The Write Stuff

A Q & A with Rutgers–Camden professors and published novelists Lauren Grodstein and Pam Jenoff

Throughout its history, Rutgers University–Camden has served as a hub of literary activity in the South Jersey region. Known for its engaging master of fine arts (M.F.A.) in creative writing program, Rutgers–Camden offers a vibrant mix of courses, workshops, and conferences dedicated to the unbridled exploration of the written word.

For aspiring novelists, they need to look no further than the time-honored advice and insight offered by successful, published novelists Lauren Grodstein, an associate professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden, and Pam Jenoff, a clinical professor in the Rutgers School of Law–Camden.

NewsNow checks in with Grodstein and Jenoff, who dish the dirt on their inspirations, writing methods, and tricks of the trade.

Grodstein, Lauren

Lauren Grodstein

Where do you find the inspiration for your stories?

Jenoff: My books are largely inspired by my years in Europe, particularly those spent working as a diplomat for the state department in Poland on Holocaust issues. I remain moved and changed by the stories of survivors I learned during that remarkable time.

Grodstein: I think I find it in bits and pieces of the world around me: stories I overhear, articles I read, gossip a friend passes on. I usually don’t realize I’m collecting ideas for novels until suddenly an entire narrative flashes in front of me, which means I’ve collected enough small pieces to be able to start something intriguing.

How often do you write and, from start to finish, how long does it take for you to complete a novel?

Grodstein: In the summer, I try to write every weekday. During the school year, I write when I can, but my writing life is often interrupted by teaching, administrating, raising a small child, and looking after a medium-sized house. It takes me a few years to write a novel – often I get the first draft down pretty quickly, in a matter of months, but the revising takes forever.

Jenoff: I am what I call a “short-burst writer,” meaning that I only write for 2-3 hours a day. In my perfect world, I would write seven days a week, first thing in the morning (say 6 a.m.), though with the demands of work and family that doesn’t always happen. I write about a book a year, starting in the fall and ending the following summer.

How do you “get in the zone” to write?

Jenoff: I treat writing like a job. When I was an attorney, I couldn’t just say “Oh, I’m not inspired to write today.” The work had to be done, and I take the same approach to novel writing. I go to great lengths to avoid writer’s block. For example, in the evening, I will often read a book on writing craft or a topic I am researching and take notes, which will then serve as writing prompts when I sit down at the computer the next morning. While I am aware of my optimum writing times and conditions, I don’t let those restrict me. I have written in castles and mountain top retreats, but I have also written in my doctor’s waiting room and in my car, and I can tell you which coffee shops in the area open at 6 a.m. on weekends because I sometimes work there too.

Grodstein: These days, I just turn on my computer. Before I had a child I would luxuriate in certain rituals: making my coffee, smoking a cigarette, staring out the window, positioning my laptop just so. Now I basically start as soon as he leaves for school and work frantically until he comes home. There’s no time to futz.

What, if any, commercial aspects of the process do you consider when writing a novel?

Pam Jenoff Credit: Dominic Episcopo

Pam Jenoff
Photo Credit: Dominic Episcopo

Grodstein: I think a lot about readability, and about why anyone would care about the story I’m telling. I know enough at this point to understand that just because I wrote something doesn’t mean anyone would necessarily want to read it. So I try to make my work compelling, and I find myself investing a lot of effort to create a certain page-turning quality. This is why some of my work has been shelved in the “thriller” section, even though my work is really domestic. It’s suspenseful, but not “thrilling.”

Jenoff: I try not to let the commercial side of it interfere with the artistic process. But I do want to write books that resonate with my readers.

What is it like seeing your name for the first time on a fresh copy of your new book?

Jenoff: It never gets old! The first time you hold one of your books is always magical.

Grodstein: It feels like looking at something that belongs to someone else. By the time what I’ve written is edited and cleaned up and packaged in a beautiful cover, it bears so little resemblance to the sloppy thing on my desk that I can barely recognize it.

What is the best piece of advice that you can give to aspiring novelists?

Grodstein: Read. I’m always surprised at how many people want to write but don’t really want to read. This is pretty much lunacy, since the best creative writing lessons to be found are found in novels. In a classroom, I can try to explain character development or plot or description, and maybe I’ll do a decent job, but nothing I can teach can compare with the immediacy of reading a successful novel. Reading is the best way to discover how an author can transcend theory and create compelling narrative on the page – and therefore reading is the best way to learn to write.

Jenoff: Don’t quit your day job. I’m kidding! I think there are three things that have made the difference. First, you have to be disciplined and make time for your writing among all of the other things going on in life. Second, you must be tenacious. For a long time it didn’t look like my books would be published, and they still wouldn’t be if I had given up. Third, the ability to revise is critical and this is one area in which having been a lawyer has helped me immensely. I think that the ability to take another person’s feedback and incorporate it into your own work is key.


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