“Nothing helps my writing, or makes me want to write, more than driving alone on lonely roads. That’s when I turn up the music—radio, scanning the stations for the surprise of what might get played. Something about this combination, the driving, the music, the landscape, feels generative. I’m currently working on my second nonfiction book and I’m pretty sure it started in the car, Howard Jones singing ‘No One Is to Blame,’ bringing me back, like it or not, to the sorrows of seventh grade.
In this online exclusive we ask authors to share books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired them in their writing. We see this as a place for writers to turn to for ideas that will help feed their creative process.
“When I need to reach that pool of possibility within, I get something cold to drink and sit next to an open window—no matter the season. Listening to instrumental acid jazz from the late 60s and 70s gets me in a good zone—Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay Suite, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Pharaoh Sanders, and many others (I can’t listen to singers or vocalists because I surrender to their soaring).
“‘If you don’t stir your soul with a stick every day, you’ll freeze solid.’ Rutger Kopland, the Dutch poet, uses this sentence from Gerrit Krol as an epigraph to one of his books. I often read poems as my chosen stick in preparing to write: usually poems from earlier generations, or poems in translation or from other languages and historical periods. I want quiet voices and the perspective of distance, avoiding the flash-bang of current poetics and contending fashions.
“Years ago when I was traveling in India, I found a junk shop in Cochin that was filled with random things. In one corner were stacks and stacks of old photographs from a photography studio that had long since closed. There were photos of families posed stiffly in their best clothes, brides and grooms with grim expressions, and photos of children—so many children. Many of them were posing in the odd sets of the photography studio—an oversized paper moon, a large cut-out boat. I bought several photographs and keep them near me when I write.
“I had an unfettered year to work on my memoir. No excuses. Terrifying. So I watched bad TV and learned six new ways to cook chicken. My house was spotless; my chapters unwritten. Classical music saved me—Erik Satie by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach cello suites, and the Schubert Ensemble of London’s beautiful piano quintets by Ernő Dohnányi. Each became an hourglass, pacing drafting sessions. I listened over and over. Months later, behind on major edits, I realized I’d forgotten the music.
“I spend ten minutes reading poetry before trying to write fiction. Poetry drags my lazy brain toward focus: on language, precision, rhythm. It’s like pushing in the clutch before I can start the engine. I also use an idea box. I scribble notes on scraps and throw them into a Payless shoebox and forget them. Most contain just a few words. If I’m stuck I pull out a few scraps and force them into a story. ‘Ms. Yamada’s Toaster,’ the first story in Hana Sasaki, came from: ‘appliance with a superpower,’ ‘Jehova’s Witnesses’ and ‘so much beer.’”
“Read the news. There are some strange things happening in the world. The New York Times is a huge part of my writing process. I rip out articles; I circle phrases from the science section, the business section, and sometimes (dare I say) the book review. I recently wrote a poem that came from an article Teddy Wayne wrote about Justin Bieber.
“I have a little metal pebble with the word 'success' on it that I slip into my bra (left side) when I go to a literary event, embark on a new novel, or start a new chapter. I always forget about it and at the end of the day it clunks onto the floor as I change into my pajamas, like a bullet that didn’t kill me. I write for teenagers and what that means is I write for the teenager in all of us. On the surface I am an adult. I am married. I have two kids.
“Sometimes even returning to the favorite books doesn’t work. There’s no inspiration to be found in the pages of Hopscotch, Pale Fire, or My Loose Thread. Words just seem stifling. Reminders of what I can’t seem to do. That’s when I turn to my photography books, cracking open their oversized spines and staring at images that stare blankly back at me.
“I write fiction but I find inspiration in stray facts, mostly when I’m not looking for it. I wander in books, in magazines; I go to odd exhibits and miscellaneous lectures; I try to stay open and curious. I learned about Isaac the Jew from a book that caught my eye in some library stacks: in 801 C.E. he transported an elephant from Baghdad to the emperor Charlemagne, passing a winter in Vercelli because snow kept him from crossing the Alps. How absurd! How interesting! How lonely. He became a character in one of my favorite stories.