FM Roundtable: Writing to Live

In honor of the recent crop of Harvard authors making it big, FM decided to sit down with a few

In honor of the recent crop of Harvard authors making it big, FM decided to sit down with a few to see how they did it. Bridie J. Clark ’99, author of “Because She Can”; Simon H. Rich ’06-’07, author of “Ant Farm and Other Desperate Situations”; and Keith A. Gessen ’97, one of the founding editors of the print journal “n+1,” sat down with FM and confirmed that our degrees are, in fact, useless. But don’t worry! Read on to learn how to turn your $160,000 diploma into a book deal, take sass from Gawker, and make your mom proud.

FM: Tell us this is all for something. How did your undergraduate experience help you to make a career as a writer?

Simon Rich: Well, I spent all of college writing jokes at the Lampoon about animals and video games. By the end I didn’t really feel like I was qualified to do anything else.

Bridie Clark: I was an English major...I also wrote for FM. With that skill set, a career in publishing made sense.

Keith Gessen: As an undergrad, I didn’t entirely like any of the publications at Harvard so I wrote a little bit for FM and the Advocate but I didn’t join any of them. I tried out for the Lampoon and I didn’t get in. I didn’t get a great sense from Harvard about what being a writer would be like. My parents were Russian immigrants so I knew what a Russian writer would be like and how a Russian writer lives, which is sort of like you sit around and drink tea with your friends and occasionally you write something.

FM: You all write in very different styles. Simon, you chose humor, Bridie, chick lit, and Keith, well, I guess you’re more of an intellectual voice. Why did you choose to write this way? Keith?

K: When I got out of school I moved to New York and I just wrote short stories because that’s what I really wanted to do and it’s still what I really want to do...I didn’t really know anybody. I became worried that I was going to never publish anything and I knew that I could write book reviews so I started writing book reviews. I’ve taken this long detour into book reviewing and literary criticism and journalism...Eventually that turned into “n+1.”

B: I worked as a book editor before I made the leap to writing. I would say my foremost goal is to make a living at it so I really set out to write something lighthearted and entertaining and hopefully commercial.

S: I watched a lot of T.V. when I was a kid, probably like six or seven the first writing that I really loved was the jokes I saw on sitcoms. All my favorite writers wrote jokes.

K: Like who?

S: Like Roald Dahl and Shel Silverstein and Philip Roth and T.C. Boyle. I wanted to write something I would want to read.

FM: Bridie and Keith, who were writers that influenced you the most?

K: Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. These are people I did not read in school. I read Bellow a little bit in school but I didn’t really understand it.

B: There’s the great Saul Bellow quote that “a writer is just a reader moved to emulation.” And so for me, the first step in writing my novel, was [to] read a ton of chick lit to get the voice.

FM: So Bridie, you mentioned that you wrote your book in the hopes of publishing something commercial. How do all of you balance the need to sell books or stories to make a living and also make sure you’re writing what you want?

B: When I was coming up with ideas for the book, I was thinking about what would be commercial, but when I was actually writing the just write it.

K: The answer for me was to make sure that I didn’t need any money.

B: One of the good things about being a writer is that there really isn’t that much overhead. It’s just you, sitting alone in a room.

FM: Simon, you had a book deal while you were here at Harvard. Did you ever have trouble living up to the expectations of your editor?

S: I got really lucky...I haven’t had to compromise yet although I’m sure I’ll sell out, like, pretty soon. Also, my mom says I can live in her apartment for as long as I want so if people don’t let me write...I guess I can just stay here.

F: So clearly being a writer isn’t just sitting alone in a room. Who do you go to for support or advice?

S: I always show my pieces to my mom because I figure if my own mother doesn’t like it then it’s probably not that good.

B: The one thing, you know, writing a book, it can be a pretty long invariably by the end everyone’s getting a little tired about asking about the book.

K: One problem with going to Harvard is that you get out and all of your friends are investment I couldn’t really hang out with them...because their spending habits were so out of line with mine. But I did eventually find magazines that I really liked, like “Dissent,” and those people showed me how you can write things you believe in and survive as a grown up.

FM: What happens when you get writer’s block? Where did you go for inspiration?

K: I watched a lot of TV. “n+1” are guys who were actually at Harvard at the same time that I was, most of whom I didn’t know while I was here. After graduation we were all doing the same stuff...Then we met up and that’s been very nourishing.

B: I go to Barnes and Noble, I go to bookstores, more than anything I read a lot. I think it’s kind of interesting after you’ve written a book to read them, you see the architecture in a different way.

S: Wikipedia, Children’s encyclopedias, my high school yearbook, and the Bible. I like crazy stuff.

FM: Simon and Bridie, you’ve both talked about how your fiction is influenced by things in your life. Where do you draw the line between fact and fiction? How do you make sure you don’t steal from anyone else?

S: Well, when I plagiarize, I try to make it from sources that are so obscure that no one will ever catch it.

B: Yeah, I basically go for unpublished authors, because I figure they’re less likely to make a stink.

FM: Ha, right, but seriously. Simon, what about if you’re in the Lampoon castle and you’re all batting around ideas and you want to use one of them in your pieces? How do you make sure you give credit where credit is due?

S: Well, the Lampoon publishes initials to show who wrote which piece. I actually really love writing with friends, that’s the thing I miss most since leaving college...There’s something really fun about getting constant feedback from other writers.

FM: Bridie, what about you? How do you make sure life and fiction remain separate?

B: I think that you just don’t write the facts. You find some ways to breathe imagination into it.

FM: What do you do when someone trashes your writing? How do you react to criticism?

K: Criticism has turned out to be very hard to take, a lot harder than you would think. Simon, is your book just about to come out?

S: It just came out...I think my mom was a little offended by one of the pieces about a guy, a kid, who reveals that his mom is having a lot of affairs with members of the same hockey team. I explained to her that it wasn’t based on personal experience.

K: But has anyone said anything mean about it in the press?

S: Um, no people have been really nice to me...It’s still really surreal to me, to hear that anyone’s read it other than people that I’ve physically handed it to. Whenever I read any criticism of it, my first instinct is to think “where did I meet this person who somehow read my jokes?”

K: Wait ‘til Gawker gets its filthy mitts on you. It’s just strange, you know we live in a time when people can say whatever they want about you on the Internet and take no responsibility for it. And ultimately you just have to ignore it, but it’s sometimes discouraging.

B: I think I was actually really braced for terrible reviews just because in general I feel like chick lit is not well reviewed...So I think I went in really wearing a helmet and expecting the worst and so because of that...the ones that weren’t so decent, I felt pretty braced for.

K: Yeah, I expect to swim in a sea of universal love all the time and when I’m not in that sea I get upset.

FM: Yeah, that can be frustrating. So what advice would you give to students who want to follow in your footsteps? Any words of wisdom?

S: What, I didn’t quite—

K: Advice to the young!

S: Oh god, geez. I don’t think, I mean I’m only twenty-two I don’t think I can really give any advice.

K: Advice to the old?

S: I can recommend some reality TV shows.

K: I’ve watched them all.

FM: I’ve started watching “Laguna Beach.”

K: There’s so many cameras!

S: Have you seen “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader”?

B: I actually find that show really infuriating. I mean I know I didn’t know that stuff in fifth grade.

FM: But back to the question...

K: I have advice for the youth. In New York, you often hear people saying ‘well...I had to write this because I needed the money’...but nobody forced you to become a writer and you don’t actually have to do anything you don’t want to do.