Rumaan Alam: “Writer’s Block is a Fiction”
The Author of That Kind of Mother on His Writing Practice
Rumaan Alam’s latest book, That Kind of Mother, is available now from Ecco.
Which non-literary piece of culture—film, tv show, painting, song—could you not imagine your life without?
I need to see films and look at paintings in order to do my work and in order to feel human. It’s less one particular piece or artist; it can be something I’ve never seen before or an old favorite. But I’ve ended up needing music to write.
My first book, I listened to John Adams’s Harmonielehre and The Dharma at Big Sur, also the Spanish language recordings of Eydie Gorme and Linda Ronstadt, all endlessly on repeat. I think listening to someone sing in a language I don’t understand was helpful; all that human emotion, without the complication of language interfering in what I was trying to write. I ended up making a character in the book a singer known for her Spanish language recordings.
This book, I listened to completely different things endlessly on repeat: Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and the first piano concerto (that, too, made it into what I was writing), Dvorak’s “From the New World,” lots of Bach, and Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me and Divers, which is sort of like listening to music in another language because Newsom’s delivery is so idiosyncratic. I also listened to a lot of the music I mention in the book: Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, the Jackson Five.
Name a classic you feel guilty about never having read.
I reject the notion that one should feel guilty about what you don’t know. Who alive has read everything? Who is determining what makes a classic? And what is the value in feeling guilt about what you don’t know, as opposed to simply trying to learn more? I read all the time, novels and literary periodicals mostly, but the list of what I don’t read (poetry, thrillers, literature in translation, books about science or whatever) will always be considerably longer. If I felt guilty over all this I’d spend all time feeling guilty and read even less.
What time of day do you write?
I don’t have Vera Nabokov over here, making sure the coffee has been made and the children’s lunches packed. I work when I work, and that is often dictated by the things I cannot control. I prefer quiet, and I’ll take it when I find it, even if it’s in the middle of the night. Sometimes I write after everyone is in bed, and stay up late into the night, then get up and live my life as though I’m not operating on only a few hours’ sleep. Sometimes I write when the kids are at school and my husband is away, ignoring whatever else I’m supposed to be doing. There are times I enjoy these afternoons at work, there are times I’d prefer the still of night, there are times I want to hop out of bed in the morning and sit at the desk. But my preferences have little to do with it, really. I think it’s important to treat the work as work, and not get too hung up on what I imagine might be the ideal. Nothing is ever ideal. You have to work all the same.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
People love to give advice. Most of it is preposterous. I don’t like vague platitudes like “write what you know,” but I do like specific instructions, though many of those (“don’t use adverbs”) are also preposterous. The only real advice I’ve ever followed is, I think, the advice to read aloud as I’m revising. I have internalized that bit of canned wisdom and I read aloud to myself all the time. My family must think I am insane.
How do you tackle writer’s block?
Writer’s block is a fiction. That’s not to say I always feel like writing, or that I have some big idea percolating. I don’t know if you can force out good sentences or great ideas, but that doesn’t mean you cannot write. You can always write garbage; goodness knows, I write plenty of that. Sure, there are days I don’t feel like looking at my computer or picking up a pencil. Such days, I read; reading is inextricably linked with writing, so you can grade yourself on a curve and say that counts. And there are days I can’t even read—I have a day job, I have a family, I have a life, like anyone. But you never stop thinking, and thinking is a part of writing too. I’ll probably develop a case now that I’m saying this on the record but writer’s block is a delicious myth and nothing more.