Journalist and Author Tom Teicholz Shares His Early Archives in Being There

Tom Teicholz

Tom Teicholz

By Lindsey Wojcik

“It is hard to describe the delirium that accompanied each of those first publications. Each was some great victory and validation. Each felt like, in the words of the poet Charlie Sheen, ‘winning.’ It was as if I was climbing some imaginary mountain face and each published story was a new peak.”

Tom Teicholz nails the emotions that most journalists experience during the first few years of their career in the introduction to his collection of articles, Being There: Journalism 1978–2000. As a law student at Columbia University, Teicholz seemingly stumbled into his first assignment to interview Jerzy Kosinski for a free community newspaper that was distributed in Manhattan’s Upper East Side neighborhood. From there, his connections with editors and writers expanded, and essentially, his journalism career was launched.

Being There features articles with entertainers, literary, and film figures, as well as pieces on President Reagan’s trip to Bitburg, and the first Iraq war—among others. Teicholz recently took some time to talk to me about his writing process, his criteria for selecting which pieces to include in the collection, how journalism has changed since started in the industry, and why writers should “marry well.” 

Lindsey Wojcik: What enticed you about being a writer? Did you always want to write or did something specific inspire you to pursue it?

Tom Teicholz: I’ve always been someone with a great memory who can record and report events, never been shy about expressing my opinion, and always been interested and loved to talking to new people. Starting around fourth grade friends of mine started forming bands and at first, I wrote songs for them. Later (around like sixth grade) having no musical or singing ability, I started to write poems. I had wonderful teachers in ninth grade (Wilson Alling) and in eleventh (Jane Bendetson) who encouraged me, and I went to college writing short stories and with the ambition of writing a novel. While at college, I started writing book reviews, in part because when I read a novel I had opinions and questions I wanted to ask the author, and that pretty much leads to where Being There starts…at the beginning of my career in journalism.

LW: What is your writing process like?

TT: It has evolved over the years—and in some ways remained the same. At first, for the interviews I did in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, it was all about preparing the questions so that the story would have a beginning, middle and end; and then editing the transcripts to maximum effect. When I started writing articles, at first I was just winging it, and they were somewhat more formal than necessary. Over the years, I found a voice (or voices) that I’m most comfortable using. I always try and focus on: What’s interesting about this to me and why should anyone else care? And equally important, or more, is: Tell the facts. When I’m not sure about the former, I do the latter, and once I do, I always figure out what it is I want to say.

LW: What was the drive behind creating the Being There: Journalism 1978-2000? What were you looking for when you were putting it together?

TT: I’ve been living in Los Angeles for 20 years and most of my friends—and readers—know me from my work here, but most of them don’t know all this great work I did at the start of my career when I was living in New York. Also, most of these articles appeared before there was Google, or even the Internet, so I wanted to collect them and put those stories back in circulation—many of which feature artists at the start of their career (Jeff Bridges, Roz Chast, Ian Frazier) or who are no longer living (Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jerzy Kosinski, Bill Graham) or have become masters of their craft (Tom McGuane, Cynthia Ozick).

LW: The book features essays about an eclectic mix of subjects ranging from A-list celebrities to politicians. How did you select which essays to include in the book?

TT: My criteria was simple: Does it still hold up? Is it interesting? Are you learning something you otherwise might not know? 

LW: Were there any particular subjects featured in the book that you were intimidated by when you first started covering their stories?

TT: Of course! It takes a certain chutzpah to go head-to-head with Nobel Prize-winning authors or do a Paris Review interview with the august Cynthia Ozick, or be Michael Milken’s first interview after his time in prison. Each was intimidating in its own way. Also to write about the testimony of Holocaust survivors, about Treblinka, about Nazi War criminals being brought to justice, was daunting, even overwhelming. But I just kept telling myself that if I could build what I called a “Cathedral of Facts,” I would be okay.

LW: You've picked up some awards over the course of your career. How did the process of putting together this collection of essays allow you to reflect on your career?

TT: It’s funny: Each piece is its own adventure, but then they are published and they fade from one’s consciousness. Pulling all these articles together, re-reading them, and having them stack up into a book was tremendously gratifying. It is the satisfaction of putting (at least the first part of) your house in order. The second part is The Best of Tommywood, which will be published next year.

LW: Journalism has undergone quite the transformation since you first got in the business. What has impacted you the most from that change and how have you adapted?

TT: A combination of the Internet, in all its Shiva-destroyer-of-industries power, the bust-and-booms of the Internet bubbles, and the recession changed everything. At one moment, it seemed like those changes were for the worst: Publications went away and those that remained were paying a fraction of what they did—same for book publishers. And people started saying things like “Content wants to be free.” And there were all these startups—content farms among them, that believed mass producing stories at below minimum wage amounts was “good enough.”

I spent about a year complaining and despairing of being able to make a living writing. Then when the dust settled, a few things became clear. Not all content is created equal. People (and the advertisers and brands who are trying to influence them) want authenticity and they want quality—and that is something that, once again, magazines, book publisher, websites, and brands are willing to pay for. Moreover, one of the things that the Internet leveled was the walls that existed between different types of paid writing—journalism, advertising, publicity, not-for-profits, museums—everyone understands now that you need to make a living. There is no selling out: You are your own brand and you take your integrity with you to each assignment. And as long as you are transparent about any potential conflicts, no one minds. Although it now takes three times as many gigs to make one paycheck from the glory days, that’s okay because today there are more places to write for and places to publish than ever before. There is no piece that you write that you can’t publish—even if you have to publish it yourself. And today, “Content is King.”

LW: You do quite a bit of freelance work. How can young journalists become a successful freelancers in this market?

TT: Same as ever: Write a lot, pitch a lot, hang out a lot, follow up a lot, be opportunistic, entrepreneurial, find a home for your work (even if you have to create it yourself), and let people know about your work.

LW: Where do you think the future of the trade is going? 

TT: I can’t say. I don’t know how long-form investigative journalism, particularly foreign stories, will continue to be supported. And if publishers don’t pay writers enough to live on while they are writing a book, that too will have an impact. However, there will always be people who see a story, or have a story to tell, who feel they have no other choice than to tell it on whatever platform in whatever media they can. And writers will continue to have side-gigs, or teaching gigs, or commercial writing gigs to support writing those stories that they would be happy to publish for free (even if they have to).

LW: What's the best advice you've ever received and what advice do you offer up-and-coming journalists?

TT: The best advice I received about freelancing was: Be your own bank. Income as a writer is irregular and the rent is due the first of the month. You have to learn how to finance your writing career via credit lines, savings, etc. You have to live a sustainable life to have a sustainable career.

And the advice that I sometimes give up-and-coming journalists is: Marry well. By that I don’t mean marry for money. What I mean is that the writing life is hard, sometimes lonely, and requires a certain selfishness, as well as moments of grandiosity and self-delusion. You need a great partner to be your support, your inspiration, your motivation, and your reality check. I am fortunate that my wife, Amy Rappeport is mine, and I wish such good fortune on all writers.

To learn more about Tom Teicholz, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @TomTeicholz.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Scribbler-in-Chief: Searching for the Meaning of Life With Author Lee Eisenberg

Photo credit: Marion Ettlinger

Photo credit: Marion Ettlinger

By Daniel Ford

Lee Eisenberg’s new book The Point Is: Making Sense of Birth, Death, and Everything in Between tackles big honking life questions such as, “Why are we so afraid of death,” “Do mid-life crises exist,” and, of course, “What’s the point?”

You’d think the book would be a heavy springtime read, however, Eisenberg’s crackling, engaging writing style, which naturally weaves quotes from philosophers and other brainy humans of all sorts, makes it seem like he’s telling you all this over a spiked iced tea on the front porch. 

Writers will also be happy to note that Eisenberg’s answers to these questions are based on the idea that we have an internal writer-in-residence, which he names “the scribbler,” that’s hard at work crafting our life story. At this point, I imagine my own scribbler as a scruffy, Hawaiian shirt-wearing, beach bum who has been tinkering with a novel at the same time as trying to keep up with my shenanigans (with varying success at both).   

Naturally, while reading The Point Is, I tweeted the author in the most Millennial way possible:

Eisenberg, best-selling author and former editor-in-chief of Esquire, recently answered some of my much less brow-furrowing questions about his writing career, his research process, and how his scribbler helped him write The Point Is.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Lee Eisenberg: There was no particular moment. My parents didn’t think much of my plan to be a cowboy or a fireman, and I didn’t think much of their plan that I be a doctor or a lawyer. In college, I started writing movie and theater reviews for a weekly underground paper (it got me in free), and sketches for a satirical revue that ran on campus (it brought minor celebrity). Thus motivated by noble principles, I began to take myself seriously as a writer —maybe good enough to write the great American novel but more likely (I was a realist) to wind up on Madison Avenue, where I’d write jingles and drink myself to death. 

