“I am fascinated by two types of characters: those who are deeply flawed—the morally ambiguous character who is looking for redemption or spiraling into a deeper chaos, and those who are on the brink of a life-altering epiphany. When I first began writing, I only wrote short stories. As my collection grew and my stories were published, I began relying on the same characters to make cameo appearances or take center stage in a story.
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.
“I’m fortunate that I don’t often feel stuck, but I have plenty of days—most days—when I don’t feel like writing. Something always happens on the page if I can make myself sit in the chair and weather the ten minutes of terror as every excuse not to write darts through my head and I watch the cursor blink back at me. Two things that bookend my writing sessions help me stay in the chair, stay inspired, and stay motivated to do it all over again. The first, of course, is reading.
“First, I put down the pen and paper or step away from the computer screen and go for a walk. The dog helps. She gets me up and out and away from myself. Once moving, I focus on what it is that’s been spinning around in me. Generally, there is a phrase or an image that I keep returning to. Sometimes, it’s just a reoccurring image in a dream: a cat stuck in the middle of a raging creek, a whale knocking a boat over, and so on. Mostly it’s language, a phrase that keeps coming back: ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘Give me this,’ ‘Let me tell you something,’ ‘Listen,’ ‘Help’ to name a few.
“I take my cue from visual artists, who can spend an entire career consumed by a singular shape, or color, or a set of strokes, meticulously working through ‘the problem’ canvas by canvas with no or very little or only very subtle changes. Think of Rothko, as example. Think Glenn Ligon’s textual paintings. Think Jay DeFeo’s ‘The Rose.’ This is a way of saying that visual art taught me to trust my obsessions. First, that it was fine to have them, to be preoccupied or even haunted by them.
“A mess. I need an absolute, total, tsunami-like mess on my desk to be productive. I cannot be creative when things are neat and tidy. Oddly enough, my work does not fit any sort of neat and tidy structure. I avoid pre-planning by figuring a book out as I go along and groom all the wreckage into shape later.
“I have an insatiable appetite for movies—they were my gateway to the creative world when I was a kid, long before books were. Books, I can’t live without books, but movies help my brain wrap around an idea, help me put it all into pictures that I can translate into words. When I’m starting a new manuscript I find a movie, something that speaks to the general feeling or atmosphere of what I’m going to be exploring (for Mesilla I was inspired by All Is Lost and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).
“When I’m feeling stuck, on a chapter, on a character’s next move, I’ll have a destination in mind to clear my head. It’s usually the waterfront around sunset. But I always take a roundabout way, on some sort of open-ended scavenger hunt. Sometimes I’ll take photos on my phone, or collect found objects for my desk. It depends on whether I’m feeling visual or more tactile. I’ll bring a journal to record interesting details: a biker’s shadow on the side of a bridge, milkweed bursting out of an abandoned lot, spray painted rocks, the different languages I’m hearing.
“I haven’t found any particular thing to be a consistently reliable source of inspiration. If there’s any consistency, it’s that it’s always something different. With Gainesville (Atticus Books, 2013), I listened to “Honey Hi” by Fleetwood Mac on repeat. I wrote every word of that story to that song. With Haints Stay, it was the band Earth and the soundtrack to There Will Be Blood.
“I went to see the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) in 2002. Sitting alone in the dark, I heard the opening notes of Philip Glass while I followed Virginia Woolf to the river, and I wept, not at Woolf’s urgency, but at the score.
“While finishing Summerlong, I found myself in perhaps the bleakest emotional landscape of my life, negotiating a blindsiding divorce with my wife of seventeen years. While my therapist and well-intentioned friends suggested I do happy things, I knew my work-in-progress required me to go into the darkness that self-help wisdom told me to avoid.