If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
It seems most writers, or at least the twentieth century sort I’m familiar with, have a tendency to put off dinner in favor of a prolonged cocktail hour. So maybe not so much cooking, but mixing and pouring… That said, I’d love to chat with Paul Theroux. He’s been everywhere and written so much and so eloquently. As for all the dead ones, nah. They’d likely resent being dragged back to this overheated realm just to hang out with me.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
I’m not sure anything about the writing process scares me, per se, but failing to do justice to a great character or idea is certainly a worry: bobbling what should’ve been a slam-dunk, I mean. To combat this, I remind myself that writing is revision, and that time isn’t always the enemy. What doesn’t quite work today may well find its natural footing tomorrow.
What books are on your nightstand?
The Rock Cycle: Essays by Kevin Honold
American Copper by Shann Ray
Delights & Shadows by Ted Kooser
Having and Being Had by Eula Biss
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
As a writer of nonfiction who seeks to gain new understanding of the world as observer and participant, I’d have to go with the question mark, as it succinctly embodies the form.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
Unfortunately, there are too many neglected books to name. As a kid, I was obsessed with basketball and being an athlete. It wasn’t until all of that ended that I became a dedicated reader. On the plus side, the discipline that you learn playing sports is good training for being a writer.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
The coffee-maker, first off. But also the beer fridge.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here…? No, just kidding. But if aspiring writers have the correct mindset, they won’t put much stock in easy inspiration.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Both. The energized feeling is wonderful, that buzz of flowing words, the escape into the self. But the exhausting part is trickier. It never lets up, even as you improve. The reason? Because to continue improving as a writer, you have to push your boundaries and constantly work at the edge of your talent. So even though you have gotten demonstrably better, the act of writing never gets much easier.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Booze, most notoriously. That and material ambitions. And not reading enough, or trying to duck the classics, the difficult and time-consuming stuff.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Like most writers, my writing Kryptonite is all the non-writing work that’s necessary to support my writing habit. Then again, that stuff is also grist for the mill.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
No. I’m skeptical of the diagnosis.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Probably not, or at least not a writer of quality fiction or memoir. That’s not to say a writer couldn’t be very reserved, very private, but genuinely cold? I doubt it.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Interesting question, as it seems that one author writing multiple books, unless those books were vastly different in subject and scope, almost couldn’t help but leave some overlap, some connections.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Growing up, my parents operated and published a small-town newspaper in the rural Midwest, and it seemed our neighbors were always either chuckling over my mother’s lighthearted column about our home life, or cursing about my father’s hardheaded political editorials. So I’ve always known that words have power, though I view it somewhat differently now, more personally.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
I don’t know if we can rightly call Russell Banks under-appreciated, considering his name is known and he publishes widely, but his novel Continental Drift should be read by more people. It’s extraordinary.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
A black cat, as these animals seem to keep finding their way into my life.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
Anonymity, for sure. And quite possibly a beer and a private talk, depending. But not much else. Fiction is fiction; end of story.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Three currently, sadly, crushingly.
What does literary success look like to you?
That’s somewhat difficult to answer amid a wider culture that seems to view writing books as an esoteric hobby at best, not to mention a publishing industry with ever-narrower tastes and ever-tightening purse strings. If pressed, I’d point to the internal. If you’re consistently writing and publishing, and if you’re proud of your work line-by-line and as a whole, that’s success.
What did you edit out of this book?
A number of accounts of visits to very good breweries, where unfortunately no one did or said anything particularly weird, shocking, or funny, and also a ton of fascinating stuff from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy that I couldn’t figure out how to shoehorn in.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
Well, I write and I work, so I suppose I’d continue to be a teacher and a bartender, though probably a less interesting, less dynamic version of both. Without writing, the real question would be: how in the hell to spend my mornings?
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