If you were not a writer what would you do?
If I were not a writer. Well, unfortunately, I have a law degree, so I would probably be a lawyer. I went to Harvard Law School. I never practiced. Writing is so much more fun and interesting and fascinating. My goal, when I was coming up through college, was to be governor of Colorado. And that certainly changed when I started writing fiction.
Fiction is what changed your mind?
I went to Yale on a full scholarship and I took an amazing course in my senior year. I only took two English courses, and one was called Daily Themes, and you had to write a 300-word short story every day for eight weeks. And I just loved that course. I thought, Here is a way you could be curious about anything and everything and everyone for your whole life and make it your life’s work. And then I had a weird experience after those first 40 little stories, which were all terrible. Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes was sponsoring a fiction contest because he had a son, I guess at Yale, who had died in a car crash. And I entered a story in it and won the prize and didn’t even know—this is how ignorant I was—didn’t even know three of the judges, who were Ralph Ellison, John Knowles (who wrote A Separate Peace), and William Styron. That is how ignorant I was. They were all Mike Wallace’s friends in New York. But it gave me this idea: Hey, maybe you shouldn’t be governor of Colorado; you could write fiction.
What was the first thing that you wrote that made you realize you wanted to be a writer?
The story that won that prize. The story was about—it might have even been about a lawyer, a businessman or a lawyer, who is dissatisfied with his work and goes window shopping and imagines these other lives he might have had. It was a terrible story. But it certainly did me a lot of good.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your writing?
I think I have been more influenced by music than by other writers, but if I had to pick a writer, I would pick James Joyce. When I was growing up, I was a big folk music fan. Folk music was both engaging in the message that it had, and it was also sort of alienating from people I knew, and it made me sort of a loner, I guess. I was certainly influenced by that, by being willing to be alone, to be by myself. Of course, that is what writers do. When I was going to be governor, I had actually some skills in conversation. And those sort of evaporated when I was starting to write fiction, being by myself for most of the day. Also, there’s a kind of lyricism to sentences, and I have always admired Joyce’s work for that. I think it’s quite musical.
What specific influences have you drawn from Joyce?
When I write page one of a story, I will often—I work on a typewriter—I will often type over the first paragraph a bunch of times, like 10 times, just to hear how the sentences work together. And it’s not—it’s almost not an intellectual thing, it’s an emotional thing. I never know how stories are going to proceed or how they are going to end or where they are going when I start out.