Olivia Laing is a journalist, a former deputy books editor at The Observer, and the author of three books of nonfiction. Her first book, To The River, was shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize and documents a 42-mile journey she made along the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned. Her second book, The Trip to Echo Spring, examines the connection between writing and alcoholism and was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and the Gordon Burn Prize. Laing’s most recent book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named as one of the best books of 2016 by a number of media outlets, including NPR, Publishers Weekly, and Newsweek. Her writing regularly appears in publications including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the New Statesman.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned about writing?
Books have stages, and each stage requires a different kind of faith. At the beginning, it seems to me a book develops in some underwater way: not much seems to happen on the page, but patterns are being formed and threads developed. At the end, it’s a question of stamina. I try to remind myself of that: If you keep writing down and shaping thoughts, eventually there’ll be a book. It’s not magic, it’s labor. But the most important thing is to read, and not just the things that are vogueish or celebrated in your own time. There’s no substitute for being a prodigal reader, for knowing the unlimited things that can be done with words on a page. Read [Edmund] Spenser, read Rose Macaulay, read Christopher Marlowe, read medieval poetry and Edwardian pony stories and civil rights histories.
How has this helped you as a writer?
How does it help? It expands the field you have to work on; it gives you range. And don’t stop at books. I find the most fertile ideas for structure and approach come from looking at different art forms, especially music and painting. You’re constructing something out of nothing. It helps to furnish yourself with models and tools.
—Gabriel Packard is the author of the novel The Painted Ocean and the associate director of the creative writing MFA program at Hunter College in New York City.