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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Oct102017

Joanna Walsh

How did you become a writer? 

I tried not to write for a long time: I didn't want to take a position of 'authority' in any way. I was talking to Claire-Louise Bennett recently, and she said she'd treasured her period writing as an 'amateur' before the publication of her first book. I've been thinking about that a lot, and wondering whether it's possible to re-gain that amateurism... or whether it's as hopeless as trying to regain your virginity.

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

I did an undergrad degree in English Literature, but it wasn't until I started reading books in translation (and in French, which I started off by teaching myself) that I saw work that made me want to write. I love the work of, amongst many others, Marguerite Duras, Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Leonora Carrington, Elfriede Jelinek...

I love prose written by poets: Anne Carson, Anne Boyer, Vahni Capildeo, Eley Williams.... I also like reading theory/philosophy etc. There are writers I come back to again and again as triggers for my work: Freud, Heidegger, Breton, Wittgenstein...

When and where do you write? 

I have a deliberately tiny desk — a shelf set into an old chimney nook. It only just fits my laptop so I have no option but to keep it clear. It faces onto a wall that's painted black. I work there when I want to concentrate on a set task. A lot of my work is done by stealth tho, so it's necessary that I work in places that are not my desk, so I can fool myself about what I'm doing. I sometimes work at my kitchen table, and sometimes in bed. 

What are you working on now? 

I'm editing a book of essays I've commissioned for gorse editions: writers writing on their influences. I'm correcting the proof of my next book, Break.upI'm working on a PhD about wordplay in Cyberfeminism, I'm occasionally writing a short story, or a piece of journalism. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

No, possibly because I don't ever really set out to write anything in particular: I play around with words and ideas and it's only when they build up and take some shape that I decide what form they might take. 

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

I honestly can't remember any. If I see work I like, I get a lot of fun out of trying to strip it down like a car engine, to see if I can find out how it works. The 'advice' I've got from writers is what I can elicit from their writing.

What’s your advice to new writers? 

I'd love to see more people ignoring the conventions of plot, character and genre. These are not the only ways to do things. I guess my advice is: define carefully what makes you uncomfortable, and dwell in that difficulty. Find ways to enjoy it. Note that this is writing advice, not advice on how to get published.

Joanna Walsh's latest book is Worlds From The Word's End, published by And Other Stories. In 2018 Break.up will be published by Semiotext(e) and Tuskar Rock. Her writing has appeared in many journals and anthologies including Granta Magazine, and The Dalkey Archive's Best European Fiction. She was awarded the UK Arts Foundation 2017 Fellowship for Literature. She edits at online literary journals 3:AM Magazine and Catapult.co, writes literary and cultural criticism for an number of publications including The Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian, and runs @read_women.

Tuesday
Oct032017

Kathleen A. Flynn

How did you become a writer?

I was an avid reader ever since I learned how and I have wanted to write novels since I was 12. Although I wrote a lot in high school and college, I drifted away from it in my 20s with the pressure to earn a living. I ended up becoming a newspaper copy editor and for more than a decade I put aside, or did not take seriously enough to believe in, my wish to write fiction. Finally one day I had an idea that I was excited enough about that I did not quit.

I think that the only way to learn to write a novel is by writing one. Which sounds ridiculous, because you don’t know how when you start. But you have to start somewhere and figure it out as you go.  In my experience there is a lot of sitting alone in a room, and a lot of false starts. You have to not give up.

Name your writing influences.

I don’t mean to suggest in what I said above that you can’t learn from people, and from books. Books about how to write won’t solve the main problem -- you still have to write the thing -- but they clarified my thinking. It is also helpful to have writing buddies. Classes are a great place to find them; this can be easier or harder depending on where you live, so online classes are also good. I found the ones I took at the Writers Studio helpful. Sackett Street Writers Workshop was also valuable to me at two crucial moments: when I first decided to start writing again seriously, and a few years later when I had a manuscript to workshop.

I enjoyed Ann Patchett’s “Getaway Car.” Jane Smiley’s “13 Ways of Looking at the Novel” is one I return to again and again. A new book about writing I wish I’d had the chance to read earlier because it might have saved me the pain of figuring some things out through trial and error is “The Hidden Machinery” by Margot Livesay.  “The Kite and the String” by Alice Mattison is also helpful and practical, particularly about psychological barriers to writing that can seem insurmountable.

But before we are writers we are readers, and the books that have influenced me most were not books about how to write novels but novels themselves. Great novels have certain lessons, good but flawed ones have others, and bad novels are also highly instructive.

Where and when do you write?