DF: You spent a considerable amount of time at Esquire and Time, so I have to ask why you jumped into journalism in the first place? How has it changed from when you first started out and what do you think the future holds for the craft?

LE: I didn’t jump in, exactly. I won a contest. Esquire’s great editor Harold Hayes decided the magazine needed a "junior editor" who could make sense of the counterculture. So he wrote a column that offered a job to anyone who was (a) under 25 and (b) thought he/she had a sense of humor. The assignment was to rewrite the titles and subtitles in that particular issue of the magazine. To make a long story short, I won the contest. Luckily, I got to work in magazines at a time when you didn’t have to put a celebrity on the cover every issue and there was still a firm wall between advertising and editorial. Not to mention that you could commission and publish nonfiction pieces that ran, on average, 4,000-words—or in the case of writers like Tom Wolfe or Richard Ben Cramer, two or three times longer than that.  Inspired long-form journalism isn’t dead. But its future lies between the covers of books, not magazines.

DF: What’s your writing process like? Do you outline, listen to music, etc.?

LE: I’m a classic “How can I know that I think until I see what I say?” kind of guy. The quote’s been attributed to E.M. Forster but a great many other writers have said the same thing. Work from an outline? I lecture myself on how important it is to know for sure where you're going—in my new book, I talk about the perilous mid-section of a story. But until I hear the sound of my own voice, I’m not confident that I can know where I’m going, or whether it’s worth going there. As a result, even in the early research stage I find myself writing and rewriting the beginning of the book— to assure myself that what I’m doing plays well on the page.

DF: Your first book, Shoptimism, came out while America was still grappling with the Great Recession. The Point Is arrives in yet another compelling time, one in which we’re having this national discussion about health, death, and the like. What inspired the book and where can we shop for your sense of timing?

LE: Thank you for the compliment. But we’ve been having a "discussion” about health, death, and the like since the dawn of human history. If it seems particularly intense at the moment, it’s probably because 78-million baby boomers are contemplating the abyss and asking themselves what their life stories were all about. Myself included. Four or five years ago, having worked for so long and lived all over the place, I decided it was time to take stock. 

DF: What was your research process like for The Point Is? How did you go about using your findings to illuminate the themes you were exploring?

LE: There were three parallel paths. 

First, I started talking to people—men and women, from twenty-somethings to those who were even older than I am. I asked everyone to tell me their life stories: the best and worst chapters, the turning points, describe the major and minor characters, etc. Eventually, I dropped the $64,000 bomb: Do you know what the point is? 

Second, I read books by ancient and modern philosophers, finding inspiration in the work of Victor Frankl, among others, who argued that we are all born with a drive to find meaning in our lives. Failing that, we face years of frustration and boredom. 

Finally, I went back and thought hard about my own life, which got me thinking about why certain memories endure and others don't. And how memories are rewritten as the years go by. The death of my father, for example, and the birth of my children. An aha-moment came when I realized that every one of us walks around with a tiny little writer in our brain, whose assignment is to write and rewrite a private life story that can make sense of life and ultimately explains ourselves to ourselves.

DF: If you were a fiction author I’d ask how you develop your characters, however, the major players in your book are actual people! What did you discover about great thinkers, such as Tolstoy, Freud, Joseph Campbell, and Virginia Woolf, and how did they influence your own thinking as you wrote the book?

LE: They have all taken whacks at what constitutes a meaningful life. The writing challenge was to draw on these insights yet not turn the book into Bartlett’s Quotations. The trick was to reference philosophers and great writers in a non-academic or overly pompous way. The solution was to use their insights to illuminate events and relationships in my own past, which allowed me to keep a narrative going.  

DF: You employ a rather charming writing style that makes these heavy topics infinitely approachable. First of all, how did you develop your voice over the course of your career? Secondly, are you able to slip into it during the writing process or is it something you find while you’re editing?

LE: My voice is my voice. It pretty much comes out the way it sounds on the page. I then go back and hunt down and ruthlessly remove a lot of unnecessary words. 

DF: Now that all the research and writing is done for this project, what do you answer when someone asks you, “Who are we?” or “Why are we?” 

LE: I think I make it clear in the book that the aim isn't to tell every man, woman, and child as yet unborn what the meaning of life is. The aim is to give readers a fresh way to think about the story they're carrying around inside. And to keep open the possibility that your life may be a lot more meaningful than you're giving it credit for.

DF: What’s your advice for up-and-coming writers of all kinds?

LE: Read like crazy. And write as much as you can. Keep a diary, which is useful for a great many reasons that I outline in the book. The two most important: daily writing keeps the wheels greased, as P.D. James, the great mystery novelist, put it. But it's also a way to preserve insights for later use. Joan Didion compared keeping a journal to putting loose change into a savings account, where it accumulates interest. Keeping a journal is a "thrifty virtue," she said.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

LE: I have a tattoo. I got it decades before tattoos became fashionable. All I’ll say is that it’s on my left shoulder, it’s small and discreet, and it has something to do with a course I took in graduate school. But the precise why it's there, and the details of the night in question, and what it had to do with my personal myth at the time, well, that's between me and the little writer living upstairs.

To learn more about Lee Eisenberg, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @Lee_Eisenberg.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

New England Narrative: 9 Questions With Author Jay Atkinson

Jay Atkinson (Photo credit: Paul Bilodeau, Eagle-Tribune)

Jay Atkinson (Photo credit: Paul Bilodeau, Eagle-Tribune)

By Daniel Ford

As a relatively recent transplant to Boston and Massachusetts, I've done my best to immerse myself in the history of the area. Books like Stephanie Schorow's Drinking Boston, Nathaniel Philbrick's Bunker Hill, and Brian Deming's Boston and the Dawn of American Independence have given me a crash course in New England lore. (For the record, I was born and raised in Connecticut, but spent considerable time in New York City.)

Author Jay Atkinson's thrilling nonfiction narrative Massacre on the Merrimack matches those historical tomes in both substance and style. Hannah Duston's capture and daring escape from her Native American captors not only proved to be a harrowing tale, but also shed light on the political and sociological issues facing early North American settlers.

Atkinson talked to me recently about his research process, journalism, and the inspiration behind Massacre on the Merrimack.

Daniel Ford: What came first, the love of history or love of writing?

Jay Atkinson: I’m not a professional historian, or even an academic, really, though I’ve been teaching writing at the college level for 20+ years (the last eight at Boston University). I’m just a storyteller. My eighth grade English teacher, a very nice fellow named Andrew Melnicki, told me after class one day that I should consider becoming a writer. That surprised me, since I come from a blue-collar family and was, eventually, the first one to go to college. I had always loved reading stories, and there in junior high set out to learn how to write them. Hannah Duston’s ordeal is a great story, and that’s what drew me to it.

DF: Since you’ve also worked as a journalist, and currently teach it at BU, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism. Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?

JA: I don’t know exactly where journalism is going, but I’m certainly interested in finding out.

When I see students getting their news from Twitter and other online sources, I tell them to start reading The New York Times every day and forget about the Web. I hope they listen, since the sort of in-depth, professional, intelligent reporting done by The New York Times (and other longstanding print/Web publications) is so superior to Internet-based junk that it’s not even worth talking about.

One of the most entertaining stories I have worked on (and I’ve been lucky enough to have a few that were pretty exciting) was my winter canoe trip down the Merrimack River for The New York Times. Last March, for the second time, I traced Hannah Duston’s route back to Haverhill after she and two companions killed ten of the Abenaki, scalped them, and stole one of their canoes.

DF: Narrative nonfiction has been a healthy trend for history in the last decade. What made you decide to go that route with your own work?

JA: Well, I write fiction, too. As a matter of fact, the next book I publish will be a work of fiction, and I’m currently working on a novel. Over my career, I’ve been a student of narrative writing—how it works and how it’s done. That’s what interests me most of all, whether its narrative nonfiction like Massacre on the Merrimack (Globe Pequot, 2015) or a historical novel like City in Amber (Livingston Press, 2005).

DF: You tell a really poignant story about what inspired you to write Massacre on the Merrimack. Could you share that with us, and explain how your hometown/state shaped the narrative?

JA: My hometown, Methuen Mass., was part of Haverhill until 1726. I grew up hearing Hannah Duston’s story, and always had it in the back of my mind as I progressed as a writer. It’s got everything a good story demands: compelling characters, violent conflict, adventure, a series of dramatic events and reversals, overarching tragedy, vengeance, and triumph. As a storyteller, what’s not to like?

DF: What was your research process like for this book, and what’s your research process like in general?

