1.What is your earliest memory of writing?
When I was very young, I saw an ad in the back of my Classics Illustrated comic book. It was a b/w illustration of a man sitting forlornly, with his head down on his knees. The ad copy said something like, “Are you lonely? Introverted? Then, perhaps you could someday become a great writer…” the Draw Binky-style ad for a correspondence school said. This has oddly stuck with me forever.
Somehow, I was not sure Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Ray Bradbury or anyone else, started that way. Many of the great writers were lonely, isolated and impoverished, at some point. There may have been a grain of truth in the advertisement. It was however a backhanded compliment at the very least. So, I threw the ad away, and forgot about Binky.
But I also wrote what might be considered overly vivid letters to relatives, etc. It was never enough for me to simply write a thank you note, that said “Grandma, thank you for the pajamas. I will wear them with gratitude.” If you were Grandma Haviland, you also received expository paragraphs on school, friends, and our life in suburbia 80 miles away.
2. What do you think makes a good story and what kinds of stories are you drawn to?
I have always been intrigued by a group of people, a place, a set of experiences that were outside my normal universe. During our quarantine time, I’ve been trying to branch out my reading to include international authors. But I am interested in style. How can an author… tell a slightly familiar story in a new and unusual way, in terms of character, plot and style?
I have always been attracted to mysteries, which is my favorite genre to read. There was something about the moral code, and the ability of the detective (or lead characters) to see beyond the outward appearance and the sometimes-flimsy façade of the characters under suspicion.
The best stories create a strong empathy with the characters, the small decisions, and the big mistakes the characters might make. And the personal revelations along the way.
3. What are some of your favorite books, movies, TV shows?
You left out favorite artists, musicians, and photographers. They share a visual approach with writers. I have always been interested in the ability of all visual or creative artists, to show you a place, or to paint a portrait… leaving you to wonder about the hidden stories of the image. The painter Edward Hopper, the collage artist Joseph Cornell, and the current “staged cinema” photographer Gregory Crewdson, are among my favorites.
My favorite authors generate several books: Cormac McCarthy, Javier Marais, Swedish mystery novelist Henning Mankell, New Jersey’s own John McPhee and David Mitchell have all written several books that I enjoyed. My all-time favorites were Wordstruck by Robert MacNeill, and A Drinking Life by the NY tabloid journalist Pete Hamill. Both books are part of my library.
I rarely watch television, but I did enjoy the Luther series with Idris Elba, Sherlock and Seasons 1,3 of True Detective. There’s a lengthy list of favorite musicians, including: jazz fusion artists Pat Metheny and Christian Scott, and on the rock side U2, Pink Floyd and Los Angeles surf rock band The Shelters.
With movies, here’s a quirky list: Stand by Me; Death at a Funeral; Atlantic City (with Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon), Interstellar (and other Christopher Nolan films), and the New Zealand time travel film The Navigator.
4. What inspires you?
My partner and my family inspire me. They often observe things I missed.
Oral story telling has a unique and inspiring effect; the written word has a new dimension read aloud. I am endlessly fascinated by how things relate to each other, visually and in other ways. When we learn the figures of speech and grammar in middle school, juxtaposition was at the top of the ‘favorite list’ of figures of speech.
Travel is inspiring, and not just for photography purposes. I long for the day, hopefully in 2021, when we can safely expand our travel horizons.
5. What is your writing process like?
Having started as a newspaper journalist, I can write with any amount of noise in any location. Our editors taught us to fill the page, and to meet deadlines.
The skills and process I carried from journalism to a public relations and marketing communications career, to freelance work …. was the willingness to ask questions (many questions sometimes) and to interview people with a truly genuine interest in what they think, what they experience, and what they have to say.
6. How has your process changed over the years?
If anything, I write faster. I have become more obsessive with the exact word choice. Writing is sometimes a timed puzzle, and you fit in the pieces.
Also, no matter what the writing assignment: I believe creativity can be applied. Roget’s, Oxford Style and the AP Stylebook may be nearby, but in the end, I revise with instinct.
7. What’s the most surprising thing you have learned from writing?
One of the most amazing things I learned from the Writers Guild Initiative seminars, and the recent 2020 Gala, is the sound of writing, the sound of voices… whether they are true people, or fictional characters.
The input of others still benefits my writing. Working in marketing or business, you are forced to become collaborative in your writing, sometimes more than you might want to be. In the end, you meet the deadline and move onto the next assignment.
8. Do you have a writing quirk, if so, what is it?
I still write some drafts long hand. If the deadlines are immediate, I can write to the PC. In middle school and high school art class, we learned the first try at a watercolor painting is called a “wash” … you add layers of color to it. In a sense, writing should have that wash too.
Also, whether it was a chaotic newsroom, noisy train car, or any other setting, I pride myself on my ability to write just about anywhere.
9. You are also an accomplished photographer. What are the similarities between writing and photography – if any?
I think of myself as a “learning” photographer; there is a lot I don’t know, and I have not even scratched the surface of the digital tools that are out there.
Since it was formed, I’ve been a member of the New Jersey photo collective, Black Glass Gallery. We have more than 100 members, but there might be 40 members on a trip or excursion. When we have our annual exhibit, you see how 40+ different photographers interpret and ‘see’ the same place. There is a clear analogy here to writing too. Every author, poet or script writer may have different approach, a different line of vision. In photography, you learn to crop and simplify… not every image needs to have the full panorama.
Also, the best comparison is both writing and photography are continuous learning, interpreting and seeing environments. You never put the camera, the pen, or the keyboard, down for long.
10. Do you have any advice for anyone struggling with writing?
Does not everyone struggle with writing? If anyone tells me it is easy, I have to wonder what they have been smoking, to make such a wild assertion.
The language can and should dazzle, the plot should intrigue the viewer or the reader. But if it were too easy, everyone would be doing it, and where would the fun be in that?
And in the end, we revisit the writer correspondence school ad. Writing is not really lonely, because you have the richness of plot, dialogue and a compelling story to keep you on point.