"You Do It for the Sake of Doing It": Alan Heathcock and Ben Fountain in Conversation

Dear Reader,

I was lucky enough to be seated next to Ben Fountain at a dinner one night, and that’s when I learned that we’re both huge fans of Alan Heathcock’s story collection, Volt

Which got me thinking.

They’re both terrific stylists focused on dislocated protagonists: compassionate, yet wryly funny, their writing pops with unexpected images and phrases that resonate deeply. “Each of these stories is as rich as a novel,” said The New York Times in a review of Ben’s debut story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara — and the same could easily be said for the stories in Volt, despite the contrast between Fountain’s global settings and Heathcock’s Krafton, U.S.A.

Each of their debuts was shortlisted the Discover Award. Ben took first place, fiction in 2006 for Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, and Alan took third place, fiction last year for Volt.

I asked them if they were game to interview each other for the Discover blog, and here’s what ensued:

Alan Heathcock: Isolation and dislocation? My whole life I’ve felt the internal tension of wanting to be both an insider to a place, a school, a neighborhood, a ball team, a church, while simultaneously wanting freedom from these groups. When I was younger, I was a very angry person, and much of my anger stemmed from some notion that I wasn’t being fully accepted by groups. This wasn’t true, of course, but when I was first drawn to writing stories, the impulse, I think, came from that place of anger, and the investigation I sought through art was me trying to understand my own feelings of isolation and dislocation.  

It’s been many years since that first impulse to write, and I now know much of what I write comes from the desire to be morally provocative. I can tell a dozen stories to explain the origin of the desire to be morally provocative. To keep it simple, I’ve always found myself wondering why people take on certain behaviors, beliefs, and how those behaviors and beliefs become accepted by a group. From an early age, I’ve often been compelled to confront behaviors and beliefs I felt contradicted some greater truth to the human experience. I’ve also noticed that when I was forced (forced myself) to confront the behaviors and beliefs of a group I became isolated, dislocated. It’s in this isolation, this dislocation, that I discovered freedom to see deeper into how I wanted the world to operate. That’s why I write. Not to change others, but to force myself into a conversation about how I want the world to operate.  

That said, I do understand that when my stories force me into a conversation with myself, it will do the same for a reader. The stories I write aren’t my explanation of how I want the world to operate, but the provocation itself. Last week, a book club invited me to speak to their group. As is typical, they awkwardly talked around the edges of one of my stories, trying to be polite, to not disagree with anyone, until I finally confessed that I found my own story troubling, and the character’s actions repulsive, and that when I wrote my stories I was trying provoke in myself a conversation about how people grieve and forgive and hate and kill and act violently and sometimes act with hope. In my stories, I forced my characters to be isolated, dislocated, so that they can’t rely on the typical beliefs and behaviors of a group. They must act, think, reexamine their beliefs, alone. The readers, through empathetic connection with my characters, are also forced into this isolation, dislocation, and must confront if they agree or disagree with the decisions the characters have made. Once I explained to the book club that I was trying to provoke an internal dialog, forcing isolation and individual thought, and that I often disagreed with the behaviors and beliefs of my characters, most of them opened up. A few simply didn’t appreciate the provocation (ha), but we had an amazing conversation about (in this case) how violence affects a community. We didn’t come to consensus because there wasn’t one to be found. Not finding consensus is discomforting to most, and was, I believe, the root of my anger when I was younger. Now the moral complexities of the world, found through being isolated, dislocated, are what keep me fascinated in the human species and writing new stories.  

I’m very interested in how Ben will discuss isolation and dislocation. His stories have a different temperament than mine, yet they draw me into that same intense provocation I find very appealing, and needed, the best of what literature can accomplish.


Ben Fountain: One thing in Alan’s discussion that really struck home for me was his comment about placing his characters in situations where they’re isolated, dislocated, etc., and thus can’t rely on the beliefs and behaviors of what would normally be their community. They’re thrown back on themselves, and forced to look at the world and themselves with fresh eyes — I think that’s one of the most fertile situations for a writer to start with, and Alan executes it to wonderful effect throughout Volt. Over and over again, whether through natural or human disaster — sometimes one compounding the other — Alan’s characters are forced — truly forced, in that their survival may well depend on it — to throw out the prevailing assumptions and beliefs, and chart their own course.