JA: I spent three years on the book. The first year, I was often in the Haverhill Library Special Collections room (where they have a jumble of Duston ephemera that’s never really been catalogued, but was invaluable once I sorted through it), Haverhill Historical Society, and Nevins Memorial Library in Methuen, Mass. A wonderful Nevins reference librarian named Maureen Burns Tulley was instrumental in researching and shaping Massacre on the Merrimack. I dedicated the book to Maureen, in the name of librarians everywhere.

The second and third years, I continued my research in various libraries, but also took my investigations outside, into the woods and onto the rivers that Duston knew. In my opinion, Hannah’s story is really about the beauty and danger of the New England landscape.


DF: Historians often debate about whether or not to use “politically correct” language when writing about the pre-colonial period. Does one use Native Americans or does one use “Indians/savages/etc.” Massacre on the Merrimack features the latter, and I was wondering if you went back and forth at all about that issue or you felt like your story needed to be rooted in the language of that time.

JA: Since in the narrative chapters of the book I was using what you could call Creative Nonfiction technique, I was limited to what I considered to be the prejudices, preconceptions, and preoccupations of the time period. To change the language to reflect current social mores would have seemed false to me. As a writer, my interest begins and ends at the level of the story, and telling it the way I did was the most honest way to do service to that.

DF: What really struck me about the book is that while Hannah Duston showcased extreme bravery and flintiness during her ordeal, her neighbor Goodwife Bradley exhibited the same traits multiple times! How fun was it uncovering these other stories during your research?

JA: I think the chapter that you’re referring to, which is entitled “The Fate of Other Captives,” contains the most interesting material I came across in my research. It fits with Hannah’s story, but is remarkable in its own way.

DF: You’ve written other nonfiction, but this book seems more personal based on your proximity to where the events take place. What’s next on the horizon for you and do you feel daunted at all about tackling another subject?

JA: Personally, I have no shortage of stories or story ideas, just a shortage of time. I’m happiest when I’m working on something.

DF: What’s your advice to up-and-coming authors and historians?

JA: All I can say is what my mentor at the University of Florida, the great Southern Gothic novelist Harry Crews, said to me when I finished my creative writing degree: “Son, go fix your ass to the seat of the chair, and get to work.”

To learn more about Jay Atkinson, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @Atkinson_Jay.


A Conversation With Author Jennifer Steil

Jennifer Steil

Jennifer Steil

By Daniel Ford

Not only has Jennifer Steil’s novel The Ambassador's Wife garnered rave reviews from the likes of Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist and won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel, it’s also being developed into a television series starring Anne Hathaway!

Steil talked to me recently about her journalism career, how her brief experience as a hostage helped inspire The Ambassador's Wife, and how writers should write even when they aren’t inspired.

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or was that something that grew organically over time?

Jennifer Steil: I actually grew up wanting to be an actor. In second grade I wrote and directed a play about Bambi, in which I played Bambi’s mother. We even made cookies for intermission.  After that illustrious start, I continued to perform in local and school theaters until I headed off to Oberlin College, where I majored in theater.

But after four years of working as an actor in Seattle, I became frustrated with the roles available to women. I wanted to play paleontologists and astronauts but instead got stuck playing ingénues and prostitutes. Why were there so few interesting roles for women? Why were so few plays by women getting produced? My writing practice was born out of this frustration. I started writing the things I wished my characters could say. After I spent a couple of years working on short stories, I completed an MFA in creative writing/fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. For some reason I had the delusion that I could support my acting career with creative writing. I really don’t know why someone didn’t stop me. Not until I was about to finish my MFA did I realize I was going to be waitressing the rest of my life if I didn’t develop some more marketable skills. I was dating a journalist at the time, and his life seemed pretty interesting, so I applied to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which—despite my utter lack of experience—accepted me. It was a very wise decision. And now, somewhat unbelievably, I do support myself and my family by writing fiction.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

JS: An obsession with magic and fairytales made me a dreamy child, more often present in worlds far from here. I would always rather read than play with my friends, ride my bicycle, or play games with my family. If I could have, I would have climbed inside my books. My first “novel” was about four children who went on magical adventures every time they ate berries from a certain bush. The color of the berry they ate determined the color of the magical world they entered.

I spent a lot of time as a child reading through a leather-bound set of Books of Knowledge, which included not only fiction but also the history of King Richard III and an explanation of how sugar is made. I thought these books—a combination of all I loved—were magical. They included everything interesting, no matter what genre.

As an adult, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto has inspired me. When I first read that book I thought, “I can’t do this. I cannot write something that beautiful.” But it made me want to try. And to keep trying. Recently I have loved Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Oh, and I adore Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

JS: I never outline. I rarely know where a story or novel is going until I write it. An outline would almost keep me from wanting to write the story at all. It would have already been thought out and I might lose interest. I write out of curiosity to see what happens next. I write scenes which I then shuffle like cards in a deck to get them in the right order. Because I write like this, I rewrite a lot. I write dozens of drafts of every book, refining plot points, character, momentum, and place.

I never listen to music. Words distract me. Even if I listen to wordless classical music, I find the mood of it distracting. I am allergic to noise in a world that appears to have very few silent corners left. In La Paz, we can see six different construction sites from the windows of our house. My work is often accompanied by the clatter of jackhammers and the whine of electric saws. The ubiquitous children’s birthday party clowns broadcast their inane acts over loudspeakers from lawns around us on weekends. Adult parties with deafening soundtracks go on until dawn. These sounds take a serious toll on my mental state. When we eventually settle down, I think I need to create an office with padded, soundproof walls.

DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out? Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?

JS: The current state of journalism is dire. I am particularly obsessed with the plight of international journalism. Because of dwindling resources, newspapers have closed most of their foreign bureaus. The result is a poorer understanding of the world. I firmly believe that reporters need to live in the country they cover in order to best come to grips with its complexities. After four years I felt I was only beginning to understand Yemen—so how was a reporter who parachuted in for a few days supposed to figure out anything at all?

Now, when I see stories about Syria or Yemen, the dateline is Beirut or Cairo rather than Damascus or Sana’a. No newspaper actually has full-time staff reporters living in these countries. Of course, these are countries in disastrous circumstances, but understanding what is going on there is important to our understanding of the Middle East. I don’t believe anything I see reported about Yemen, because no one has reporters living there. I get most of my news about Yemen from my Yemeni friends, via Facebook, Twitter, or emails.

Working as a reporter taught me how the world works. While covering five small towns in New Jersey I learned how towns operated, how school boards worked, how hospitals were funded, and how to make friends with police detectives. I also learned a great deal about heroin addiction, suicide, Olympic luging, criminal reports, running for political office, and heart transplant surgery. It’s a fascinating job and a never-ending education.

One of the most entertaining features I wrote for a magazine was a piece on swing clubs for Playgirl magazine. You would not believe how many swing clubs there are in the world. Or who goes to them.

DF: What inspired you to write The Ambassador’s Wife?

JS: I suppose it was my own brief experience as a hostage that gave me the first germ of the story. In 2009, when I was six and a half months pregnant with my daughter, four other women and I were taken hostage by a group of Yemeni tribesmen. We had been hiking in the mountains and had walked nearly three hours from the closest road. The men with AK-47s who surrounded us were not terrorists. It was simply an opportunistic kidnapping by a clearly mentally unstable sheikh. It was a terrifying experience, but we were fortunate that the Yemeni government was able to negotiate our release later that same afternoon.

Because I began writing the novel a couple of weeks after my daughter was born, parenthood was also an inspiration. What would happen if I woman left a child behind when she was taken hostage? What would happen if she were forced to nurse a stranger’s child? What would her bond with that child do to her marriage? These questions interested me. (Other inspirations are included below in other answers)

DF: You first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, was a memoir based on your adventures as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a. Why the jump to fiction?

JS: Writing the memoir felt very much like an extension of my journalism career. I was meticulous in my reporting and writing, making absolutely sure that every word was true. I consulted experts on terrorism and Arabic and interviewed my reporters and copied conversations verbatim from my journals. By the time I was done writing that book, I was really tired of telling the truth. I longed for the freedom to make stuff up.

At that time I had also just begun moved in with the man who is now my husband, then the British Ambassador to Yemen. After living alone in the old city of Sana’a and wandering the country relatively freely, I found myself suddenly living in a very different world. I could no longer leave the house without a bodyguard. We traveled by armored car. We had hostage negotiators, British ministers, and military officers in our guest bedrooms. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the weirdness that is diplomatic life in a high-security environment. I found myself thinking, wow, I have got to use this in a book.

But I didn’t want to ruin my husband’s career that early in our marriage (my tone here is joking, just in case that wasn’t clear. I hope I never ruin my husband’s career!). So it seemed best to take the details of this odd world and set a completely fictional narrative in it.

