Steven Rinella

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. 

Keith Houston

How did you become a writer? A few years ago, while working as a software engineer, I had cause to redesign a couple of websites. A colleague recommended a book to me called The Elements of Typographic Style, written by a Canadian typographer named Robert Bringhurst; separately, a friend suggested that I read An Essay on Typography by the English sculptor Eric Gill. At the back of Bringhurst’s book was a glossary of typographic characters, containing more or less any mark you might expect to see in a printed text, and I noticed that one particular mark—the “pilcrow,” or paragraph mark (¶)—appeared scattered throughout Gill’s Essay. I started to read more about this mark and others like it, and the idea for Shady Characters came about pretty much fully formed.

With this idea in mind, I wrote up a series of chapter drafts, though without any real notion as to what to do with them. Eventually I created ShadyCharacters.co.uk, and, with proofreading and editing help from a friend of mine, I serialized them over the course of 2011. Laurie Abkemeier, now my agent, got in touch via the website and suggested that I might want to turn the blog into a book, and that’s exactly what we did!

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). I admire Bill Bryson’s way with words and I’d love to emulate his writing, but I’m not sure I have quite the native wit required. For me, to read a book of his is to be reminded to avoid trying to be too clever! With respect to Shady Characters, Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style showed me that it’s possible to write an engaging and informative book on what might have been a rather dry topic (and fired my interest in typography to boot), as did John Man’s biography of Johannes Gutenberg.

Recently I’ve also been reading a lot of long form journalism online, particularly at The New Yorker. In some ways it’s similar to what I do—there are always interesting stories to be told, but it’s still sometimes a challenge to get them across in the right way.

When and where do you write? I try to work 10 am to 6 pm, Monday to Friday, whether that work is researching or writing. Some days are more or less productive than others and my hours vary accordingly.

I work at the National Library of Scotland (http://www.nls.uk/) here in Edinburgh whenever I can. It’s an amazing resource: as a legal deposit library it contains copies of almost every book published in the UK and Ireland, and as such its collection is incredibly comprehensive. Aside from that, the NLS provides access to lots of electronic resources that would otherwise be very expensive: JSTOR (http://www.jstor.org/), the academic archive; the OED (http://www.oed.com/); Early English Books Online (http://eebo.chadwyck.com/); and many more.

I also occasionally work from home. On the plus side, the coffee is cheaper; on the down side, it’s all too easy to knock off early and do something else instead.

What are you working on now? I’m working on the follow-up to Shady Characters, entitled The Book: A Cover to Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time (http://www.keithhouston.co.uk/books/the-book/). It’s a history of the book as an object, and it will be published by W. W. Norton towards the end of 2015.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Not as such. I do occasionally find myself drawing a blank, but that’s usually a sign that I don’t know enough about the subject at hand. The solution is pretty much always to do more research: either I reach a critical mass of knowledge that lets me write without having to constantly refer back to my source material, or a particular fact or anecdote leaps out as being worth expanding on. As I said, there are always interesting stories to be told; all you have to do is find them.

What’s your advice to new writers? This is a tough question! The thing that helped me most at first was to devise a rough schedule for ShadyCharacters.co.uk--I decided that I’d post substantial entries no more than 2-3 weeks apart--and then to stick to it. Once the site was up and running I emailed friends and research contacts to tell them about it, and having done that, I didn’t want to let them down. Without an expectant audience (however small!), it would have been easy to let things slide; with one, I worked harder and in a more regimented way.

Other than that, I’ve developed a habit of reading my words aloud when I’m working from home. It’s a simple enough thing to do, but it really helps me to polish my writing. If it was good enough for the ancient Greeks, it’s good enough for me!

Bio: Keith Houston is the author of Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, published by W. W. Norton (http://books.wwnorton.com/books/Shady-Characters/). He and his wife live in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Tim Kreider

How did you become a writer? The luxury of a lot of time, space, and parental support, some talent, near-delusional persistence, and—a factor not to be underestimated—great luck.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). Probably the deepest influences are the earliest. The Martian Chronicles and The Princess Bride are still some of my favorite books. I absorbed a lot of lessons about the cadence and construction of humor from Douglas Adams. My old film professor (more recently a political writer), Mark Crispin Miller, taught me a lot about understanding art, as well as writing ekphrasis and explication. Jim (more recently Jenny) Boylan taught me a lot about being not only a writer but a grownup. I’m sure I’ve absorbed some prose rhythms and tics of diction from all the recent or contemporary writers I like most: Mencken, Nabokov, Robert Stone, Hunter Thompson, Barry Hannah, Charles Baxter, Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, Kim Stanley Robinson, Lionel Shriver. Michael Herr’s Dispatches is probably the best nonfiction book I’ve ever read. Far and away the greatest living writer in English is Cormac McCarthy. I wish I could say I’d been influenced by him but he’s too good to even try to imitate. Maybe he gave me some license to go ahead and shoot for the moon, occasionally. I learned a lot about the mechanics of euphony from the ancient Greek dramatists, Beowulf, Shakespeare and Fitzgerald. The biggest influence on my thinking has been Nietzsche, by whom I read almost everything when I was in my twenties. But my main role model as an artist has been Stanley Kubrick: keep your life austere, devote yourself to your art, be obsessive and perfectionistic but open to spontaneity, inspiration and brilliant collaboration, and don’t ever be rude or raise your voice but make absolutely certain you get every last little thing your own fucking way.

When and where do you write? Morning, from 8:00 - noon or so, over three cups of coffee. Either at my cabin in an Undisclosed Location on the Chesapeake Bay or another undisclosed location in New York City.

What are you working on now? A second book of essays, working title: I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. Specifically, researching an essay on a famous psychology experiment my mother and I participated in when I was an infant.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Not exactly--only as a side effect of being too depressed to do anything. It can sometimes take a while to find something worth writing about, something both interesting and universal, but this isn’t quite the same thing as writer’s block.

What’s your advice to new writers? I first have to say that whatever moderate success I may have achieved has been so much a result of dumb luck that I feel fraudulent presuming to offer any advice to young writers, as if I did any of this on purpose or according to plan.

I’m afraid the only real advice I have to give is so obvious as to be hardly worth reciting. Write a lot, thousands of pages: stories, essays, long letters, reviews, really good liner notes for mix CDs or playlists. And read a lot — I mean a lot a lot. And not just whatever your contemporaries are reading and reviewing and talking about this month. Like Thoreau says: “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” The more time you spend immersed in the shitstream of TV/internet/social media the stupider and more boring and just like everyone else you will be. Hang out in real life having good conversations with brilliant and hilarious people, so you can steal their ideas and all the clever things they say. Spend a lot of time alone so you can think up some original thoughts of your own. Have adventures. Get paid.

Bio: Born in 1967 in Baltimore, MD. Adopted. Attended public schools and Johns Hopkins University. Self-published minicomics and drew a weekly cartoon for the Baltimore City Paper, both called “The Pain—When Will It End?”, since collected into three books by Fantagrpahics. Quit cartooning and started contributing to the New York Times in 2009. First collection of essays, We Learn Nothing, published by Simon & Schuster in 2012. I live alone in a dilapidated cabin in an Undisclosed Location with an aged cat. I regret everything.