Writer’s Toolbox

Author Q&A

Here we present our exclusive collection of Q&As with a long list of illustrious authors.

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William Hjortsberg

William HjortsbergWilliam Hjortsberg is the author of novels such as Fallen Angel, Nevermore, and Jubilee Hitchhiker.

What is your method for overcoming writer’s block?

I don’t believe in writer’s block. Never suffered from it. Can’t imagine what it would be like not to want to write. I don’t understand those who complain about writing being such hard work. Laying brick and digging ditches, that’s hard work. Writing is fun. Why do they do it if it’s torture for them? Are they masochists? This is not to say that working out narrative and stylistic problems can’t be difficult at times. The difficulty only adds to the enjoyment. Solving the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle is also hard. It wouldn’t be as much fun if it was easy. My advice to those who complain of writing pain and blockage: get a real job and leave the writing to slackers like me who love the work and feel blessed to have been born with a gift to do it.

What are your favorite or most helpful writing prompts?

I’m not sure what is meant by the term “writing prompt.” I consider myself to be at heart a storyteller. Ideas for new stories bubble up from my unconscious without warning at unexpected moments. Sometimes they provide only a momentary daydream, a fantasy I’ll play with in my mind for a bit and let slip away. I’ve had countless moments like that. Other ideas are more durable and lodge in my imagination. These become fodder for future fiction.

Sometimes, as with my novel, Nevermore, years will go by as new elements are added to the original concept before I feel ready to start writing. With Nevermore the inspiration came in three stages.

1. Upon learning Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had been friends in real life, I thought they might make an interesting team for a “buddy” story. What I lacked was a caper.

2. One morning, years later, the notion of a series of murders in the manner of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories popped into my head. It still wasn’t enough. Something was missing.

3. Driving down the Boulder Road near my cabin in Montana at a later date, it occurred to me that since Conan Doyle was a confirmed Spiritualist and Houdini a debunker of same, the missing element was a ghost and the ghost should be Poe. I started writing the novel that same evening.

None of these conceptual ideas had anything to do with characterization or narrative plotting. I worked all that out on the page each day as the novel progressed. Leaving open the possibility of surprise is a useful tool for any writer. Ideas which survive the passage of time are my hidden treasure, my prompts.  I have dozens of them. Some are currently works in progress. The others remain locked away, a savings account for future work.  Many are decades old. Others have only recently occurred to me. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of ideas.

What is the most valuable advice you received as a young writer?

My mentor at Dartmouth College was the novelist/poet/essayist Alexander Laing (End of Roaming, The Sea Witch, The Cadaver of Gideon Wick). When I was nineteen, Alex told me that if I stuck with it, I could have a career as a writer. Heady stuff for a young boy with his head crammed full of dreams. As things turned out, he was right. But my “career” was only achieved by adhering to everything else I learned from Professor Laing. Along with how to decipher proofreader’s marks, he taught me that stories, poems and plays are not written, they’re rewritten. And to always believe you’ll finish every project you start, even if it gets set aside for years. And that if I wanted to succeed as a writer, it meant working every day and putting in at least as many hours as the guy toiling on the assembly line. Writing is art but it’s also a job.