DF: What were some of the themes you wanted to tackle in the novel?

JS: As I wrote, I began thinking about the hazards of westerners coming to the Middle East to “free” the women. When I first arrived in Yemen, a Maltese woman at a dinner party railed against western feminists who came to Yemen and tried to transplant western ideas of feminism. Many of these ideas would simply get women killed. Foreigners had to learn to work within a new cultural context, considering how their “help” will actually affect the lives of women.

I am an unabashed feminist, but when we parachute into totally foreign cultures, we need to consider which things will actually make women’s lives easier, and which things will simply plunge them into danger. This is something my character Miranda fails to consider seriously enough.

The more I wrote, the more issues came up. What would happen if an ambassador’s wife were kidnapped? Could he stay in post? Would he have to leave the country? Would he stay with his child or leave her to track down his wife? How could a group of relatively powerless women facilitate the rescue of a prisoner? In which ways are they better equipped for this than men are? What are the real effects of drone strikes in the Middle East? What are the limits of diplomacy?

There is a perception in the west that women in the Middle East are powerless. I wanted to explore the ways in which these women do have power. They have vast family connections. Their dress gives them anonymity in public. In The Ambassador’s Wife, it is Muslim women—not Miranda and not her husband the ambassador—who propel the plot.

When I met my husband, I was 38 years old with a career and identity of my own. It came as a shock to me to suddenly find myself introduced to people simply as “the ambassador’s wife.” I was defined by my husband rather than by my own achievements. Miranda has a similar experience when she marries Finn. She resents playing second fiddle. This struggle to retain identity gave me the title of the book.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?

JS: My two main characters, Miranda and Finn, inhabit a world quite like the one I live in with my husband. But unlike Miranda, I am not an artist. I cannot even draw. And both Miranda and Finn have backstories that are utterly unlike ours.  While the novel begins with a scene inspired by my kidnapping, the plot that unfolds is entirely fictional. None of the other characters—the diplomats, their wives, the Mazrooqi women—are based on specific people. A few have traits I observed in diplomats or their wives and I have lifted a few actual bits of conversation, but no one is based on a real person. Likewise with my Muslim women.

DF: The Ambassador’s Wife won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award and now being developed into a television series! What has that experience been like and what can we look forward from you in the future?

JS: Surreal. The whole experience has been surreal. I don’t think I will believe the television deal until I see it on a screen. I’ve never had a television, but I might buy one to watch The Ambassador’s Wife!

I am launching into research for my next book, which will take place in Bolivia and probably Eastern Europe. I cannot tell you more than that right now.

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

JS: Write every day. Write when you are not inspired. Write when you only have five minutes. Write while your daughter is building a farm for bunnies around your ankles. Just write.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

JS: When I was in high school in Vermont, I once let myself be dragged across a field by a Norwegian workhorse I was training to avoid embarrassing myself in front of a boy I loved by letting him escape.

To learn more about Jennifer Steil, visit his official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @jfsteil7.


Blue-Collar Fiction: 11 Questions With Author Diana Sperrazza

Diana Sperrazza

Diana Sperrazza

By Daniel Ford

There’s nothing better than promoting books based in your own backyard!

Author Diana Sperrazza, who was raised in a blue-collar neighborhood in West Springfield, Mass., recently talked to me about her journalism career, the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture, and the inspiration behind her debut novel, My Townie Heart.

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or is something that grew organically over time?

Diana Sperrazza: Journalism was really my first real calling and it was a strong one. But eventually I wanted to tell stories that were more personal. I was very specifically interested in the influence class has on how a person makes her way in the world. I left my job as a producer at CNN so I could do the low residency MFA program at Bennington College, where I did their nonfiction track. The only thing I could possibly imagine writing then was a memoir. But by the time I had finished writing my thesis, I was getting sick of talking about myself. I also began to doubt my own life was interesting enough to sustain a book. So I tried writing fiction that was influenced by my own life but told a more dramatic, bigger story. After a while, I knew it was the way I wanted to go. That said, I’m still getting used to the idea of actually being a fiction writer. 

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

DS: I remember reading all of Jane Austen as a child and young teen. Then there was this blackout period in my adolescence and early adulthood where I didn’t read fiction at all. I thought only nonfiction stories were worth anything. Once I began to write, I happened upon Russell Banks and Dorothy Allison and felt the truth behind their fiction and it changed how I thought about things. 

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

DS: I write intuitively, like I’m listening for the story inside of myself, but it sure wouldn’t look that way to an observer. I wrote My Townie Heart in bed with the television on (the sound was turned down) tuned to reruns of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In a way, she kept me company. I also like to write in noisy coffee shops. Perhaps it’s the result of all the years of working in news, but it’s hard for me to work if it’s too quiet. I enjoy feeling the buzz of others around me.

DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out? Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?

DS: I’m almost 61 years old, so I was drawn to journalism back in the late ‘70s, in that heady post-Watergate time. I really did believe it could change the world. It seems incredibly naïve now to have placed so much faith in that institution, but back then, being a journalist was about having a higher calling and working to reveal the truth so things could be made right. These days, the news business is more involved with making money, often at the expense of just about everything else. There is still some great and courageous work being done out there, but it’s harder and more dangerous that it was when I was doing it. 

DF: What inspired you to write My Townie Heart?

DS: I was tremendously moved by the movie, “Mystic River.” Someone in my extended family was attacked as a child and I witnessed for myself how it changed everything. I went right out and read Dennis Lehane’s book. I was struck by how the blue collar characters were like the people I had grown up with and in my heart, I knew I had to write a story about them and about myself too.

DF: What made you decide to set the novel in the 1970s?

DS: So much changed in that era! Certainly it all started in the ‘60s, but it took the ‘70s to metastasize those changes, for people to feel them in their daily lives. So suddenly feminism, drugs, the counterculture, eastern spirituality—all of that became a felt reality, even in more traditional blue collar neighborhoods.

DF: What were some of the themes you wanted to tackle in the novel?

DS: Certainly I wanted to talk about trauma, and how and if you get over it. But I also wanted to talk about class. For the record, I don’t view those two subjects synonymously. Everyone is vulnerable to trauma. But if you grew up blue collar, you were probably told to quit your whining if you had problems, that it was better never to mention that your parents hadn’t finished high school (never mind college), or about how you had to work in a factory in the summer to pay for school. If there was violence or alcoholism in your family, you were supposed to cope and bury your shame. On the other hand, you also learned how to be self sufficient, how to work hard because no one was going to hand feed you anything, and, if you didn’t fall into the tempting traps of envy or bitterness, you gained a sense of your own integrity, because whatever you’ve done in the life is truly yours, not propped up by someone else’s efforts or money. I wanted to take those subjects out of the closet.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?

DS: Most of the characters in my novel are composites of people I knew in certain periods in my life. Some are made up completely. Laura’s character is emotionally true of me. The details are invented, but the major themes are not: I am from a blue-collar neighborhood in West Springfield, Mass., and my father was an alcoholic. I had no sister, but I have two brothers. I had a hard time with college and left. The counterculture had an enormous impact on me. I got overwhelmed and agoraphobic as a young woman and had to work very hard, mostly on my own, to recover. I moved to New Mexico for a new start and went back to school, but I studied journalism, not law. I think my characters come together in my subconscious, where the real and the imagined can comfortably co-habitat.

DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?

DS: I’ve started writing another book, but am not going to say much about it yet. I’m still feeling my way with the story, but it’s about a middle-aged man who also has class issues. 

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

DS: A number of years ago my writing partner, Janice Gary (author of Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog-walking and Deliverance) heard this lecture at an AWP conference by Walter Moseley. He had just written his book on how to finish a novel, and he said that you have to work every day on your writing, even if you only visit it and read over the previous day’s work; you have to keep the connection current and alive. It was the best advice either of us had ever heard and both of us managed to finish our books. He was also the one who introduced me to the idea that writing comes out of your subconscious. It’s like a pipeline you have to keep open and clear.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself? 

DS: I love the Showtime series “Ray Donovan,” but I don’t talk like that. People from western Massachusetts sound nothing like people from Boston. Totally different accent!

To learn more about Diana Sperrazza, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @mytownieheart.


A Conversation With Author Maria Kostaki

Maria Kostaki

Maria Kostaki

Author Maria Kostaki, a native of Moscow, has bebopped between Athens, Greece and New York City much of her life, and managed to collect an impressive writing resume along the way. She has worked as an editor and staff writer for Odyssey magazine in Athens and New York, and her nonfiction has appeared in Elle Décor and Insider Magazine.

