As you would expect, as soon as I saw the title of Melissa Pierson’s new book, I was hooked. Someone who has a dog and writes about dogs . . . as a woman with for dogs of her own, I was in. Melissa is kind and thoughtful, too. I plan on reading all of her books, not just “the dog one,” and I hope you’ll do the same.
My new book, The Secret History of Kindness, was a very long time in the making. I first conceived it in what feels like another lifetime: well over fifteen years ago, when I saw the miracles a thing called “clicker training” was performing on my difficult dog. It led me to the study of behaviorism, the life of B. F. Skinner, and the belief there was a book in it. As is the way with most of my books, though, the one first conceived is practically unrecognizable from the one that finally gets written. And this one was even longer than all the others due to several factors: the amount of research, which kept getting taller and taller to the point where I feared I might be crushed under it (I’m neither a scientist nor a journalist, so what the heck was I doing?!); the intervening of a personal life crisis, which derailed the book for a long while when I couldn’t remember why I wanted to write it in the first place; the writing of another book before resuming this one.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
Oh, how many ways to say, “Books were everything!” They were a refuge, an addiction. The library—the fact that there was a place where I could bring home any book I wanted, for free!—was an amazement; I can still close my eyes and smell the peculiar fragrance of the children’s shelves at the library. (Later I also mined my parents’ bookshelves, discovering Jules Verne and also some things they didn’t want me to discover.) I think one of the great things about being a voracious reader in childhood is that you don’t suffer from some of the restrictive pretensions you can grow up to hold: you read everything you want to, regardless of perceived “quality.” So, Nancy Drew, and every book with a picture of a horse on it. And also the great classics, like Roald Dahl and all the nature books. When you are a child reading for passion, you learn what books are really for. And it’s not the salving of an ego that needs to know it’s only permitting “the finest.”
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
Would that I had one. I am sure I would be a lot more productive. All too often, though, I let my deadlines be my goad: I procrastinate until I can do so no longer, then I sit down too late at night and write in a fury. I edit in the clear light of day, however!
4. Who are you reading now?
My “side jobs” are proofreading and book reviewing—yes, it’s all books, all the time! And around those I fit in the books that will form the research on my own next book: sometimes it takes me a l-o-n-g time to get through a book that’s only “for me” given all the other books I read. Currently, the book that fits into that category is a relatively new, and definitive, history of the battle of Gettysburg, by Allen Guelzo.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
Oh, man. This is hard. First I would say Jude the Obscure: it seared me when I first read it. It’s compressed like poetry, emotionally devastating. Then, Moby-Dick. There is nothing like it in the English language; I think it will forever be one of the most avant-garde works of literature ever made. The stories of Joyce’s Dubliners are such a height of perfection it’s almost silly to try to say something about them. The first time I read them, I remember sitting there feeling as if all the air had been sucked out of the room.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
It hit me that if I were starting out today, with exactly the same abilities and ideas as when I first published in the “pre-platform” days (my first book came out in ’97), I would never have published at all. Because I seem unable to do that—or maybe I’m resistant to self-promotion in the extreme. I did try to “build a platform” based on my already existing one, aka readership, for my first book on motorcycles when I published my second one. I don’t think it helped much, or at any rate was worth the amount of time I put into it. I long for the Good Ol’ Days, when in-house publicists did that work and freed the writer up to . . . write.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
No such thing in my life, really: I’ve been a single parent for the past seven years, from my son’s 8th through 15th years (and counting). His schedule has determined my time, where I have to drive him, snow days, sick days, the like. Good thing, perhaps, that the alarm rings at daybreak so I can get him off to school: I’m a natural night owl, but my mind is truly clear in the early morning and a burst of work for a couple of hours then can sometimes be worth a whole night’s wandering around in my head.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
Not really practical, but I feel a lot of nostalgic gratitude to a wonderful old bar in Hoboken, NJ, where by the light of the jukebox I started writing what would become my first book. I like to work out of the house, in the company of others—but others I don’t know and don’t feel compelled to talk to. No matter what kind of clean and lovely space I set up for myself in my house, I end up never using it. (When I was a girl I used to write sitting in the branches of a maple tree, so I can see this has an early beginning.) Now the places I like best are a local cafe that’s also filled with people pecking away at their laptops; and outdoors at home when the weather permits: I crave the warmth of the sun, and I stare off into the trees while waiting for inspiration.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
There have been a couple, both in the same vein, pointing out what amounts to a failure of attention to particulars, or perhaps hubris. In one, I finally got an assignment from what I consider one of the best book review outlets in the country. I was thrilled! I wrote what I thought was a really good review—and the editor rejected it. I had written it to suit the tone of the outlet I usually write for, not his. It wasn’t right, and I should have known it. The other was an essay for an anthology, and I turned in something so unwieldy and crappily edited it, too, was rejected. It was a “learning humiliation,” I guess. Subsequently, I edited the heck out of it, and it’s now a very good piece. Currently homeless.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
Always remember writing takes double persistence, the kind of steadfast determination that makes a mountain climber: first you have to push back your own demons, self-doubt, and criticism; then you have to push against the silence of others who are in the position of judging your work. Without their agreement, it stays in the drawer, unread. These are hard to overcome, but as a writer you have to get tough. Believe in yourself.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson‘s new book, The Secret History of Kindness, is new from W. W. Norton. Her previous books include The Perfect Vehicle, The Place You Love Is Gone, and The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing. She has written on a variety of subjects, notably books, film, and the natural world, for many publications, from Harper’s and Entertainment Weekly to Orion and The Nation. Learn more about her and her work at her website – www.melissaholbrookpierson.com