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ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Jun202017

Chinelo Okparanta

How did you become a writer?

I always wrote as a small child, but primarily essays. I won a number of contests, starting at age 10, shortly after my family and I arrived in America. I remember an essay contest held in the greater Boston area that was advertised under the umbrella of "Justice for All." Most of the middle school students in the area entered. I wrote about different types of violence. Domestic violence was at the forefront of my mind. I was happy when I was announced a winner. The prize was a $100 savings bond, which was great, since my immigrant family was very poor at the time, and every day was a struggle. Those were the days when we relied on church food banks and thrift stores for nourishment and clothing. We--all of us, my 8 and 4 year old sisters included--had been cleaning floors and trash rooms and laundry rooms to be able to afford living in our basement, cockroach and mice-infested apartment. My writing, in a sense, became a minor sort of salvation, a respite: We could afford just a bit more with the money that I earned in that contest.

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

I claim so many influences--I love the works of Edwidge Danticat, Flora Nwapa, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Jumpa Lahiri. Of course, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. My own classmates at Iowa were also influential, as well as my teachers--Marilynne Robinson, Samantha Chang, Jim McPherson while he lived, Ethan Canin, Robin Hemley and Michael Martone. I was also a lover of French and Irish literature--Le Petit Prince by Antoine de St. Exupéry, Candide by Voltaire, Molière's L'Ecole des Femmes, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien. 

When and where do you write?

Formerly, in the early morning, before rising from bed, when my head was still clear. Now, whenever I have time and feel inspired. 

What are you working on now?

A novel and a collection of short stories.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No. I never approach writing with a sense of "I must sit down and write this very minute." I write only when I feel inspired, which makes it more fun and less like an obligation. 

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

Focus on the work. All the rest is a great distraction. 

Also, during a group dinner at an artists' residency in Umbertide, Italy, a poet whose work I greatly admire, cautioned, "Never believe your own hype." I thought that was sound advice. He's one of the most humble writers I know. But if you're a person of color, a marginalized woman, a member of the lgbtq community, a victim of abuse, a person who is trying so hard to build yourself up from the falling apart-ness of life, for whom every day has been and sometimes still is a real struggle, a person who sees confidence as a thing belonging only to other people, then I say believe your own hype a bit. Sometimes believing can be a matter, not of arrogance, but of self-assurance, and ultimately, of survival. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Focus on the work. All the rest is a great distraction.  

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the short-story collection Happiness, Like Water and the novel Under the Udala Trees. Her honors include an O. Henry Prize, two Lambda Literary Awards, and finalist selections for the Young Lions, the Caine Prize, the Etisalat Prize, the Rolex Mentors and Protégé Arts Initiative, and the International Dublin Literary Award. She currently lives in Pennsylvania and teaches at Bucknell University.

chinelookparanta.com

Tuesday
Jun132017

Lydia Millet

How did you become a writer?

I was going to be an opera singer, but realized I didn't have the stomach for it. And written language was what I grew up in, before music. I love music, but it wasn't my primary element -- we rarely listened to music around the house in my childhood, but we always read. I read every day, a lot. Books were just the way I knew the world. And the souls of others.

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

I had a teacher, Daphne Athas, who was a lovely mentor in college and made me feel I could actually write for a living. She still makes me feel that way. Then Randolph Heard, my boyfriend for years and still a close friend now, introduced me to a lot of the books that changed how I read, and how I saw what writing I wanted to do, in the years soon after college. So I'd have to say Daphne and Randolph were my biggest influences.

When and where do you write?

These days whenever I can, small snatches of time around my day job and a little longer on the weekends. When my children are grown, maybe I'll write late into the night again. I can only hope. 

What are you working on now?

A novel called A Children's Bible. About climate change and a gang of teenagers who don't like their parents. I have a story collection coming out before that though, next May. 2018. It's called Fight No More.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No, but I've suffered from doing writing I stopped loving and had to throw away.