Her debut novel, Pieces, follows Sasha as she is abandoned by her mother and shuffled between older relatives in Cold War-era Moscow. 

Kostaki recently answered some of my questions about how she developed her love of writing, her journalism background, and the inspiration for Pieces.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Maria Kostaki: Never. I think I just always was, in some form. I remember from a very early age, it was the only way I could express myself. From elementary school onwards, I’d come home, go to my room, and write a story about my day in my diary.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

MK: I was born in Russia, so a huge library of a rich literary culture hung above my head as a child. Metaphorically speaking. In high school, I feel in love with Jane Eyre, in college with the postmodernists, Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch fascinated me, the nonlinear, the unconventional. Then the magical realists, with Gabriel García Márquez on the throne, and, finally, Toni Morisson, my all-time hero.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

MK: Outline? What’s that? Music, yes, always. But classical. Lyrics interrupt my train of thought.

DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out?

MK: After finishing my BA in Literature, I got a job at a small English-language magazine in Greece. By the end of my two-year full-time stay there, I was torn between pursuing an MFA in nonfiction and a graduate degree in journalism. I applied to two universities, one for each, and let fate decide.

Having said that, the state of journalism in 2000, when I stepped into my first class at NYU, and the state of journalism today, are extremely different. We barely knew what online journalism was, there was one class that you could take as an elective. Our biggest dream was to get published in The New York Times, and back then, it was an attainable one. Today, everyone is a journalist. The thing that I treasure most from what I learnt while working as a journalist is to double check sources, assess their credibility, double check sources, assess their credibility. There’s so much information out there, so many opinions, misquotes, misinformation, it’s crazy. You have to know how to filter. The best example I’ve lived through is Greece during the past few weeks. People are bombarded with sensationalism here; it’s created a misinformed nation of panic.

DF: Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?

MK: I interviewed Nia Vardalos a few days before “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” hit the screens. She was hilarious, scared, self-conscious, real. I called up her father who lived in a town in Canada I’d never heard of, and I remember him saying about how he’ll wave to me from the bleachers of the Olympic Stadium in Greece in 2004. He also mentioned that he doesn’t use Windex as a cure for everything.

DF: How did the idea for Pieces originate?

MK: It originated from me. The book is about me. Anyone who talks to me for more than five minutes will be able to figure it out. But it’s not a memoir. There is lots of fiction, lots of exaggeration, lots of combining numbers of real people into a single character. It’s a story of a girl’s life that just happens to have a lot in common with her author.

DF: How much of yourself and your experiences in Russia and the United States. did you put into your novel?

MK: Oops, got ahead of myself there, above. Russia, a lot. The story about waiting in line for butter only to find it sold out, was very true. The United States, very little, almost nothing. My time in Russia was richer in material for fiction. In New York, we all have our glory stories.

DF: How did you go about developing your characters?

MK: I took people I knew and built on them. Most of them are a kind of caricature. I took their worst and best characteristics and turned them up ten notches. And then made some stuff up. I also chose real people who may have disappointed me at times in life and wrote them into who I’d wanted them to be, had them grow as I imagined they should have. It’s an amazing power, writing.

DF: What are some of the themes you tackle in Pieces?

MK: Abandonment. Loss. Grief. Resilience. Love. Friendship.

DF: How do you balance writing and marketing your work (i.e. book tours, engaging with readers on social media, etc.)?

MK: To be completely honest, so far, I’ve managed to do one at a time. I’m currently trying to combine a form of writing with the marketing of my work. I’ve started a social media project on my Facebook page called #wegreeks. I use it as a creative outlet, yet at the same time, as it’s on my professional page, it gives me a way for thousands of people that read my posts each week, a glimpse into Pieces.

DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?

MK: Novel two.

DF: What advice would you give aspiring authors?

MK: Just write. Let go of fears, insecurities, what ifs. Even though they fuel the writing process, you must let go of them to actually write. Trust me, they don’t really go anywhere. No matter how much you let go, they’ll be back.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

MK: Soft cheese, ripe fruit, and the smell of mushroom soup gross me out.

To learn more about Maria Kostaki, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @MariaKostaki.


The Storymaker: A Conversation With Novelist John Benditt

John Benditt

John Benditt

By Daniel Ford

Here’s the first two lines of the description for author John Benditt’s debut novel The Boatmaker:

A fierce, complicated, silent man wakes from a fever dream compelled to build a boat and sail away from the small island where he was born. The boat carries him to the next, bigger, island, where he becomes locked in a drunken and violent affair whose explosion propels him all the way to the mainland.

That’s what we like here at Writer’s Bone.

Benditt writes in such an earthy and rhythmic tone and so deftly tackles issues that plague humanity that one forgets his previous profession was as a science journalist for the likes of Scientific American and Technology Review. He answered some of my questions recently about how he developed his voice, his inspiration for The Boatmaker, and how his journalism background helped his fiction writing.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer and how did you develop your voice?

John Benditt: I’ve known that I wanted to be a writer since I was sixteen. It wasn’t really something I chose; it chose me. I had other ideas, generally more practical ideas, about what I wanted to be. But that was what I was. I think my voice emerged first by imitating writers I liked and later by just writing and writing, even though what I was writing wasn’t very good.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

JB: My first influences were poets, since that’s what I wanted to be. The biggest early influence was Robert Creeley. I loved how spare his poems were, how chiseled they were, how much was left out. Creeley led me to William Carlos Williams, whom I loved as a poet, a prose-poet, and also as a writer of fiction. He wrote three great novels about his wife and his wife’s family. More people should read them.

DF: You’re a science journalist by trade, so I’m curious if any of those skills transferred over to writing fiction. What is your writing process like in general?

JB: I think journalism, if it’s done well, enforces clarity and the need to get the reader through the story to the end; those are skills every writer should have. My writing process begins with little bits and pieces scribbled on scraps of paper that later coalesce into something larger.

DF: Where did the idea for The Boatmaker originate?

JB: The Boatmaker began as a short story, written for a fiction workshop I was taking at the New School with Catherine Texier, who is a wonderful teacher. I wrote the story for a collection of short stories I thought I was writing at the time. The story was about a man who builds a boat and sails away from the little island where he was born. Later I wrote a second story about the same character when he reaches his first destination, Big Island. I thought I was done with him. But apparently he wasn’t done with me. That’s when a lot of other bits and pieces of his story began to appear.

DF: How did you go about developing your main character? In the novel, he’s reacting to a lot of things he’s never experienced, so how did you put yourself in his mindset in order to tell your story?

JB: Mostly it was a question of being receptive. The boatmaker arrived with a pretty fully developed personality and way of seeing things. I just tried to stay out of the way of that. I was tempted to prettify him a little, but I tried to avoid that. He is what he is.

DF: Your book touches on subjects that tend to spark intense debate—religion, race, etc. What were some of the ways you made your themes original while also tackling these issues?

JB: The story kept coming in, as I mentioned, in bits and pieces. And it held my interest. So I kept following along. I wasn’t thinking at all about “themes,” such as religion or race, while I was writing. I was just interested in the story of the boatmaker. When I was finished, I realized that these themes were there. But I didn’t pay much attention to them while I was writing, at least as themes. I just wanted to do justice to the story—to make it as vivid and compelling as it had seemed to me.

DF: Your use of language is so earthy and primal. Did that come out during the writing or was it fine-tuned during the editing process?

JB: Something of the tone was there in the original short story, which was called “Big Island.” But it evolved during the writing and editing. It got simpler, and it found a groove. The published book is definitely the outcome of a lot of polishing and weighing individual words and sentences. And a lot of deft suggestions from my editor, Meg Storey at Tin House.

DF: Now that you have a novel under your belt, what’s next?

JB: I have a bunch of short stories I’ve been working on. I also have the first part of a memoir about my father, who was a famous scientist. I suspect that the idea for another novel will also emerge, more or less the way The Boatmaker did. I’ve been blown off course enough times now to suspend judgment when it comes to plans for my writing.

DF: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

JB: Keep writing. I read somewhere an English writer said: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t give up.” I like that.

DF: Can you name one random fact about yourself?

JB: If I named it, would it still be random?

To learn more about John Benditt, visit his official website. 


Novel Artist: 10 Questions With Author Dimitry Elias Léger

Dimitry Elias Léger  Photo Credit:  Jason Liu

Dimitry Elias Léger 
Photo Credit: 
Jason Liu

By Daniel Ford

Armed with a pot of coffee and Dimitry Elias Léger’s debut novel God Loves Haiti, I made it through the multiple blizzards that struck the Northeast in recent weeks without enacting Jack Torrance’s final moments in “The Shining.”

