Why is writing important to you and why do you think it's an important medium for the world? There are many reasons why writers write, and (omitting the reasons of wealth, fame and power) the spectrum goes from reporting facts to stirring debate, proposing societal change, exciting our senses, kindling feelings of romance, intriguing readers with mystery, and reminding us of our humanity. Writing is a medium through which one can express and imbue passion, most importantly a passion to reveal the truths about injustices in the world. In this way, writing may aid in the correction of injustice and societal wrongs. This makes writing an important medium. Writing can also serve to inform and educate readers, allowing them to contemplate alternative points of view. For me, a desire to heal my generation’s rift over the Vietnam War, an issue which has broken my heart repeatedly over the last fifty years, has been a burning passion. With the publication of my novel, The Serpent Papers, I feel I have been able to supply an alternative point of view to the dissention which has plagued my generation for fifty years. The next book that I am now writing erupts from a passion to correct a centuries-old wrong. Other writers strive to startle, thrill or horrify their readers, others wish to tell happy or romantic stories. But all of these types of expression are enhanced when there is passion and when justice triumphs over societal injustice.
What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer's block? Writer’s block comes to us all. We all have our particular remedies. Mine is to force myself to imagine what I must have in an unwritten but necessary scene in my book. It does not have to be the next scene or in any chronological order, just a scene which must exist somewhere in the book. Next, I sit down and think about specific things that must be written to build that scene. I might think about it for a few hours or even days, lying on my deck or sitting on and off in my most comfortable chair, sipping coffee. I then outline some specifics (usually with a few scant notes—for example, Julie has to tell Derek about her dislike for Tom, or Alice must find out that her mother cheated at the card game). The outline has to be specific about what must happen in the scene to forward the plot and the aims of the book. Once I have an outline of what must be written, I think about how best to write it. I decide on what mixture of dialog, description, character thoughts, physical events must be used to create the scene. Then I write it. Then I rewrite it with nuances to develop the characters, embellish the scenery, etc. I usually rewrite a scene between five and fifteen times to make sure the flow is good and the words used are correct. It is a methodical but necessary process.
What is your favorite time to write? I enjoy writing the most on a sunny and warm afternoon, outside on my deck, under an umbrella for shade. It cannot always be like this however, so sometimes I like writing in a coffeehouse sipping java. Still, there are times when I awaken at 3AM in pitch darkness, and I have an idea that must be written down. At these times, I force myself to get up, turn on the light, and write for ten minutes—or sometimes up to an hour—to make sure that I capture my thoughts before they slip away. It must be done, otherwise I fall asleep, unable to recall whatever it was in the morning.
What's the best piece of writing advice you've ever received and would like to impart to other writers? Early on, I realized that I wouldn’t succeed if I didn’t address the flaws in my novel-writing. It’s hard to do this because to work so hard and then to discover that your book is not up to scratch is demoralizing. It proves one’s flaws; it shakes one’s confidence, and it’s painful. Without this triad of failure, a writer cannot grow. If one is insanely confident and does not pay attention to criticism as a result, one’s writing cannot improve—regardless of commercial success. There is a fine balance; a writer must get to the point at which he or she knows when the critic is right and when the critic is wrong. This takes experience and the strength to submit to the pain of criticism. Writers do need confidence to commit themselves to the heavy workload and to keep going despite the pain. Getting confidence, however, takes a global understanding of one’s abilities and weaknesses, and you can’t get this understanding overnight. It takes years to know oneself in writing and to lay the foundations of confidence. So what happens in the interim to prevent the writer from giving up? Love is probably the only thing that can conquer the deadly triad of flaws, lack of confidence and pain. A writer must love writing, even if success is elusive. This love is what sustains us in our blackest hours of doubt and pain. We must love what we do; we do it because we must and we love it.
What excites you most about being a writer in today's age? There is nothing particular about today’s age that is special when it comes to the activity of writing. One writes because one loves to write and because it is within one to do it, and this is the same for today as it was in antiquity and in between. However, I am excited by the richness of literature, written by authors before me, that is available to me to read and to learn from. Today we have the knowledge and documentation of the works of other writers who blazed the trail of writing prior to us, something there was less and less of for writers going back in time. That is to say, our access to books of the past is greater today than ever, and the body of literature and number of great books from our past is much greater than the number of great books from the past of writers of earlier generations. Jane Austen never got to read Rites of Passage by Arthur Golding—he did not exist in her time. Henry Fielding, in turn (according to what I surmise is his character by my reading of Tom Jones), would have loved to have read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, but he couldn’t—she was not yet born. I am excited that such great literature has been available for me to read and study in my lifetime!
Jeff Schnader's The Serpent Papers is out February 28 with Permanent Press.