What’s next on your reading list?
Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather. As a writer of very short fiction, I’m intrigued by big narratives fashioned out of tiny prose pieces. Her earlier Dept. of Speculation employed this device beautifully, tracing the arc of a troubled marriage through a series of finely observed fragments. The new novel apparently employs a similar structure, and tackles the climate crisis and other contemporary anxieties. Bring it on.
What do you struggle most with as a writer?
The middle. I love the beginning of a story, a new world as it flares into life, and I love the end, the artistry required to complete a story without closing it off. The middle, the A to B of it, is less immediately compelling for me. That said, it’s the part that’s most enriched in the process of revision.
What do you have the most fun with as a writer?
The germination stage of a story. An idea, a question as it scouts around for the form in which to incarnate – structure, voice, character, predicament.
Do you write with music in the background, or in silence?
Mostly in silence. When I do play music it tends to be of the ambient variety – Brian Eno, that lineage – or minimalist stuff like Arvo Pärt, Max Richter, Bing and Ruth (a band name borrowed from an Amy Hempel story!), Philip Glass.
Does anyone keep you company while you write?
Our cat Pipsqueak sometimes sits on my desk, demanding attention (she’ll flick a pen or paper clip onto the floor if she’s kept waiting), or snoozes on a carpeted pedestal right next to it.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
It’s crucial that you let yourself be a beginner. This is easier for an aspiring sax player, I suspect – you know you’re going to make an awful racket for a while, and that the first months and years will be about craft. By the time you aspire to be a writer (in the sense that we mean here), you’ve actually been putting words together for some time, so it’s harder to recognize that you don’t yet have any serious chops.
The upside is that the reward for working on the craft of writing is beyond anything you can anticipate. When I started out – and I think this applies to many new writers – I had the sense that the point of writing was to get the ideas out of my head and onto the page. What a dull practice that would be. Once you start to develop some command, you discover that your engagement with the text takes you far beyond your initial notions. That’s the payoff, and it’s a thrill.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Enjoy this. Angst and self-doubt notwithstanding, this is priceless.
How many hours a day do you write?
It varies too much, in my case, to make an average meaningful. Could be zero, could be all of them.
Do you believe in writer’s block? What do you do if you get stuck?
I’m not sure “stuck” quite covers it, for me. It feels more existential than that. When I want to be writing and can’t, patience usually does the trick. Random input – grab a book off the shelf and read a few lines, go for a walk. It’s like trying to remember a name that won’t come back to you. Don’t think about it, but don’t not think about it either.
What sparked the idea for The End of Me?
I realized that we’re all going to die. That sounds glib, but it’s kind of true. I wanted to write a collection of sudden stories that was unified by a single thematic preoccupation. A big one, something sufficiently mystifying to keep me out of my depth. My plan was to write a series of riffs on the idea of mortality, on the experience of being a self when one of the conditions of selfhood seems to be finitude. I started work, and immediately encountered ideas for stories in a whole range of tones and moods, voices and structures. It’s been incredibly rewarding.