What kind of advice do you give your writing students?
Read, read, read, and read some more. If you want to become a better writer, you need to build up a large library in your head. Beginning writers sometimes feel that they can just write and that they don't need to read. I find this very strange. You never see an aspiring musician tell people that they don't listen to music, nor do you find painters who say they don't look at art. So start by reading, and be prepared to make mistakes in your writing. It's okay to fail. Failure is good. Failure is your friend. Failure makes you better.
What else do you say to your students?
I tell them to write the first draft of their story and then rip off the first two pages—don't throw these pages away though. My reasoning here is that it takes time to build up the tension in a story and, in a first draft, you're looking for the meat of the problem. Most of the time the first two pages are prologue and we just don't have the space in a short story for that. We need to hook the reader with the problem; we need to drop the reader into the story like a mouse into a maze. It's our job as writers to find the moment of crisis in a story—that moment when a character's normal life has been jolted in some profound way—we need to let the reader share in this moment. Beginning writers tend to find this moment of crisis on the third or fourth page. I also tell my students to write the first draft as if you're having a conversation with a close friend. If you can do that, you'll probably start off with an honest voice, one that isn't loaded down with tin words that don't ring true.
You lived in Europe for many years. How has that experience changed your writing?
I had the good fortune of living in Northern Ireland, England, Germany, and Spain throughout most of the 1990s, and it's impossible for an experience like that not to affect my understanding of the world. Being an expatriate helped me to see the States from outside of itself, which was an invaluable experience because it helped me to see the world differently and that's a vital tool for any writer. Northern Ireland especially changed how I continue to look at violence and hatred and bigotry. You don't need to leave home to become a better writer, but I do believe that the mystery of life unfolds in unexpected ways when you're in a different country. Common things shimmer with newness, and that's what writers should do—we should remind people that the ordinary is always extraordinary.
How often do you get to write and what is your writing process? Do you find that there is a difference between your poetry and prose?
I write everyday, usually in the early morning and then again around lunch time. For poetry I always use a pencil and save every draft of my handwritten work. For me, poetry is organic and I need to see the graphite of the pencil scratching the paper. When I write prose, I pound away at my computer and I like the quickness, I like that feeling of taking dictation from my characters. In both cases though, I read each draft of my work aloud. I've been told that I laugh to myself and use different voices for my characters when they speak, which is odd, but if it gets my work published I'm not complaining. One last thing: I let the story change if it wants to change, and I try to surrender myself to my characters. They're the boss. I'm not.
When did you start writing? Do you remember the first piece you've ever written?
I've always been fascinated with words and some of my earliest memories are of reading and writing. I don't think anything in particular got me into writing per se, I always just did it. My first story was written when I was about six or seven. I just loved words so much that I wanted to write them.
Who are some writers you admire? What do you think of their work?
That's a difficult question to answer because I find myself reacting to American writers and Irish writers in equal measure. So, when it comes to what really moves me, I tend to crisscross the Atlantic. I'm lucky to be a part of two different cultures because it widens my world view and nudges me towards new creative possibilities. Coming from a mixed background is one of the greatest blessings a writer could ask for.
How would you describe your writings?
My work plays with time and history and memory. I like what Horace said about writing 2000 years ago: He said that writing should enlight and delight. I agree with that. Good writing should help us see the world in new ways, it should crack open our generosity towards each other. That's what I hope my work does anyway. I want someone to read it and know that they aren't alone in the universe. I want my words to act as connective tissue.