Why We Write :20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do

Edited by Meredith Maran

(Penguin, $16, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Or rather, who are the authors whose thoughts on writing make up the book? It is quite a roster: Isabel Allende, David Baldacci, Jennifer Egan, James Frey, Sue Grafton, Sara Gruen, Kathryn Harrison, Gish Jen, Sebastian Junger, Mary Karr, Michael Lewis, Armistead Maupin, Terry McMillan, Rick Moody, Walter Mosley, Susan Orlean, Ann Patchett, Jodi Picoult, Jane Smiley and  Meg Wolitzer. It’s likely that you know their work, or at least have heard of most of them.

So instead, let’s ask: Who is this editor?

Meredith Maran is also a writer and a book reviewer. She has published nine nonfiction books and the novel,  “A Theory of Small Earthquakes”. She’s been writer-in-residence at UCLA and the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, and a fellow at the famous Yaddo, among other artist colonies. Her reporting is frequently in the Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle and People.

What is this book about?

Here is what two of its contributors have to say about the art and act of writing:

“If writing were illegal I’d be in prison. I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion,” says popular thriller authors David Baldacci.

“When I’m writing… I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now…and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about,”  says Jennifer Egan, whose novel, “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Such revealing quotes are typical of what you will find in this thoughtful compendium. Editor Maran pressed her interviewees to explain what inspires, drives, scares and motivates some of our best contemporary writers to sit down and face a blank screen and will a book, or story, into being. It may look easy, but it surely is not.

Why you’ll like it:

Maran did two very smart things here. She picked a wide range of authors: popular fiction writers like Baldacci and Picoult, masters of mystery like Grafton and Moseley, nonfiction stars like Orlean and Junger and many fine literary novelists, and she asked  them good questions and let them rip. Writers are by nature introspective people, and you get the sense that these 20 found it illuminating to frame, for readers and for themselves, why and how they do what they do.

What others are saying:

From the Barnes & Noble review:  “Most writers are too busy writing to wonder about why they write. So editor Meredith Maran did the obvious: She asked twenty prominent authors to write about how they do it, why they do it, and what aspects they most love and hate. Obvious, her quarries found the query compelling…. Stimulating thoughts for readers and writers.”

Says Boston Globe reviewer Chuck Leddy:  “In “Why We Write,” edited by Meredith Maran, an author and Globe contributor, 20 famous writers take us inside their literary worlds to see how the magic of writing takes place and to explain why otherwise sane people would engage in an activity that, Maran argues, “promises only poverty, rejection, and self-doubt.”

Kirkus Reviews says:  “A rich, informative essay collection based on interviews with 20 prominent authors seeking to answer the question: “Why do writers write?” ,,, So what drives individuals to engage in this constantly frustrating endeavor? Maran posed the question to writers who seemed to have what every writer could ever want: “[m]illions or billions of fans worldwide . . . [and] full creative freedom.” Isabelle Allende and David Baldacci write from an obsessive need to tell stories. Kathryn Harrison explains that “it’s the only thing I know that offers the hope of proving myself worthy of love.” Armistead Maupin writes that “it’s a way of processing my disasters, sorting out the messiness of life to lend symmetry and meaning to it.” Maran’s subjects include authors who have received both popular and critical acclaim, and she includes details about how each author found a place in the literary sun. She also delves into how they approach the task of recording their stories and presents their writing tips. The wisdom these luminaries offer sometimes, and perhaps inevitably, borders on the obvious or banal: “You have to simply love writing,” writes Susan Orleans. But more often than not, that wisdom is as sharp-eyed and candid as Sue Grafton’s observation that “[b]anging out a single book, then thinking you’re ready to give up your day job and be a full-time writer, is the equivalent of learning to play ‘Three Blind Mice’ on the piano and then expecting to be booked into Carnegie Hall.” A fun, enlightening read for writers and book lovers alike.

Library Journal

Seeking to crack the mystery of why writers write, Maran … interviewed 20 acclaimed writers and asked “why?” of each of them, also asking for their best and worst moments as writers, and the advice they would give to aspiring authors. Their descriptions of working life include a few elements that are strikingly similar from writer to writer, e.g., that it is both necessary to write, and terrifying to start a new book. The authors included here are all award winners (each entry includes a boxed “stats” section)… VERDICT One could gain a lot of inspiration from this book, but also be rather discouraged at staring so much success in the face. This exercise has been done before, but this collection’s organization makes it useful at a glance. A solid addition to writers’ reference collections.”

“Says Helen Gallagher in the New York Journal of Books: “…As we read about these writers and their ways we understand as much about why they write as how they write. Many writers remain motivated when the work is good, but the ability to keep writing is daunting when deadlines loom. When writing isn’t going well fear and panic overtake thoughts of fame and profit. …

 “As Ms. Maran gets the authors to open up about their work, we learn what they do when the muse is “injured on the job…”

“In exposing these successful authors’ most private foibles, fears, and superstitions to bring the reader the full story of the ups and downs of a writer’s life and work, Ms. Maran bumps them gently off their pedestals where they reside with the rest of us.

“As Meg Wolitzer (The Ten-Year Nap, The Uncoupling) states: “No one can take writing away from you, but no one can give it to you, either.”

When is it available?

You can learn why they write by borrowing this book from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

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