Claim to fame: Author of The Ghost Apple, Mr. Eternity, and The World is a Narrow Bridge (coming Spring 2018). Recipient of a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Why’d we pick him, in ten words: His brilliant novel managed to make the world ending comic!
When did he first want to become a writer: “I started thinking about it in high school, when I read Nabokov’s Pnin. Eleventh grade or so.”
Let’s start with the basics: What time of day do you start writing? Is it easier for you to write early in the morning? Late at night?
Always first thing in the morning, when the sun rises. But it’s not my own choice. It just worked out somehow that everything I write later in the day is idiotic. My mind fills with trash as the day goes on. The most sensible thing is to get to work before the trash has had time to accumulate.
What’s your preferred tool for writing—a word processor like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc.? A pen and paper?
I write in Word, but I often sketch things out by hand first. Small notebooks with soft covers. And I’ve been using the same blue Bic pens my whole adult life. I mean literally the same pens, not just the same type of pen. I bought one package at a CVS fifteen years ago and a handful are still good. They’re the clear plastic ones with the ridges, not the opaque white ones. I should write to Bic and tell them. I don’t know what I’ll do when they all run out.
Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer silence, or something else in the background?
Perfect silence. And I’ve lived until recently in noisy places, so I got a pair of construction-worker earmuffs. They work pretty well, but they’re very painful and they amplify my own muttering in an unnerving way.
Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits?
I wish I did. I’m always in a hurry to get started. I guess I spend a moment making coffee and eating breakfast, but that’s the end of it. I envy writers who can meditate or stretch or whatever before they sit down to work. It would be good for me if I had some way to quiet my mind.
How many words a day do you produce, or try to produce? How much of that ever sees the light of day?
There’s a big spread. Sometimes I write a few thousand words, sometimes much less. I try not to set any kind of goal in that respect. In any case, almost everything I write gets peeled away as I revise the manuscript. I’d guess that no more than five to ten percent of the sentences in a rough draft end up in the published book.
What’s your process for editing your own work if you have one?
Once I have a rough draft, I print it out, read it over once, formulate some general idea about how things should go, and then go through it sequentially at a rate of about ten pages a day. I only make changes to the manuscript in the morning, but in the afternoon I look over the pages I’ll work on the next day and make a lot of notes. When I’ve gone through the whole book, I take a break—a week or two at first, longer when I get closer to a final draft—and then I do it again. And again and again.
Do you find that you write differently for your short-form work versus your longer form books?
Absolutely. To write a clean and fluent piece of any kind, you have to understand how its various parts fit together—how a change here will affect something over there. With a short piece, you never lose sight of the whole because you can read and reread it many times as you work. That’s what I do. I make a change and then I read the whole piece to see how it works. But I can’t do that with a book, so I have to find other ways to stay oriented. I reread or skim sections of the book that I know relate to the part I’m working on, I keep notes about the larger structure, and I use Word’s phrase-search function to move around and check up on things. I also make a huge effort to commit as much of the book as I can to memory. It’s exhausting and it seems psychologically damaging in some way, but it helps me to understand when jokes need to be repeated, how much space needs to intervene between similar kinds of scenes, how ideas should be patterned, etc.
Everyone says that the first step to being a good writer is to read good writer’s’ writing. What do you read? How much do you read? Who is your favorite author to emulate?
It depends what I’m working on. When I’m between novels, I reread fiction that’s meant something to me in the past. Novels by Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Penelope Fitzgerald, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mary Robison, Denis Johnson. When I’m working on a novel, I tend to read more nonfiction. Sometimes I’m doing research, although I do research in a pretty chaotic way, and sometimes I’m just trying to distract myself from my own voice. Right now I’m reading Robert Caro’s endless biography of Lyndon Johnson, which is bizarre and fascinating but doesn’t overlap at all with what I’m doing, which is good. Emulation and imitation are very important to me, but they’re dangerous—I don’t want to get excited about some idea or some new kind of voice and try to shoehorn it into whatever I’m working on.
When did your aspirations to become a writer begin, and at what age did you start writing in hopes of living off of it/making a life out of it?
I started thinking about it in high school, when I read Nabokov’s Pnin. Eleventh grade or so. I’m not sure when I decided that this would be my life. It was a decision that seemed to happen inevitably—it overtook me. And I never had any other ambition or desire that was strong enough to supersede it. I think I understood from the beginning that I was not well-suited to a collaborative work environment…
What are your favorite books on writing if you have any?
When I was first starting out, I read all of Milan Kundera’s books about writing. I loved them at the time. I don’t know if I’d like them now. I also read a lot of essays by Cynthia Ozick and James Wood. And Joseph Conrad’s prefaces, which he wrote late in life as a kind of meditation on what he’d done. And E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. I didn’t read any of this stuff with the idea that it was supposed to be prescriptive, though. I think those books just helped crystallize an understanding that I was already developing on my own. That’s probably how it works for everyone, since so much of learning to write is about learning what your own idiosyncratic voice sounds like.