Maybe what it comes down to is this: seeing the world for what it truly is. At some points, a group’s beliefs and assumptions will start to bleed over into its mythology about itself, and that mythology is constantly going to be tested by all the inevitable crises of existence. If it’s a useful, adaptable mythology informed by real insights into life and human nature, that mythology is probably going to remain current and vital. If not…well, it’s my feeling that reality is more powerful than any of us. We might be able to survive and even thrive for some period of time operating under a false mythology — that is, a mythology that doesn’t account for the world as it truly is — but sooner or later we’re going to smash head-on into that wall known as reality.

Starting about six or seven years ago the very fine writer Mark Danner had a superb run of articles in The New York Review of Books that explored this subject in depth, this notion of the individual trying to see the world for what it really is, and how in certain times and cultures, the mere attempt to see clearly is going to set the individual in opposition to mainstream society. The society — or country, if you will — may have a notion about itself as virtuous, just, wise, and all-powerful (should it choose to assert its will), but for an individual to attempt to see past the advertising and rhetoric is an isolating endeavor. Merely to probe, to question, to try to see the true state of things, becomes an act of defiance that sets one outside of the group.

In Volt, Alan has this dynamic play out in the context of a small town, though, to be sure, often it’s “macro” events — natural disaster, the Iraq war — that set the dynamic in motion. In my own work, the stories that tend to find me are ones where the macro event seems to seek out the individual. John Blair gets kidnapped by rebels while doing ornithological research in the jungles of Colombia. Sonny Grous takes a job as a golf pro at an exclusive club in Burma, and finds himself sucked into various international political and financial machinations. Or Billy Lynn, who becomes a soldier and gets shipped off to Iraq. All of these characters are dropped into situations where the prevailing assumptions and mythologies don’t jibe with the reality they find themselves in, so they have to adjust, question, improvise, for the sake of their sanity if not their actual life.

One of the great things about the writing life is that you can go wherever your interest leads you.  I discovered early on that these were the kinds of stories that interested me, though maybe “interest” is a tepid way to put it. These were the necessary stories, at least for me; I couldn’t not try to write them. Certainly other writers are going to be drawn to different stories, different material, and that’s absolutely as it should be — everybody’s gotta find their own turf, which is going to be wherever their heart and head lead them.

Alan Heathcock: When reading your stories and novel both, I’ve always intuited the presence of the thing beneath, which may be your personal preoccupations bubbling up through the characters. That said, it’s never ever felt like Ben Fountain was on the page. It’s always felt like Billy or Sonny or John Blair or….  I find this really impressive, masterful, in that the characters’ stories directly enable this other commentary to come to life in my intellect, my imagination, my emotions. It’s seamless, subtle, yet very powerful. This brings me to a question I’ve been wrestling with. A few weeks ago I was giving a talk to college students, and one student said that he found my work “political”. At first, I rebelled from the notion that I was a political writer because I consciously avoid overt statements of liberal/conservative politics in my work. But then the student explained that what they’d meant was that the stories always seemed to be trying to say something bigger than the literal, and wondered if I did that intentionally. I couldn’t deny that I wrote with intent, but I danced around the question. I left the event feeling I’d been disingenuous, that for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to admit I was being “political” in my writing.  

I’ve been dwelling on this ever since. So reading your first response spurred something in me. Specifically, when you said, “Merely to probe, to question, to try to see the true state of things, becomes an act of defiance that sets one outside the group,” I felt a deep note of recognition. I now realize that at the heart of my concern with that student calling me out as “political” was that he clearly saw my act of defiance.  Not that I worry about being seen as defiant, but I worry that if someone recognizes my intent that it’ll somehow make me less effective, in the same way that if someone on Facebook or Twitter bombards me with overt political messages, either conservative or liberal, I begin to not trust them. They become ineffective in any way except to declare their worldview. Their entire agenda becomes saying that everybody else should see the world as they see the world. If my worldview differs even slightly, then I understand I’ll be dismissed. In turn, I dismiss them.

How can I tell stories without being dismissed? How can I effectively deliver the truth? This keeps me up at night. One of the most amazing things that’s happened with my book is that I’ve had soldiers love my book though the stories show soldiers in a not-so-glamorous light. Religious people have championed the book despite the harshness and darkness in many of the stories. Fans of crime-noir like the book despite the notes of hope and mentions of religious grace. My original notion was that if I eliminated Alan Heathcock completely on the page, gave the story over to the character, became the character, created an empathetic experience that was true in every verb and image and bit of dialog, it would somehow transcend politics. That is to say that the story would just be about this one character in this one place in this one instance, and not about anything beyond that. But I’m starting to understand that it’s impossible to say I’m not being political, incorrect to profess that a character does not represent a viewpoint.