The novel is set during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, however, there’s so much hope and warmth packed into Léger’s inventive prose and three-narrative structure that you almost forget about the overwhelming tragedy that killed more than 200,000 people and left 1.3 million Haitians homeless. If the resiliency, love, and, yes, humor, of Léger’s characters doesn’t make your heart go goudou-goudou, then you should seek medical attention immediately.

Léger kindly answered some of my questions recently about his early influences, the state of journalism, and how he put his heart and soul into God Loves Haiti.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Dimitry Elias Léger: Probably when I was around 10 years old. I was a natural born raconteur who used to get in trouble inventing funny-sad stories about troublemakers to entertain my cousins in the wee hours in the morning whenever I visited them. I felt I had to publish novels after my son was born, and I began dreaming of an international career. Living abroad over the past 10 years made fiction writing the most attractive use of my writing skills as other opportunities shrunk to nothingness.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

DEL: Arsene Lupin novels by the French author Maurice Leblanc, comic books, Prince (especially his music from "Purple Rain" to "Sign 'O' the Times" era), and Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg movies.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

DEL: I have to turn off or tune out the world when it’s time for me to write. If I’m at home, I have to wait until my wife and children are asleep, and my friends are otherwise too busy to be online. Essentially that’s meant working most productively from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. During daytimes, I go to cafés without Internet access, and I listen to music—mostly Bjork or Latin and world music where I can’t follow the lyrics—to block out the conversations around me. I do outline, but only so I could have a sketch of the arc the novel should follow. I don’t stick to it rigidly. I like chapters to have arcs too, and I listen to the music of the writing to tell me when a chapter should end to surprise readers.

DF: What do you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out?

DEL: In many ways the current state of journalism is similar to when I started out 20 years ago. To make a good living, command large audiences and do award-worthy stories, no matter the medium, there were only a handful of organizations that could make all those things possible. The significant difference today is the media through which you could start out before getting to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time Inc., or Condé Nast and the big five publishers is varied. Bloggers write for the Times. Visual journalists do sophisticated on and offline. I studied journalism undergrad after two years of studying marketing. After banging my head repeatedly and futilely against the accounting course requirement for marketing majors, I decided to make life and college easier for myself by devoting myself to the one thing I did well, and easily, which was reading, reporting, and writing. Journalism was the best and easiest way to try to make money as a writer straight out of college. And you didn’t have to pass any accounting or any science courses, another Achilles’ heel, to earn that bachelor’s degree and break into magazines.

DF: Your book has an inventive structure that incorporates romance, politics, and religion in a country I think a lot of people in the U.S. might misunderstand, especially following the earthquake. How did you develop that structure and what were some of the aspects of Port-au-Prince you wanted to illuminate for readers?

DEL: I don’t mind that people might misunderstand Haiti. How many people truly understand their own countries, much less a foreign one? Besides, can countries really be understood? To me, countries are like people, families, or marriages, some basics in common, but each are as different from each other as snowflakes are to each other. The hardest thing we can do in this world is walk in other people’s shoes. In my novel, I try to seduce readers into walking in the shoes of a handful of Haitians with PTSD as they walked around and drove around Port-au-Prince and New York City. And they were a certain kind of Haitian, too, smart, self-aware patriots. My driving question was, what’s it like to love Haiti when many metrics suggest you should know better? The answers came in the zig-zag thoughts and emotions of the characters. Since love is hardly ever linear, the structure of how these people dealt with their loves in their loneliest hours emerged naturally in the form the novel ended up in.

DF: How much of yourself, and family, friends, etc., and your experiences in Haiti did you put into your main characters, themes, and settings?

DEL: I put my heart and soul into God Loves Haiti. How they were parsed out into each character, the themes, and settings of the story is beyond my ability to explain. It’s for readers to explore and hopefully make their own. Love stories are so complicated. All the characters are nothing yet a lot like me. We do share one striking trait: a love of Haiti that, like all such affairs, can be costly, risky, and ridiculous.

DF: When you finished God Loves Haiti, did you know you had something good right away and how did you go about getting it published?

DEL: Yeah, I knew I had a good, original, funny novel. Once my agent read half of it, he agreed, and then I promptly finished writing it. I suspected the process of finding a publisher would be fraught like searching for a needle in the proverbial haystack, so I didn’t want to dilly-dally in writing the book to completion. It took my agent two years to find the perfect publisher. A week after a novelist told me to hang in there because, she said, six years is the unofficial average time for a first novel to find a publisher, boom, we found a publisher. And my editor, and the entire team at Amistad/HarperCollins, were indeed perfect fits for the novel. From day one, my editor made loving and believing in my novel’s bright future with critics and readers seem like the most natural and normal of outcomes. I love her for that.

DF: Your book has gotten terrific reviews from the likes of Junot Diaz and others. Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?

DEL: Novelists far older than me with multiple novels under their belts gave me the same advice: enjoy this moment, this first year after publication, especially with the success the novel’s had, because it goes by fast. So I’m savoring, refusing to be rushed. Winning the respect of Junot and the other great writers who dug my work was a long time coming, and I dreamed of it since I first read their first published pieces 20 years ago. I intend to continue to write more novels, but I’m in no rush to stop enjoying this period, when my personal tastes coincided with those of the literary fiction reader.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers?

DEL: Write like you’re part of a continuum of novelists. Know the history and highlights of your genre and your settings inside and out. Novelists should be like painters, building and riffing on traditions that go back centuries. Also read a lot of poetry, and poetic prose, since you are what you read. And for god’s sake, have a sense of humor.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

DEL: My neighborhood in Haiti was the epicenter of the earthquake.

To learn more about Dimitry Elias Léger, visit his official website, like his Facebook, or follow him on Twitter @dimitry3000

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Cover Fire: 11 Questions With Author Anthony Breznican

Anthony Breznican

Anthony Breznican

By Daniel Ford

I included Anthony Breznican’s terrific debut novel Brutal Youth in our January book recommendations, and I still think you should buy it immediately (if nothing else, that cover brings class and style to every bookshelf).   

Breznican kindly agree to an interview and talked to me about his writing process, the state of the magazine business, the origins of Brutal Youth, and his love and admiration for badass writer Stephen King.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Anthony Breznican: When I was 12 years old, I tried to talk every adult I knew into taking me to see a horror movie called "Pet Sematary." My grandmother, who was always encouraging me to read more, said, “You know, that’s based on a book by a guy named Stephen King. How about if I buy you the book?” I was bummed beyond belief. A stupid book? Well …that ratty paperback, which I still have on my desk shelf, was terrifying, shocking, and surprisingly beautiful in its emotion. I was hooked. I wanted to write scary stories like Stephen King, so I set about filling spiral-bound notebooks with ghost stories and monster tales. I loved the power of writing. When you’re a kid, everybody tells you what to do. Your day-to-day life isn’t really your own. But when you write, anything is possible. You just have to make it convincing.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

AB: King, obviously, was a huge influence. I see his fingerprints all over Brutal Youth. I love his twisted sense of humor, as well as the love he has for his characters, even the angry, destructive ones. I was also deeply influenced by Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. He is telling a story about man’s inhumanity to man, but he underlined the tragedy with absurdity. With Brutal Youth, I also wanted to tell a war story, three freshmen trying to survive at a perilous and crumbling Catholic high school, but I tried to infuse it with the kind of humor you sometimes find in the midst of deep dark trouble. Michael Chabon was also a writer whose ink I would like to mainline; he’s a fellow Pittsburgh kid who found a way to harness words into stories that simultaneously make you laugh, make you cry, and make you mad.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

AB: I don’t outline. I daydream a lot, get the story in my head, and then I set down to write it. Sometimes I go wandering on the page and get lost, necessitating some rewrite backtracking later; other times I hit upon happy surprises that I wouldn’t have found if I’d stuck to a map.

Music is important. I shift perspectives between a lot of different characters in Brutal Youth, to show the reader what they are thinking and intending, even if the other characters don’t know, so I tend to have a few songs that put me in the mood of those individuals. For the thieving priest, it was Bob Seger’s “Still the Same,” for the main character, a freshman named Peter Davidek, it was Elvis Costello’s mournful “Favourite Hour,” which gives the book it’s title (“Now there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth…”). For Davidek’s combative, wounded friend Noah Stein, it was Nirvana’s “Even In His Youth.” Music was how I found their moods.

DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism, and why was it something you pursued when you first started out?

