Report from the Trenches: Writers on Writing

The Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) this past Wednesday put together a wonderful panel of authors for National Reading Group Month, and held an intimate gathering at The Strand Bookstore in Union Square. As a non-member it was great to see so many accomplished authors in one place. The panelists talked about their latest books. Each author gave humorous and personal testimony, without having to specifically say it, why their books should be chosen for group reads.

  • Ben Ryder Howe—My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store, Picador
  • David Maine—Great Group Reads 2012 Recipient—An Age of Madness, Red Hen Press, Great Group Reads 2012 Recipient
  • Marisa de los Santos—Falling Together, William Morrow Paperbacks
  • Alix Kates Shulman—Ménage, Other Press
  • Elizabeth Nunez—Boundaries, Akashic Books
Heather Allen

Rosalind Riesner, a chair woman at WNBA, moderated the event by having the authors first begin with a brief introduction of themselves and their novel. I was impressed with each of their backgrounds. Hearing about them for the first time, even with all of their success, made me more respectful and honored to be able to hear how they reached this moment.

Soon after the biographies, which I will spare the details (to Google!), Ms. Reisner steered the conversation to writing, which for anyone who enjoys writing and thinks of writing a novel, this was very enlightening. Each author had their own ideas of what the perfect first page should be. For instance, Alix Kates Shulman said the first page set the tone, gave a snapshot of a character. She chose the most colorful for her introduction to Ménage. Similarly, Marisa de los Santos also has a character based approach—her characters live within her, give her a sense of the person so that she begins to know them on a personal level.

For others, the first page needs a little magic. Elizabeth Nunez said that since she teaches creative writing, she knows theoretically what should be on the first page, but in practice it’s much more difficult “waiting for the first line.” Ben Ryder Howe wrote a memoir and his difficulty was creating his own voice out of all the others that were floating around in his mind. Once that happened he was able to focus and let the story spill out. As for David Maine, he wrote what he was feeling and he knew he was right.

The topic spilled briefly into writing for opposite gender roles, but it was quickly determined by Maine that it wasn’t so different. “[I] approach characters as individuals…don’t write about a group, but a person.” Additionally, Shulman offered, “characters should be based on people you know, rather than types. I enjoy writing men, always a satirical edge.”

Sometimes Nunez encountered people who would be opposed to reading her book because they would not be able to relate and she had a message for them, “It’s not about me [you say] –then [I say] you will find out more about you.”

The conversation was again moved toward writing and its meaning to each individual. In summary, it seems that these authors couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It’s obvious from watching them and learning about them that they care deeply about the characters and every single detail that goes into their novels. Nunez said she felt safest writing, de los Santos writes because she’s not good at anything else, but Maine summed it up nicely, “Some people believe in God because they are afraid of being an atheist, that’s how I feel about writing – what would I do not as a writer.”

When the topic turned to revision, each author has their own style. To the most extreme: de los Santos painstakingly reviews each sentence as she moves along, “one sentence begets another sentence and then polish and revise as you go…I feel I can’t move on.” Shulman has been writing a long time and remembered when she was working on her first novel, hand writing drafts and drafts and then typing them up on a typewriter. Since then, the computer has changed how she writes.

Maine writes long hand “poorly but very fast…first draft vomit it all out, second draft, ruthlessness-if it doesn’t move the story then it’s gone.” Howe spoke of using his wife for help and writing a lot of drafts, otherwise (jokingly) he might have been disowned by his family.

And with that there were a few questions from the audience, like revision on a computer, more revision, all leading up to the author signings. This panel was absolutely the right panel for National Reading Group Month: there was diversity in topics, genres and authors. It was wonderful to see how each used their skills to find their voice and ultimately their audience. I look forward to the next panel discussion in November – “The Making of a Young Adult Bestseller.”


To view the panel, visit the WNBA Youtube account.

By: Heather Allen