This has brought me to consider a writing exercise I did a couple of months ago. Back then, the story of Trayvon Martin had just broken all over the news, and before much information had been released folks were taking sides. As more information came out, these same folks cherry-picked facts to support their “side”. It seemed like a story impossible to separate from politics. So I decided to do as much research as possible, gather all the information available, and write an account of what happened first from Trayvon Martin’s point of view, and then from George Zimmerman. I just did it for myself, will never show it to anyone, had no agenda other than to better understand a complex situation for myself. I tried to eliminate Alan Heathcock and just to understand both points of view, hoping I’d see my way into to the truth. Who knows the full truth. I wasn’t there. But the great accomplishment is that I do feel the exercise transcended the deeply entrenched camps that said there was one villain and one hero. It took Trayvon and George from representing political stances, and made them human again. I feel this is what literature, at its best, should do, must do.

With that in mind, I must now openly admit that the political stance I take as author is choosing the characters through which I write.

I’m wondering about your thoughts on being “political”, and how you choose your point-of-view characters. Why Billy Lynn instead of all the other soldiers in the war? I mean he’s an amazing character, a perfect choice in my opinion, in that this one character clearly enabled commentary about war and soldiering, the perception of heroes, the absurd contradictions of how American’s display patriotism. “Seeing the world for what it truly is” through Billy has to be a statement of politics, right? Do you recoil from the notion of being “political” in your stories? Embrace it? How much do you think about that while writing?

Ben Fountain: Alan, I’m really glad you seized on that aspect of my answer, because I think it’s worth exploring, especially now, when hyper-partisan points of view are saturating so much of the culture and our consciousness. The exercise you did with the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case was a deft way to get into it. You tested yourself and your powers of perception, and I expect in the course of that found yourself banging up against the assumptions and reflexive reactions that you carry around inside yourself, as we all do.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The mark of a sophisticated mind is the ability to contain two contradictory thoughts at the same time.” I probably don’t have the wording exactly right, but hopefully I’ve got the gist of it.

I’m like you, I instinctively shy away from being called “political,” or having any of my work characterized as political, and, like you, I think I’m reluctant to own up to such a designation because being labeled “political” seems to imply a rigidity in perception and thought that’s ultimately reductive and limiting. God forbid; for fiction to be any good, it’s got to be open to complexity and ambivalence and discovery. The hyper-partisan response to the Martin-Zimmerman situation was, naturally, to plunge in on the basis of very scant factual information, and, as you note, even as the facts gradually came to light, to accentuate and cherry-pick the facts that would support one side or another. It’s a completely dishonest approach to the world, and dangerous — dangerous at the individual level, and dangerous for society as a whole. What’s involved is a refusal to engage or grapple with the reality of a situation. An individual, and a country, can get away with doing this for a time, maybe even for a long time. But reality is stronger than any one individual, certainly, and stronger even than any society or country. I know on a personal level that living one’s life based on delusion and wishful thinking sooner or later results in disaster, and I think the same thing is true on the larger level. I would argue that a society that’s lost its grip on reality is in a state of profound and very likely fatal decline. 

Maybe this is the “function” of poets and fiction writers in society: to see things for what they are, and convey that information in the most accurate language possible. In ABC of Reading Ezra Pound used the analogy of the scout, the person who’s sent ahead of the main group to reconnoiter a situation, then return to the group to report on what he’s found. If you look at it in the most basic terms — say, in the context of what our ancestors faced as hunter-gatherers, their need to know what lay beyond the river or over the next hill — then having capable scouts in your tribe was not just helpful, but essential — literally a matter of life or death. Contemporary society seems to have put lots of layers between ourselves and the immediate consequences of failing to see things as they are, but if you strip away all the layers, that dynamic still exists. The difference is that civilization with all its technology and support systems gives us — usually — rather more margin for error. We can bumble along for a while in blissful or even willful ignorance, but sooner or later the scat is going to hit the fan.

Lately I’ve started owning up to the label of “political.” People ask is Billy Lynn political. Well, yeah; even hell yeah. But I hope it’s “political” in the sense that I’ve discussed above, that it’s the result of a genuine effort to see things for what they truly are. “Fair and balanced” isn’t the goal; accuracy is the goal, with the understanding that no writer is ever going to succeed fully. Our powers of perception are too weak, for one thing, and there’s always going to be that veil of ego and self-interest gumming up our vision. But we can try. Have to try.

