Charles Baxter: How I Write

The novelist and short story writer explains what makes a good writing day and why he’s scared of spilling salt.

Where did you grow up?

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, and outside of it, on 40 acres of half-hearted farmland outside of Excelsior, Minnesota.

Where and what did you study?

I received a B.A. from Macalester College and a Ph.D. in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I took many English courses, some history and philosophy classes, but not enough classes in foreign languages and literatures; that was one of my bigger mistakes. It was common among my generation. We didn’t learn enough languages.

Where do you live and why?

After living in Michigan for thirty years, I live in Minneapolis now. The city feels like home to me, and it has an active cultural scene.

Of which of your books or projects are you most proud?

The novella Believers in the book of the same title. The scene of the narrator visiting his father near the end of the novella is the best prose fiction I’ve ever written.

Describe your morning routine.

Rise and shine, orange juice, hardboiled egg, oatmeal, New York Times. Then coffee, shower, indecision, efforts at writing and reading followed by aboulia.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

Having a glass of wine promptly at 5 PM.

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What is your favorite item of clothing?

Who cares?

Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers.

This week? Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, in the translation by Burgin and O’Connor. Lars Gustafsson’s Stories of Happy People, and Kostolanyi’s Skylark.

Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?

I used to. I’m too old for that now. No, wait: yes, I do have a couple of writer friends whom I consult with. I send them my whatnot when I’m unsure about it.

What is a place that inspires you?

The rocky northern shore of Lake Superior north of Duluth, Minnesota—it looks like the Maine seacoast.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins.

There is no such routine. The spell comes upon me, I’m in its grip. The book develops with my collaboration or unconscious help, and sometimes it proceeds even in the face of my refusal to work on it. A detailed account of my “routine” would be like describing one’s participation in one’s own pregnancy.

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I work during the morning. I pace; I stare out the window. I sit with my head in my hands. If I can feel myself breaking out into a sweat, particularly from my underarms, and if I give off a noticeable body odor that even I can smell, I know the writing is going well.

What do you do when you are stuck or have temporary writer’s block?

I re-read what I’ve already written. When I used a typewriter, up until about twenty years ago, I would re-type the previous pages. I try to turn off the computer screen so that I don’t have to stare at it. I hate computer screens. They stare back at you with their big stupid faces and ask you what you’ve done for them lately. They’re almost as bad as the hum given off by electric typewriters.

You write in a variety of forms: novel, short story, and critical essay. Does any one format come more easily than another? Does your routine differ depending on the format?

I prefer writing stories. Critical essays take less out of me. All they require is thinking. Anybody can think for a living without being burned to a crisp. Fiction requires the heart and the mind and the guts and the genitals, and you have to set them all on fire.

It is a shame that the publishing world seems to feel that the short story, as an art form, is not enough of a money-maker to be the career-starter that it once was. What are the current, enduring bastions of the short story, in terms of publications, and do you see the advent of eBook “shorts” as a possible way to revitalize the genre?

I have no idea. There may be no current, enduring bastions of the short story. Bastions fall. Who now practices that great form, the verse drama? Nobody.

Describe your ideal day.

Rising, breakfast, work, lunch, walking or hiking, nap, wine, dinner, love, sleep.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

Robert Walker’s performance as Bruno in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Or: Jonathan Winters, the greatest comedian of my time.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

The last ten minutes of the new 3-D documentary Pina: the dancers on the edge of the gravel pit, then the black-and-white movies of Pina Bausch dancing alone.

Do you have any superstitions?

I don’t like to spill salt. I throw it over my left shoulder. But if I spill salt in the morning, my day is fucked.

What is something you always carry with you?

My guilt.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

My father. Never met the man.

What is your favorite snack?

Clausen’s Dill Pickles. They’re in the refrigerated section of the supermarket.

What phrase do you over-use?

“That’s not clear to me.”

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

In despair, I submitted my first book of stories to the AWP competition [Association of Writers and Writing Programs]. They had already rejected the book at the Iowa contest and at a number of other fine high-rent locales. Don Barthelme was the judge of the AWP that year, and he liked my book enough to give it the prize, although he would not blurb it. The University of Missouri Press published it in an edition with typeface on the binding that you could not read from two feet away.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?

No, never, and there will never be any such time.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

One good sentence.

Tell me a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

Are these stories really funny? For example, the time when, at Books & Company in NYC, a now-defunct bookstore that was on Madison Avenue, for a launch reading for A Relative Stranger, I started to read “The Disappeared” and broke out in a cold sweat, was unable to read the print on the page, and started to pass out? (I did not actually fall to the floor, but came close.) In front of Amy Hempel and Richard Howard and Bill Matthews and various other worthies? Or the time in Madison when a woman raised her hand and asked me why my writing was so vague? Or the time I was asked whether I minded that I was not a popular writer? Ha ha ha ha ha.

What would you do for work, if you were not a writer?

I would have liked to have been a musician, if I had had that gift. I once wanted to make films; that desire is gone, gone, gone. In the 19th century I might have been a bookbinder and would have gone mad from glue fumes. My great-grandfather did.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Be sure that you have a Plan B. But don’t quit. Cultivate a “Fuck You” attitude as a survival tactic.

Tell me something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I was very happy in elementary school, less happy in middle school, and very unhappy in high school. My advanced degrees are fraudulent; I have never known enough. I have learned much from the writings of Virgil Thomson. I used to be obsessed with the second-rate films of Alfred Hitchcock. My overbite has kept me from being really popular with women.