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

To read a lot. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

See above.

Lydia Millet is the author of 11 books of literary fiction, most recently Sweet Lamb of Heaven (2016), a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. Her previous books include Mermaids in Paradise (2014); the novel Magnificence (2012), about loss and extinction, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics' Circle and Los Angeles Times book awards; a story collection called Love in Infant Monkeys (2010), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and the novel My Happy Life (2002), which won a PEN-USA fiction award. She received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2012 and lives in the Arizona desert, where she also works at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

Tuesday
Jun062017

Megan Greenwell

How did you become a writer?

As a kid, I wanted to be a lawyer, but I figured out that what I really loved about law was that feeling of captivating a room full of people during a perfect opening argument or cross-examination. I also read constantly as a kid—everything from The Babysitters Club to Hemingway novels—and eventually, it occurred to me that the work of captivating people is the same in writing. I wanted to enroll in a creative writing class in high school, but my giant, dysfunctional public school didn't have one, so I signed up for a journalism class instead. I fell in love with the reporting part long before the writing part, and I still am a little uncomfortable calling myself a "writer;' journalist feels much more natural. But I started writing articles my freshman year of high school and haven't stopped since.

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

Without Greg Giglio, who taught the intro to journalism class I mentioned, I'm not sure I would have ended up a professional writer and editor. He made every part of the process, from researching to copy editing, seem so exciting that I couldn’t help but continue. In college, I was lucky enough to take a small seminar on book reviews with the great Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, who drilled into us the importance of active verbs and not saying more than you need to. Thanks to him, I never exceed my word count. 

In terms of writers, I try to learn something from everything I read—whether I love it or hate it—so it's impossible to list them all. But I'm a California native, so perhaps I was destined to be deeply influenced by Steinbeck and Didion. Writers whose work has been humming in my brain recently include Yaa Gyasi, Anne Fadiman, Rachel Monroe, and Hua Hsu. And because my primary gig is as an editor, I have the privilege of working with and learning from writers I admire every day. Most recently, Tommy Tomlinson's created scenes that literally took my breath away in this profile of the Rev. William Barber.

When and where do you write?

I aspire to be the kind of writer who can write anywhere, at any time. Instead, I am very picky about my conditions. Writing in the office is out of the question, but my apartment won't work either. Instead, I need a coffee shop that's not too loud and not too quiet, that has unobtrusive music, and that sells food that's easy to eat while typing. My preferred spot generally shifts over time, but as of a few weeks ago I'm pretty convinced I've found the perfect place. (I refuse to tell anyone where it is, because nothing would be worse than running into friends there!) 

Once I've settled in, I actually have no problem staying focused. I'll take a quick break to scan Twitter every hour or so, but I never want writing to take longer than it has to, so I am decent at avoiding distractions.

What are you working on now?

Aside from editing a constant stream of narrative features for Esquire, I'm putting the finishing touches on the first one I've written in a few years: a profile of a Twitter comedian that's actually about the nature of internet comedy in our sometimes nightmarish world. I have a few other story ideas I'd like to pursue after that, but nothing nailed down yet!

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

It's not that I don't believe in writer's block, but I do think writers focus too much on its existence. My friend Cord Jefferson once wrote what I consider the perfect response to a question about writer's block: "In those moments I try and force myself to remember that this is my job. House painters don’t get house painter’s block. Baristas don’t get barista’s block. I think some writers fuck themselves up by thinking of their job as high-minded philosophy for which one requires perfect conditions and a perfect headspace. It’s work. Treat it as work instead of an academic exercise." While I still won't write anywhere but in coffee shops, I have taken this lesson very much to heart. I feel lucky to have this job, but I also remind myself constantly that it's a job instead of some mission-driven calling.