You asked, why present the novel through the eyes of Billy Lynn instead of this or that other soldier? In one sense, Billy is this or that soldier — he’s all the soldiers who’ve experienced combat and then come home to confront the U.S. with fresh eyes. Combat has stripped away the bullshit. Churchill said something to the effect that being shot at concentrates the mind wonderfully. I think he was talking about combat as it happens, one’s natural reaction to mortal threat, but two or three weeks after his big battle, Billy is still concentrating, so to speak. Soldiers are trained to see things for what they are, to analyze situations for the truth — physical, psychological, and otherwise. Billy’s trying to figure out what happened to him in Iraq and what’s happening to him at present in the U.S., and it’s about as far from an idle or gratuitous inquiry as you can get. His survival, or at the very least, his sanity, depends on it. 

Alan Heathcock: Accuracy is the goal. Indeed. I’ve long been obsessed with this idea of accuracy, not just in my work but in the way I view the world. It’s hard to say why I’m wired the way I am, but something’s set itself behind my eyes that needs to understand all viewpoints, and especially contradictory viewpoints. I remember being very young and trying to understand why a kid on the playground punched me in the face. What brought it on? Why did he do it? What was my role in its cause? What personal reward did he get from it? And then, of course, I thought about how to make sure it didn’t happen again. I’m pleased to say that it didn’t, because I figured him out. Even before I was a writer I was doing the job of a writer — every day I go to my desk and, metaphorically speaking, put myself in the place of the one who gets hit and the one who hits. Which leads me to a question I get asked as much as any, which is HOW, exactly, do we capture the “accuracy” of a life that is not ours. Just by reading your work I have a feeling you’ll have a similar answer to mine, but I’m wondering how you do it.

For me, I’ve had to come up with a way of discussing my process, and I’ve invented the term “empathetic writer”. I consider what I do as a writer to be much closer to acting than, say, journalism. The job is to create power on the page by connecting a reader with the empathetic truths of the character. It’s not about the facts. Like an actor, I must give myself over to the character. That’s not to say it’s always easy. Sometimes characters are elusive to me. Sometimes I know the character and I’m reluctant to engage because I’m afraid to take myself to a place of accuracy with that character’s empathetic truth. The truth is that once you’ve done enough work for the character to become human then you understand them, and once a character is understood they’re no longer heroic or repellent. Getting to that point is tricky. The very first story in my collection is about a man who kills his own son in a farming accident. The story is based on something that happened in my family. I have three kids of my own, and my greatest fear, by far, is that they’ll somehow be harmed. Steeping myself in the experiences and emotions of my character, Winslow Nettles, was devastating. I cried and cried writing that story. It was awful. But it was also beautiful.

I think the greatest purpose of art, of literature, is to allow us to see ourselves, though in a way that’s bearable. To live through the experiences of Winslow helped me confront things that have scared and confounded me for a long time. The reward? As I’ve traveled around the country talking with readers I’ve found the empathetic experiences I’ve enabled have been greatly cathartic for others, too. At the very first stop on my book tour, in Portland, Oregon, a woman came up to me and said she’d read “The Staying Freight” (Winslow’s story), and it helped her deal with the death of her own son. She said she’d driven an hour and a half to come meet me. It was a powerful and privileged moment, a meeting that justified all the pain I’d endured while writing the story.

The profound thing for me is that in the end I love all of my characters. All of them. I love them because I’ve lived their lives, felt their pain, understood their confusions, their motivations. Once you’ve passed into empathy, to truly understand someone who is not you, then there’s no room for judgment. This is straight from what my father told me as a boy, to not judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. That’s what a great story does — it allows a reader to walk a mile in a character’s shoes. So I sit at my desk, trying to get the shoes right. Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.

You’re an author I greatly admire, in large part because of the accuracy of the empathetic experiences you create. How do you do it? Why do you it? How/Why do you shrug off Ben Fountain enough to become Billy Lynn (or, at least, sustain the illusion of Billy Lynn existing separate from Ben Fountain)?

