1. What is your earliest memory of writing?
I grew up in Appalachian Maryland, and my father worked for the local paper mill. He would bring home pens, pencils, reams of paper, even a stapler. With all those tools to play with, I probably started writing around five or six, as I was learning enough words to make a story; it was a game to me. With the stapler, I could actually turn my stories into a book.
2. What inspires you?
Social justice. Often the news program Democracy Now!
3. Tell us about your writing process. Do you have a set schedule or practice?
I’m a morning person – I naturally wake up quite early (often before dawn) – so I write in the morning and afternoon. After dinner, I’m generally too tired. I mean I could keep writing, but my brain is so fried that it’s usually a waste of time. Better to wait till I’m fresh the next day.
4. What makes a good story, and what kinds of stories are you drawn to?
Wow – tough question! I suppose a good story is a narrative that I latch onto from the start and can’t let go of; that makes me want to know how it will end – and that has an ending that doesn’t cop out or otherwise disappoint; that is something new or an old story worked creatively so that it feels brand new; that leaves me thinking. Regarding the last of these, even a seeming light comedy, if executed well, can accomplish this.
5. Along those lines, what are some of your favorite books, tv shows, movies?
Oh man, no matter what I write here, later I’ll think of seventy-five more favorites to add to each list!
Books: In recent releases, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart and Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth both took my breath away. More: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, Milkman by Anna Burns, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, My Amputations by Clarence Major, Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Solibo Magnificent by Patrick Chamoiseau, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Nonfiction faves: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, Brother I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat, Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Living My Life by Emma Goldman, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto by Vine Deloria Jr.
Movies: Most recently I was blown away by Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters as well as O.G., written by my fellow WGI mentor Stephen Belber. Also: 12 Years a Slave, Cradle Will Rock (art and revolution during the Depression, not the thriller), Boogie Nights, Shawshank Redemption, Brokeback Mountain, Drumline, Days of Heaven, Drugstore Cowboy, Lilies of the Field, The Player, Moonlight, Citizen Kane, Babe (yes, the pig).
TV: Perhaps my favorite show of all-time was a short-lived ’80s series called Frank’s Place, taking place in a black New Orleans restaurant – a dramedy before the genre was invented.
Have you learned anything surprising from writing? If so, what?
Well, since I always engage in research, I’m constantly surprised by what I discover.
In the writing itself – In 2004, I spent two weeks in Liberia as the nation was transitioning out of its brutal child-soldier civil war. (The trip was under the auspices of a travel-commissioning grant through the Guthrie Theater.) While there was certainly universal relief among the people that, for all intents and purposes, the strife was over, there was also mass depression: no running water or electricity, bullet holes everywhere – the infrastructure in a shambles so how do we start again? I feared the play I was to write, if created in truth, would just be terribly dispiriting. But, as I began to write Tap the Leopard, a narrative beginning with the 18th century colonization of the West African nation by black Americans to the present, I surprised myself: the ending was perhaps the most hopeful I’ve ever written, having been grounded in the astonishing resiliency of humanity.
I had another surprise when I wrote my first novel The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter. If asked, I probably would have said that there had been characters I’d written in the past that I loved. But with my novel I accidentally fell in love with a character. As in, a third of the way through the first draft, I wanted him alive and standing right next to me. I totally didn’t plan it! Embarrassing but true!
How do you make time for writing?
I am fortunate to have a rent-stabilized living situation which has meant I haven’t had to have a full-time job. Oh there have definitely been lean times, but the cheap rent allows me to save from the fatter years, making it last. The flexibility has also permitted me the freedom to attend writing retreats, usually for a month at a time, which allows uninterrupted focus on my project. Some of these residencies have been in other countries which has been creatively inspiring.
Before going totally freelance though, I still managed to write – even if it was just weekends and/or the hour lunch break of my full-time job. Because I hadn’t had any other time to write the last twenty-four hours (especially if I came home too exhausted after a full work day), those forty-five minutes a day were so productive! It just came pouring out! I have always maintained that even fifteen minutes a day is fantastic. At that rate, a writer could piece together the initial rough draft of a play or screenplay in a month or two.
Do you have any tips/advice or guidance for those who may be struggling with writing out there?
First, what I just wrote about never letting limited time be an excuse. And second, regarding criticism: it’s your work. So if you need to ask others for their input, 1) Make sure you trust their artistic perspective and 2) Take what advice is useful and throw the rest away. If you did not solicit the advice, feel no obligation to listen to it. And if you did solicit it, be polite. Rudeness will just shut them up, and you might miss out on a diamond in the rough: if they spout 95% crap and 5% gems, then it was worth it for that 5%.