Why did you decide to become a writer?
I was an English major. All English majors believe they have a book in them, don’t they? It was certainly something I always wanted to do. It just took me a while to get around to it.
You write both fiction and non-fiction. Do you prefer one or the other?
Fiction is less complicated for me. Writers will now and then talk about how characters actually write the story, and there’s some truth in that, as strange as it sounds. You place the characters in a scene and then watch and record what they do.
That sounds bizarre.
I know. But I have said to my wife more than once that I was looking forward to tomorrow to see what happens next. Of course you have some general notion, but when you have a group of characters more or less firmly in your mind, they begin to speak for themselves, and they will not go places they don’t want to go or say things they don’t want to say.
So as a writer of fiction you are the cameraman, not the director.
That’s an interesting way to put it. There’s also the fact that with fiction you don’t have to be as careful with facts. Even if you’re writing historical fiction, you have a little latitude. No one expects footnotes – or wants them, for that matter. With non-fiction you have to be scrupulously careful. I did a book on Hemingway, for example. Can you imagine how many people out there are interested in him? The academic world alone is filled with people who have spent their careers studying the man and his writing. Make a mistake or make an egregious misjudgment and someone will raise a fuss. So for me non-fiction involves a lot more work.
Who are your favorite writers?
It’s a long list, starting with Mark Twain and P.G. Wodehouse. Trollope, Orwell, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Francis Parkman, Evelyn Waugh, George MacDonald Fraser, Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester – those are some that I reread regularly.
Any women authors?
Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford and Willa Cather.
Those writers are all dead.
Do you like any contemporaries?
My friend Phil Caputo wrote A Rumor of War – a book I consider a masterpiece of clarity and honesty. I also like Colin Harrison’s stuff, although — full disclosure — he edited my Hemingway book at Scribner, so I’m prejudiced. I’m leaving out a number of non-fiction writers, historians like Victor Davis Hanson and Robert Utley. There’s a long list of those people, many still working.
Would you say that any writers in particular influenced your work?
Not that I’m aware of. Not stylistically. But I’ve always been impressed by Anthony Trollope for two reasons. First, he got up every morning and cranked out his three thousand words and then left for his job at the British Post Office. (He rose to number two or three, I think.) I admire that level of discipline, and I believe it’s essential to any serious writer – though maybe not to Trollope’s extent. Few of us have his energy. But real dedication is essential. Second, few if any of Trollope’s characters are completely heroic or completely villainous. Some of his Victorian ladies are a little too virtuous, but mainly he presents people in three dimensions, with varying levels of virtue and folly. Plus he knows when to use humor. The current culture could benefit from that sort of balanced perspective.
You mentioned Trollope’s discipline. How do you work? What is your day like?
First of all, I have to have a project of some kind, or I get restless. So I’m almost always doing something – unless I’m traveling for fun. As for the day, my morning starts at six thirty, courtesy of my Labrador retriever, Tom. We go for a walk and then come back for coffee and watch the morning sports news. Then I check the newspapers online, have breakfast and shower, etc. I usually sit down to the computer around nine and go until three or so. I start by rereading and revising what I did the day before and then go on to new stuff, with a target of a thousand words or thereabouts. Then I quit, have a workout, and that pretty much shoots the day.
How about when you’re doing research?
That changes things a little. When I’m doing research I spend the same amount of time as I would when writing, so the work day is pretty much the same. I just don’t write much. Just notes.
What do you do for fun?
I like fly fishing. Even wrote a book on it, and if you’re new to the sport you can’t go wrong by reading it. I say this in all modesty, of course. One of the reasons my wife and I live part of the time in Durango, Colorado is that it’s just an hour or so away from one of the great trout streams in the world – the San Juan River, just over the line in New Mexico. I’ve had my fill of travel, as a result of my earlier business career. Getting on an airplane to go anywhere is a dreary chore. They could give you champagne and caviar (which they quite obviously do not), and it would still feel like a Greyhound bus ride. I do go back east every year to my friend’s camp in Maine. And along the way I stop to see my son and his son (and my lovely daughter-in-law), who all live in Newport, RI. And I go to New York to see my agent and publishers. These days New York is so much more pleasant than it was when I went there on business. Then, the results of those visits were financially crucial. Now I go and have lunch with agents and publishers and there are no life or death issues on the table, just fresh bread, pasta and red wine.
I also like sports. I’ve always been active – squash, running, biking. Still am, though squash is impossible because of elbow problems and general wear and tear. I used to be an avid bird hunter. But I’ve reached the stage where that’s lost a little of its appeal. I was a hell of a good shot, though. Still am, I think.
I’m also a fan of certain spectator sports – baseball in particular (I’ve been to twenty six professional ball parks, from Single A to Major League). I’ve also been watching a lot of European soccer. I never played the game, but my son played from the time he was five, so I’ve learned the game. I know it’s heresy, but I would rather watch an English Premier League game or a Spanish league game than suffer through a mediocre NFL game. I played football, so I understand it. But these days when I watch most NFL games I do it with the sound off and a book in my hand. Every once in a while I look up to see if anything is happening. Usually they’re showing a commercial.
What do you think of the changes in publishing these days – e-book, self publishing?
A mixed blessing. The problem with the publishing business from a writer’s point of view has always been how to break through the clutter to develop a readership. Self publishing and e books have increased the clutter dramatically. In the old model, agents and publishers acted as gate keepers and marketed work that they liked or at least thought they could sell. Critics chimed in and writers had a chance of getting noticed and read. With self publishing and e books, the old model has broken down and there’s almost no support for a new author. On the other hand, writers don’t have to work through a publisher in order to get a book published. Whether you’re happy with this new arrangement depends on your goals and ambitions. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that you still have to produce something of value – to someone, if only yourself.
Do you have any advice for would be writers?
Don’t quit your day job. Trollope never did. Also, understand there will be no certain rewards from the writing except the satisfaction you get from doing it. Anything else is mostly a matter of luck.
Also, if you believe in your work, don’t be swayed by other people’s opinions, whoever they might be. H.L. Mencken said criticism is only prejudice made plausible. And I also remember a letter Hemingway got when The Sun Also Rises came out. The letter said, in part, “Every page fills me with sick loathing.” That’s a tough review. But it gets worse when you find out it came from his mother. He managed to get past it, though.
What about inspiration?
I wouldn’t lie around waiting for it to happen. I’ve always found that sitting down at the keyboard and starting out is the surest route to a productive day.
Discipline again, yes.
Do you find writing to be hard work?
Not really. As somebody once said, hanging sheetrock is hard work. I think Red Smith, the sportswriter, said writing was easy – you just sat down at a typewriter and opened a vein. That’s a little melodramatic, I think. For myself, I find writing to be mostly a pleasure. It’s a chance to inhabit other worlds and other characters, whether real or imagined. It’s also satisfying to say something exactly as it should be said. In other words, the craft itself is enjoyable. And it’s fun to tell a story. It’s also satisfying when people like what you’ve done. And there’s always the chance that you’ll make a buck or two. If you can achieve even modest success as a writer, there’s nothing better.