Whenever I can, mostly in my apartment or on the subway to work (if I can get a seat). The subway is good for first drafts because there is a limited amount of time and no real way to escape from your task. When I got serious (or desperate) about writing, I started getting up at 4 a.m., assuring myself a few hours a day when nothing was going to disturb me. I’ve relaxed that somewhat, but I still get up between 4:30 and 5 most days. I feel less judgmental about what I am doing in the early morning. Later in the day is better for reading.  When I am writing seriously I am thinking about writing even when I am not writing; it’s like a computer program running in the background.

What are you working on now?

I am trying to figure out if a sequel to my first novel makes any sense, so I am playing around with that. Although the story is complete, there may be more I could learn about the characters in a new adventure.  I have some other ideas for historical novels as well, including something about Irish revolutionaries.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I suppose you could call it that, all those years when I wasn’t writing. But to me, “writer’s block” isn’t a real thing so much as a description of a cluster of problems, the way people in the 19th century would be said to have “neurasthenia.” Now when I get stuck writing, I understand there’s something I haven’t figured out yet, maybe a solution that hasn’t come to me. I often pose questions to myself about some aspect of what I am working on, in a file labeled Thoughts. I find when I state the question clearly and then stop consciously thinking about it for a while the answer will come. Or I get up from my desk and take the dog for a walk. That often does the trick.

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

I remember being very impressed by something Heather Aimee O’Neill, my writing teacher at Sackett Street, said about outlining in the first class I did with her. I had expressed the concern that writing an outline took all the suspense out of writing, if you already knew everything that was going to happen in your novel and were just dutifully going along and filling it in. No, she said, it’s not like that at all. You know the basics of what’s going to happen, but the magic is what happens in between what you know. And not just in what happens, but how. This struck me as extremely profound, and after that I became a dedicated outliner. The irony is that often I don’t follow my own outlines because I get a better idea as I am going along, so my fear of destroying suspense was doubly misguided.

What’s your advice to new writers?

My first advice would be to read as much as possible, especially but not only of the kind of fiction you want to write. Analytically, thinking about how the writer is achieving certain effects. If something isn’t working for you, why not? When you read something really moving, try to figure out how the writer is accomplishing that.

My second would be to not agonize too much over your first draft. The secret of writing is in rewriting, and the first draft is like scaffolding on a building – you need it to get started, but later you will discard it. Don’t be too hard on yourself in the beginning, because there will be plenty of time to be hard on yourself later.

My third would be to never be content with your own first attempt. Or your second, or your tenth. There are many places in life where perfectionism is out of place, but your art is not one of them. A typical novel has between 60,000 and 100,000 words. You need to have weighed each of them, more than once. Does every sentence delight you with its subtle music? (Read it aloud and see.)Are you learning something new about the characters in each paragraph? Are there are unnecessary adjectives and clunky constructions? Is there an improbable plot development? Until you are satisfied with the answers to such questions, you are not done. You are not going to please every reader, but you need to please yourself.

Kathleen A. Flynn grew up in tiny Falls Village, Conn., and lives in Brooklyn. She is a lifelong lover of words, particularly when found in novels, and a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Having studied English at Barnard College and journalism at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, she edits at, and sometimes writes for, The New York Times. The Jane Austen Project (Harper Perennial) is her first novel.

Tuesday
Sep262017

Ronald Wright

How did you become a writer?

I'd wanted to write since my teens. But my twenties were busy with studies, working odd jobs, and backpacking around the world. Not until I was thirty, when I fell ill during a long journey through the Andes, did the writing urge return. Knocked flat in Peru for months, I read everything I could find or borrow. When I got home I began my first book, Cut Stones & Crossroads: A Journey in Peru, published three years later by Viking Penguin in New York. Around the same time I took up freelance journalism in print and broadcast media.

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

D.H. Lawrence was a strong influence during my schooldays (Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley, Mornings in Mexico) and I still go back to him, most often for his wonderful essays. I also took an interest in his poetry (plus Pound and Eliot) and in Middle English epics, especially the alliterative ones (Piers Plowman, Gawain and the Green Knight), whose form comes down from Beowulf. But my favourite writers back then were the great satirists in both prose and verse: from Dryden, Swift, and Pope to H.G. Wells (The Time Machine, War of the Worlds), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), and George Orwell (Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and his essays, such as the essential "Politics and the English Language").

Much of this was on the Eng. Lit. curriculum, with Chaucer and Shakespeare of course. All very white and male, as things were in those days. Later I discovered Mary Shelley (The Last Man, Frankenstein), Amelia Edwards (A Thousand Miles up the Nile), Shirley Hazzard (Transit of Venus, The Great Fire), Harriet Doerr (Stones for Ibarra), and many other important women writers.

