The singer Townes Van Zandt talked about writing one of his best pieces, "The Catfish Song," and about the sense that it just burbled up to him from somewhere else and that all he had to do was record it. For me, like him, the greatest joy of writing derives from that feeling of discovering something great that's hidden, or perhaps just drowned out by the noise of everyday life.
A close second, though, would be connecting with readers. Feeling that you've illuminated something meaningful for someone else, however small, is an incredibly intimate thing, and a great honor.
What do your fans mean to you?
My fans are a lifeline. It's very easy to doubt yourself as a writer, and the people who pull you forward...they are truly co-creators in these works of art. You lean on them more than they may realize. When someone believes in you, you're inspired to do your best for them.
Who are your favorite authors?
In no particular order: Kurt Vonnegut is someone I could have just kept reading forever. Pynchon dazzles me. The older I get, the more I realize the profound impact Douglas Adams had on me. Dunn's Geek Love remains one of the great live wires of literature. It sounds like a cliche to say it, but I love Melville--he was writing the X-Files before anyone else. Lots of science fiction...Gibson, Heinlein, Egan. And of course, the king--Philip K. Dick. Humanists like McCullers. Gardner's Grendel is perhaps the greatest character ever put to paper. Joyce's command of language transcends all save perhaps Shakespeare. I'm a late comer to Gaiman, but in the very least because of our shared influence from Adams and mythology, I find many sympathetic ideas there. Marilynne Robinson is up there with Harper Lee for me for her ability to write about deep ideas clearly and beautifully. Mitchell's Ghostwritten was an early prototype for what I imagined my own books could be like. Jon Ronson is a phenomenal storyteller--fun without being shallow. I'd be remiss not to mention Cold Mountain, an absolute gem of a book. And I love Murakami and Hoeg, though I often wonder with translated writers if I'm getting the full picture.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
My wife, the photographer KayLynn Deveney, is a big inspiration. She works steadily toward huge, long-term goals, and she has fun along the way. For myself, I hope each day that I'll connect with something meaningful, that I'll create something that day. Any day you can do that, however small a thing that may be, is a good day.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
When I'm not writing, I'm reading, of course! I read as widely as I can.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
I can't remember a time when I wasn't reading, so I don't remember the first story I ever read, but I do remember some of the first ones that I'm aware of having shaped me forever. Madeleine L'Engle's books spoke very deeply to me--her children seemed so real and her evils so complete and terrifying that I still have a visceral sense of those stories. My heart would thump reading those books. I felt their peril. In terms of the structure of those stories and their willingness to explore big ideas, I like to think they're reflected at least somewhat in what I write.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. My family has lived there for a number of generations, and it's a huge part of my identity despite my having mostly moved away early in my adult life. One way it has influenced my writing is by underpinning many of my ideas about what cities look like. Cleveland is an old-school, industrial, Rust Belt town, but it's also a place of great neighborhoods, a huge amount of underappreciated culture, and incredible higher education. But that "underappreciated" is a tip-off to one of Cleveland's other great influences on my writing: Because it's an "underdog" city, a place that almost was, a place that gets a lot of knocks, I think I tend to identify with the overlooked and to find meaning in unprepossessing places. There's so much to love if you just turn your view 20 or 30 degrees from where we usually look. Cleveland will always be where I'm from.
When did you first start writing?
I can't remember a time when I wasn't writing. I've resisted it at points in my life, but it's a constant thread, and it has been my default mode of expression, the way I tend to think and process, since I was able to hold a pencil. One of the best things about finally publishing some fiction has been admitting that writing is truly central to who I am.
How do you discover the ebooks you read?
I discover new books in all kinds of ways. I often hear the lament that bookstores are disappearing, and I share the nostalgia for browsing the stacks, but at the same time, technology is doing some amazing things for us in this regard. Just at a straightforward level, my friends on Facebook are an amazing resource, for instance. Any day of the week, I can ask for ideas and get scores of new ideas. I also read a huge number of RSS feeds (book reviews, etc.) and have tried some new things like BookVibes, which automagically generates ideas from your Twitter feed. I also like looking through lists, seeing what's up at the moment, and of course there are particular authors I follow. I tend to grab excerpts when I see them posted, and I enjoy compendiums and collections (like Hugh Howey's series on apocalypses), which introduce you to new people. It's a great time to be a reader!
What is your writing process?
Most honest writers, I think, would say, "I wish I knew!" Seriously, I've coached enough people and written enough myself to feel confident saying it's always hard work. Extremely rewarding, compelling, but work. What pulls me forward is the initial idea, the sense that there's something there to be found. It's like a hint. A sniff of something.
I have a lot of false starts. I have to write out a fair amount sometimes before I realize it's just not what I thought it was. Other times, though, and there's almost a palpable moment when this happens, you just know it's reached a critical mass of some kind and it's worth following through. One of the ways I accomplish that is by piling research and ideas in Evernote and then sifting and adapting and playing until structures start to form.
I'm not a big plotter. I tend to imagine environments--setups, basically--and then like to see where my pen (my keyboard) will take me. Sometimes I'm very surprised, and those can be the best moments.
And of course, at some level, there's no shortcut to a story in terms of time. Your brain works on the problem even when you're not aware of it. So there are droughts and then downpours and then, with luck, a balance that holds just long enough to finish and start again.
What are you working on next?
I have a much more traditional sci-fi novel that's coming along. That I'm not saying yet what it's about is hopefully a good sign that I really mean to finish it.
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