Q (Meg Pokrass): Have you ever had a mentor? Do you mentor anyone?
There have been a lot of teachers who have helped bring me to the present moment, but not one mentor. I’ve had “bosses,” people who’ve taught me a lot about writing, including and especially the editors at the Chicago Reader in the 1990s, but no one has ever explicitly taken me under their wing for a long period of time. In the summer of 1991 I was an intern at The New Republic, pre-Steven Glass, and I shuffled papers for Michael Kinsley and Andrew Sullivan. The people there were varying degrees of nice, but I wouldn’t call them mentors. When I worked with Dave Eggers in the late 90s and early aughts, he taught me quite a bit, but we were more like peers at the time than mentor/mentoree. There was a teacher in college named Joseph Epstein, a very skilled and clever writer who edited The American Scholar for a time. He taught me quite a bit, but I came to find his politics unappetizing and we lost touch. I studied improv with Del Close but never got into the inner circle. Most recently, I’ve been studying yoga with Richard Freeman, who I love and respect, but I wouldn’t consider him my mentor. It’s been quite a list, really, of teachers. I’ve been very fortunate.
As for me being a mentor, I don’t think so, not really. God help anyone who places himself or herself under my intellectual care.
What makes us care about fictional people?
The same thing that makes us care about actual people: Details of a life richly lived. Books can still be gripping if the characters are cardboard, but that’s the mechanical functioning of plot. If the details are right, though, the actions will seem true and, I hate to use this Hollywood term, relatable. A good reader can tell the difference between a real character and a cartoon.
What is the best advice for a writer you know?
Just keep hacking away, without worry about results. And don’t expect to make much money, because you won’t.
What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired and does it work trick the brain into working?
It’s not like every day of my life is a magical party of creativity. Some days I sit at my desk and transcribe interviews or fill out invoices, taking time in between to work on my fantasy-football teams or play online poker. Inspiration is overrated. When it’s time to work, you’ll work.
What starts work for you? Do you start with words, a phrase, anything like a prompt?
Usually, if I’m working on a long-term project, I’ll do a little bit the day before leading in to what I’m going to work on the next day. So I already have a placeholder. And when I AM on a roll, I have my 1,000-word-a-day goal. That gives me a finish line. If I go past it–and I sometimes do, particularly once I get cruising in a project–that’s great. But if I don’t, at least I’ll have the sense of having accomplished the day’s mission.
Do you listen to music when you write?
I go in phases. Right now, not so much. But there have been times when the music goes all day.
Talk about putting together Jewball – anything about this process…
I wrote the first chapter in 2008 and then got stuck, mostly because my publisher refused to buy it based on that chapter. So I let it sit for a few years, but it was always in the back of my head. Then when I made the decision to publish it myself, I produced the book very quickly. It took me approximately three months to write a 53,000-word novel. That’s actually quite do-able if you know your material. I now have hope that I can do it again, multiple times.
What are you working on now and next?
Every time I answer a question like that, I turn out to be wrong. So I’ll just say: I’m doing something, and it’ll be done eventually!