Frequently asked questions
What are you reading these days?
The one book that stands out above all others is Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See. It had everything – great characters, a gripping story, and elegant prose. Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade – I was completely wowed by the way she wrote from the different points of view of a whole family of siblings (including the very young). A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler (familiar ground); The Paris Wife (which I read in Paris), which led me to A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises (for the fourth time). I just finished Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls, a fabulous account of 3 women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq; and I just started Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, because I absolutely love Kate Atkinson and have a lot to catch up on. And on my bedside table I’ve got The Jazz Palace, by Mary Morris, which from the first chapter promises to be as elegant and classy as the rest of her prose; Welcome to Hard Times, by EL Doctorow, and The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison. Looking forward this fall to Dirt: A Love Story, a collection of essays on just that topic, compiled by Barbara Richardson.
What’s your writing day like?
First I walk the dog; this is a kind of writing time in itself, because often I’ll go into a kind of right-brain state where I can see the big picture of a particular project.
The rest of the morning I spend writing, fueled by lots of strong coffee.
This is sacred time and I’m pretty good about keeping my butt in the chair, as my teacher Ron Carlson advised. Afternoons are for household errands, or watercolor, or a trip to the gym. In the late afternoon I’ll often get a second wind, and produce a page or so, but usually at this point I’ll simply go back and edit the morning’s work.
These days I pretty much write every day, year round, except when I’m on a real vacation (as opposed to what my husband calls “a working vacation,” where we go camping, say, but bring our laptops and work in the morning and then hike in the afternoon). My husband keeps me at it; he’s a law professor and he writes all sorts of crazy unique stuff, including fiction (his novel American Absurd is due out in December), and he works all the time – he’s at it at breakfast even, and in some sorry way I feel the need to keep up with him, Sundays included. So I put in my time, and am grateful that he’s a model for me.
It wasn’t always like this. When the kids were growing up, I used to take the entire summer off, which made me feel really guilty, but the flip side was that the time apart gave me a new perspective on my work, so I went back to things with a fresh eye in the fall.
What about writer’s block?
I used to get it a lot, and I think it stemmed from my thinking that whatever I wrote had to be perfect and on track. I didn’t allow for any detours. These days I don’t get blocked very much, because I’m a lot more willing to let myself write crap, or take those detours, and I’m a lot more willing to do that because I’ve learned that it’s all part of the process. See Anne Lamott on Shitty First Drafts, in Bird by Bird.
But occasionally yes, I do feel blocked, and there are two approaches. One involves the vacuum and the sudden awareness of dog hair on the couch. The other is what my teacher Ron Carlson calls the butt-in-the-chair approach, which means that if you just keep your butt in the chair, you can punch through the block and get yourself going again. Just wait it out. It’s not forever.
What authors have influenced your sense of what makes a good story?
I have to go back to Anthony Doerr, and All the Light We Cannot See, because you’re invested in those characters from the beginning. And his characters drive the story. I liked his use of the short chapters; inch by inch, he brings you deeper and deeper into life as it was in France during the occupation. This story builds on the notion that little interactions have big repercussions, time and again. It’s a masterpiece.
There’s also John Irving, for all his unintended consequences; Kate Atkinson and Jennifer Egan and George Saunders, all of whom make me think outside the box; John Updike, for his critical detail; Scott Turow for his drama and nuance; and my ultimate role model Ann Tyler, who reminds me that I have to love my characters, however flawed they may be.
What inspired you to write In the Heart of the Canyon?
Our family took a trip down the Grand Canyon, and I was smitten. Actually I wanted to run away afterwards and become a river guide, not exactly a practical option for someone at my station in life, raising 3 kids. Since I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life on the river, I figured I would write about it.
Now, at the time, I was working on The Abortionist’s Daughter, and in that novel there’s a cop/detective whose backstory I’d never really explored. And so I decided to make him a former river guide. I wrote about his life on the river, what he loved, and then when I came to the point where he was going to leave the river and become a cop, boom, I hit that wall like a truck. There was no way I could imagine that decision.
I was agonizing about this with my husband one day over lunch, and he finally just shook his head and said, “Give it up. If you want to write about the river, write a whole novel about the river.” And everything unfolded before me instantly. Not all the details, of course, or the plot twists, but I imagined a kind of Ship of Fools goes down the Grand, different points of view, a mile-by-mile approach. That’s what I call a productive lunch.
Any advice for young writers?
Yes: grow a thick skin. A friend of mine describes the writing life as one crushing rejection after another. The odds are terrible. I’ve heard something like 1 in 100 writers will get published, and of that, 1 in another 100 will make any kind of money. And there’s a lot of crap out there that will drive you crazy because you’ll think, How the **** did that ever get published?
That being said, I do feel like good writing eventually finds its way to the top of the pile. I’m really an optimist at heart. My agent told me (and I may be mis-remembering here but I think this is true) that Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes came to her hand-scrawled on a stack of dog-eared paper. Someone said she better take a look at it. Fortunately she did.
If you want to write full-time, you either have to have a trust fund or someone to mooch off of, those being John Gardner’s words to me at Bread Loaf many years ago. I’m lucky to be married to someone with a good salary and benefits. I have had some financial success, a bestseller in the UK that made my accountant happy because we didn’t have to file Schedule C losses that year. But overall things have been very uneven. Any money I make from my writing is gravy.
Probably things are changing, with self-publishing and e-books. I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball. All I can tell you is write your heart out, and see what happens.