a choice to make. I wasn’t a very good athlete, though I worked hard, but I was a good writer. My senior year I gave up basketball to be editor of the newspaper. I was accepted at Stanford University and wrote for the Stanford Daily, then briefly for The Los Angeles Times.  But all my brothers and sisters were becoming professionals – doctors and pharmacists and lawyers. So I thought I needed more education and became a lawyer. Once a lawyer I again did a lot of writing and speaking. I was telling stories to the court and to juries. Then I woke up one day and realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a writer. My wife and I made the decision to try. I moved to Seattle and began writing. It was a long process, but eventually, after many rejections, I got an agent and had my third book accepted – a true story called The Cyanide Canary.

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

See above. Also Stephen King, but more of his contemporary novels. John Grisham and Scott Turow as well. Loved Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey and Sol Stein’s book, On Writing.

When and where do you write? 

I have two offices, one at home and one at the law firm I used to work at. It’s important for me to “go to work” every day. It helps me to treat writing as a job, though the best job ever. Plus I like the feeling of getting out of the house. I keep an office at home if I have things to do during the day – appointments, or signings, or appearances. This is because I can get more done than if I have to commute both directions to my other office. I like to maximize my time writing.

What are you working on now? 

Promoting the release of a new series with Charles Jenkins, former CIA agent from the David Sloane series called The Eighth Sister. Working on the copyedits to the next Tracy book, A Cold Trail, and writing the next Charles Jenkins book, The Last Agent.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not really. I get stuck at places, but usually because I don’t write from an outline and I’m trying to make my character’s job as difficult as possible. For instance, I recently wrote a great series of scenes where Charles Jenkins goes back to Russia but the person he seeks to help is in Lefortovo Prison. I got stuck for two days on how to get the character out of the prison. But I wouldn’t call this writer’s block.

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

“Write every day. If you get stuck, but you know future scenes in your book, then write those future scenes so that you’re always working toward a completed manuscript.” – Mike Lawson, Seattle Writer.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Learn the craft. Learn traditional story structure as espoused by Joseph Campbell and popularized by Chris Vogler in The Writer’s Journey. Learn it, and you’ll save yourself a lot of time.

Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Internationally Best-Selling Author of 17 novels in The Tracy Crosswhite series, including, My Sister’s Grave, the David Sloane series, and the Charles Jenkins series, which includes The Eighth Sister, as well as the best-selling The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, The 7th Canon and The Cyanide Canary. He is the recipient of the Nancy Pearl Award for Fiction, the Mystery Writer’s Spotted Owl Award and a two-time finalist for the International Thriller Writers and the Harper Lee Awards, the Silver Falchion Award, and the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award. www.robertdugoni.com

Aaron Shulman

How did you become a writer?

I decided I wanted to become a writer when I was 17 in two steps, one that was rational and the other less so. At the time, I wanted to be filmmaker, but I read Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and loved it, and then saw the movie, and thought it was so weak compared to the book. Knowing that it had swept the Oscars the year it came out--in other words, that it was a masterpiece, but felt paltry compared to to the novel it was based on--I decided that books were the superior form. Then I read Kerouac's On the Road, and as a bored suburban teenager, the writing life portrayed in that book seemed heady and wild, which appealed to me. Of course, I grew out of that when I went from wanting to be a writer to actually becoming one, which took years and years of hard work sitting at my desk, failing at a few novels, getting experience as a reporter, researcher, and essayist, and then finally landing on the non-fiction project that felt custom-made for me, my first book: The Age of Disenchantments.

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

Fiction writers I adore, who I've tried to learn from, include: Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon, Kafka, Marilynne Robinson, Deborah Eisenberg, Vladimir Nabokov, Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Luis Borges, Joan Didion, Elena Ferrante, Enrique Vila-Matas, Ben Lerner, Javier Marías, Javier Cercas, James Salter, Megan Abbott, Rachel Cusk. Non-fiction writers include: Stacy Schiff, Joan Didion, Jon Lee Anderson, Michael Paterniti, Catherine Bailey, Janet Malcom, Tom Reiss, Brendan Koerner, Alice Bolin, Emmanuele Carrere, Maggie Nelson. By those writers, some especial favorite books are: White Noise, Pale Fire, 2666 and The Savage Detectives, A Heart So White, Leaving the Atocha Station, Housekeeping, Outline, The Journalist and the Murderer, Vera, The Skies Belong to Us, The Secret Rooms. As an undergraduate, I studied with Alice McDermott and Stephen Dixon, who gave me a lot of important encouragement, and for non-fiction the journalist Tina Rosenberg mentored me at key points.

When and where do you write? 

Most days I'm at my desk in my home office from around 8am to 5pm, though not all of that is writing time. There's email, escapes to go surfing for an hour or two, time set aside for reading, and occasionally a bit of procrastination.

What are you working on now? 

I'm working on a longform magazine piece and doing research for a possible new non-fiction book.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Not really in the kind of clinical way people often talk about it. I'm very disciplined about just sitting down and getting stuff onto the page, but often I have periods of reading and research during which I don't write, storing up ideas and information so that when I do finally sit down it comes pouring out of me.

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

Oof, so many good nuggets I've heard it's hard to choose. In terms of storytelling, that it's very important to always keep at the front of your mind what your characters/subjects want and are going after, since if you know that usually you won't get blocked because you'll know what happens next. As for process, that you have to be prepared for more hard, tiring work than you want to do or are likely prepared for.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Work really hard. Be patient. And try all the different forms (fiction, essays, journalism, screenwriting) to discover where your strengths are--and know that your strengths might not lie where you want them to. 

Aaron Shulman is the author of the non-fiction historical narrative The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War (Ecco/HarperCollins, March 2019). After growing up in Michigan, Aaron attended Johns Hopkins as an undergrad and then the University of Montana, where he received his MFA in creative writing. A former Fulbright scholar, his work has appeared in The BelieverThe New RepublicThe American Scholar, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among many other places.