Interview on “My First Novel” for Christian Science Monitor

Alan Watt, editor of the anthology My First Novel, invited 25 writers to contribute recollections about how they got their start. Stephen Humphries interviewed Alan Watt on September 26, 2013, to get insight on his inspiration for putting together My First Novel, and what he’s learned from the experience.

Q: How did you first get the idea for “My First Novel: Tales of Woe and Glory”?

A: The idea came to me while I was teaching. It is one thing to teach craft, but it’s another for the writer to understand that when getting published becomes the goal, the process gets corrupted. Of course it seems like it should be the goal, but really our goal is to make the story live. Publication is a byproduct of having created something other people want to read.

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Q: When you began to compile the essay submissions, did you notice common themes about the authors’ experiences and some of the common personality traits of authors?

A: The common thread is that we all want to get published. We all want to be famous. We all want to be as widely read as Stephen King. I would say the single personality trait that stood out is obsession. We sit alone in a room imagining fictive worlds in microscopic detail. It’s a weird job, especially when no one is paying you, and when the likelihood of ever making more than minimum wage is a distant dream.

What compels us? Writing is a compulsion that I think will eventually be recognized as a disorder in the DSM. A woman once moved in with Charles Bukowski and asked him if her vacuuming would disrupt his writing. He said, “Nothing can disrupt it. For me, writing is a disease.”

The irony, at least for me, is that the disease saved my life.

Q: Which stories surprised you the most, and why?

A: Again, what surprised me was how hard every single one of them had to work in order to create that first book. I used to joke that I am the opposite of a prodigy, but one of the authors told me that other than Rimbaud and the Brontë sisters, the writing racket is filled with precious few prodigies. I wonder how many great writers out there quit three weeks before it all came together. The sentiment that writing is our salvation didn’t surprise me, but what did is that every writer expressed this in some way.

Q: The essays range from the recollections of Jerry Stahl, a homeless heroin addict-turned-author, to how Cynthia Bond spent 14 years writing her book amid a divorce, a miscarriage, a foreclosure, and years of working with at-risk youth. What can novice writers learn from “My First Novel” about the dedication and determination of writing a book?

A: The message I take away from it is that why we write is far more important than what we write. There are few experiences greater than the feeling of having expressed something in precisely the way you had imagined it, or the surprise that comes in saying something that you didn’t know you knew. Writing is magic. People are drawn to the act because it is a way of accessing the unconscious, of meeting God, of visiting the afterlife, of communing with the angels, and sometimes the devil.

It is thrilling and subversive. It is a drug. And once you take it, you are hooked for life, and if you ever quit, you never stop feeling guilty about it. The only cure is to write, and as hard as it is, it only feels worse when you don’t do it.

Read the full interview here at Christian Science Monitor: My First Novel Interview

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