When did you know that you were a writer?
Am I one now? Even at 66, 25 years into a writing career that’s lasted longer than I could have hoped, I’m not entirely comfortable making the claim. Dickens, Austen, Chekhov, Twain, Cather, Fitzgerald… now they
were writers. When you assert that you’re a writer, what are you saying? That this is how you earn your living? (If so, then I’m a writer.) That you believe you’re good at what you do? (Yep, on good days.) That your work belongs in the same category as the work of those writers you admire most? (Rarely.) That the shelf of your published work entitles you to the appellation? (It’s getting heavier, so perhaps.) People who aren’t writers tend to think of writing in terms of the what
of things: putting into words what you think and believe. Whereas, the longer you do it, the more writing becomes the how
. Writing is a particular kind of thinking that allows you to discover what you know (as opposed to explaining your convictions to others). Writing has become how I navigate the world, how I test my understanding of it. (And it’s in this sense that I feel most comfortable describing myself as a writer.) It’s always nice to write well. Doing so allows you to imagine that you belong in the company of authors who drew you to authorship in the first place. But it’s in the doing, the act, the process — even on bad days — where your identity as a writer most deeply resides.
What does your writing space look like?
That depends on the time of the day (see pics below). Some mornings I work at a nearby coffee shop. Others, I’m at home, working at the kitchen counter. In warm weather I’m fond of the little second-story porch where I’ve placed a small bistro table, though I have to be careful that the wind off the water doesn’t rearrange my words in the neighbor’s yard below. Afternoons, I’m fond of the small food court in a downtown Portland (Maine) office building where there’s a fountain whose burbling drowns out cell phone conversations and occasionally helps me complete a simile. I have an actual office in my home where my computer is set up where I revise. Not much is necessary for me to work productively. Trains, buses, motel rooms? Fine by me. Once I’m a sentence or two in, I could be anywhere.
Share an interesting experience you had with one of your readers.
Early in my career I corresponded with an elderly woman, a Mrs. Raymer, who lived in the Poughkeepsie area. Her last name happened to be the same as one of my minor characters, a young cop. If memory serves, she initially wrote me to say that she enjoyed my books and to remark that I’d used her name in Nobody’s Fool
. She wrote me again when the movie came out because it contained a line not in the novel. The main character (played by Paul Newman) slows his pickup truck, rolls down the window, and shouts at Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Up yours, Raymer.” This delighted friends of the real Mrs. Raymer, who wanted me to know that, thanks to me, she could no longer walk down the street in her hometown without being so greeted. I don’t know if the poor woman is still alive, but I suspect it wouldn’t please her to know that I’ve written a sequel and that Officer Raymer is the main character in this one, and he’s called much worse.
What scares you most as a writer?
Waking up one day and finding the well dry. It’s probably a silly fear. People who know me best say I’m as full of shit as ever, and I’ve never suffered a minute’s worth of writer’s block. But that’s the thing about fear, isn’t it? Most fears are irrational, but that doesn’t make them any less potent. And most of them are layered. When I say I’m afraid that the creative well may one day run dry, I’m also saying that telling stories is not just what I do, it’s who I am. If I weren’t able to do it anymore, who would I be? I’d still be a husband and father and grandfather, and these are not nothing, but the diminishment — a chamber of the heart suddenly gone — would be hard to live with.
What do you love most about writing fiction?
Imagining the lives of others allows the writer an escape from his real-world self, an escape that isn’t so different from the one readers feel when they “lose themselves” in a good story. For a time both are allowed to forget a reality to which the self is central. While dreaming the fictional dream, we ourselves simply cease to matter, or at least not to matter in the same way or at the same volume. Waking up from that dream is a return to the self and the self’s concerns, but if the story has been a really good one, the dreamer feels both the same and somehow different, the experience having altered us. “I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can,” Bob Dylan says in his song “Things Have Changed.” It’s a funny line, but writers and readers understand its serious, underlying truth.
Share a sentence of your own that you’re particularly proud of.
My favorite sentences are almost always lines of dialogue. As much as I love beautiful language and lush description, I’m especially pleased to be upstaged by my characters, who often say wonderful, unexpected things. In Everybody’s Fool
a minor character who works for Animal Control can’t believe he’s heard right when he arrives at a crime scene. Can it be possible, in upstate New York, that he’s being asked to find and capture an escaped cobra
? Assured that this is indeed the situation, he replies, “And me without my mongoose.” Often the best lines are the simplest. Another of my minor characters, seeing that a small dog has chewed his parasite-infested penis to a bloody pulp, asks the dog’s owner, “Doesn’t that hurt
?” The owner’s response — “You’re asking me?” — cracks me up every time I read it.
What’s your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
I particularly despise adjectives that are promoted to nouns in order to sell us something: the hamburger that is “a full pound of pure deliciousness
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Everybody's Fool
and seven previous novels; two collections of stories; and Elsewhere
, a memoir. In 2002 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls
, which, like Nobody’s Fool
, was adapted to film, in a multiple-award-winning HBO miniseries.