Ben Fountain: “The Staying Freight” was an excruciating story to read, because it deals with every parent’s absolute worst fear, the death of a child. Winslow’s reaction is, to me, not just plausible but in its own way entirely reasonable — he tries to lose himself, erase his personality, negate his existence. It’s Greek tragedy brought forward to the American Midwest, circa 2000. I read it once, loved it, and am not sure I could bring myself to read it again. You can take that as an indication of how powerful the story is.

I can see why that grieving woman would drive an hour and a half to meet the author of “The Staying Freight”. The story brought some measure of consolation to an all but inconsolable state of being. But in the end, her son is still dead, she’s still grieving, and she’ll be grieving till the day she dies. So what good did the story do her? How could it possibly make anything about her situation better?  

Death is the extreme example, but we’re faced with so many different kinds of tragedies, disappointments, frustrations and sufferings in the course of our lives, and I doubt that by reading good fiction and good poems you’d find a way to “solve” very many of those sorts of problems. The Great Gatsby probably won’t serve you as a manual on how to improve “relationships.” And you certainly can’t “solve” the death of a loved one by reading, say, “In Memoriam”, or “Frater ave atque ale”. Yet there IS comfort of a sort to be had, a kind of consolation, at least on some level, at least some of the time, and maybe it starts with tapping into the most articulate (articulate as in accurate, as opposed to fancy) sort of expression by a fellow human being who has experienced the same grief, the same loss or disappointment or suffering. There’s recognition. There’s acknowledgment and affirmation that what you’re experiencing is the same thing that Tennyson suffered with 160 years ago, or Catullus some 2000 years ago. Our humanity is what’s being acknowledged — the suffering and pain and unknowing that’s necessarily part of every human life, and the fact that our own little pile of suffering and experience isn’t trivial, isn’t meaningless. At their best, the good poems and stories and novels are works of empathy not just on the part of the writer, but by the reader as well.

Norman Mailer said that if he contained as little as 5% of a character’s essence, he could write that character. Mailer is a guy who wrote a novel about Jesus in the first person, and another novel from the point of view of the devil and how he “made” Hitler. Pretty good range there, and maybe something we can all aspire to, both in ambition and method. Alan, you talked about how writing for you is much closer to acting than journalism, and I’m with you on that. We all know about “method acting”; maybe what we’re doing is method writing, i.e., digging deep into our own personalities and experiences, and using those to imagine our way into the skins of our characters.  

How does one do it?  For most of us, it doesn’t happen in a day, or two days, or even weeks and months for some characters. Or years, God help us. It happens by degrees; you’re learning that person as you’re writing him or her, and even when you aren’t writing, you’re walking around with them in your head. Maybe it’s not so much that the writer is shrugging off himself or herself as it is tapping into the whole range of possibilities that comprise the self. Research is part of it, to the extent that the character’s circumstances lie outside your own. Sometimes research is a huge part of it, but it’s only the start. Once you get that base of factual knowledge, then it’s a question of imagining yourself into that character’s skin.

It takes time and patience and practice. It’s hard work, at least for me. The hardest work there is, but also the most satisfying.

Alan Heathcock: Yes, it’s hard work, which makes me wonder why do we do it. I know you and I are similar in that we worked and worked for years to get our first books out. We were both relatively older when our first books came out. We both left other careers, endured years of rejection, all to write stories. Why? Are we just nuts? I mean, I realize I’m a little nuts, and exceptionally stubborn (what a generous person might call tenacious), but beyond our character strengths and weaknesses, and beyond that maybe we’ve found something we’re good at doing and enjoy, why do we do it? Why do you do it?

I’ve been thinking a great deal about this lately (I’ve been asked about it a great deal lately), about why I have this compulsion to tell and write stories. I think there’s a couple of answers, which in a way are the same answer, that may come close to an explanation. First is that I write for myself, to help me make sense of the world that often feels scary and confusing and disappointing (and amazing and full of hope). My first deep brush with literature was when I was in high school. A friend of mine, a brilliant young man who was an exceptional scholar and had a bright future ahead of him, killed himself by jumping out of a tenth floor window. Outwardly, the event only grazed me. I went on with basketball practices and dances and going to parties, doing my best to be a regular teen. But something had broken loose inside of me, and I didn’t know what to do about it. Then an English teacher had us read some Ernest Hemingway. Specifically, I read the story “Indian Camp”. In that story, a young man goes with his father, a doctor, out to a camp where he’s to help a Native American woman give birth. The woman is in great distress, the delivery difficult, and once all is done we the readers find out the woman’s husband has killed himself (presumably because he couldn’t stand hearing his wife in such pain). At the end of the story the boy asks his father, “Do many men kill themselves, daddy?” and the father replies “Not very many, Nick.” They go on to have a very brief conversation about the nature of man’s fragility. Reading the story was a profound experience for me. It’s almost a cliché to say that I felt I was not alone in my fears and confusion, but that’s exactly what it was. I knew I was not alone. I knew someone else, Ernest Hemingway, had these same questions. Hemingway spoke to my secret self, the part of me no one saw, and, until then, nothing else could touch. Immediately, I knew I wanted to be a writer. It took me years to find my way onto the path to actually being a writer, but the desire was born.