AB: I grew up wanting to write fiction, but I also loved storytelling of all kinds. In college, the school newspaper was a place to get published, and I hoped it would provide some useful discipline. It was exciting to be part of a breaking news operation, and the University of Pittsburgh’s student paper was a daily operation that actually covered some heavy and important topics. I was a news reporter (later editor, because everyone at a school paper gets promoted fast as the leadership changes year to year) but never dabbled much in entertainment coverage. That was also helpful later because I think it made me try to find deeper topics in pop culture reporting. When I started my career with the Associated Press, it was in general news—wildfires, plane crashes, politics, protests, etc .—but I was also working in Los Angeles, which is a company town for the entertainment industry, so I ended up doing a few actor profiles and covering things like the Emmys and Oscars. It was fun, and I think I was drawn to creative people so that became the main event. After all those years telling the stories of other storytellers, Brutal Youth is a chance to tell one of my own.

DF: Related to those questions, how’s the magazine biz?!

AB: It’s in flux. We’re trying to figure out the future, which is hard for the journalism industry because we’re used to reporting what we know for sure, not making predictions. The good news is that more people are reading than ever before. I hope the advertising finds a way to shift to digital and the audience makes the leap to tablets instead of paper. I like the tactile feel of a magazine, but if we didn’t have to print and ship all those pages we could reduce a lot of expense that could be spent on the journalism. I look forward to the day when publishing means pushing a button, not running a press and sending out an army of trucks.

DF: What made you start writing Brutal Youth? Was it an idea you've been thinking about for a long time, or did the story and structure strike you like a bolt of literary lightening?  

AB: It was something I ruminated on for a long time. It’s about good kids trying to stay that way in a corrupt place, and some adults who got lost making the same journey, but I was really inspired by experiences I had as an adult. As a kid, you expect to get pushed around, and you develop your scorn for authority there. Then you grow up and realize that bullying and manipulation never fully go away. It’s a part of human nature. So I thought a high school setting would be a great place to explore the forces that shape and warp us for the rest of our lives. Everyone feels heartbreak, everyone feels betrayed, and everyone also feels tremendous, overwhelming loyalty to the people who stick by the in hard times. So why do some people take their pain and dump it on others while some take their pain and say, “It stops with me?” Those were ideas that got me interested in going back to high school in this novel.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How did your high school experiences shape the events your main characters go through (both painful and funny)?

AB: A lot of the trials and tribulations in the book were taken from real life at my actual Catholic high school in Western Pennsylvania. We had a priest who was later discovered to have stolen nearly $1.5 million from the church, and I couldn’t resist making use of a real-life villain like that. We also had sanctioned hazing, and the bigger kids tormented the younger kids mercilessly. In front of the adults, it tended to take the form of sing-songy fun and games, but on the bus ride home and in the halls when no one was looking it was a terrifying and sometimes ridiculous survival game. Even some of the teachers were afraid of the students, but we all wore blazers and ties or plaid skirts and cardigans, so we looked like little angels. What I wanted Brutal Youth to reflect was the intense friendships I had at that time, foxhole friendships, the kind you share with someone when the whole world is against you. Emotions at that age are turned up to full volume, but I think the love you have for your friends rings the loudest.

DF: When you finished Brutal Youth, did you know you had something good right away, and how did you go about getting it published?

AB: I still don’t know! I don’t think a writer ever does. Whenever people on social media send out a message that they've picked it up, I feel like a stage-parent: “Someone is reading you! Be a good book! Be good!!” I look at it sometimes and feel overwhelming affection and pride, and hope the parts I love mean something to someone else. Other times I look at the book and feel shame and anger, wishing I could write it again. I got it published the usual way with lots of queries, lots of rejections. The only thing I know for sure is that I poured my heart into the story and did the best I could. It makes me happy when other people find it an exciting and worthwhile adventure.

DF: Brutal Youth has gotten some great reviews, including quite the endorsement from Stephen King. Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?

AB: Given what I’ve already told you about King and what he means to me as a reader, you can imagine what a happy-dance day it was when he 1.) agreed to let me send him the galley, and 2.) wrote back to say he liked it and would be willing to offer a vouch for the front and back. I’ve never met him, but if I ever do he better watch out because a gigantic bear-hug is coming. Now that I have one book out, the dream of every first-timer is the same: please, let me do this again. Writing a book is like riding a roller coaster, and I’m one of those people who is eager to get back in line.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers?

AB: Don’t be afraid of sucking. There will be plenty of time for that fretting later. Get your first draft done, and don’t look back until you type “the end.” Make it as good as you can, of course, and repair and adjust as needed along the way, but don’t despair over it. Once you get a first draft finished, you have something to fix. Until then, you have nothing.

DF: What is one random fact about yourself?

AB: Jesus, this is the hardest question of the bunch. A random fact…? Hm. Okay, I have a silver frog ring that I’ve worn since I was 16 years old. It’s not worth anything, but it’s kind of cool. I change all the time, but it stays mostly the same. I’ve lost it several times—it slipped off my finger once while throwing a snowball and another time playing beach volleyball, and another time when I gave it to a girl I was crazy about—but it always finds its way back to me. It only has three legs because of a casting error, but I like that. I’m not altogether there either.

To learn more about Anthony Breznican, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @Breznican.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Upheaval and Innovation: Author Shawn Vestal On Writing and the Current State of Journalism

Shawn Vestal

Shawn Vestal

By Daniel Ford

Perusing through The New York Times Book Review recently, I came across a book with a title that I loved instantly.

Godforsaken Idaho.

I don’t know why it hit me the way it did, but when things like that happen, you don’t question it and immediately email the writer to see if he or she is willing to sit down for an interview.

Author Shawn Vestal was more than willing and provided insight into his praised collection of short stories, his writing process, and the current state of journalism.

Daniel Ford: When did you start writing? Was it something that came to you naturally or was it developed over time?

Shawn Vestal: I always had an interest in language and reading, from a very early age, and my teachers often encouraged me and praised my writing. So I would imagine it was kind of twofold—I had an interest/aptitude, and then I developed it. I wrote my first poems and stories when I was in high school and college, but I sort of dinked around with that kind of writing while working as a journalist as a young adult. I didn’t work on it as hard as I could have.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you outline? Listen to music?

SV: I just open the laptop and go. Usually, I’m sitting on the little couch in my office at home, but sometimes I’ll move around. I never listen to music while writing, and I try to write for a sustained period before ever dipping a toe into email or the Internet. More and more, I recognize the crucial importance of the time I spend away from the keyboard, thinking about what I’m working on, unconsciously preparing for the next burst of writing. Because my week is divided between journalism and fiction-writing, I usually have gaps of a few days between fiction writing, and in those gaps I try to think through problems or spend time in the mind of the characters. Often, I write quickly and for an appallingly short period of time –a three-hour bout at the keyboard is about as far as I can go, in terms of breaking fresh imaginative ground—and I often write less than that in a sitting, though I can edit and tinker for longer.

DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out? Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?

SV: I fell into journalism accidentally. I was an English major at the University of Idaho in the 1980s, and I dropped out, intending to earn money and return. Instead, I took a job at my hometown weekly newspaper and found that I really loved the work. I moved around the West to different papers, and have now settled at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. , where I am a columnist. It’s a pretty great job. I feel very lucky to have it.

The current state of the business is, of course, struggling. I think that newspapers in particular have seen their means of earning money—and therefore paying for journalism—suffer, and we’re going through a time of all sorts of upheaval and innovation. It’s been bad news, so far at least, for the kind of deeper, investigative reporting at the community and state level. But I’m not sure what journalism will look like eventually. Those of us weaned on the old model frankly don’t have the eyes to imagine it. I think that the essence of journalism, and not the business of it, is what is crucial: reporting on the powerful, serving citizens, and holding government accountable. There is too little truly excellent journalism in the world, but that is not new. I think that the demise of old forms of media don’t at all mean that journalism will go away.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters?

SV: I suppose I put only myself into my characters—it’s all I have, really. But I very rarely do it directly and I have never “fictionalized” a real person who I know—taken a real person or circumstance and made a story out of it. What happens is, in the course of invention, I draw upon my own experiences, and so I use bits and pieces of people and my past to patch things together.

DF: We’re big fans of the short story here at Writer’s Bone. What drew you to write short stories originally and why do you think this mode of storytelling is so compelling to readers?

SV: I loved Flannery O’Connor in high school, and Raymond Carver a short while after that. Both made me want to write stories myself. I think there’s something about the compressed impact a great story can have—such potency and such brevity—that I simply want to keep trying to write a great one.

DF: Your collection of short stories “Godforsaken Idaho” has garnered positive reviews since its release in April 2013. How did you go about compiling the stories you wanted to include?

SV: I looked at the stories I had published that I thought were the strongest, and then tried to consider how, or whether, they fit together. Several of my stories have Mormon elements in them, and that became a unifying thread. Ultimately, I organized the stories to move backward in time – from a future afterlife to a fictionalized story about the founder of the Mormon Church in the 1800s. The stories are loosely connected and organized. I want it to feel unified, but it stops well short of a strongly linked collection like Jesus Son or Olive Kittredge.

