Christopher Merrill:
Interview for Writers at Work 2013



What inspired you to write your first book?

My first book was a collection of poems, Workbook, which accumulated over several years, and when it seemed to me that I had completed a particular aesthetic voyage, which became clear only in the assembling of a manuscript, I decided to try to publish it. My first prose book, The Grass of Another Country: A Journey through the World of Soccer, began as a joke to an editor at Bread Loaf—to wit: that if by some miracle the woeful U. S. soccer team made it into the World Cup he should send me to Italy to write about it. To my amazement, he came up to me the next day and said that mine was a terrific idea. What? I said. A book about the World Cup. Ah, I said, remembering—and then the U.S. team pulled off a miracle, defeating Trinidad & Tobago, which allowed me to spend the next summer in Tuscany, eating well, drinking Chianti, taking notes. Then of course I had to write the book, which is another story.

How much impact does your childhood have on your writing?

Childhood is the fountainhead of every writer’s work, acknowledged or not, and I draw not only on the imagery, incidents, and emotions of my childhood but in some mysterious way on the angle of light, the tone of voice, the way that people did things in our village in northwestern New Jersey. My father commuted an hour and a half to his job as a banker in Manhattan, leaving before dawn and returning after dark—a rhythm that must have shaped my outlook, in the same fashion as the seasons, the weather, and the pleasures and pains of every childhood. No doubt I will spend the rest of my writing life trying to make sense of it all.

What did you find most useful in learning how to write?

The admonition to write and read every day, regardless of how I might feel, and to try my hand at as many forms as possible, in poetry and prose.

What are a few pitfalls a new writer would do well to avoid?

Discouragement, self-satisfaction, and laziness, not necessarily in that order.

What are some day jobs you have held? How did any of them influence your writing?

I have worked as a gardener, a teaching tennis professional, a laborer in a lumberyard, a cook, a nurseryman, a college soccer coach, a bookstore clerk, a freelance journalist, an editor, an arts administrator, a book reviewer (in print and on the radio), a professor, a cultural specialist for the State Department, and director of the International Writing Program. No doubt every job has shaped my writing, whether it taught me a discipline, a way of seeing the world, or gave me material (my journalism from the Balkans laid the foundation of Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars and The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and the Age of the Refugee), or put food on the table, where early in the morning or late at night I wrote some of my books.

What inspires you? What motivates you to write?

Writing gives me great pleasure—I love describing things, making scenes, telling stories, bringing to life on the page characters, real or invented—and the issue I face is not so much inspiration as finding the time, while holding down demanding job and raising a family, to write as much as I would like. Deadlines certainly concentrate my attention; also bills to pay—and the anxiety that seems to accompany all my nights and days, which is the desire to make something beautiful.

Are there any occupational hazards to being a writer?

Apart from the fact that it is very difficult to make a living? There is the fact that writers are by nature observers, which can prevent us from fully engaging with others. I must remind myself to be present, even if some part of my mind is always taking notes.

What is it that makes a collection (poems, essays, or stories) hang together?

Reflection and revision. One writes and writes until there is nothing more to say, and then the task is to tease out the meanings latent in every word, line, scene, and story—a task that requires a lot of reading and rewriting.

How do you know when a book or individual piece is complete?

There usually comes a moment when something clicks into place, and then it becomes a matter of making sure that everything contributes to that revelation.

What books are you reading now?

I am always reading, for work and pleasure, a variety of books, which this month includes James Salter’s All That Is, Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” James Longenbach’s The Virtues of Poetry, Anna Akhmatova’s journals, biographies of Rumi and Chekhov, Wislawa Szymborska’s Here, and so on.

What is a book by another that you wish you had written?

There are too many to name!

Which of your own books is your favorite?

Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain. This was the most difficult book for me to write, because it required so much soul-searching; and because it did not have much of a shelf life, its editor and publicist having resigned from Random House within a week or so of its publication, I think of it as my secret book, which makes it all the more meaningful to me.

What did you enjoy most about writing your most recent book?

The challenge, and joy, in writing The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War was to connect three seemingly disparate journeys—to Malaysia, China and Mongolia, and the Middle East—to larger thematic ideas, which might offer new ways to think of the old questions: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What shall we do?

What do you think is the future of writing? How will technology change literature?

Who can say what the future will bring? One word calls to another, and a vista opens onto a land hitherto unimagined. The rapid technological changes upon us are shaping the literary landscape in ways that no one could foresee—and few have adequately described. But it is certain that poets and writers will adapt, as they always have. We live by stories, however they are delivered.

Writers @ Work is holding its annual writers conference at Alta Lodge in Alta, Utah, from June 5-9. See our conference page for all the details and register today!

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