Another reason I write can be exemplified by a recent trip I took to Brazil. I was traveling as an arts ambassador with the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, in a contingency of three American authors, and we were to travel around Brazil giving talks about why we write, reading our work, talking to folks about the artist’s life. Going in, my main thought was that there’d be a lot lost in translation, a rift caused by the difference in language and culture. What I found was that the communication enabled by story, the connection of story to reader, one human to another, was effortless and direct and powerful. It was deeply inspiring to find folks in Brazil asking the same deep question about the nature of humanity as I’d found back home. Of course, it’s obvious that we’re all human, and ride the same rock around the sun, but sometimes you need the obvious flashed in front of you to appreciate it. Stories, though some are idiosyncratic, are universal. Stories are timeless. Stories transcend boundaries of language and culture and politics.

It seems like a simple answer, but it doesn’t feel simple.  It may sound pretentious, but it feels like a salt-of-the-earth truth to me. I write to confront myself, to not feel alone, to connect with others so they don’t feel alone.

What about you? What brought on the impulse to write? What sustains you through the long and tedious process? Why do you keep at it?  

Ben Fountain: It’s funny you should mention Hemingway, because reading him in high school was a pivotal moment for me too. I remember reading “Big Two-Hearted River” when I was 15 or 16, and the impression it made on me was tremendous. Here was a story where not very much at all seems to happen, yet I was left with the feeling that in some sense everything had happened. I think I read it five or six times over the course of several days, trying to figure it out, and getting the most intense pleasure out of it each time I read it. At some point it must have dawned on me that if reading a story like this could produce such pleasure, then how much more powerful that pleasure would be if you yourself could write such a story. I’m pretty sure that’s when this intention to write first took hold of me, those several days when I was wrapped up in that Hemingway story.

Gore Vidal calls it “the curse,” this intention or vocation to write. Some of us seem not to have a choice, at least in the sense of, if we don’t write we’ll never have any peace in ourselves. We can attach all kinds of reasonable explanations to it — the desire to know, the desire to communicate, the desire to create something on the order of art — and probably a great deal of truth attaches to each one of those explanations. I expect there are lots of people who want to write for those reasons, but they somehow never get around to it, or make only sporadic attempts of one kind or another. For the people who go all in, who build their lives around being able to carve out two or three or four or however many hours of the day to write, I think there’s something much more powerful going on, an irrational compulsion that can’t really be explained in utilitarian or even aesthetic terms.

What kept me going all those years when not much seemed to be happening in the way of development or worldly success? Delusion and fantasy sufficed for a while, the fantasy that after several years of writing I’d get an agent, a book contract, get a book out, and be launched on that standard trajectory known as a “career.” Once that fantasy was blown — and it took years of rejections for the thing to get beaten out of me — I had to decide why I would continue doing this kind of work. On the one hand, I was terrified at the prospect of wasting my life, but on the other was this evidently fairly powerful sense that what I was doing might result in something worthwhile, someday. I was getting better, and learning to take satisfaction in seeing my ability develop. I’d started to enjoy it — the fact that the work sometimes rose to the level of half-decent had something to do with that — and I wasn’t dropping bombs on anyone or cheating them out of their hard-earned money. When I wasn’t writing, I was taking care of my kids and running the house. My wife continued to be tremendously patient and supportive. And so I thought, well, I’ll just keep writing, and if any kind of success comes my way, great. But if it doesn’t, I’ll still keep writing.

Recently a friend said to me, “You had to become a Buddhist,” which made me laugh, but I get his point. You do it for the sake of doing it, hopefully not out of a self-indulgent or escapist impulse, but in some fundamentally constructive way. What happens beyond that doesn’t really matter. If you have some success, great, wonderful, there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not so much the point anymore. The point is sitting down and applying yourself to the work.

Cheers, Miwa

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.