1. What do you have to have by you to write?
Something that plays good music: a CD player, FM radio, an MP3 player. The music varies: blues, jazz, classical, classic rock, contemporary soft rock. The music helps me concentrate somehow. In some cases, it gets me in the right mood to write. When I’m just starting a project, I need the rough stuff—the notes, outlines, books, clippings—that I’m using to write the book. At a later point, I need a good thesaurus and dictionary, the real book kinds, not online versions. On the worst writing days, I need some sort of special treat, a gourmet snack of some sort that I use to reward myself for getting through another page.
2. Where do you write?
I wish I could write anywhere, but I can’t. I have two places where I write: my office at the university and a cubicle in the basement of the university library. Neither is perfect. My university office is filled with distractions: papers to grade, books to read, email and voice mail to answer, students and colleagues to talk to. I work best there early or late when the department traffic has quieted down. The library cubicle is the best place for me because it has the fewest distractions, and it has easy access to information on just about anything.
3. What time of day do you get your best ideas?
It seems at whatever time is most inconvenient. Early morning, when my life is less complicated. I used to get great ideas on my 5:00 a.m. jogs. Now that I’m too old to jog anymore, I get my best ideas in the first few hours of the day, especially when I’m reviewing the previous day’s writing. The best writing idea I ever had was a bolt out of the blue, a revelation, a gift from the Muse that was so startling I could hardly write it down. I had been stalled two-thirds of the way through Mississippi Trial, 1955 with no idea of how to end the novel. I decided to work on a narrative outline for the last five or six chapters, and while I was working on it, whammo! Not only did I know how to end the novel, but I also discovered something about the characters of R.C. and Grampa that I had never even imagined.
4. Describe your writing uniform.
Usually slacks, an oxford dress shirt, and a tie; that’s the uniform I wear to my university office. On weekends it’s a comfortable t-shirt, jeans, and shoes with no socks.
5. Who do you share your writing with first?
Once I think I’m done with a chapter, I share it with myself by reading it aloud. Hearing the words helps me find the many bad sentences and poorly chosen words that sneak into my writing. After that, though, when I’ve revised and revised and really think, “Yeah, this is good. This is it!” I bring that chapter home and have my wife, Elizabeth, read it. She always sees the flaws I’ve worked so hard to ignore, and she helps me discover ways to fix the dumb things I’ve let slip through earlier drafts. She’s not only my best friend in the whole world, she’s the best reader I’ve ever known.
6. Do you read reviews of your own work?
Yes, and usually with a sense of shame and regret that I didn’t write that book better before I let it go. I used to write a lot of book reviews myself, so I appreciate the work of book reviewers, and I admire the many good reviewers out there. It’s not always easy to see a book clearly, and it’s even more difficult to express that clear insight in a meaningful way to others who haven’t yet read the book.
7. What was your favorite book as a child?
The Cat in the Hat and almost anything else by Dr. Seuss.
8. What was the first book you remember reading or being read to you, as a child?
It was probably Green Eggs and Ham or The Cat in the Hat. I remember that my mother used to take my two older brothers and me to the public library in Bloomington, Illinois, and we would browse the shelves looking for books. Whatever got read to Mike and Bill got read to me too, and I know that all of us loved hearing the wild Seuss stories.
9. When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I have always loved reading and, therefore, admired writers. When I was a kid, books seemed magical; I can still remember setting a goal when I was in first or second grade to read the entire kids’ encyclopedia set, The Book of Knowledge. Stories and information, strange facts, places, and people, all of it interested me. When I was very young, I don’t think I knew how books came into being; as far as I knew at the time, books came from libraries. When I was in sixth and seventh grade, I started reading not by pure whim but by following a favorite author. I tracked down books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, especially his Tarzan series, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne, and that’s when I first became aware of authorship. These men wrote these books. Some people do this for a living. Maybe, someday, I could be one of those people! The summer after my sixth grade year, I sat down at my dad’s portable, manual Remington typewriter and started my first “book.” It was a pure rip-off of War of the Worlds, my naive attempt to imitate H.G. Wells. I never got more than four or five pages finished in any of my attempts, but that’s when I realized that I liked to write and that one day I would like to write books.
10. What were you doing when you found out your first book was accepted?
I was at work in my office, grading papers or preparing for class. The news came on the phone, and of course I was thrilled.
11. What did you treat yourself to when you received your first advance check?
I took my wife and two youngest daughters out to dinner at a new Mexican restaurant, but nearly all of the advance went toward remodeling our 52-year old house, a house that was pink and drafty when we first bought it, but is now classic off-white and relatively draftless.
13. What’s the best question a teen has ever asked you about your writing?
The best questions for a writer, I suppose, are ones that allow him to talk a lot about his book. The best question I’ve even been asked, then, is “How did you come to write about the Emmett Till murder?”
1. What do you have to have by you to write?