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Interview-Scott Russell Sanders

October 16, 2009

Annie Roberts: When did you know that writing was what you wanted to do and how did you come to this realization?

Scott Russell Sanders: It’s actually connected to my romance with my wife Ruth. She and I went to separate high schools and separate colleges, so after we met when she was 15 and I was 16, we retreated to our homes, mine about 8 hours away in Ohio and hers in Indianapolis. There was no prospect of me seeing her during the school year, but each summer after my senior year in high school and after my freshman, sophomore, and junior years in college my parents would allow me to travel through Indianapolis and stay with her family for about three days. Then I would go home, work all summer and go back to college. We hardly saw one another at all after that one summer we met, but we wrote letters. We wrote first about one letter a week each. And then a couple times a week. And then three or four times a week. And then by the time we were sophomores in college we were writing every day. Today people might do that by e-mail or might talk on their cell phones a couple times a day, but we didn’t have either of those conveniences, what we had were paper letters. We wrote probably a total of several thousand letters.
The experience of writing about what was going on in my life; my reading, my thinking, my questioning, events that I went to like plays and films, books I read, and people I met was significant and she was doing the same with her college experience. She was writing these wonderful glorious vital letters and they really challenged me to write in a way that might be as intriguing and vivid as her letters were to me. So I worked harder and harder and harder on my letter writing because I really cared about my audience. That experience revealed to me the power of writing, not only to convey things that matter to you or the audience, but the power of writing to enable you to reflect on your life. That, more than anything, that experience of five years of writing letters at the end of which we got married, convinced me more than anything else that this was something I wanted to practice. I didn’t know what form it might take; initially I thought I might write fiction and I did—I published a number of novels and books of short stories. I wrote a few poems, mainly love poems for Ruth and they are all carefully hidden away or burned. I wasn’t sure what form my writing would take and I had no certainty whatsoever that I would publish any writing, but I aspired to write work that other people might want to read and I think that might have been a factor.

AR: Are there any influential writers or novels that affected your writing?

SS: The short answer is lots and I think that would be true of most writers, especially by my age because I’ve been reading since I was four and now I’m 63. There have been many writers that have been tremendously important to me—I’ll just mention a handful but understand that this is a tiny sampling. The first writer that mesmerized me in what I now think of as real literature was Mark Twain. I was eight years old when I read “Huckleberry Finn,” and when I finished it, it was summer vacation and I was lying on the hardwood floor in our little farmhouse in Ohio. When I finished the last page I couldn’t bear to not be in the presence of Huck Finn and Jim so I turned back to page one and started reading again. I’ve never done that before or since. He was the first writer of note that moved me deeply and that I continue to admire to this day. Other writers that have mattered a great deal to me at different points were William Faulkner, D.H. Laurence, and Scott Fitzgerald. The writers I’d point to now are Wendell Berry, Peter Matheson, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Thoreau, and Whitman. I don’t necessarily imitate them but I have learned a lot from them.

AR: What advice do you have for amateur writers?

SS: Read and Write. The most important training any writer gets is reading. Read widely, not just one kind of thing, and read the best quality of work you can find. If you don’t know what the best quality of work is, ask someone who is a more experienced reader for recommendations. When you find a writer that really speaks to you, read everything you can by him or her. Read good work, read widely, and read as much as you can. If you want to get good language in your head it mainly has to come from books, it’s not going to come from listening to people talk. And one other thing, this may be obvious, but take notes. Carry something with you; a folded piece of paper or notebook. Look around and listen and notice things and make a point of writing things down. Be prepared. Anticipate: “I am going to see something today that will stay with me because I’m going to write it down.” Whenever you make the simplest note you are turning experiences, thoughts, memories, feelings into language.
And remember, everybody starts as a beginner. No matter where you feel you are as a writer, every writer whom you might read or whose name may be carved outside the library, started with your experience or less.