21 Authors on Writing Your First Book

Buzzfeed has just published a fascinating article, interviewing 21 famous writers on how they wrote their first books, and the advice they’d give to beginning writers. Those interviewed include Sam Lipsyte, Wells Tower, Charlaine Harris, Junot Diaz, Sloane Crosley and Rachel Kushner.

Here’s a peek at what they had to say.

Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz

When did you decide to write what became your first book? What were you doing for a living at the time?

Junot Diaz: I was in my MFA program and I had two part-time jobs. You’re in a program, so the telos of the program is you’re supposed to generate a body of work. I’d also been on a pretty strict reading schedule. For the last three or four years or so, I was trying to read a book every other day and I would write the book down and what I as a reader took away from it — I still have the notebook. What happened was, after a couple hundred books I began to have an organic inspiration about how I might create a book.

Was the proposition of writing a book intimidating or crazy-seeming, or were you confident you could do it?

Rachel Kushner: No, I didn’t know that I could write a novel, and I think going to an MFA program is not by any measure proof that one is up to the task. I knew when I really got going on the book that there were places in the writing that reflected my potential. That’s as much as you can ask for as a writer, at least initially. It was a long, long journey. But by the time I had completed a draft of the book, I knew I had something. And yet on the day my agent submitted it to editors I had a mild breakdown and thought, What if nobody wants this? And I spent all these years?

Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner

Had you attempted to write other books prior to the one you ultimately published first?

Sam Lipsyte: I had, like most writers, a bad model in the drawer. Something that I’d been working on since college that was really stupid. I finally let it go. As a teacher once said to me, ‘There’s no honor in finishing a bad novel.’

What obstacles did you encounter while writing?

Alexander Chee: My agent tried to sell the book for two years and was unable to. She asked me to consider setting it aside. And I remember I took it with me on a subway ride. (I was living in Brooklyn and teaching on the Upper West Side.) I said to myself, Read it on the train, and if it really is not ready or worthy of finding a publisher then let it go and work on another book. And that was when I decided I would have to leave her. I realized I was my own favorite new writer and this book should be published. She was a prestigious agent. It had helped my ego to be able to say, ‘Oh, my agent is X.’ But I also knew that she didn’t know how to go forward with my work. I could try to be the writer that she hoped I could be or I could try to be the writer that I was.

What helped you get through, despite the obstacles you encountered?

Heidi Julavits: At first, what kept me going was the fact that I was a waitress. Any day I did not write, I was only a waitress. For this reason I waited tables until I was 30. The performance pressure suited me. I worried that if I got a more ‘distinguished’ career (though I actually think waitressing is very distinguished), I’d think to myself, Well, I didn’t write anything today, but at least I helped get that woman I counseled on the domestic abuse hotline to a safe house. Any day I did not write I’d be left with, Well, at least I convinced that semi-famous actor not to order the squab too well done. After I got my book contract, what kept me going was the fear that my editor would realize what a huge mistake she’d made when I failed to ever produce a manuscript. I didn’t want her to lose face.

Wells Tower

Wells Tower

What do you know now that you wish you’d known then? What advice would you give your younger self?

Wells Tower: To the contrary: I wish I knew as little now as I did then. When you’re just starting out, you’re wonderfully unaware of the mistakes you’re making.

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