Features

Writers on writing

"Writers on writing" Continued...

Issue: "2010 Books Issue," July 3, 2010

Q: In the two adult history books on which you've worked, what are some of the things that you discovered in the research process that really surprised you about a particular culture or moment? With The History of the Medieval World, one of the things that really stood out to me was the role that religion plays in every country's politics. You do not think of Buddhism, for example, as being a big tool of political domination in the Middle Ages, but it was. Every religion was put to use during the Middle Ages as a way to persuade. No religious impulse-including the ones which are all about detachment and giving up political power-is not used in that way.
-interview by Henry Bleattler

Naomi Schaefer Riley's book on religious life at college campuses, God on the Quad, received glowing reviews. She is now writing one book about why university tenure should be abolished and editing another book about pop culture and virtue. Riley, her husband who is also a writer, and their two children, live in New York.

Q: What is a day in the life of a writing couple with two young children? The kids wake up at 6. I drop off my daughter at nursery school, the babysitter comes at 9 or 10, she picks up Emily from the nursery school and is there until 4 or 5, so that gives me maybe four or five hours-maybe two writing hours. Then she goes home, I give the kids dinner, Jason comes home, the kids go to bed, and we start all over.

Q: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? I was bad at math in school. Academia seemed like a career I wanted to pursue, both because of my family and also it was clear to me from a very young age that my mother had the lifestyle I wanted: She was able to both work and spend a lot of time with her kids. But I like interviewing much better than book research at the library, and I find it easier to write when I don't have to think of everything off the top of my head. A little bit of advice for people who are reluctant to do interviews: The story writes itself once you've called everybody.

Q: What prompted God on the Quad? It started out as one long article about Ave Maria Law School and Patrick Henry College. I turned it in and an editor said it would make a good book. So I started applying for fellowships.

Q: Why this kind of book? There are people who write books much more quickly, but I think the right kind of book for a young person to do is one that involves a lot of research and establishes you as being an expert at something. There are people who start writing memoirs at 23, but I think that this is a much better model for a first book: Pick a topic that people haven't researched extensively enough, and if you have the energy and you can get the funding, go do a lot of research and interviews and then write. That makes you credible, and otherwise at that age you're just not. I wasn't.

Q: What was your timeline for the writing process? I did the research in 2001-2002, and the book was published at the beginning of 2005. So it was a process. It takes a long time.

Q: And not without help. I would come back from each college with tape after tape after tape. I would transcribe all of them, sit there with mounds and mounds of interviews, and think, "Where do I start?" Terry Teachout, a well-known journalist, kindly agreed to be my adviser for this. So I would sit in his office and unload all these stories from my visits, and he would help me think about the themes that I was telling him over and over again.
-interview by Kiley Humphries

Part three: Writing popular novels


John Lescroart regularly hits the bestseller lists with his scintillating legal thrillers that feature fallible heroes working amid San Francisco craziness.

Q: When did you start thinking about being a writer? In the 7th or 8th grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. Blew, a believer in the written word. She really drilled the grammar. The bug hit me when she had us write an essay on "What is Democracy?" I got fired up about democracy. The local newspaper published my essay in a big box and a beautiful setting. I went, "This is the coolest thing I've ever seen."

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