William Boyle, author of the stunning, debut novel Gravesend, asked me to participate in this Writing Process Blog Tour. Basically, a writer answers four questions then invites two other writers to answer those questions the following week. He described it as kind of a chain letter for writers, which sounded pretty cool to me. Check out his post for the Blog Tour here. And see my interview with him from a couple of months ago here. He has some really interesting things to say about writing.
Here’s my contribution. And stay tuned for next week’s contributors, whom I’ll introduce at the end.
1) What are you working on?
Lots of things! I’m drafting a novel I recently finished called In the Right Light, in Certain Mirrors. The chapters alternate between six college kids, the focus being on how different, yet connected they all are. I’m also working on a novel about Kyle Boot, the 15-year-old pale kid from George Saunders’ “Victory Lap.” In my novel, we catch up with Kyle at age 39 and see what he’s been up to since the “geode incident”; I also recently started a collection of linked short stories about a teenage girl growing up in the Bronx. My vision for the project is a cross between Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son and Saundra Cisnero’s House on Mango Street. And as always, I have a couple of stand-alone short stories on the backburner, simmering in various stages of doneness. The two I’m most excited about: a retelling of Lovecraft’s, “The Thing on the Doorstep” and a story about a woman trying to get into amature boxing and coming up against all kinds of obstacles.
2) How is your work different from others’ work in the same genre?
I loved how Robert Yune responded: “This is such a ‘dear in headlights’ question.” Totally. Don’t want to sound like a blowhard, popping off about the nuances of genre, but also don’t want to sound like you’ve never thought about what you’re actually doing and where you fit. I grew up in the Bronx, in a racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood, so code-switching, Santeria, and Jamaican beef patties make their way into my work fairly frequently. In my day-to-day life, I felt this constant sense of danger, anxiety, and excitement. I saw and did a lot. Then at 18, I moved to upstate NY and got immersed in what I can only describe as a culture of suburban alienation. I felt safer, but more disconnected from my environment and the people in it. I had to prove myself all the time, but in a way that was totally different from how I had to prove myself in the Bronx. I bring both of these perspectives to my writing, and sometimes they are both really present in a single project, which is interesting!
I think I’m always looking to straddle genres. I’m a total fangirl for some of the innovative and fabulist writers out there like Amelia Gray and George Saunders, but I grew up on deeply personal, emotional writing, like the stuff you’d find in Oprah’s book club. And I’ve also read a fair amount of horror and sci-fi. So I’m always merging these approaches. Think David Foster Wallace meets Judy Blume, occasionally with a witch or some aliens thrown into the mix. In work of mine that I consider less successful, it’s usually because the writing is pulling too heavily in one of these directions: too cerebral or clever OR way too vulnerable, like cringe-worthy, like “Yikes! TMI.”
3) Why do you write what you do?
My primary motivation for writing is almost always my characters. I find them so compelling and I want the world to know them, know their stories and struggles, find humor in the way they talk and think, feel empathy for some of their crappy life experiences, and maybe most importantly feel resonance and connection. I am constantly inspired by the amazing authors and works I encounter, and when I read, I want to write. Everything I read, even the stuff I’m not as crazy about, has an influence on what I write.
4) How does your writing process work?
It’s evolved a bit over time. I started out as a major vomit writer–straight from my gut to the page. I’d hear a first line, or a piece of a conversation in my head, and a few hours later, I’d have a story or a novel chapter in front of me. But it would be rough. Usually kind of out there, too. These days, I move a bit more slowly. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older, and that I don’t smoke cigarettes anymore. My neurons don’t fire quite as quickly, but my work is more grounded, a fair trade-off.
My work ends up being more cohesive if I can manage to work on a project daily, even if it’s just for ten minutes. My ideal scenario is to write every day for at least an hour. That doesn’t always happen though, and in fact, it’s pretty rare. I have a pretty busy lifestyle–a demanding job in academia, almost two hours in the car each day commuting to work, and my Creative Writing MFA program. Plus there’s my actual life–spending time with my wife and cats and friends and family. And sometimes at night, I truly need to tune out–watch Master Chef or The Challenge. So I end up doing these marathon writing sessions on the weekend.
That’s me and my work, in a blog tour nutshell. Next week, check out Therese Walsh and John Langan, two amazing writers that I’m super excited to be passing the torch to.
Therese Walsh is the author of two incredible novels, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, and The Moon Sisters. She is also the co-founder of Writer Unboxed, a site visited daily by thousands of writers interested in the craft and business of fiction.
John Langan is a fiction writer whose work tends to be located at the darker end of the literary spectrum. He’s published two collections of stories, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, and one novel, House of Windows. He’s also co-edited an anthology with Paul Tremblay, Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters.