How did you become a writer? In a roundabout way, I became a writer because I wanted to be some kind of Wild West frontiersman. I always figured that I’d grow up and make a living hunting and trapping. But it turned out that those were extremely difficult ways to turn a profit – especially for a teenager. Eventually, I hit on the idea of doing that stuff and then trying to write about it. I majored in English in college, a major that mostly irritated me. (Back then, I dreamed of writing a book-length critique of Shakespeare’s work called Knaves! In Defense of Not Loving the Bard.) But after college I went to graduate school for non-fiction writing at the University of Montana. There I started to discover really inspiring writers. That helped me begin the process of actually learning to write, which takes a lot of work. By the time I was done with that program I was selling my workshop pieces to good magazines. Things went from there.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). There are four people who immediately come to mind, presented here in the proper sequence:
1) Mr. Heaton, my high school English teacher at Reeths-Puffer High School, in Muskegon County, Michigan; he taught me to write about the things you know about.
2) Jim Harrison, the writer who demonstrated to me that you could grow up in the woods and marshes of Michigan and still find a national audience.
3) Ian Frazier, the writer who first put my work into the hands of a caring editor.
4) John McPhee, whose writing taught me to handle technical information with as much love and care as you’d handle a sex scene.
When and where do you write? I belong to a writer’s collective, which is basically a bunch of cubicles in a room that looks like a college library. It’s bone quiet, and the perfect place for me to work. Ninety percent of the usable sentences that I write come between the hours of 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.
What are you working on now? I’m working on a few things. I’m just beginning a narrative non-fiction book about my favorite period in American history, which went from about 1810 to 1840. I also do a TV show, and I’m beginning to work on a documentary.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Yes, I have. But I’ve come to think that writer’s block is a failure of will. Or at least it is for me. It’s laziness, a lack of get-up-and-go.
What’s your advice to new writers? Don’t be intimidated by people who are better educated than you, or better connected, or better able to play the role of writer. You hold things of value inside your head, things that no one else knows or has. And don’t be afraid to start small. Publish anywhere that’ll take your work. Do a good job, be a perfectionist, and bigger and better things will come your way.
Steven Rinella is the author of three books, including American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, and Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter. His work has appeared in publications ranging from Glamour to Field and Stream to The New York Times.