- What is your earliest memory of writing?
I don’t remember reading anything for the heck of it till I was 17 years old. It was a war story about submarines called “Run Silent, Run Deep,” the kind of book kids like me read who want to grow up to be pilots and engineers and oceanographers. I do, however, remember writing a story when I was maybe six years old called Toby the Tinker Toy. It was about a Tinker Toy called Toby. I remember nothing about it apart from the title, and the wide lined paper I wrote it on, and fat loopy pencil scrawl used – I can still visualize what it looked like, but not the story itself. My mother of course thought it promised a life of literary glory. I never again wrote for fun until college.
- What is your writing process like and how has that changed or evolved? I don’t think I have a “process.” Every project, every idea comes to me in a different way. Oddly, one of the most important things I have to decide before I begin is the names of the characters (very difficult to get right) and then stupid things, like what kind of pen I’ll use, or what type of pad, or if I’ll outline or not. I’d call it undisciplined, except I write a lot (and keep very little), so its less a matter of disorganization and laziness, and more a question of random impulse and – I don’t know what, really; finding a way to control that chaos from project to project. I think I’m slightly OCD-y, maybe.
- What inspires you and how does that influence your work?
Impossible to say. Mostly I think other writers inspire me. Once I hear their “music” (words) I’m struck by how enthralling it is to read language used with command and personality. It makes me want to make my own music. If I find an author I like I tend to read everything I can find by them; Philip Roth, James Salter, Josef Roth, Hans Fallada, Stephan Zweig, Chuck Portis, Thomas Savage – I’m on a big George Saunders kick right now. It may move me to write something.
- What do you think makes a good story and what kinds of stories are you drawn to? I don’t think in that way. Ideas land in my “to do” box more as strong images, emotional vortices that suck me in. Only when I’ve got too far in a work to turn back do I step away and squint at what it is becoming in terms of story. Then I start to ask if it works or not. I’ve read a lot of how-to-do-it things by writers, and often I think, “hmmm, yeah, that sounds familiar,” or “sure, I’ve done that” ok, “I’ll steal that one,” but when you’re finally in the zone and writing well, all the conscious stuff gets jettisoned, and you’re alone with an instinct, your competence at the time, your emotional state, your intuitions and a compulsion to keep on going until the thing feels finished.
- What are some of your favorite books, movies, TV shows, and why? Oh man. It changes all the time. Movies I love: The General (Buster Keaton), My Cousin Vinnie. Tokyo Story. The Godfather. The Fireman’s Ball, and it changes all the time. Books I seem to read over and over – “All That Is” (James Salter), “Sabbath’s Theatre” (Philip Roth), “Alone in Berlin” [aka Everyone Dies Alone] (Fallada), “Dog of the South” (Portis).
- What’s the most surprising thing you have learned from writing? I grew up an only child, me and my mom. I didn’t know that people other people what was going on inside them. I played alone (mostly), made things alone, made melodies alone. I was perfectly content that way. Never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that anyone else had the same things going on I side them all the time. Not until my teens. Then the internal pressures became overwhelming. I had no outlet except music composition, which required a piano, which is too heavy to lug around. You can’t just have a musical idea and jot it down. You need a piano (I did, anyway), so there was that. Also, you’re not really directly expressing an experience when you write music… you’re abstracting it in a way, finding an approximation that will contain the intensity of the feeling. When I started to write prose what struck me was that I could do it anywhere, anytime. All it took was a notebook and pen. This was hugely liberating… a portable, every-ready outlet. Writing became my constant companion, my perpetually patient listener, my non-judgmental audience that never tired of my song, where I could talk at will and without end. I learned to put everything into words – and by doing that, by finding words to describe my experience, my feelings, I often learned what the feeling, the experience, the puzzling interior storms really were.
- You are a founder of the WGI, tell us about that. I’m actually not the founder. Tom Fontana started the WGI, and after six years on the board I was asked to preside for a term, which became two. The group itself was a spontaneous outgrowth of a social posse, Tom Fontana’s friends and drinking partners – of which I wasn’t initially a member. I don’t know why I was invited onto the board… but I was, and very elegantly at that. Tom took me to Bar Centrale for a drink. If you’ve never been to Bar Centrale, its one of those secret places without a sign outside. You have to know its there. You go up some stairs between two restaurants, and you think you’ve arrived at some wealthy midtown private apartment/home. Inside all the customers are famous. Even the ones you can’t identify are famous. If you’re there, everyone else assumes that you’re famous, too. I was with Tom Fontana, who is famous, but not recognizable. So for all intents and purposes we were two famous people having a drink. Now when someone invites you to Bar Centrale and asks you for a favor – and they pay for the drinks – the answer is “Yes.” Whatever they askm you say “yes.” So when Tom asked me if I’d join the board, and then paid for drinks….
- What is the best part of mentoring in the WGI workshops? The way participants open up about their lives, how they trust you, confide and share their feelings. In ordinary interactions this degree of trust and intimacy takes ages, sometimes years to develop. In the “privacy” of the workshops this sort of sharing is immediate, or very nearly so. For a writer (like me) it’s a privilege and a feast. It’s a chance to learn about lives very different than my own, and with luck, to help nascent writers locate the core experience they want to communicate.
- What do you like to do for fun when you are not writing? I read, I swim, I ride my bike, I re-organize little corners of the house that are already very well organized, I vow to learn other languages then forget my vow. I love to fish, and to sail, but get too little time to do either, or maybe I haven’t met enough people who own sailboats. I seem to like water a lot.
- Do you have any advice, tips or suggestions for anyone struggling with writing? Honestly, the only advice is – Write. Just start, do it. Write anything, aimless sentences, lists, copy our passages from books. Get the musce working. If writing is in you, if it calls, you’ll find it addictive at some level. Trust that. There’s no mystery. Find a private place at home, a time of day, a talismanic object to put on your desk as a good luck charm, find music that centers you, and write a sentence, and the another sentence. See it if leads you to more sentences. If you’re “struggling” it probably means you’re not actually writing. I know writers for whom putting pen to paper is agony. But they do it… because the reward is greater than the pain. So…. Write. Then you won’t be struggling. You’ll be writing.