Meredith Maran is the author of 11 nonfiction books, including Class Dismissed (2000) which examined California’s ethnically diverse Berkeley High through the lives of three different students, and Dirty (2004), which looked at America’s teenage drug epidemic. She is also the author of a novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes (2012), which traces two decades in the relationship between a writer and an artist.
Her most recent book, Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, was published by Plume in February. Authors interviewed include Isabel Allende, David Baldacci, Jennifer Egan, James Frey, Sue Grafton, Sara Gruen, Kathryn Harrison, Gish Jen, Sebastian Junger, Mary Karr, Michael Lewis, Armistead Maupin, Terry McMillan, Rick Moody, Walter Mosley, Susan Orlean, Ann Patchett, Jodi Picoult, Jane Smiley and Meg Wolitzer.
Meredith Maran also writes features, essays and book reviews for People, Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Self, Real Simple, Ladies Home Journal, Mother Jones, Family Circle and More, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
She lives in Los Angeles.
How did you get the idea for Why We Write?
I had wanted to write another book, a biography of the French writer [and Bonjour Tristesse author] Françoise Sagan who inspired me when I was a teenager. But my agent said it wouldn’t sell and asked me think about why I so desperately wanted to write that book. I realized that Françoise Sagan had made me want to be a writer so I thought it would be interesting to ask well known writers what made them into writers.
Why do you write?
The reason I write is really the same as the reasons given by the authors in Why We Write. It’s about making sense out of things that don’t make sense. Mostly I’ve considered myself an activist who writes books to manifest my politics or my desire to change the world in certain ways.
It’s also the best release for me from anything else that’s wrong. When I’m writing, I don’t worry about anything else or think about anything else.
Does writing change anything?
I really believe it does. It’s changed me. I don’t know too many people who would say they’ve never been changed by a book. I think writing changes a lot of things; different kinds of writing, too. I’ve been as moved by fiction as I have by non-fiction to change something or do something about something.
Can you give an example of some change you’ve seen as a result of something you’ve written?
One specific example is a book I wrote in 2000 called Class Dismissed. It profiled the only high school in Berkeley, California, which happened to be the one my kids had gone to, and exposed a lot of things about the school. I’m not saying they changed those things just because of my book, there were a lot of other people looking at what was going on in that school, but I lived in that town for a number of years after I published the book and things changed in part as a result of the attention it got in the book.
What writing habits do you keep? Do you write every day?
My life has recently changed due to the changes in the publishing industry. I no longer write full-time which I did for most of my life. I’ve had a four-day a week job now for almost a year and I’m trying to create a writing life around that. I’m just learning how to do both, which is something most people have to do all the time. So I feel pretty lucky that I had all those years of waking up in the morning with nothing on my calendar except writing.
Why the change?
Money. The last advance I got was 0.5 percent of the first advance I got! The publishing world used to survive on the blockbuster books and take a flyer on midlist writers like myself. Now that the publishing industry is no longer a cultural entity, but now purely a financial entity, they don’t care about having John Grisham support an experimental novelist. It never was a sustainable model, but now is much more about profits. They publish fewer risky people and pay less to people who aren’t a sure thing.
Do you see things improving?
It’s kind of like a factory at risk of shutting down and the boss says to the workers, ‘Are you willing to work for a dollar an hour less?’ and everyone says yes and then the factory starts to do really well again. I’ve never heard of a situation where a boss says here’s your dollar back and here’s another dollar for doing well. Once a publisher of any kind has gotten away with paying nothing or close to nothing for writing it’s really hard to go back. People are dying to publish books these days and will do it for no money. I don’t think people will stop reading, but I think people will stop paying to read. To some extent they already have.
What advice would you give then to young authors?
With non-fiction I still think there’s a shot, but I think you need to be really special. I work with aspiring authors a lot and help them with proposals in order to sell their books. There’s definitely a chance if you have a unique story to tell. When I say ‘unique’ I don’t mean that your mother was worse than everybody else’s mother. If you were the only person to witness a crime or you have some platform to stand on to say, ‘I ran away from a Mormon encampment’ or whatever then I think if you have even a lick of talent you can probably sell a book to a publisher like that. But most of the people who want to write books are writing memoirs because they think their story is incredible and unfortunately it’s not incredible enough for publishers to think people will buy it.
