As a novelist, the three main questions I get asked are:

  1. What’s your writing process? 
  2. Where do you get your ideas for your books?
  3. When was the last time you showered?  

Let’s tackle these one at a time.

What’s your writing process?  

When I first start a novel, I spend a few weeks picking my nose and staring at the blinking cursor on my laptop screen.  Meanwhile, I drink a few gallons of tea, stare at the wall, worry about how I’m going to pay my mortgage, speak French to my cat (she’s the only one who understands me), and think about what wine would go well with dinner. 

And that’s just my warmup.

After those first weeks have passed, I nap a lot while pretending to write, wake up and drink more tea, daydream about the beautiful man I spoke to at the grocery store last November, and obsess about the little red bump in my hairline that’s probably just a pimple but could be TERMINAL CANCER or a BROWN RECLUSE SPIDER BITE or even a freaking MICROCHIP IMPLANTED BY BILL GATES TO CONTROL MY BRAIN AND MAKE ME VOTE FOR DEMOCRATS!!

Then one fine day I write a first sentence, followed by another, and eventually—over the course of a year or two—a book happens.

Everybody’s writing process is different.  For me, sadly, writing doesn’t come easily, and often feels like I’m just grinding out one damn sentence after another, day after day, until a book finally happens.  Some days, if I’m lucky, I write a sentence that doesn’t make me wince when I’m writing it.  And once in a blue moon—or when hell freezes over, or when pigs fly—a miracle sometimes happens: I actually LIKE what I’ve written, and think “That’s pretty good.”

I don’t recommend writing for a living, but those blue moon days are almost worth it.

Where do you get your ideas for your books?  

I hate this question, because the answer is so convoluted and every time I try to answer it I end up babbling like someone afflicted with glossolalia at a tent revival meeting.  

Let me give you an example.  For my fourth novel, THE THIRD HILL NORTH OF TOWN (written under my pen name, Noah Bly), I started with a phone book, randomly flipping pages to find a name for my main character.  Once I found a name that resonated with me—Julianna Dapper—I came up with her backstory, made her look like Virginia Woolf, and stuck her in a mental hospital in Bangor, Maine in 1962.  (She had to be crazy, of course, because my mother was just then wrestling with a harrowing case of dementia and was very much on my mind.)  At the time, I didn’t really know why I had to get Julianna from Maine to Missouri—to a small town called Pawnee that no longer existed, where my grandmother was born—but once she was on the road I decided she had to kidnap two sensitive, troubled boys on the way—one black, one white, from completely different backgrounds—and put them through hell on earth for a few days because watching them interact with each other and their lunatic captor in one absurd situation after another made me laugh—but I also needed to figure out what happened to make Julianna go nuts in the first place, so half of the book takes place in 1923, a time period I knew next to nothing about and thought would be easy to write about because I’m a moron, basically.  

My hometown of Lamoni, Iowa, puts in an appearance, as does a beach in Massachusetts that I used to live next to, as does a sheriff’s office in Leon, Iowa, where my brother used to work, as does an Edsel, which was a car that fascinated me, as does…

Anyway, I’m sure you get the point.  Whatever I write never starts with anything as useful as a clearcut idea.  It’s more like blind instinct, based on a weird combination of personal history, imagination, and my twisted sense of humor—and one thing always leads to another, and another, and another.  I don’t really understand how it works myself, but if I find myself smiling at something—like a random name in a phone book—that’s usually a promising sign.

When was the last time you showered?

Uh, next question.