What’s the best advice your mentors gave you in Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons from My Favorite Literary Gurus?
Write about your obsessions. And “Plumber’s don’t get plumber’s block. A page a day is a book a year.”
What wisdom do you pass on to all of your students at the New School, NYU and private workshops where you teach the “instant gratification takes too long” school of journalism?
The first piece you write that your family hates means that you’ve found your voice.
What helped you make it as a writer?
Finding another way to pay the bills (teaching).
What are the best things about being a writer?
There are no limits, each genre takes you into a different world and you get better as you get older, wiser and have more experiences.
How do you ensure you keep getting better?
I keep asking for writing criticism from the best critics I can find and ask for emotional criticism from the best shrinks I can find. As I say in Only as Good as Your Word, hanging out with sycophants will turn you into Michael Jackson. That line is even sadder and more prophetic now. Hanging out with sycophants can kill you.
What’s the biggest misconception about writing you’ve had to overcome?
I did my masters degree at NYU with such luminaries as Joseph Brodsky, E.L. Doctorow, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds and then I spent four years working at the New Yorker. So I had to get out of the habit of categorizing work as “literary,” “highbrow,” “chicklit” or “lowbrow” before I even finished, and stop making judgments about entire genres.
What’s the biggest misconception ambitious writers make?
They think writing commercially, with a big specific audience in mind, will ruin your work. Some of the poets I admire most told me my best work was my memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart, which was the most commercial. (It was published by Random House, optioned for a film and we sold six foreign rights.)
As a former book critic, what’s the deal with ornery book critics?
The best critics are authors themselves, like John Updike. The worst would all rather be writing books than reviewing books but they’re blocked.
Why did you stop reviewing books?
At a certain point, there seemed to be little point in criticizing books after they were published. Instead I started teaching writing, where I could put my critical sensibility to good use helping people improve their work, which lead to good karma.
What’s the biggest business mistake writers make?
They hoard their contacts with editors and agents, as if helping a colleague or student means your own career has to suffer when it’s really the opposite. The biggest thrill in my life has been watching 36 students publish books over the last three years.
What’s your secret for selling 7 books in the last 7 years?
I’m not afraid to suck—for my first drafts. Then I do writing groups and sometimes pay ghost editors. The secret to writing well is rewriting.
After five nonfiction books you just sold your first novel, Speed Shrinking. What’s next?
Along with writing the screenplay to Speed Shrinking, my new novel, Overexposed, comes out in August 2010. I started it in 1996 so instead of getting a book launch it gets a bar mitzvah. My husband is calling it a book mitzvah.
You quit a bunch of your addictions in your memoir “Lighting Up.” What are you addicted to now?
Email. Aspiring writers can find me at susanshapiro.net but make sure to start your letter “I loved your last book…”