By then I could read Spanish, which took me into the literary world of Latin America, from its modern authors to early historical works by Indigenous and Spanish writers such as Inca Garcilaso (Royal Commentaries of the Incas), Felipe Waman Puma (The First New Chronicle and Good Government), and Cieza de León (Discovery and Conquest of Peru).

My fascination with Peru began at thirteen, when I happened to pick up a dusty Victorian adventure tale by W.H.G. Kingston, who had lived there himself. The book, called Manco, was set during the great Tupac Amaru revolt of the 1780s, as recent when Kingston wrote about it as World War II is now. The author was good at evoking sympathy for underdogs, in this case heroic Incas struggling to free themselves from Spanish rule. Manco awoke my interest in the ancient American civilizations and their modern descendants. Peru became the subject of my first book (Cut Stones & Crossroads), and my tenth, The Gold Eaters.

When and where do you write?

Mostly at home in the Gulf Islands near Vancouver. I find the writing goes best in the afternoons.

What are you working on now?

Not ready enough to talk about.  

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Every day, for about an hour or so.

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

Read. The rule of thumb is ten hours reading for every hour of writing. Of course not every day has to be like that. Nor does all the reading need to be related to your work. But I've found the overall ratio is about right. Almost any good book sends the mind to interesting and unforeseen places; these unlock creativity. Reading is a good remedy for writer's block.

What’s your advice to new writers?

See above. Also, for good writing of almost any kind you need to have gathered a fund of knowledge and experiences. This is the writer's raw material. Though I didn't know it then, I was doing that in my twenties when I was backpacking and driving trucks. Last, a word about revision. Successful writers do a lot of it, often 5 or 10 drafts before a book is ready to be seen. When I get really stuck and lose all hope and perspective, I put the draft away and do other things for at least two months. The fallow time must be long enough to "forget" what you've written so you can read with fresh eyes. When you do go back to the stalled work, imagine it was written by somebody else. It's always easier to see the flaws in others' work.

Novelist and historian Ronald Wright is the author of ten books published in 16 languages and more than 40 countries. Wright’s first novel, the dystopia A Scientific Romance, won Britain’s David Higham Prize for Fiction and was chosen a book of the year by the New York Times, the Globe & Mail, the Sunday Times, and others.

His Massey Lectures, A Short History of Progress, won the Libris Nonfiction Book of the Year award and inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Surviving Progress.

Born in England to British and Canadian parents, Wright took archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge, pursuing these interests with years of travel and study in the Americas and elsewhere.

His first three books--Cut Stones and Crossroads, Time Among the Maya, and Stolen Continents--were recently re-issued in the Penguin Modern Classics series. His latest novel, The Gold Eaters, is set during the Spanish invasion of Peru. RonaldWright.com.

Tuesday
Sep192017

Sarah Sentilles

How did you become a writer?

I’ve always loved to write. I was in a poetry program in college and took a writing seminar there, too. I found a binder of creative writing from that time, and I probably should have been forced to read it before I graded any of my college students’ writing. It was terrible! I wrote my first book, Taught by America, to try to understand my experience teaching elementary school in Compton, California. The first version of that book was stolen out of my car (manuscript and backup disks and computer!), so I had to write it all over again, which taught me the importance of revision. I write to try to make sense of the world – or, if not to make sense of it, to help bring a better world into being.

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

I am a voracious reader. I love novels. Right now I’m reading Sherman Alexie’s new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. I recently re-read Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which is magical and beautiful and devastating. I also read a lot of critical theory and visual theory – Sara Ahmed and Ariella Azoulay and Judith Butler, for example. One of my biggest influences was my mentor in graduate school, the late theologian Gordon Kaufman. For him, theology was a constructive enterprise, akin to art. He taught me that words make worlds and that our creations have material affects. Everything we write or speak or construct – whether that’s “God” or a new law or a novel – must be evaluated ethically and in community.

When and where do you write? 

I do my best writing in the morning before the censor in my brain wakes up to tell me everything I type is stupid. I have a beautiful office in my house (with a window seat!). I write at a desk while wearing noise canceling headphones. I often play a single song on repeat.

What are you working on now? 

I’m working on a new book. It’s top secret, but I can give you a hint: I’m doing a lot of thinking about kinship as a practice.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I have a friend who is an artist, and she shows up at her studio to make art every single day, and she’s been doing that for decades. Her discipline and commitment inspire me. She once told me “being blocked” is a myth, and ever since she said that I stopped believing in writer’s block. I’ve been afraid when I’ve come to the blank page. I’ve been distracted (now more than ever in this political climate in which I keep refreshing my news feed as if reading the news will somehow change something). I’ve avoided writing. I’ve believed the voices in my head that tell me there’s no point in creating anything new. But a block? I get in my own way – but I’m not sure that’s a block. It seems to me to be more of a habit, or a decision to center my fears instead of my hopes, or a choice to fall toward despair and away from creativity.

