Interview with Award-Winning Author Lewis Buzbee

LewisGet to know Lewis…

Lewis Buzbee’s most recent book is Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom.  He is also the author of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, After the Gold Rush, and Fliegelman’s Desire, as well as the author of three award-winning novels for middle grade readers: Bridge of Time, The Haunting of Charles Dickens, and Steinbeck’s Ghost,  His fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Best American Poetry, The New York Times Book Review, and in scores of literary journals and magazines. He has been a dishwasher, bookseller, publisher, caterer, bartender, and teacher of writing. He is a fourth generation Californian. For more info, visit his website.

Quirky Questions 

What do you waste time doing? 

I spend far too much time staring out the window, though not sure that qualifies as wasting time.

What’s the biggest inconvenience about where you live?

The fog. It is beautiful, no doubt, but oy, it’s the thickest in the summer here, and it’s so cold.  We don’t get short-sleeve evenings.

If you were a professional wrestler, what would your name be?

I’d go all Mexican luchador, and using my first initials would be called “El Bee,” and you can guess the costume from there.

If you could own a store, what sorts of things would you sell?

Books is clearly the answer, but too easy.  So, I’d like to sell telescopes and microscopes.

What book (either because of its length or subject) intimidates you?

No book will ever intimidate me.

What was your favorite meal when you were growing up?

A family specialty: Eggs a la Goldenrod.  Toast cut into one-inch squares, which is smothered in a milk and corn starch and chunky boiled egg-white sauce, which is in turn covered with finely grated boiled egg-yolks, with just a pinch of paprika for color.

What do you think will be the next popular catch phrase? 

I’d like it to be “Deluxe.”  This is something all the rage in my junior high for about ten minutes once.  If something was really great, or cool, we’d say “Deluxe,” pronouncing it “deeeee-luxe.”  It’s applicable in many ways.

What is the first thing that pops into your head when you think of politicians?

Money.

What do you do every day, without fail? 

Read, no question about it. 

What is something you wish you did every day, without fail?

See an old friend.

If you could dis-invent one thing, what would it be?

Smart phones.

What makes you want to throw up?

University bureaucracies. 

What makes you laugh until tears roll down your cheeks?

Bugs Bunny cartoons.

What compliment do you wish someone would give you?

My, how delicate and swan-like you are, Lewis.

Writing Questions

Have you ever felt that your personal expectations have limited your creativity? If so, how have you dealt with this? 

Quite the opposite.  I set my expectations high, in order to push the limits of my creativity.

Do you ever feel that you have to censor your creativity because you don’t want to offend anyone?

I try hard not to.  Nadine Gordimer once said that “one must write as if one were already dead.”  Meaning that you had to write as if nothing you wrote could come back to haunt you that way, completely truthful.

Do you do anything special to get your creative juices flowing?

Coffee, a little music and/or reading, staring out the window.

What are your words of wisdom for someone starting out in the field of writing?

Just write one hour a day, five days a week, for six months, without looking back, and without showing it to anyone else.  Find yourself on the page first, which is the only place you’ll find yourself.

Why were you drawn to a career in writing instead of to a job that might offer more stability and security?

I’ve been writing–with the aim of being a writer–since I was 15, so I’ve had the advantage of of that naivete to push me along.  But I’ve also had tons of real, full-time jobs.  I do this, however, because it’s what I have to do.  And the more I do it, the more risks I’m willing to take to keep doing it.  But, hey, it can be done.  My wife and I are both writers, and teach only part-time–after other jobs–and somehow manage to make it work.  It’s a risk; you have to take a risk.

Who do you consider a literary genius?

So many: Faulkner, Proust, Steinbeck, Woolf, Didion, where do I stop.  L’Engle, LeGuin, Virginia Hamilton, Roald Dahl.  We’re blessed to have such mighty fine library stacks.

What obstacles have you had to deal with in your career?

There was a period between my first and second book–16 years!–when I didn’t think I’d ever publish a second book.  Oh, I published a lot else in the meantime–poems, essays, stories, interviews, etc–but that second book.  Then my daughter was born, and I immediately understood a good deal more about what mattered in life and in writing.  And a few years later published two books in the same month.  I just never gave up.

How did you pick your writing genre?

I’ve written novels for adults and younger readers, books of nonfiction, short stories, essays, interviews, poems, and I even ghost wrote a cookbook once.  I don’t choose the books, the books choose me.

How do you know when a book is finished?

When I can’t see it anymore, when I can’t really decide if that word should be “a” or “the.”  When I really,  really hate it. 

What impact (good or bad) do you think the media has had on your work?

I think all media affect my work.  There’s a weird assumption people make about writers–”oh, you don’t watch television.”  Wrong.  I’ve watched more TV than god.  It all goes in–life and un-life and books and all the rest.  To be curious about the big world, media has to play a role in that.

What traits, if any, do you think that creative people have compared to people who are not creative?

The word creative always makes me uncomfortable–creativity comes in so many forms.  I think, in the end, to keep one’s mind “creative,” whatever that means, requires that you always wake up in the morning wondering what it is that you don’t yet know about.  An engaged curiosity.

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