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

When I was 23, I convinced The Washington Post to send me to Baghdad. I had a year of professional journalism experience, didn't speak Arabic, and didn't know anything about the conflict in Iraq other than what I had read in the newspaper. When I got there, I was intimidated and overwhelmed, which I dealt with by couching every paragraph wrote in "gotta hear both sides"-type language and far too many expert opinions. After a couple of these stories, my editor, Cameron Barr, called me with one sentence of advice: "Write with authority." I tried to protest that I didn't have any authority; that I didn't know what I was doing. He cut me off. "You're there, you have the authority. Own it." More than anything else anyone has ever told me about writing, "write with authority" is the line that runs through my head every time I write.

What’s your advice to new writers?

The best advice I have for young writers is to read a lot and write a lot. I love to ask young writers what they've read recently, and I'm constantly surprised by how few are regularly reading the kind of writing they want to do. And I don't just mean The New Yorker! Read newspapers, and magazines from other countries, and every word you can on topics you're interested in. It's the only way to develop sophisticated story ideas.

As for writing a lot, I find that young people are often hesitant about writing, as if they're waiting for permission. Sure, you may not get published in your dream magazine or land a book deal right away, but what you write is so, so much more important than where you write it. Write for your student paper, and tiny publications with tiny budgets, and wherever you can publish something you're proud of. 

Megan Greenwell is executive features editor at Esquire. She was previously a features editor at New York Magazine and ESPN the Magazine, the managing ed. at GOOD magazine, and a reporter at The Washington Post. She tweets stories she loves, advice for freelancers, and far too many photos of her pug Benson at @megreenwell.

Tuesday
May302017

Fiona Maazel

How did you become a writer?

Slowly and with trepidation. I wasn’t precocious about writing in the least, and didn’t start writing with anything like commitment until my mid-twenties. And even then I didn’t think of myself as a writer, which is a shame. If you write, you’re a writer. Unfortunately, I had the idea that you had to be published—and published successfully—in order to wear the moniker. I published my first short story when I was 27 or so, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer. Then I wrote a novel, had a great agent, but couldn’t sell the book, so I didn’t consider myself a writer then, either. It wasn’t until I published my first novel that I began to think of myself as—maybe—someone whose life was dedicated to this art. Which is all absurd, of course, and bound of up with issues of self-esteem that have little to do with what does and does not earn you the title. Bottom line: I became a writer when I started to spend hours every day wrestling with language and sentence-making, structure and stakes. That’s pretty much when it happens for any writer, young or old. 

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

This is always a hard one for me because I feel like writing is all about imprinting your sensibility on the page, which means what you’re really asking is what makes me who I am, which I’m not sure I can answer. Everything? I’m sure what I read is as influential on my work as the woman I saw last week yelling at her kid on the subway. Make yourself available to the world and everything becomes an influence. In terms of specific mentors, though, that’s easier. Jim Shepard, Amy Hempel, and Martha Cooley have all been hugely influential people in my life—as teachers and friends. They’ve set the bar very high for what constitutes great work and have taught me over the years how to find my way forward. How to strive for more. It’s wonderful for a young writer to have examples and mentorship, but it’s equally wonderful to retain those influences as you grow up. Your mentors become your peers, but that doesn’t mean you admire them less or have less to learn from them. 

When and where do you write? 

Whenever and wherever I can. I’ve heard of authors who need all kinds of conditions to write, but this has always seemed precious to me. Sure, it’s hard to write when it’s loud or the TV is on or your toddler is screaming. But extremes aside, it’s just not that hard to plunk down somewhere and open your laptop. Writing is hard. Where you do it is immaterial. These days I have very little time, owing to multiple jobs and motherhood, so I haven’t been very productive. But that is soon to change. When I do write, it’s at home or the library or a cafe. I used to go to artists’ residencies to pound out much of my draft work, but I can’t do that any more now that I have a child. So I’ll just have to adapt and squeeze in a sentence her, a sentence there. 

What are you working on now? 

