How do you discipline yourself to write?

It’s tough.  There are many days when I am very good at doing the laundry, emptying the dishwasher, exercising, feeding the cat, weeding the garden, picking up clutter… anything to avoid writing.  I have to steel myself to walk by the dirty coffee mug on the counter, the cereal bowl left on the table, and promise myself I will go up to my office in the attic and not come down for 3 hours.  I also have to promise myself that I will not flit back and forth between facebook or webpages or email and what I am writing.  I reward myself: if I write for 2 hours with no break, then I can check emails for 15 minutes…

Do you need an agent to get published?

No.  I happen to have an agent now, but I didn’t for years.  It’s just as much work pitching yourself to an agent as it is to an editor.  If you have a great idea, and a clear voice, and can write, and have done the research and know that no other book that’s similar exists on the market, I truly believe you can get published.  You just need to find the right editor.  For my first book, I went to a large bookstore, looked at the kinds of books that were similar to mine (i.e., you wouldn’t approach a regional food publisher for a book on Serbian politics), noted the publishers, and called up the editor in chief’s secretaries (who know everything) and asked: who at your publishing house acquires books that are about (fill in your topic).  Then I sent my proposal to that person.  Three New York publishing houses were interested and I went with W.W. Norton.  I was 23 years old.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I find writing one of the hardest things I do, so when I do it well (and that isn’t nearly as often as I’d like) it gives me unbelievable satisfaction.  I bounce in my swivel chair.  (And when it is bad, it is horrid.)  But I also love to sing and act.  In high school I formed a musical trio that performed regionally, and had the lead in my senior play (about a girl from a small town who made it big in New York).  In college I majored in English literature, studying with Denise Levertov and XJ Kennedy, but I also sang in a black gospel choir and performed weekends in a dinner theater in Boston called Feasty Knights (I was a wench who sang songs like “My Lord has a noble cock” – you can see the interest in chickens at an early age).  After college I moved to New York, and decided I had to choose.  I figured acting/singing would work well only until my looks went, so I opted for writing, which I could do forever.

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