DF: Having never been to Idaho, what, if anything, do I need to know about the state before I dive into “Godforsaken Idaho?”

SV: For one thing, the Idaho of the book and the title is not the Idaho. It’s not my comment on the state; it’s meant to convey two elements of the book: a sense of existential isolation of many of the characters, and the surreal or extreme types of things that are included, whether it’s an afterlife or a haunting.

DF: When you finished “Godforsaken Idaho,” did you know you had something good right away and how did you go about getting it published?

SV: I never know if I have anything good. I still wish I could revise some things in the stories. The book was published by the more or less traditional route. I got an agent, who submitted the book to publishers, and she persuaded one of them to bite.

DF: What’s next for you following the success of “Godforsaken Idaho?”

SV: I’m trying to write a novel.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers?

SV: A lot of very mundane things. Read and write a lot. Work hard. Do not wait around for inspiration—inspiration comes more often when you’re working than when you’re waiting. If you find yourself stuck or blocked, allow yourself to write lines of nonsense, to invent ridiculous scenarios, to write something very, very bad. Lower your standards to get yourself moving, and then raise them again in editing and revision. Find writers you can share your work with and share honest critiques with.

DF: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

SV: I stopped having anxiety dreams about showing up unprepared on the final day of class as a student, and started having anxiety dreams about showing up unprepared for the first day of class as the instructor.

To learn more about Shawn Vestal, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @vestal13.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

The Editor is In: 9 Questions With Grammar Guru Patricia T. O’Conner

Patricia T. O'Conner and her husband Stewart Kellerman

Patricia T. O'Conner and her husband Stewart Kellerman

By Daniel Ford

I’ve always believed that to be a good writer, one needs a great editor.

I don’t understand writers who get pissy about their stuff being edited. Writing is personal, but if you want to hack it as a writer, you need to embrace the samurai sword of a usually much wiser and objective wordsmith. I consider my first editor to be my college professor, the late Kalev Pehme, who required every one in his copy editing class read a grammar book of our choice. Most of the class opted for The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, but I did some research and ended up choosing Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe is I. That’s really when I found out I knew nothing about grammar.

But O’Conner’s book patiently led me down the right path and I can now realize when I’m making dopey grammatical mistakes. I can also admonish others for using “due to” and “hopefully” incorrectly (although socially acceptable) and have the facts to back it up.

I was lucky enough to talk to O’Conner recently and get her thoughts on writing and editing, her career at The New York Time Book Review, and what it’s like being married to another editor.

Daniel Ford: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Was it from birth, or was it something you discovered over time?

Patricia T. O’Conner: My original ambition, at age 9 or so, was to be a cowgirl—Annie Oakley was my inspiration. But practical considerations intervened. When I first realized I had to actually earn a living, writing seemed the least painless option. Little did I realize just how difficult it is to write.

DF: As someone who studied journalism in college I have to ask, what was the graduate journalism department at the University of Minnesota like? What were some of the things you covered while you studied urban journalism?

POC: This is a long time ago—the early 1970s. And back then, being in a graduate journalism program was absolutely thrilling. Between classes, we gathered in the student lounge to watch the Watergate hearings. Newspaper reporting seemed the most glamorous, heroic pursuit in the world back then. We were pretty full of ourselves!

What an exhilarating time that was for a young aspiring journalist. This spring marks the 40th anniversary of those nationally televised Senate hearings. People were throwing around terms like “dirty tricks,” “deep throat,” “inoperative,” “smoking gun,” “follow the money,” “the plumbers.” Journalism has never been the same.

In the program I was in, we covered the same things the Minneapolis Star covered—police, courts, legislature. We went out on assignment (when we weren’t busy watching the news on television!), then returned to the journalism building to file our stories on deadline. It was hard work, but not nearly as hard as being a working reporter later.

DF: We’re big fans of The New York Times Book Review here at Writer’s Bone. What was your experience as an editor for that publication like and what was the most memorable book review that crossed your desk?

POC: Working at the Book Review was like no other job in the world. I was there for 11 years, and I learned more in those 11 years than at any other time in my life. There were so many brilliant—and funny!—people crammed into those little offices on the eighth floor of the old Times building on West 43rd Street.

Everybody who was anybody wrote for the Book Review, all the best minds of their time. Even so, their prose often needed tweaking! As a copy editor there, I tried to make sure the writing was as elegant and fluid and accurate as it could be. A review had to make sense and it had to be fair—that is, everything said of the book and the author had to be true. Sometimes the authors complained about how they were reviewed—more than once, Norman Mailer came up to the office to yell and pound on somebody’s desk. So everything said in a review or essay had to be defensible.

I can’t pick a “favorite” review, but one of the best I can recall was a piece Eudora Welty wrote in 1981 about a collection of stories by Elizabeth Bowen. Flawless writing on the subject of flawless writing! I’ve looked up the review, and here’s one of Welty’s sentences: “As it ends the story can be seen to be perfect, and the perfection lies in the telling—the delicacy, the humor, above all the understanding that has enveloped but never intruded upon it, never once pricked the lovely, free-floating balloon.”

Of course, there was bad writing on the Book Review as well—stuff that landed with a thud. But the wonderful writing more than made up for it. You can see why I loved my job there. I also got to write things myself. I wrote reviews and essays.

DF: I remember reading Woe Is I for the first time in college and being blown away by all the things I didn’t know or was doing wrong all my life. I would go to parties with the book and explain all the grammatical things I was learning. What made you decide to start writing books about grammar, and do you think grammar has gotten better or worse since you first published it?

POC: One day in 1994 I got a call at my desk at the Book Review. Jane Isay, who was then the publisher at Grosset-Putnam, asked me if I’d be interested in writing a light-hearted grammar book. At the time, this was a contradiction in terms!

I said yes, and started to compile lists of all the grammar and usage problems I’d run into during my years as an editor at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Iowa), the Des Moines RegisterThe Wall Street Journal, andThe New York Times. There was a lot of material to work with. For instance, even some senior editors at the Book Review couldn’t get their minds around the concept of the dangling modifier, as in “walking through the woods, a mountain sprang into view.”

So I collected all these problems and set about to explain them in the simplest possible terms. My idea was to avoid the grammatical terminology as much as possible, and to make the examples amusing.

DF: In your experience and research, what’s the biggest grammatical mistake that people make? What’s the most obscure piece of grammatical trivia I can use at the next party I attend?

POC: Pronouns seem to account for the bulk of the grammatical mistakes. Then verb conjugations—people get tenses wrong. The most common problem I notice is the tendency to use “X and I” for every purpose, even when “X and me” is appropriate.

But people make even the most obvious mistakes, using object pronouns like “me” and “him” as subjects. Most notorious example: I was once invited to appear before a large group of school teachers and administrators in suburban New Jersey. A high school principal and one of his colleagues approached me beforehand to apologize because, as the principal said, “Him and me will have to leave early.” This is a true story. My husband, who was standing next to me, is a witness!

DF: I had a professor in college spend a whole class on why email was spelled “e-mail” and not the way it is now. Language is constantly evolving in the digital age, so how does grammar keep up with it? Why are some rules okay to change, while others need to stay the same?

POC: Historically, hyphenated constructions tend to lose their hyphens. This isn’t a grammatical issue, it’s one of style and usage. And the “rules” of style and usage change much more readily than grammar—the bedrock of the language. That’s why there are three different editions of Woe Is I—the book tries to stay ahead of the curve on style and usage. In fact, I have a file of material to use in case I’m ever allowed to do a fourth edition.

DF: We normally ask writers what their process is like, but I’m more interested in finding out what your editing process is like. Do you need absolute quiet, or do you prefer to listen to music while you edit?

POC: The quieter the better. No music. I am a musical person, and I get distracted by what the musician is doing.

DF: You manage a website and have written several books with your husband Stewart Kellerman, who is also a journalist and editor. How have words shaped your relationship and who would you say is the better editor?

POC: It’s sometimes a challenge to keep my cool as Stewart tells me something I’ve written is gibberish. This is a real test of a marriage (we’ve been married for 26 years). Even as I write this (under duress), he’s editing one of my blog items and tearing it to pieces. He’s probably the better editor—as I’m sure he would tell you.

DF: Name one random fact about yourself.

POC: I’m dieting (have lost 11 pounds in the last two months) so I’m cranky right now. As you can perhaps tell from my last answer!

To learn more about Patricia T. O'Conner, check out her official website or follow her on Twitter  @grammarphobia.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown On Investigating Crime in Florida

Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown On Investigating Crime in Florida

Julie K. Brown takes some time out of fighting the good journalistic fight to look back on her career and try to explain why Florida is a sunny place for shady people.