What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Go. See. Do. Be present. Participate. Observe. Make your writing more than a desk job. Make it a journey of exploration: Teddy Roosevelt up the Amazon, Ernest Shackleton on the frozen Weddell Sea, Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream, Tanzania. Don’t just imagine, don’t rely on the internet; go find the scenes you are writing about and talk to the people who can give you insight into your characters. Investigate the worlds you want to bring to light, whether it’s a corner barbershop or the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.
If you are writing a murder mystery, do you know how your villain’s firearm works? Have you loaded a pistol or a revolver and shot it on the range? If you are putting a sermon in the mouth of a preacher, have you listened to one lately, read the Bible or the Quran, played an audiobook version of Father Mapple’s stemwinder in Moby-Dick?
I tried to get at some of these thoughts in “Zola’s Horse,” a lecture I delivered at Vermont College of Fine Arts, later repackaged as an essay for Numero Cinq.
Man-on-the-street interviews are a genre that gets you out in the community. Yet working for a series of small and medium papers, I grew tired of gathering quotes on local issues from semi-informed everyday Joes. So I made a point of looking for people doing something that would be fun to describe. Get quotes about the city council’s new budget from the guy jackhammering the sidewalk or the panhandler tossing peanuts to the pet spider monkey he keeps on a leash.
Dave Barry revealed a mastery of this art in his Pulitzer Prize-winning piece for The Miami Herald, “Can New York save itself?”
“As Chuck and I walk along 42nd Street, we see a person wearing an enormous frankfurter costume, handing out coupons good for discounts at Nathan’s Famous hot dog stands. His name is Victor Leise, age 19, of Queens, and he has held the position of giant frankfurter for four months. He says he didn’t have any connections or anything; he just put in an application and, boom, the job was his. Sheer luck. He says it’s OK work, although people call him “Frank” and sometimes sneak up and whack him on the back. Also there is not a lot of room for advancement. They have no hamburger costume.
“Can New York save itself ?” I ask him.
“If there are more cops on the streets, there could be a possibility,” he says, through his breathing hole.”
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
Winning the Iowa Short Fiction Award in 1986, when I was twenty-six, the youngest winner of that prize. (The book came out a year later.) I was a reporter for a smalltown newspaper in Oregon, and although I was getting encouraging letters from The Atlantic and The New Yorker, I had never published a short story anywhere. When John Leggett, director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, phoned me with the good news, my heart was pounding so hard, I could barely gasp, “Really?”
He seemed to take this as a lack of enthusiasm, and said, “This is a very major award, you know.” I croaked, “I … I know.” He hung up, no doubt appalled at my ingratitude, unaware that I was now leaping about my apartment. Then immediately I told myself it couldn’t possibly be true. It was a prank! But who knew I had applied? Not my old college friends. Not my fellow reporters at the paper where I worked; I kept my fiction writing to myself, fearing they would consider it frivolous. My girlfriend had proofread the manuscript, but she wouldn’t be so cruel as to get somebody to punk me like this. The next morning I phoned the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the receptionist laughed at my doubts and assured me I really had won.
I told our managing editor that I had grabbed the award and would be having a book published. He said, “Type up a brief.” I had to admit I was lucky to get even this, there being far less interest in my little triumph than all those meth lab busts and forest fires and school tax base elections.
If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?
A knight errant in full armor on a bicycle (see Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). Why? My wife sees me as a lonely warrior, battling dragons when I get up at 4 a.m. every day to write fiction. (It helps that I’m an insomniac.) But there’s a ridiculous aspect to the whole enterprise, both in the audacity of imagining the minds of very different people, and in the graphomania that keeps one toiling for years on end for a lower hourly pay than convicts earn stamping license plates.
What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
I had just graduated from college as an English major when I somehow talked myself into a newspaper internship on the Longview (Washington) Daily Courier. After a week of repairing my hopelessly roundabout stories, my city editor, David Connelly, sat me down in the morgue and said he was going to teach me how to write a lede. He got out a copy of the Wall Street Journal and pointed to the feature in the center column on page one.
Do it like that, he said. Grab the reader’s attention with the opening line, then drop in a quote, then add a “nut graf” telling the reader why the story was important. Of course, this would be too formulaic for fiction, but something about it connected with me as a literary writer. Establish a conflict right away. Add dialogue. Tell us the stakes—why this matters, what’s at risk for the central characters, why we should read it. Starting out strong is all the more important in the age of smartphones and streaming video. We are at war for readers’ attention. Strike quickly.
This editor also influenced my thinking in my answer to your first question. When Washington state passed a law requiring mandatory jail sentences for drunken drivers, Connelly came to me and said, “How’d you like to go to jail?” He had concocted a scheme to slip me in undercover; only the warden would be aware who I was. Cowlitz County Jail wasn’t Rikers Island, but I was terrified. Nevertheless, I said, “Sure.” I would spend twenty-four hours in cells that included burglars, wife-beaters, meth addicts, and a murderer. I emerged unscathed, and no doubt in far less danger than I imagined, but it made for a thrilling immersion into a criminal world unknown to me as a young writer.