I graduated from Brown in 1978 with an AB magna cum laude in Philosophy and earned an AM in Creative Writing in 1981, having worked with John Hawkes, R.V. Cassill, and Angela Carter.
I’ve taught fiction workshops on and off since 1983, at the extension divisions of Brown University, San Diego State University, and the University of California, San Diego, in addition to numerous private workshops. Presently I teach an online writing workshop, accessible through my website.
After publishing short stories in The Yale Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Playgirl, I sold my collected stories (Jenny and the Jaws of Life) to St. Martin’s Press, which published it in 1987. Through generous and repeated praise, David Sedaris managed almost singlehandedly to resurrect it in 2002, when St. Martin’s re-released it, this time in paper, with a spiffy new cover and a foreword by Sedaris. (Another edition is out in paper now, from Picador.) The following year, St. Martin’s published my first novel, Winner of the National Book Award. My second novel, The Writing Class, was published by St. Martin’s in June of 2008, and will be released in paper by Picador in June. My novels and stories have been translated and published in France; there are editions in the U.K. and Australia, and plans for publication/translation in Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Turkey. My stories have appeared in various anthologies, including Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules (2005), ed. David Sedaris; uncollected stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and 5chapters.com. I have reviewed books for The New York Times, the Providence Journal, and the San Diego Union-Tribune.
I’m writing another book about Amy Gallup, the central character in The Writing Class. This one won’t be a mystery. I’m just interested in what happened to her after the events in that novel.
We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
It was pretty straightforward. In those days, you didn’t have to have an agent to get published: you just kept trying to rise from the slush pile, which I eventually did. When I placed a few stories in journals and magazines, I tried to get them published as a collection, and I did. That collection was nicely received but not much noticed, since collected short fiction by unknown writers doesn’t get a lot of attention. David Sedaris made all the difference there.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
Not so much self-doubt as doubts about what’s happening in the reading world. Thousands and thousands of new novels are published every year; even the most assiduous readers can take in only a small percentage of them. Even if you’re published, the chances that you’ll be read are slim. Once you realize this, it is difficult to make yourself sit down and write. I have no helpful hints to offer, except that if you want to write, your aim should not be to make money or sell millions of books, but to get down on paper what’s in your head. This is very hard but worth doing, for its own sake.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I’ve been lucky so far.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
I don’t have story ideas. I just start writing. The moment of conception of a story idea is as mysterious as other moments of conception. More mysterious, actually: we know how babies are conceived, but the moment when swirling threads of ideas and memories coalesce into a narrative can’t actually be captured on film. (Although maybe now that they’re doing all that work with brain imaging, the mystery will be solved.)
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
When I was researching The Writing Class, I wanted to find out about poisons, and I thought the internet was a great place to start. I joined some web group on poisoning, quickly found it both alarming and basically useless, and then was unable to get them to take me off the listserv and stop emailing me. I’m not the paranoid sort, but I did find myself worrying about attracting the attention of Homeland Security.
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
Keep revising, and seek out readers to whom you are not related. The best writers I’ve worked with have been gluttons for criticism. Other writers, some of them quite promising, couldn’t stand it and as a result did not progress. By “criticism,” of course I don’t mean savage, mean-spirited attacks. But a good reader will not hesitate to point out what doesn’t work, as well as what does. That’s how you learn. And if you can’t take the criticism of peers, you’ll fold under the relentless onslaught of all those rejection slips.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
No one event. Just getting older and staying alert basically does it.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)
I like some of my stories—“The Haunting of the Lingards,” for example.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
Just the idea that if you write one good thing you should keep writing, and that you’re only as good as your last book or story. That’s ridiculous. If you’re lucky enough to have written something truly worth reading, this doesn’t mean that you have more to say. Maybe you do, and maybe you don’t.
Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.
I’d love to make more money at it, but that’s not very inspiring, I know. My dream—a very puny one—would be to sell stories or even novels to the movies, collect paychecks, and never actually have to deal with the ultimate results.
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?
The biggest thrill is to have written something you’re not ashamed of—something that you pick up years later, when you’ve forgotten much of it, and begin to read, and see with fresh eyes that it’s really pretty damn good.
What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
I am oomph-free.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you’d like.
My favorite sort of setting is filled with distractions. I’ve done some of my best writing surrounded by boisterous conversation. Somehow all that sensory input takes up the slack in my brain and allows the creative part to focus and function. I have no idea why. All I know is that the kind of “writing spot” ideal to most writers—with hushed silence and unrelenting peace—would drive me absolutely nuts.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer?
How did you overcome it?
I have the hardest time making myself sit down and write. I haven’t overcome this and am unlikely to. Still, sometimes I manage.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Panic and fall into a stupor. Often I write the first chapters like gangbusters and then freeze up for months.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
I always have to know where I’m going, but not how I’m going to get there. I have to have a goal, but if I knew everything that was going to happen between the outset and the last page, I wouldn’t bother writing the book in the first place. Fiction is stories we tell ourselves; the impulse to tell the story disappears if we already know it.
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?
The Terrifying Middle. Beginnings are easy; endings, by the time I get to them, are exciting to write, because the momentum is there. The middle is what kills.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.
Well, David Sedaris’s response was pretty memorable!
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?