By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
You told The Literary Review, “To be a writer in America where it’s not particularly valued, you have to be driven.” Where are writers still valued, in your opinion?
I’ve heard stories about Russia — if you say you are a writer, they are like, “Then you are a hero!” I don’t know if those are apocryphal or if they’re true. But I did have the experience of meeting a poet once who said to me, “In Slovenia, poets are like rock stars.” And I was like, “Really?” And she was like, “Yes, everywhere you go, people come up and wish to talk to you about being a poet or being a writer.” And then I heard a steady stream of that from other people who had been to Slovenia. So I think that might be the promised land. I don’t know if it’s just for poets. I did a brief month-long residency there, intrigued by this theory that I would have groupies outside my window, but it was a little quieter than that. But it’s a great place. And it was true that everyone I met seemed to be very serious readers.
This is a two-book deal. Are you at work on your next one already?
I am. I am. I’m too superstitious to really speak about it. I’m definitely feeling like it’s filling up my head.
I’ve heard writers say that it never gets easier after the first book. It’s not like you wrote a book and now you know how to do the next one, like building a piece of furniture.
I wish, right? That would be so good. I always feel so sad when I have students who are just starting out writing and they are often very hopeful that if they ask the right question, something will be delivered to them that will tell them how long it will take to write a book or how they can write a book that other people will want to read. All those different things. And the answers are always so unsatisfyingly vague. Which is that it takes as long as it takes and you have to follow the compass of your own interest, really, to discover what the book is that you should be writing.
Do you have regular advice that you give to these young writers?
I will have students sometimes come and say to me, “I really want to be a writer but so and so tells me that’s a bad idea, that it’s really impractical. What do you think? Should I go to law school first?” And invariably it’s their uncle, who is a lawyer, who says, “You know what you should do? You should go to law school.” Sometimes those people love their jobs and so they’re only speaking out of an idea that it will help someone else. But I finally realized that you shouldn’t take advice from people whose lives you don’t want to emulate, because it’s a completely different thing.
So, your advice is to not listen to your uncle if he’s a lawyer.
Yes, don’t listen to your uncle is my advice. I once gave a talk at the college where I graduated from, and at the end of it they said, “What advice would you give if someone wants to be a writer?” and I said, “Don’t have a backup plan.” And I could see all the faculty in the room looking at me, like, That’s terrible advice! Probably no one should follow my advice.
But, in a way, it does sound like good advice. If you treated it as a weekend hobby, you wouldn’t get anything done.
I think there’s a point for everyone, if they’re trying to write, where it feels like, This is a disaster, I should give up on this. In fact, I can distinctly remember the feeling with my first book of sitting in my room and suddenly being like, no one actually is waiting for this book. No one cares if I write this book. Why am I killing myself? But the truth is, you care if you write that book. And why write something that’s not the most interesting thing you can write at a given point in your life?
Offill will read at Barnes and Noble (86th Street and Lexington Avenue, barnesandnoble.com) at 7 on February 18 and at McNally Jackson (52 Prince Street, mcnallyjackson.com) with the Paris Review’s Lorin Stein at 7 on February 24.