Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
I grew up in Frederick, Maryland. My mother worked for the National Institutes of Health in Washington, DC. My father was a writer who lived with his wife in Virginia and I’d see him every other weekend, which gave me my first inclination of what life as an author might be like.
I worked many different jobs growing up, from the usual suspects like babysitting neighborhood kids, to more atypical scenarios like working summers as a farmhand in West Virginia. I also had a short stint as Bingo the Clown.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I knew I wanted to be a writer long before I knew what I should be writing. I remember bouncing back and forth from different projects in my twenties, unsure of whether I should be trying to emulate John Irving or drafting a horror novel or trying to get an article published in a magazine. (By the way, I wrote some spectacularly awful drafts while trying to emulate John Irving.)
I would tell myself to put aside the work of others and focus on my own voice. Be honest and be yourself. Readers want authenticity.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
I spent roughly two years going back and forth on a manuscript with an editor from Penguin, but it never resulted in a book deal. The moment I realized this relationship wasn’t going anywhere was devastating.
It felt like I’d been so close and then it all fell apart. At the time I considered that maybe this was a sign that I needed to pursue a different career. It took time to get over, but I eventually decided to move forward and self-publish the book.
Two years later it made the New York Times best-seller list. In retrospect, I can see that the editor helped me make the book a better book, even if it never yielded a book deal.
I learned that sometimes what feels like failure is actually a helpful step moving you in the direction you want to go. We just don’t always see it at the time.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
It is critical to have the right team in place and to remain open to their suggestions. Before a book is complete, I show it to a select group of editors and readers, and I take their feedback to heart.
There are many writers who struggle with hearing constructive criticism of their work, but it’s vital and will ultimately help you write a better book. You have to set your ego aside and truly listen to the advice and feedback offered by your editors and early readers.
What are the biggest wastes of time for the novice in your field?
Preparing to write. We do this in many ways: talking about writing, thinking about writing, buying books on writing, taking courses on writing. I’m not saying those things have no value, but we take it to the extreme.
Writers are excellent procrastinators and the internet has really helped us take that procrastination to a new level. You will never make progress until you sit down and start putting words on the page.
What is your morning routine?
I wish I could say that I have a morning routine of exercise and meditation. There are times when I’ve made that happen, but I have two children who are still in elementary school, so the notion of a morning routine isn’t yet possible. Unless me saying, “Put your shoes on and brush your teeth” one hundred times in a row counts.
What’s a personal habit you pursue that you would recommend?
Schedule everything. I live by my calendar. When you can schedule out your activities and progress for an entire month, you take an active role in deciding how much time you will spend on certain tasks.
And then follow that calendar as best you can and try to keep other things from getting in the way. It feels good to check off a task. Get addicted to that feeling and you can really start to make progress.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
Not a specific quote, but I do work with the knowledge that there is no such thing as having “made it”. There isn’t one goal that signifies success. No specific award or income level or body of work.
It’s a lifelong journey that has to be enjoyed along the way. I think if you put all of your energy into one goal and think that you’ll have happiness when you get there, you’ll be disappointed.
It’s far more important to make sure that you’re moving forward with goals in mind, but that you also enjoy the process and experience joy along the way.
What’s a book that you love or read over and over?
Honestly, I never read the same book twice. There’s something about knowing what’s coming, even if it’s been awhile and I’ve forgotten the details, that blocks me from making progress on a book I’ve already read. I think it’s the knowledge of how many fantastic books there are out there that I haven’t yet read.
That said, On Writing by Stephen King was incredibly impactful to me, both for his advice to writers as well as his candid telling of his own story. I have read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” multiple times. I don’t have the same block when it comes to short stories, and O’Connor’s work is phenomenal.
Where can we go to find out more?