Where physically do you write?
Well, I never write sitting up; I can’t do it. Sitting up is for revisions or a final copy edit. I have to write in a reclining position so I usually write on a couch or a chez outside. I’m living in LA now and it’s sunny all the time so I have a writing bed on my patio in my garden so I write there. Easy chairs, too.
Do you work to a word count or a certain number of hours?
In the old days before I had my four-day a week job, I would take off a month or more a year and go to an artists’ colony where I’d keep to a word count of about 1,500 words a day. But I’ve never earned a living just writing books. I’ve written a lot of magazine articles; I write a lot of book reviews now, too. In the course of a day in the past I might jump from one project to another so it was impossible to keep to a word count. But I’m very productive when I’m focused. It’s just a matter of getting into a situation where I can be that focused.
Do you write by laptop or by hand?
Always a laptop; never by hand. I can’t even read my own writing [laughs].
Do you plough through until the first draft is finished or do you make revisions to existing copy?
I wish I could say I go right along. Pretty much what happens is that I write throughout the day and when I close up shop I read over what I’ve written. The next morning I wish I could ignore all the mistakes and keep going from there, but usually the first hour of the writing day consists of revising what I wrote. It’s sort of a warm-up to get into the continuing on with the writing.
How long does it take to write 1,500 a day?
It’s usually a full day’s work; say six hours, especially if it’s the first draft.
You’d written several non-fiction writer before making the switch to fiction. How did you find the transition?
People often comment that my non-fiction books read like fiction, and then I published a novel and they said it reads like non-fiction [laughs]. My first novel spans 20 years from the early ’80s to the early 2000s so I had to continually stop to ask, ‘What did people say then?’ ‘What were they wearing?’ ‘What music was popular then?’ Things like that. Now I’ve learned my lesson. The novel I’m writing at the moment takes place in the present over three weeks, so I don’t have to do any of that [laughs].
Do you ever doubt your own writing ability?
I think I have a really realistic view of my own ability. I’m as good as I think I am. I’m not precious about it. When I’m writing fiction I would consider myself an ‘artist’, though that word is hard for me to say, but mostly I’ve considered myself an activist writer so I haven’t put as much attention to craft in the past as I do now. I’d say most novelists pay more attention to craft than I do.
I don’t have any formal writing qualifications. I took a two-day writing class at Stanford about 10 years ago, and I took a one-day writing class maybe six or seven years ago when I was working on my first novel. That’s the extent of my professional training as a novelist.
I think I write good dialogue, I’m pretty good as creating characters and making them speak in voices that are true to them. I’m still learning about plot; that’s very much a learning curve for me at this point. I think I can write a good sentence or two. I know I’m not as good as most of my writer friends in terms of creating characters or descriptive stuff. I’m very economical with language; I just try to get the point across or make the character worthy of the reader to care. I’d done more with that lately and I enjoy it. I used to write a book a year so it didn’t leave a lot of room for preening, but now that my writing and my money are completely detached from one another I do spend more time and get more pleasure out of paying attention to becoming a better writer rather than a more prolific writer.
What distracts you the most from writing? Is your laptop connected to the Internet?
It’s funny; at the moment the Wi-Fi in my brother’s office is broken, and I suggested to him that instead of getting it fixed why not rent the office out to writers who are paying for software that keeps them from being able to access the Internet?
I’m not one of those people. I love the Internet; I don’t waste time on it when I’m writing. I also need it for research as I go. I don’t like to just leave a hole to fix up later. Historical or contextual details that I research help the characters and plot develop so I can’t really leave holes. It’s happened to me a couple of times where I’ve been at artists’ colony where they had restricted Internet because most other writers don’t want it and it’s been very distracting for me to get up and go to parts of the colony where they have access to the Internet [laughs].
So you use it but in a focused way…
Right. Though I wasn’t on Facebook and Twitter the last time I wrote a novel so we’ll see how that goes [laughs]. I do turn off Twitter and I try not to check Facebook too much. I’m quite involved with both of those, though mainly Facebook. Though if there’s someone whose career I envy and they have a new book out I’ll check their Amazon ranking like every 30 seconds. It’s usually that or research.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my second novel now. There’s always a love story involved with my novels, but it’s not primarily a love story so when I’m writing a novel I’m researching as I go. It’s always about something topical.
Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2013