- The first book that made you want to be a writer? (Or: what book changed your life?)
Of course, there are so many. But I’ll go with Lloyd Alexander’s THE HIGH KING, which is the final book of his series, The Chronicles of Prydain. Not only did this awaken in me a capacity to experience worlds outside my own (and fall in love with them with that deep and almost inexpressible longing and joy good writing facilitates for a young, earnest reader), but it instigated a lifelong obsession with how to cultivate and capture that magic. Also, all the books in that series still profoundly affect me; I choke up four decades later at certain scenes. An absolutely indelible touchstone in my life.
2. Your most profound artistic influence is?
Also, impossible because there are so many. But I always turn to the great Charles Mingus, undeniably one of the best and most significant musicians and composers in American history. His path was challenging, and he not only endured but overcame obstacles ranging from racism, poverty, and the inherent, intentional hostility American society has for recalcitrant, visionary outcasts. And he made some of the most moving and brilliant, life-affirming music in the history of our planet. Here’s an excerpt from a lengthy piece I wrote more than a decade ago:
Charles Mingus was, above all things, a fighter. Since nothing came easily to him, his struggles—as a musician, as a man—acted as the kiln in which his character was forged. This is how Mingus, mercurial and larger than life, manages to encapsulate so many aspects of the American story: he battled to find his artistic voice, then he strived—often stymied by rejection or indifference—to have that voice heard. Eventually, inevitably, he managed to create material that was too brilliant to be ignored.
3. Album or movie you recommend without reservation?
You can visit my blog or my website to see the many films and albums I’ve celebrated (too many to count) but one album I recommend every human being experiencing is A LOVE SUPREME by John Coltrane and one movie I watch every year that changes my life every time I see it is Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece WALKABOUT.
4. Best first (or last) line in any book, ever?
I’ll go with two of my all-time favorite books, which also happen to be misunderstood and maligned in equal measure: the closing lines of MOBY DICK and THE GREAT GATSBY. And they both deal with water, memory, and really articulate why we write and remember: we are human, so we are fallible and we will die, but while we’re here we bear witness.
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
5. Most underrated author?
I think people who have not experienced him have no idea what a genius Elmore Leonard was. And how much fun it is to read him; he arguably packs more pleasure, page by page, than any writer ever.
6. Why have you not read MOBY DICK? (Or, which classic do you regret not reading?)
Of course I’ve read Moby Dick. There are so many great books I’ve not yet experienced it makes me feel ill-read and it’s depressing. But hope springs eternal; and I reckon I’ll eventually make the time to get through Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which I’ve started numerous times.
7. Is there a single theme or issue your work addresses?
My non-fiction, particularly the criticism seeks to celebrate and bring necessary notice to deserving art; my fiction is obsessed with identity and the human need to connect (and why the failure to do this causes so much of our distress). My poetry is often a combination of these two things.
8. What’s your writing routine? (Or: do you believe in them?)
I envy writers who have either the discipline or luxury of a firm routine. I constantly feel guilty about how little I write and read, so I’m always aspiring to do more of both.
9. Do you believe in writer’s block?
I think writers can be blocked, but I believe what so many authors have said: write something; anything, and through the repetition of writing badly, something good eventually happens. You may even astonish yourself.
10. Talk about the most significant setback (artistic or otherwise) in your life?
I was insanely fortunate to have Pat Conroy read a section of my first novel and promise a blurb. The novel is my white whale; it’s been agented, it’s been pitched, I’ve had excerpts from it published, but it remains out of print; the world’s insistence at not recognizing my genius (ha) forced me to endure, and I ended up writing many other things I might have otherwise avoided or been unable to conceive. And the experience of coming so close so many times taught me the most important lesson of writing: it’s all about belief in self and persistence; it all means nothing if you’re not proud of what you produce, regardless of who endorses you or if certain work never sees the light of day.
11. How have you developed your career?
One failure at a time! Ha! Just by trying to relate the way I experience the world in words; for better or worse, this has allowed me to write criticism, essays, poetry, prose, and some epic emails.
12. Define or explain what literary success means to you.
Any writer who claims they don’t care if their books are read (or published) is lying; but I think knowing you’ve written work you know you put as much time and care as you’re capable of investing into anything is its own reward. I can say with sincerity that I’d rather feel great about a piece of writing regardless if another set of eyeballs see it as opposed to having something I didn’t feel good about becoming a best-seller. The ideal balance, I imagine, is somewhere between those two poles!
13. What do you wish you had known, as an artist, 10 or 20 years ago?
Nothing. I’ve tried to learn from every experience, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you’d told me how ceaseless the stream of rejections, even despite the occasional moments of miniature glory, I might not have believed it, and that’s just as well. I’d like to think that even by my mid-20s I understood that it was going to be a challenge, and the idea is to regard it all as a beautiful struggle.
14. Have you ever visited a writers retreat? (If not, why; if so, how was your experience?)
Yes (obligatory and always heartfelt shout-out to Justen Ahren for creating the community at Noepe), and it’s why I decided to create one!
15. One-minute exhortation for beginning writer looking for advice?
Failure, rejection, doubt, distraction, and occasional lack of faith are all parts of the process; the only unforgivable thing is to not try.
Thanks to Robert Anthony Siegel, who kindly conducted this interview.