Before “Islanders Write,” we like to ask the writers taking part a few random questions about writing and the writing life. We’re sharing some of their answers.
What book most inspired you as a writer?
Not a book, but the complete stories of Chekhov, a writer impossible to emulate but one of constant inspiration.
“The Persian Boy” by Mary Renault, because it showed me how to write about a past that is culturally strange and distant but emotionally familiar and resonant.
I can’t pick just one! I do love the memoirs of Maya Angelou, the novels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Tayari Jones, the essays of Ta-Nehisi Coates, opinion pieces of the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah, documentary film writer Geoffrey Ward.
Probably a tossup between Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” for its adroit satire about the horrors of war, and John Le Carre’s “The Honorable Schoolboy,” for its exquisite sense of time and place in a fast-moving thriller. They certainly inspired me as a reader.
“The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield — if you can get over the self-helpy quality, it’s a game-changer.
Every book inspires me if I make the choice to read closely, with pencil in hand to mark up what I love and captivates me for the beauty of language or the originality of thought, as well as what I think doesn’t work as well. The book about writing that I turn to most often is “The Situation and the Story” by Vivian Gornick. It’s a must-read for anyone writing personal essay and/or memoir.
“Old Glory,” by Jonathan Raban, about his journey down the Mississippi. It’s a mix of history, travel adventure, and antic humor. I read it in my 20s, while toiling at my first newspaper job, and thought, “I’d much rather be doing that.”
Richard North Patterson
“Advise and Consent,” the classic novel of American politics — and the favorite book of Boomer political junkies.
I’d say Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Fear of Falling” and George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier.” These are my two favorite books of social-class reportage that are richly detailed, analytic, amusing, and have serious bite.
Do you work on multiple projects at once, or keep focused on one?
Some of my favorite work was spawned procrastinating from more important projects.
Several. I also read several books at once. Some of that is due to necessity, as I have an on-air book club, so I’m always reading for that. But really, I am a book in the car, book in the kitchen, book in the study kind of person. And no, I don’t get confused.
Whenever possible, just one. It’s a huge relief to work on anything other than the book at hand, and I’ll never finish it if I go down other rabbit holes.
Usually, it’s one book and many essays and reviews. Lately, I’ve been working simultaneously on two books, one fiction and one non.
I do one big project, one medium-size project, [and a] number of smaller projects.
I focus on one at a time or go cross-eyed.
Who is your first reader, and at what point do you show that person what you’re working on?
Tony Horwitz, first and last. We scrutinize each other’s work from the initial vague notion idea to the very last semicolon.
First, I belong to a writers group that I love and feel incredibly grateful to belong to, and I know that I can reach out to them, collectively or individually, to read particular bits and pieces.
Second, I have three avid reader friends from back in my professional theater days, who are traditionally the first readers-of-a-complete-manuscript-I-think-might-not-suck. Theater is very collaborative, and I was comfortable getting critical feedback from all three of these people before I was out of the closet as a writer. Also I do think theater geeks share a common language, and it’s helpful for me to be critiqued in my native dialect.
My wife Geraldine. I try not to inflict chapters on her until they’re in halfway decent shape, but often break that rule, particularly when I’m struggling.
It varies by project. I’m reasonably self-reliant — part of the magic involves doing the whole on my own. But my wife, Rachel Schwartz, has been enormously helpful. Especially when I wonder whether I’m making a fool of myself, I’ll give her an early look. She can go either way.
Usually my editor is my first reader. I will, however, read sections of chapters out loud, usually to my husband, to hear how it sounds. My husband is not a writer, but he is a good listener, and I can feel how strongly the piece is holding him, where it lags. It’s editing out loud.
My wife Jaye. She tells me what I don’t want to hear.
I’m very private about my work while I’m in the process. It’s stupid of me, but I always feel like I’m painfully aware of all the flaws and can’t bear to have someone tell me what I already know! But when I have something I feel pretty good about, I give it to my husband.
If you were offered a contract to write a book about the Steamship Authority, give an elevator pitch of the book, play or movie you’d write.
I’d love to see a book written about the Steamship Authority that does what “Kitchen Confidential” did for restaurant kitchens: Celebrate some of the entertaining (if occasionally seamy and misbehaving) characters who have worked for that company over the decades.
Two ferries pass in the night. The Martha’s Vineyard arrives at the Woods Hole terminal on schedule. Family and friends awaiting the arrival of passengers on the Island Home wait anxiously as the minutes and then hours pass without any sight of the ferry or its passengers.
It’s a two-act tragicomedy like “Waiting for Godot.” Two men await a boat that never comes. A boy appears to tell them the boats aren’t running today, “but surely tomorrow.” When that doesn’t happen, the men debate whether to hang themselves.
Richard North Patterson
I can think of a dreadful one. Accompanied by her new husband, a woman with a problem pregnancy begins premature labor. The boat breaks down. Only the efforts of her heartbroken former boyfriend, a doctor and, by sheer coincidence, a fellow passenger, can save her twins. I’m wincing as I read this.
It would be a musical called “SSA Is Ass Backwards!”
That would be a straight-up superhero movie, starring Bridget Tobin. Watch her fly over Vineyard Sound, in her tennis sneakers and safety vest, plucking hapless day-trippers from disabled boats! See her resolve SSA dysfunction with a flick of her pen! Marvel as she loads a ferry in record time, through lashing rain. Backwards.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No. It’s Ferrywoman!
Islanders Write takes place on Sunday, August 5 at 7:30 pm and Monday, August 6, 8 am – 5pm. Free and open to the public. For a full listing of events: islanderswrite.com