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

I took an amazing writing workshop with Nick Flynn, and he taught me a very physical method for revision (which he learned from Carolyn Forché). He encouraged me to cut up my manuscript and tape it back together – and this was a revelation for me. (You can read about it on Powell’s blog here). But some of the best advice I’ve ever received is from my husband: Put your butt in the chair and write. That’s the real magic: show up and stay put.

What’s your advice to new writers?

My advice to new writers: Trust yourself. If you hear that voice urging you to the page, listen to it. Make time in your life to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Believe you have something to say. The world is waiting for your words. We need your voice so we might imagine new possibilities and a more just and life-giving world for all beings.

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Breaking Up with God: A Love Story. Her most recent book, Draw Your Weapons, was published by Random House in July 2017. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Yale and master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard. At the core of her scholarship, writing, and activism is a commitment to investigating the roles language, images, and practices play in oppression, violence, social transformation, and justice movements. She has taught at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland State University, California State University Channel Islands, and Willamette University, where she was the Mark and Melody Teppola Presidential Distinguished Visiting Professor.

Tuesday
Sep122017

Christina Henry

How did you become a writer?

I’ve wanted to be a professional writer since I was 12 years old and read THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien for the first time. I wrote poetry and lots of short stories and novel extracts for years but never tried to sell anything. When I was 34 I decided I wanted to write and sell a book before I was 35. I wrote BLACK WINGS in about six weeks, mostly during the time when my son was napping. I spent eight months shopping around for an agent. I couldn’t find one so I decided to submit directly to Ace/Roc, since they published many of my favorite fantasy novels. I submitted a query letter and ten pages; a week later an editor contacted me and asked for the full manuscript, and a week after that she called to offer me a three-book contract. I’ve been with Ace/Berkley ever since, and have published ten books with them.

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

Tolkien is probably the biggest influence, since his books were so inspiring to me as a young reader and writer.

Robin McKinley was also an early favorite – she taught me that girls could fight dragons (in THE HERO AND THE CROWN), defeat armies (in THE BLUE SWORD) and change their fate (in SPINDLE’S END).

I adore Angela Carter – I always say that anyone who has ever read my books ALICE or RED QUEEN will recognize this immediately – and Shirley Jackson and Daphne DuMaurier. I re-read Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES every year – it’s not October without it. I’ve also read pretty much every Stephen King and Agatha Christie novel.

When and where do you write?

I write chronologically and by hand in a standard college-ruled notebook. I started doing this when my son was small, because I could take him to the park and let him play in the sandbox and I would be able to sit on a bench and write while he played. The system worked for me so I still write that way, and take my notebook wherever I go so if I have downtime I can write.  These days I mostly write at our dining room table. Once I’ve got about 50 or so pages into the notebook I transfer it to a typewritten manuscript and edit it as I go, and then the process starts over again in my notebook until I’ve completed the book.

What are you working on now?

I just finished edits on THE MERMAID, which should be out next year. It’s a story about P.T. Barnum and the Feejee Mermaid, except in my story the mermaid is real instead of a hoax. It’s pretty different from anything I’ve written before – there are no large action set pieces, no horror, no bodies, no blood. The magical element is slight (there’s a mermaid; that’s it!) and the book is mostly about relationships. It was a challenge for me to write but I wanted to try something different. Trying something new is the only way I know how to improve as an author.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No, I would say I probably have the opposite problem – too many ideas and not enough time to write them!

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

To forget about the audience. If you worry about what people will think of the book you’ll never get it done – it can become paralyzing – so just write what makes you happy.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Persist. The most successful writers are the ones who never gave up even when they were rejected or were dropped by a publisher. If you believe in your work just keep pushing forward.

CHRISTINA HENRY is the author of the CHRONICLES OF ALICE duology, ALICE and RED QUEEN, a dark and twisted take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as well as LOST BOY: THE TRUE STORY OF CAPTAIN HOOK, an origin story of Captain Hook from Peter Pan.

She is also the author of the national bestselling BLACK WINGS series (BLACK WINGS, BLACK NIGHT, BLACK HOWL, BLACK LAMENT, BLACK CITY, BLACK HEART and BLACK SPRING) featuring Agent of Death Madeline Black and her popcorn-loving gargoyle Beezle.

She enjoys running long distances, reading anything she can get her hands on and watching movies with samurai, zombies and/or subtitles in her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son.

You can visit her on the web at www.christinahenry.net, facebook.com/authorChristinaHenry, twitter.com/C_Henry_Author, and www.goodreads.com/CHenryAuthor.