mona_simpsonMona Simpson has written five novels, My Hollywood, Off Keck Road, A Regular Guy, The Lost Father and Anywhere But Here. She’s working on her sixth.

Q (Meg Pokrass): What is your feeling about having mentors as a writer? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance to a writer…

Most of the important things I’ve learned from older writers haven’t come through mentor-ship relationships, but maybe that’s because I’m shy. I’ve known writers I greatly admire — at Berkeley, I studied with Seamus Heaney, Thom Gunn, Josephine Miles, and Leonard Michaels – but I never really asked them what I’d most want to know, which was: how did you live your life to write what you’ve written. I’m not sure it’s wisdom that can be told.

The deepest mentorship relationships I’ve had have been completely unknown to the mentor. I’ve studied books, learned what I could about the writer from inside their work and then from biographies too. One or two times, I’ve met those writers later on (after having read them, intimately and repeatedly for years) and it’s an odd feeling, somehow akin to the way I became with a boy in elementary school after I’d once dreamed of seeing him naked.

What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired and does it work to trick the brain into working?

The only trick I know is sometimes impossible to perform and that’s to stay in the work enough so that it’s with you all the time, even when you’re ostensibly living your life — and in that state, an idea will come to you unbidden, while driving or selecting pears at Whole Foods. The effort and pain all comes in trying to reenter a work you’ve found yourself outside. As anyone who writes novels can tell you, novels aren’t written with the same kind of inspiration you have when you’re twenty and stay up all night “finishing” a story. Which is not to say that they’re not written under the sway of inspiration. But the inspiration itself may feel less external and more reciprocal. There’s something playful about coaxing inspiration.

Are there favorite writing exercises you give students that you can share?

I’m always trying out new ones. Last week, I asked students to write a profile for an online dating website in the voice of an invented character. We then shuffled the assignments and each wrote an answer to the character they’d received.

The combinations were hilarious and surprisingly romantic.

Suggestions for making characters live?  Do you know who they are before you write or do you find out who they are in the writing? Do you already know these people?

Whether or not you know the characters or use details from life, gestures, ticks, bits of obsession or speech inflections, there’s an enormous translation that has to occur from life to reality in a book. If you transcribed a very funny or intense conversation word for word it would not have the effect on the reader that it had upon you, because in so-called real life words are a only a small part of how we understand and enthrall and hurt each other. We read each other’s movements and expressions as much as what we say. We need to give a reader all that, all that internal life through this one medium of language.

It’s hard to imagine that the best characters, even the best villains, aren’t loved by their creators.

What does a novelist hope to achieve before setting out… where does this urgency come from?

First, the writer must badly want or need to write the story – otherwise, it’s unlikely to feel urgent enough in the reader’s hands. Then, as the writer is working, she should feel on a journey that, though sometimes difficult and even frightening, may yield everything in time: adventure, surprise, delight, afternoons of happiness and even restoration of losses. The writer should believe he’ll learn by his experience and that he will be a different person at the end of it, calmer, wiser, old.

What are some good habits for a writer?

Make good friends and take their work as seriously as your own.

Using your time, even the small increments. Develop the practice of reading in the cracks, always live in the hold of a great book. Have a copy of it you carry, download onto your phone. Read or listen everywhere.

Keep returning to your work. Try to live in it as much as possible.

Be patient with yourself and your progress. Don’t compare it to other peoples’ work or rewards. The only chance you have to make a difference is to cultivate your own way. There’s no use in looking over your shoulder or wishing you were a different kind of writer, another kind of thinker.

Don’t feel you have to be of any particular sensibility. Find what’s truest in you and follow that.

Don’t worry too much.

Whenever possible, turn towards love.

What’s the best advice you ever got?

Most of the best advice I ever got was from Allan Gurganus, who taught me, when I was young not to worry about what other young writers were doing or getting, who convinced me that the literary world had its fashions like everything else and following them made less sense than following the fashions in frocks. He believed that it was important always to look to the greats, living or dead, whose work never cowers one, but somehow enlarges the confidence and happiness of the reader.

How did My Hollywood find you, or you it?

My Hollywood felt like a book I had to write …and write and write. I suppose it found me and then I couldn’t let it go.

What is next for you?

I’m already at work on a novel that’s a story of adult love and trouble told through the very small aperture of a teenage boy’s voice. My young hero and his best friend snoop and one day stumble onto something more dire than anything they’d known. They then become amateur detectives and try to find the truth about a person very close to one of their mothers. The novel concerns surfing, amateur detective work, and life inside animal shelters.

The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at

  1. Jane Hammons

    Wonderful, down-to-earth stuff.

  2. David Ackley

    Required reading.

  3. susan tepper

    Really good interview, thanks to Mona for being so straight forward. Good questions, Meg!

  4. Meg Pokrass

    It was a real honor.

  5. J. Mykell Collinz

    Good interview, Meg. I appreciate the insightful writer’s information and advice given by Mona Simpson. My thanks to the both of you.

  6. James Lloyd Davis

    Great interview, Meg.

    Mona, my wife is a great fan of your writing. That’s not to say that I’m not. I haven’t read any of your books yet, an omission I plan to correct in the near future.

  7. Robert Vaughan

    A lovely exchange with Meg and Mona. Nice to hear the direct approach that Mona uses regarding her work, mentors or not, and advice for others.

  8. David Ackley

    Best advice since Strunk and White. Required reading for any serious artist.

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