How did you become a writer? I started by writing poems in college -- terrible poems. But during my junior year in Scotland (St. Andrews) I felt a sense of a personal voice -- and found myself writing a good deal, reading a good deal: Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Wordsworth, Blake. And especially Gerard Manley Hopkins. From then on, one thing led to another, as I moved from poetry to prose, still writing poems as well but expanding into criticism, then fiction. Eventually I wrote biographies as well, after having written THE LAST STATION, a novel about Tolstoy. Now I seem to write screenplays as much as anything else.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). In Scotland, I met the Scottish poet Alastair Reid. He was a huge influence, as a poet and mentor. Most of my ideas about writing fell into place then. I met, through him, Borges and even Neruda -- just in passing. But these writers played a huge role in my imagination. Later, I met Robert Penn Warren and Gore Vidal, both of whom were mentors and, most of all, good friends. Warren was a model as teacher/critic/poet/novelist.
When and where do you write? I write mostly in the morning, mostly in a local cafe, although I work at home in my study as well, more in the afternoons and evenings.
What are you working on now? There are always a number of poems in progress. I'm finishing a ghost story -- a novel -- set on Lake Champlain -- I've been through it many times but it still needs work. I'm writing a biography of Jesus. And I'm revising two screenplays based on earlier novels of mine: Benjamin's Crossing and The Passages of H.M.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? No. Never. It's an artificial problem. If you're blocked, you shouldn’t be writing. You should be fishing. Or mowing the lawn. Or fixing things. Or anything.
What’s your advice to new writers? There is really only one worthwhile piece of advice. Write about what really interests you, and do it every day. If you don't do it everyday, you'll never do it. Getting a habit of writing is the key: pick a time of day when you can manage it, and arrange your life so that this time is sacred. Use that time, and don't fret about not getting anything done. That is your time to write. If you just read during that time, that's okay too. Reading and writing go hand in hand. When my reading is not going well, my writing falters. I need to be excited about what I'm reading. Everything follows from that.