To thine own self be true. The old adage “write for your audience” is a formula for becoming a hack rather than a writer. “Know thyself,” Socrates advised. Novelists — at least the ones who matter — are introspective, not in the sense of ego-driven self-involvement. They write from the deepest part of themselves. They discover things about themselves and the world they never knew before. They write what they care about. They do it with the conviction and confidence that if the characters come alive in their imaginations, they’ll find an audience to embrace them.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Quinn.
Peter Quinn was chief speechwriter for two New York governors. He served as corporate editorial director at Time Warner. He is the author of four novels and a book of essays.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I followed a long and winding road to my career as a writer. I studied for a Ph.D that I never finished. I worked as a teacher, archivist, court officer, and an assortment of other jobs. For more years than I like to recall the idea of becoming a writer was a dream. Partly, it was because I didn’t know where to start; partly, from a fear of falling on my face and embarrassing myself. I wrote a few nonfiction articles that were accepted for publication. One was brought to the attention of an executive who was looking for a speechwriter. I was offered the job. I hesitated. I’d never written a speech. The old fear of failure gripped me. The biggest failure in life, I decided, was letting fear hold you back from trying. I let go, and that made all the difference.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
For the historical novelist, research is a primary concern. In the course of researching my novel Banished Children of Eve, I discovered that Stephen Foster and Harriet Beecher Stowe were in Cincinnati at the same time. Foster’s minstrel tunes made him America’s first celebrity songwriter. With her antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe wrote the country’s first mega bestseller. Stowe and Foster were very different people, with different experiences and views. If I were an historian — at least an honest one — I’d left it at that. But because I’m a novelist, I could go where historians can’t. It occurred to me what would it have been like if the two met? I imagined a meeting between the two that revealed things about Stowe and Foster as well as a nation hurtling toward civil war.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
The first and greatest hurdle was believing in myself as a writer. Once I started writing, the challenge was to find the time. I had a full-time job and two children. I started getting up at 5:30. I read and wrote for two hours before turning to my day job. There were moments I almost gave up, but I imagined that when I was on my deathbed my last thought would be of the book I failed to finish. Unless you’re independently wealthy, nobody is going to give you the time to pursue your dream. You have to make it for yourself!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The biggest — if not funniest — mistake I made was to imagine I could write a novel in the space of a few months. Ten years later, I delivered to my editor the 600-page manuscript of my first novel, Banished Children of Eve, which went on to win an American Book Award. In the process, I learned patience, humility and persistence.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m writing my memoir about my years as chief speechwriter for New York Governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, and corporate editorial director at Time Warner. I recount in-depth the story behind Mario Cuomo’s iconic keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention and the catastrophic merger of Time Warner and AOL. These experiences were always challenging, sometimes daunting, but never boring.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
In researching Hour of the Cat, the first of my trilogy of historical detective novels, I came across the story of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. A conservative nationalist, who headed the office of German military intelligence, Canaris at first welcomed the rise of Hitler as a way to return his country to status as a great power. He quickly became disillusioned. By 1938, he was plotting to kill Hitler. He was eventually tortured and hanged. Canaris was a complex man of divided loyalties. In the end, he tried to do the right thing. He became a focus of my novel. After I finished writing, I traveled to Berlin and stayed with a friend. He pointed across the street. “That was the home of Admiral Canaris,” he said. I like to think the Admiral was sending me a sign that I got his story right.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Banished Children of Eve, my first and longest novel, is set in Civil War New York during the Draft Riots of 1863, the most violent and destructive urban disturbance in American history. It’s the story of mass immigration, racial and ethnic hatred, and economic inequality, forces not all that different from what we face today. The enduring lesson, I believe — from this novel as well as the others I’ve written — is that fear cripples and diminishes us. Love enlightens and empowers us. Our first responsibility is to recognize our common humanity, to struggle to overcome our fears, and to learn to love. They’re easy lessons to talk about and terribly difficult to live.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
— Aim to master the craft of writing. Whether you turn out to be great is for readers to decide, not you. Sometimes it takes time. Consider the career of Herman Melville who wasn’t recognized as a great American writer until he was dead.
— To thine own self be true. The old adage “write for your audience” is a formula for becoming a hack rather than a writer. “Know thyself,” Socrates advised. Novelists — at least the ones who matter — are introspective, not in the sense of ego-driven self-involvement. They write from the deepest part of themselves. They discover things about themselves and the world they never knew before. They write what they care about. They do it with the conviction and confidence that if the characters come alive in their imaginations, they’ll find an audience to embrace them.
— Make a schedule (and stick to it). Maybe Little Orphan Annie’s optimism was right: “The sun will come out tomorrow.” But there’s no use sitting around waiting for the sunrise. Things aren’t going to work by themselves. The romantic haze that hangs around writing is an illusion. Writing is work. You can’t wait for the muse to inspire you. You need to set a time when writing is your sole priority. It doesn’t matter if it’s early morning or late at night. Your job is to show up.
— See the world. You don’t have to travel far from home to see the world. You just have to keep your eyes open. “I have traveled a good deal in Concord,” wrote Henry David Thoreau of his hometown. I wrote three detective novels that were partly set in foreign cities. Most of what I wrote came from overheard conversations and observations of people in the streets and offices where I lived and worked. I filled notebooks with details of people in love, under the influence, on the subway, down and out, and over the top. I learned about the places by reading guidebooks and consulting maps. I only visited them when I finished writing. I learned about people by keeping my eyes open.
— Read, read, read. I can’t imagine a writer for whom reading hasn’t a major part of his or her life. Maybe such writers exist, but I’ve never met them. I never took writing courses or read how-to books. I learned to write by reading.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
Persistence is key to becoming a writer. The writer William Kennedy once told me that a writer is a person who doesn’t give up. They suffer the inevitable frustrations, disappointments and rejections that come along with the profession. But they “renew their vulnerabilities” and go on. Kennedy’s novel Ironweed was rejected by 13 publishers before it found a home. It won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer-Prize.
Which literature did you draw inspiration from? Why?
I love detective fiction, Raymond Chandler in particular. Chandler was more than a mystery writer. His use of narrative and dialogue puts him in the category of great American writers. Philip Marlowe, the hard-boiled detective who Chandler created, has inspired legions of imitations. But Marlowe wasn’t just investigating crimes. He was exploring the nuances of good and evil, delving deep into the recesses of human motivation. At one level, I think, all novelists are detectives. They seek to understand what drives some people to commit the worst kind of crimes and others to pay whatever price necessary to bring about some measure of justice. I’ve read and reread Chandler’s novels. Every time, I’ve learned something new about how to write and what it means to be a writer.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
There are already thousands of worthwhile organizations across the world working to relieve poverty, reduce disease and hunger, advance social justice and human rights, promote equality, save the environment, and bring hope and help to the despairing and deprived. The world doesn’t need more movements. It needs people like you and me to stop inventing excuses for staying on the sidelines and choose the best way to contribute to healing our broken world.
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