How I Write: Daniyal Mueenuddin
Published: May 11, 2010
Daniyal Mueenuddin dazzled the literary world with his first short-story collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist. Publishers Weekly named it one of the top 10 books for 2009. His stories, loosely organized around a landowner in the Punjab and his family, managers, servants and business associates, are mesmerizing, his writing lyrical and concise. Mueenuddin, whose father was Pakistani and mother American, grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, and Elroy, Wis. Both sides of the family owned farmland. A poet and lawyer, who once practiced in a New York City law firm, he now manages his family’s land in Pakistan, where he grows sugar cane, wheat, cotton and mangoes. “I love farming,” he says. “It takes great attention. You have to be constantly watching it, monitoring the water, monitoring the soil, and keeping very close track of it.” He applies this same scrutiny to his writing. “Economy is essential and important. Concision should be every writer’s mantra.”|
Why: My mother was a writer, and she read constantly. She
encouraged me to read when I was very little. I remember sitting on the
terrace, where we had a little rocking chair and a big rocking chair,
both of us rocking and reading. Those are precious times for me. Very
early I started writing poetry because she always read us poetry when
putting us to bed. |
Process: I can only write in the
morning. I try to write 300 words no matter what. If I’ve written 300
words, then I have complete license to stop writing for the day. I
don’t ever have any feeling of guilt ...
I intermittently keep a
journal. I write very long letters all the time. That’s really my
journal. But also I keep a list of [ideas]—a description of a character
or situation. When I finish one story, I turn to that list and find
what strikes my fancy.
Revisions: [Writing] feels like
you have this magic drop that you put in the ground, and this plant
starts growing. Then you realize it’s growing in the wrong direction.
You have to hack off those branches and make it smaller, and it grows
again. Then you start rediscovering things and reinserting things. It
Endings are the hardest, partly be-cause they
have to be so perfect. In the beginning you can entice the reader into
the story with bonbons and sweet things. At the end, you’re going to
leave the reader with one impression. I like an ending that leaves the
reader with a little something he can crush between his teeth that will
leave a flavor.
Powering through: When I’m writing, I
may be dancing along ... thinking how great I am. Usually later in the
day, I start realizing how bad I am. I’ll think, “My God, this is never
going to work.” I’ll get tremendously discouraged. You just have to
fight through it. It’s good or bad, it doesn’t matter. ... Just get it
Novel vs. short story: The first time I wrote a
short story I thought it was pretty hard. I had no idea what I was
doing. Now it’s certainly not easier, but at least I know what the
process is. ...
I’m moving [my novel] forward
a bit at a time, and at some point I’ll come out on the other side.
Then, I suppose it will be complicated because the revision process
will be so much more massive. On the other hand, I should think it will
be easier because there can be more extraneous parts. It doesn’t
require the rigidity of a short story. You can make more mistakes and
have these cul-de-sacs in it. Wander off a little bit and you’ll be
forgiven because the reader is reading this over a long period of time
and doesn’t mind, as long as it’s fun.
Advice: I like
to do a little climbing or hiking. When you’re hiking and carrying a
heavy pack [sometimes] you think, “I just can’t do this.” Then you just
tell yourself, “Put one foot in front of the other. Don’t worry about
the mountain ahead of you or whatever it may be you’re walking up.” ...
When you are really stuck, you’re really in pain, you really hate
yourself, and you really think it’s not going to work, put that foot in
front of you. It’s a way forward by definition.
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Interview by Elfrieda Abbe, publisher of The Writer.
(This article appeared in the June 2010 issue of The Writer.)