The persistent worry that began that first summer sharpened in focus during this last one: The certain knowledge that I have less time than I want before The End arrives, unbidden. I stare at being older in the mirror every morning; lately, it is not a pretty sight.
Now that you're hooked, let's hear what the author has to say.
Q: When and why did you start writing? A: I've been a journalist since 1972. Daily journalistic writing, which I produced for 23 years, is not the same as what I'm doing now with narrative nonfiction. I see the stories I'm writing today as an expanded version of the more straightforward style of journalism I did for so long. After I finished my BA in English at Michigan I decided I wanted to live on or near either the East or West Coast. A Midwest lad, I wasn't picky. It was either the University of New Hampshire to do a PhD in Anglo-Irish literature or the University of Oregon in journalism. Tuition for both places didn't cost much, but Oregon gave me really cheap housing and that sealed my fall into journalism. I've been a professional reporter and editor for 41 years, but only lately have I taken to writing the way I want. I write now to tell stories that I did not have a chance to tell before, at least not in the way I wanted to tell them. I also want my children to know something about their father beside that one fact, that I am their father.
Q: What do you enjoy most about writing? A: I like telling a story that no one has told before in quite the same way. That and trying to write a sentence that has never been written before.
Q: Who/what is your biggest inspiration when you write? A: I have worked in more than 45 countries as a reporter, teacher and journalism consultant. In the 1990s I frequently reported from Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since then I've lived in Romania and Kosovo and spent months in Central Asia, including Afghanistan. I’ve also worked a bit in Central America, Israel, the Caucasus and other places. Along the way I've interviewed thousands of people and have seen unusual goings on, some of which make their way into the stories I'm writing now. I've taken lots of notes and kept those notebooks. So I'm writing some of those stories in ways I was unable to as a straight reporter. I would not say a particular writer has served as my inspiration. I admire writers who avoid the unnecessary, likely a result of having to write "tight and bright" for newspapers and wire services for so long. I read a lot of "literary" journals these days and find great writing there, both fiction and nonfiction; then there's The Atlantic, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the New Yorker, Scandinavian novelists, Bill Bryson, Rebecca West, Robert Kaplan, John McPhee and scores of others. I am also stunned at how many excellent writers are working today. And, finally, I am also inspired by ordinary life. Our family trip to Umbria last summer with my wife and young daughter, which I wrote about in Under the Gum Tree, is a good example. I recently finished a story about three older men in a locker room talking about the deaths of people they knew well, one of which was a suicide, and the unstated impact these stories had on their own lives.
Q: Do you have a writing schedule? A: Typically I’ll write for two or three hours in the weekday mornings, often in later afternoon as well after I've picked my daughter up from school. I sneak in writing whenever I can get to the computer, really.
Q: What is the hardest part of writing for you? A: I guess I would not describe writing as hard. I would say it’s something I do and enjoy doing. Getting started can occasionally take time. But once I start I pretty much keep going until I’m done. I'll fool around in my head with an idea for weeks sometimes before I begin the story. I also tend to fine tune a piece for a while, too long I suppose, before I'm willing to let it go. I have realized, however, that a thing -- anything, including writing a story -- is only worth so much time. Rewriting has to stop at some point; sometimes that's difficult for me but I’ve learned how to stop. I tend to spend a lot of time organizing a story; mostly I do that in my head.
Q: How long does it usually take you to finish a story? A: It can take weeks. I do what most people do. Write a story. Set it aside. Pick it up. Tweak it. Put it down. Repeat. I'll do that for weeks until I'm satisfied. Even then I'll often have different versions of the same story out because I can't stop messing with it. I find that if a story is getting rejected it usually needs more work, so I'll edit and rewrite if the story gets nixed four or so times. That's a pretty good indication that something is wrong. On the other hand, I’ve written stories in a couple of hours and changed them very little. A story of mine that appears in the current edition of the Green Mountains Review was written like that.
Q: Are you working on anything right now? A: I’m peddling three stories at the moment and probably won’t start another piece until I’ve gotten a commitment to publish one of the three. Once I do I’ll start working on a story about hotels I've stayed in. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. There have been a few over the years. I'm also expanding the story that appeared in Under the Gum Tree into a larger piece about being the much older father of a young child. My daughter and I are 60 years apart.
Q: How many rejections did you get before you had something published, and how did you deal with them? A: To be honest, I wasn't rejected very many times before my first narrative nonfiction story appeared in 2009. I had read a lot of literary magazines and tried to pay attention to what kinds of stories people were publishing. I was also writing about the larger world, Kosovo in this case, a place not many people have traveled to. After 40 years in journalism I've developed a pretty thick skin. My daily journalism stories were constantly changed. I got used to it. I never liked it much but I found that sometimes they were actually improved. I have also learned that you only have to impress one person -- the editor of the magazine -- in order to get published. And if that one editor doesn't like it, perhaps someone down the road will.
Q: How did you celebrate when you got your first acceptance? A: I don’t think I did anything unusual, but I remember being relieved to know that what I was doing was good enough to get published. It gave me confidence to continue.
Q: Do you prefer typing or pencil to paper when you write? A: I write on a computer. If I were a poet, however, I'd put pencil to paper.
Q: What do you do when you're not writing? A: When I'm not writing I help my wife raise our daughter. When it’s not winter I cut down trees and brush on our rather large, wooded lot in small-town Connecticut. I also read books and two newspapers a day, watch the nightly news on television, plan cushy family trips to Europe, workout at the gym and occasionally edit the work of others.
Q: Who is your favorite Author? A: When I was younger my favorite writers were Irish: Joyce and Yeats and Synge and Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, people like that. I also read a lot of poetry. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins remain two favorites, along with Yeats. Now, as noted earlier, I’m all over the place and can’t point to a favorite author. The more short stories I read the more I like the form and find wonderful writers everywhere.
Q: What are some of your favorite books? A: Among my favorite books are Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan, Middlesex by Jeff Eugenides, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx and The City of Falling Angeles by John Berendt. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is stunning. I think Malcolm Gladwell and Jared Diamond have a lot to say. I should also mention Paul Theroux and Colin Thubron (In Siberia) for travel writing and Sebastian Junger and Dexter Filkins for war reporting.
Q: Do you have any advice for other writers? A: I think writers should try and see the world a little more as editors see it, mostly by keeping track of the details of their submissions. In addition to the obvious -- making certain that words are spelled correctly and that punctuation and grammar are accurate -- writers need to watch out for things like extra spaces between words in their stories, ensuring that paragraph indents are consistent and that pages are numbered consecutively. Not paying attention to the details of the copy itself tells a busy editor the writer is either a beginner or a person who doesn't care much about what he or she is doing. Mistakes like these will not improve anyone's chances of getting published. Also, follow all the editor's nit-picky requirements, no matter how annoying they may be. If another piece is just as good the editor will publish the one that requires the least amount of work on her part; and who can blame anyone for that? One last thing: I think anyone who wants to write has to pay attention to the world around us, the one that functions in real time and space.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to share with the readers? A: Yes: Buy good writing. Read it. You'll make the world a better place. What more can anyone ask?