|What qualities in essays, columns, fiction do you value above all others? Do you think your readers value the same qualities?
The qualities I admire most are honesty, humor, and a sense of rhythm. That last one is really important. I appreciate when writers are aware of the way the words sound, the cadence of the sentences and the overall pace of each paragraph. I don’t read because I want to agree with what’s being said or even necessarily relate to it. I want to be invited inside the writer’s soul. I want intimacy with that writer. At the same time, I don’t want to sit in on a confession. I only need to be inside that soul insofar as it takes me where I need to go in terms of the ideas being expressed. A lot of people think personal writing automatically means confessional writing. Not true. Personal writing only works when there’s only enough personal stuff revealed to get the job done in terms of ideas. That’s something I’m very conscious of in my own work. I try to make the reader think they’ve gotten more of me than they really have. Someone said to me once “You really let it all hang out; you say everything.” I said, “You should see what I left out!” Because ideally nothing should be “hanging” out. What’s there should be put there very deliberately. My rule is that at least half of what was in the first draft should be out by the final draft.
In my version of the world all of my friends’ books would be a perpetual New York Times bestseller, all of my friends’ movies would win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and all of my friends’ bands would play at least once a day from every radio in the world. (And I would somehow manage not to implode with envy. Actually now that I think of it that version of the world sounds awful.)
What sort of writing (in terms of subject matter, plot, theme) have you promised yourself you would never write?
I have never (and would never) say never when it comes to writing because, believe me, I’ve written everything. I make my living from writing and always have (supplemented by the occasional temp job in my 20s and, yes, well into my mid-30s.) I’ve never had a steady teaching job or a magazine staff job. I’ve been a freelancer since the beginning, which means there have been times when I turned no job down, no matter how ridiculous or ostensibly beneath me. I’ve written ad copy and press releases. I’ve written magazine articles in the vein of “Seven Ways To Know He’s Cheating.” I’ve written profiles of celebrities I hadn’t heard of before I got the assignment. In the late 90s, when the dot com boom was cresting and everything in the universe had a website that was pretending in some way to be an online magazine, I wrote the copy for the Always Maxipad website. I didn’t write about the product but rather these faux little articles like “How To Get In Shape for the Summer.” This was by far one of the most lucrative gigs I ever had.
Speaking of being willing to do anything, I’ll tell you this story. When I was 32 and had been living in Nebraska for a few years making hardly any money because I was writing a novel, I was so broke that I applied for a job at an advertising agency. This was in Lincoln and this was a “hip” agency that had their offices in some kind of loft-like space and considered themselves unspeakably cool by Nebraska standards. And even though I had recently finished my novel and sent it to my agent I was so afraid it wouldn’t sell that I was ready to get a job in Lincoln and just start living like a normal, responsible person. So I sent in my resumé and even though I had lived in New York for many years and had published a book and written for a gazillion magazines, including The New Yorker, the super-hip agency guys were like, “Uh, you’re not qualified to work here.” And I said, “Try me” and they gave me the following assignment: I was to write copy for a slip of paper that would be included in the employee paychecks of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, for which they were about to start an ad campaign. The paper was supposed to notify employees of the impending campaign. The super-hip guy said to me, “You need to write something like ‘beginning May 1, an ad campaign for BNSF will begin in local television and print markets.’” So I wrote about five versions of this sentence and sent it to them and they never called me back. It didn’t matter in the end, since a few weeks later I sold my novel. But this is all to say that I’ve never turned up my nose at work in times of financial strain. However, much work has turned its nose up at me.
If you could go anywhere in the world to find material for an essay or column, where would you go?
I hesitate to answer this question because of the “for an essay or a column” angle. I love traveling but I hate travel writing. I don’t care how luxurious the accommodations are or how “all expense paid” it is, there’s nothing less relaxing than being in a new place and feeling like you have to take notes all the time and interview people rather than just talk to them. That said, I can think of lots of places I’d like to go that would likely result in an essay or column: India, Morocco, Iran. North Dakota. The gas station at the end of my street. I’m not a stickler for the exotic.
Do you experience a letdown when you finish a book or project? If so, how do you make the careful transition from years of working on a single project to finishing and not working on it? How do you reenter the real world?
I have this kind of OCD thing I do when I’m finishing a project. I’ll be like, “You cannot get a haircut until you finish;” “You cannot buy jeans until you finish;” “You cannot return that phone call until you finish.” The idea is that all of these things are rewards for getting the job done. I’ll picture myself striding forth with a halo of satisfaction, shopping for jeans while thinking, “I’m done, I’m done!” But the funny thing is it never works out that way. I’ll finish the project and then I’ll sit around avoiding the supposedly rewarding activities. Then I’ll realize that I actually hate shopping for jeans and I didn’t want to return that phone call in the first place. And it will be then that I also realize that on some unconscious level I must actually prefer writing to most other activities, that as much as I avoid it there’s a certain comfort in it.