How did you become a writer?
I’d like to trot out a glib response, like Hemingway’s line about how a character went bankrupt: “Slowly, and then quickly.” But in truth, my development was slow and slow. Like most arts, writing demands a disciplined focus on gradual improvement. Few scribblers ever crop up as instant geniuses; those who do often burn out. Perseverance furthers. Steady – in my view – is the right speed.
Why are you a writer?
Early on, I grew fascinated by storytelling’s power. A first instance was telling grade-school classmates the story of the sinking of the Andrea Doria (my father had read a newspaper account to me earlier). I also felt impressed by priests who told vivid and meaningful Bible stories from Sunday pulpits. My biggest inspiration came from librarians in the town where I grew up. Once they knew the kind of books I liked, they made sure my lil’ schoolboy satchel was stuffed full.
How many books have you written?
Written, or published? As of January, 2019, I’ve published six – three non-fiction books and three novels. But counting on my fingers, from memory, I’d say I’ve got easily another half-dozen full manuscripts in varying states of polish. I take heart from the story of Jack London’s trunk. After he hit it big with Call of the Wild, Jack found himself able to haul out many unpublished works and usher them into print.
What is your writing process?
I have no definitive process. I don’t start at a certain hour, don’t write toward a definite time or a word-count goal, and don’t require a “creative space.” I just scribble at each opportunity, for as long as I can. On the road, even if it’s a local trip, my laptop is with me. I’ll grab any free half-hour, whether it’s at a coffee shop table, or only the passenger seat of my car. Otherwise, I jot thoughts in a notebook when a good line occurs to me. Thank heaven for Moleskines!
You spent a long time writing nonfiction. Why did you start writing novels?
True. I spent decades in journalism. Many of my favorite pieces from that era are posted on my website. But I began as a poet and would-be novelist. Those were just hard fields in which to make a living, as a young man. Now I’m able to use everything I learned in journalism to write more realistic fiction. And the short answer is: I write novels now because it’s so much fun for me!
What kind of research do you do for your novels?
I do every kind of research I can imagine. I read histories and relevant fiction, I interview knowledgeable and experienced people, go to museums, examine photographs in detail, and roam sites on Google Earth. But for major scenes, I go to the places themselves, even if they’re in other countries. I call this practice, “ground-proofing.”
How does your writing process differ for nonfiction and fiction?
The process does not differ hugely. Even as a journalist, I over-researched all stories that I wrote. I have strong curiosity; I simply want to know things. I found this was a good way to assemble the best and most telling details. In reporting, I felt proud that I was never accused of making up a quote. But now, I’ve jumped over that fence! I can not only make up quotes, but the people who utter them. There’s the biggest difference.
Who/What are some of your favorite/most influential authors/books?
I loved the poets T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound for their erudition and depth, and Pound especially for his love of the vernacular and even the vulgar.
I loved Jack Kerouac for his eagerness to explore… his culture, the nation, and the possibilities of play with language.
I loved Shakespeare for his grasp of the vast span of human nature.
And now that I’m writing thrillers and mysteries, I love John Lescroart for the humaneness and dimensionality of his characters, and I love Michael Connelly for the precision of his procedurals.
Are you more inspired to write when you travel? Have you ever written about a place you haven’t visited?
Travel does inspire me, but I think I’d feel inspiration no matter what. I’ve got more ideas for stories than years in which to write them. Travel excites me because it makes it possible to get my details of landscape and culture more dialed in. I do try to visit all the physical sites of major scenes in my books – see what I said earlier about “ground-proofing.”
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I think the writing process really took hold of me at age 13-14, when I began to compose my first creative essays and poems. Shortly after, I considered writing letters to my friends and family my regular workshop for testing various ways of putting thoughts, feelings and impressions into words. I would recommend this latter procedure as an exercise for anyone who hopes to become a writer. A particular advantage is, as soon as a letter goes into the mail, it’s published! And you can commonly expect some feedback. And now, in the texting era, a real letter is an impressive phenomenon for anyone to receive.
Chocolate or vanilla?
I am an omnivore in diet, just as I am in life. This is a good trait for a writer, I think. As a line in the Old Testament goes, “It is important to take hold of this, and from that not withhold your hand.” Chocolate goes well with raspberries, vanilla with apples. Such things are useful to know, and not just when you have to order dessert.
Star Wars or Star Trek?
The only part of either canon that I ever obsessed over was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Never missed a show. Completely admired Avery Brooks work as Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko – especially, the huge contrast with his earlier rote as Hawk on Spenser for Hire.