A new novel about female rage, inertia, and the 2008 financial meltdown. I’m only about 90 pages in, though, so who’s to say what the novel will become over time. Check back in with me next year. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I have suffered from an incapacity to come up with ideas that are of interest to me. Is that writer’s block? I think all artists go through periods when they bore themselves. It’s brutal. You just have to keep throwing things down on the page until something sticks. It’s a scary time because of course you’re pretty sure nothing will stick. That you’ve exhausted your store of good ideas. Often, too, a good idea doesn’t appear good at first. So you throw it down and work on it and give it time to find its legs and feet and maybe if you’re lucky, it sticks. But then, of course, it has to run, which is its own challenge. In any case, getting through these periods requires real discipline and commitment, even as you’re despairing throughout. 

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

"So what?" Chris went to the store, he fell in love, she broke his heart—SO WHAT? What are the stakes here? What is happening in your fiction that will help enrich my capacity to feel deeply about other people? What are you teaching me? Why should I care? It might well be a writer’s responsibility to entertain, but entertainment without stakes is just fast food. Enjoyable in the moment but not worth much in the long run. I remember getting that advice early on and taking it to heart right away. It wasn’t going to be enough to funny now and then or to be able to spin a good yarn. I’d have to strive for much more if I wanted my work to affect people in a meaningful way. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Write.

Fiona Maazel is author of the novels Last Last Chance (2008); Woke Up Lonely (2013); and A Little More Human (2017). Last Last Chance was a Time Out New York “Best Book of the Year.” Woke Up Lonely was a finalist for the Believer Book Award and optioned by 21st Century Fox. Maazel is winner of a 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship and the Bard Prize for Fiction. She is also a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. Her stories have appeared in Conjunctions, Harper’s, Ploughshares, Tin House, Best American Short Stories 2017, and elsewhere. She has taught in the creative writing programs at Brooklyn College, NYU, Adelphi, Princeton, Syracuse, Columbia, and the University of Leipzig, Germany, and is currently the Director of Communications for a legal nonprofit, Measures for Justice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Website: www.fionamaazel.com.

Tuesday
May232017

David Cooper

How did you become a writer?

Twenty years ago, I was inspired by actual career upheavals and professional experiences to work out a plot for what eventually became my debut novel “Hatred Ridicule & Contempt”, combining a libel trial with a distasteful round of law firm internal politics. I wrote half of it before becoming disillusioned at the prospect of ever finding a publisher, and shelved it. Then came the Kindle boom and the opportunity it provided for independent self-publishers. This was the inspiration for me to take out the long forgotten typescript, shake it down, finish it off and finally see it in print in 2011. “Infernal Coalition” followed a year later, and “Craven Conflict” three years afterwards, both of them once again legal suspense dramas. 

Name your writing influences.

You’re no doubt expecting me to say John Grisham! I’ll gladly concur, but my all time favourite for reading pleasure and inspiration is Robert Goddard, an undisputed master of the ever twisting plot and the use of fascinating settings. I’d add Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton and Glenn Cooper (not a relation!).

When and where do you write?

Home and office, whenever the moment seems right. I am still working full time in the legal profession, so writing is very much a sideline. Thankfully I can answer “doesn’t the boss mind?” with “I am the boss”.

What are you working on now?

The outline of a potential plot for a new legal suspense drama involving disputed wills, dishonest brokers (far more entertaining than honest brokers) and family turmoil. I’ll need to be sure in my own mind that the plot is both interesting and watertight before the first words start to hit the screen.

Have you ever suffered from writers’ block?

As described above, my initial experience involved a 12 year block…

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

Write about what you know about, and what others are likely to know less about.

What’s your advice to new writers?

It was going to be “ne te confundant illegitimi” (Google it!), but on a more constructive basis “learn how to self publish and get yourself a really good cover designer.”

David Cooper is a solicitor by profession and lives in the UK. He has written and self published three UK based legal suspense drama novels, Hatred Ridicule & Contempt, Infernal Coalition, and Craven Conflict. He tweets as @DavidCooperBks and his blogsite can be found at davidcooperbooks.blogspot.co.uk.