Q&A: WDB Author Bill Roorbach

Bill Roorbach, author of Writing Life Stories, writes fiction and nonfiction, and is the author of numerous books, including a novel, The Smallest Color, and a book of stories, Big Bend, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. The title story, “Big Bend,” won an O. Henry Prize as well. Temple Stream: a Rural Odyssey, his most recent book, won the 2006 Maine Book Award in nonfiction and received a Furthermore Grant from the Kaplan Foundation. Bill is also the editor of the Oxford anthology Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth. His short work has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, New York, The New York Times Magazine, and many others. He currently holds the William H.P. Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. And yes, he writes every day.

What originally inspired you to write Writing Life Stories?

I had taught creative nonfiction and other creative writing classes for many years, and thought it would be fun and possibly valuable to package all that teaching into a tidy book.

What does the 10th Anniversary Edition include that the first edition didn’t?

It’s a thorough updating. My gosh, in ten years, so much has changed, from cell phones to the Internet to tastes in music to the arguments around memoir. Also, things in my own life: my mother died, both my dogs, my daughter was born, I changed jobs. I brought Kristen Keckler on board to help bring things up to date, especially in the area of research, but in the end we’ve added dozens of new ideas and exercises, updated pretty well every paragraph of the later part of the book, expanded the famous reading list, brought the publishing advice into the digital age, and engaged some of the latest battles in our field.

What’s your favorite part of the new book?

Kristen Keckler’s essay, “The Olive Jar,” which we added as an appendix to match my essay “Into Woods” in its appendix. Her essay gives new writers and teachers more to use as example, and we get to hear about her process of putting it together. Plus, I just like having a woman’s voice in the book.

If you could encapsulate what you hope writers will take away from the book in a sentence or two, what would it be?

Well, I wish they would just leave everything where they found it! Oh. You mean. Um. I hope writers get the sense that their stories are valuable and necessary, and that taking the time to tell them well will pay its own rewards. Writing is hard, but not writing is harder, if you’re a storyteller like me.

What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?

Write every day.

What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?

Write every day.

What’s the worst kind of mistake that new writers can make?

They don’t write every day!

What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?


What does a typical day look like for you?

Writing days, I get up, noodle around with my daughter, eat breakfast, take a long walk or cross-country ski, work in the garden, stuff like that, all of which I count as writing, because I’m getting myself into a place of quiet concentration. Around ten or eleven I go into my studio, and just start writing, even if it’s hard. Because once I get going, it goes. One-thirty, I break for lunch and a nap. Three o’clock, I’m back at my desk. Quit at six, make dinner, noodle around with my daughter. After her bedtime I generally read, or write reviews, or do e-mail, all the stuff I don’t allow myself during writing hours. And I read and write and noodle around till midnight, then to bed, where I count on my subconscious to come up with the ideas I’ll use next day.

Teaching days, I fit in the writing and reading where I can, with the rule same as always: write every day, even if only a little.

Weekends, I give it all over to family, unless there’s a deadline of some kind. But always, even on vacation, I find a quiet half-hour or hour or two and get some writing done.

If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?

Many, many, many fewer books published.

In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?

I guess digital, mostly. I have a blog on DownEast.com, for example. And I’ve developed more and more of an interest in movies.

Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?

Let a friend, another new writer, be your first editor, and work closely on each other’s work for years. Then, when you get an actual commercial editor, you’ll have some experience of the relationship. Don’t believe everything the editor says, but believe the correct stuff. Don’t be squirelly. Don’t send weird e-mails. Don’t act out your childhood narcissistic injuries. An editor is just a person, and is not your mother. Remember, this is a business relationship.

What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?

Learning not to value publishing above making good work.

What are you working on now?

A novel called My Dancer for now, very close to finished.

Any final thoughts?

Write every day.

Read an excerpt from Writing Life Stories, "Challenging the Limits of Memory."

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