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By Jim Fisher

Louis L’Amour, the author of classic western novels, was a self-educated man who learned many things, including how to write, from books. In his fascinating memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, he had this to say about the large, personal library he had amassed:

My library is not simply an accumulation of books. Each book has its reason for being there, and thee is no deadwood on those shelves. Those I have are what I believe to be the best in the field, and if not that, they at least have something of value to offer. I have no book I could not read again with profit, and most of them require rereading. Occasionally, when not too pressed to got on with a story, I will go along the shelves, take down a half-dozen books, and just browse through them.

Judith Appelbaum, in her book, How to Get Happily Published, notes how published writers’ journals and collections of author interviews have educated and inspired others who write:

….to further advance their educations, many authors turn to behind-the-scene books like Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary and the diaries left by Chekhov Hawthorne and Thoreau, which deal directly with how a writer creates and organizes material, how private reading feeds constantly into present and future projects and how to deal with writer’s block, self-doubt and the other psychological hazards of the trade. Similar subject matter characterizes anthologies like the Paris Review Interviews, in which writers not only talk about their craft but also reveal whether they wrote reclining nude on a sofa or standing up in an A & P parking lot.

In her Introduction to Writers’ Roundtable, Margaret Culkin Banning acknowledges the importance to her of what certain authors have written about writing:

Writers have helped me when members of my family could not. Some writers have been closer than dear friends, even though I never have seen them in the flesh. For example, when I have read some of the Prefaces of Somerset Maugham, and his The Summing Up, the lucidity of his view of the writing profession illuminated dusky corners in my mind. When he tells of his successes and his thwartings, of the appraisal of his writing as “competent,” it meant to me that, with more or less importance or notice, many writers go down the same paths of experience and feelings….I have been helped by other writers.

In referring to books on writing and the writing life by authors, Donald M. Murray, the author of Shoptalk: Learning to Write With Writers, says:

The serious student of writing and the teacher of writing should know that the extensive testimony of writers has largely been ignored by composition researchers. What writers know about their craft has been dismissed as the “lore of the practitioner.”…

Researchers usually dismiss what writers say about writing because they believe that writers do not know, intellectually, what they do. But writing is an intellectual act and writers who are able to repeat acts of effective writing demonstrably know what they are doing. And they are articulate in sharing it.

In his book, Writer’s Workshop, fiction professor Stephen Koch correctly points out that:

Most writers love to talk, and one of the things they love to talk about most is writing. In interviews and letters, in table talk and memoirs and manifestos, writers have always held forth in surprisingly full detail about how they do what they do. It adds to a vast, largely untapped literature on technique.

I guess that in my lifetime I’ve read at least a thousand books in this writing, editing, publishing and writer’s life genre. My favorite books in the genre are the combination memoir/how-to books by successful writers such as Norman Mailer (The Spooky Art); Stephen King (On Writing); John Gardner (On Becoming a Novelist) and Larry King (None But a Blockhead). I also enjoy and find helpful collections of author interviews such as found in the famous Writers at Work series (Paris Review interviews) and the “conversation with” books (Conversations with Capote) and published letters of literary figures (Raymond Chandler Speaking). My personal library is also stocked with literary biographies, autobiographies and memoirs; as well as writers’ diaries and journals. I’ve also read more than my share of how-to books by writing teachers, advisors and the literary motivation types.

Like many writers, my contact with the literary world has been mainly through books and periodicals. I’m curious about how other writers live, write and cope with the difficulties of the trade. These books have taught me how to write, how to deal with rejection, and how to keep going when writing seems like a hopeless and silly thing to do.

If you’re interested in writing, publishing, and the writing life, I recommend the following books broken down, for convenience, into these four categories:

The Writing Life

Inspiration to Write

How to Write, Get Published, Etc.

Collections of Author Interviews


Bain, Donald, Every Midget Has an Uncle Sam Costume: Writing for a Living. NY: Barricade Books, 2002 (life of a ghostwriter)

Dillard, Annie, The Writing Life. NY: Harper and Row, 1989

George, Elizabeth, Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and The Writing Life. NY: HarperCollins, 2004

Hooks, Bell, Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work. NY: Henry Hold and Company, 1999

Jerome, John, The Writing Trade: A Year in the Life. NY: Viking, 1992 (my all-time favorite)

Mailer, Norman, The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing. NY: Random House, 2003

Maass, Donald, The Career Novelist. NY: Heinemann, 1996.

See, Carolyn, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. NY: Random House, 2002

Busch, Frederick, A Dangerous Profession: A Book About the Writing Life. NY: Broadway Books, 1999


Aftel, Mandy, The Story of Your Life: Becoming the Author of Your Experience. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1996

Block, Lawrence, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. NY: William Morrow, 1991

Brande, Dorothea, Becoming a Writer. NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putman, 1981 (Reprint of Harcourt, Brance 1934 edition)

Cameron, Julia, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998

Cameron, Julia, Walking in the World: The Practical Art of Creativity. Putnam, 2002

Elbow, Peter, Writing Without Teachers, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988

Friedman, Bonnie, Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life. NY: Harper Perennial, 1994

Keyes, Ralph, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. NY: Henry Holt & Company, 1995

Palumbo, Dennis, Writing From the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within. NY: John Wiley & Son, 2000

Rainer, Tristine, Your Life as Story. NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997

Ross, Elizabeth Irwin, Write Now! Surprising Ways to Measure Your Creativity. NY: Barnes & Noble, 2003

Shaughnessy, Susan, Walking in Alligators. San Francisco: Harpers, 1993


Anderson, Richard, Powerful Writing Skills. NY: Barnes & Noble, 2001

Appelbaum, Judith, How to Get Happily Published. NY: Plume, 1989

Blanco, Jodee, The Complete Guide to Book Publicity. NY: Allworth Press, 2000

Block, Lawrence, Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1985

Bova, Ben, Notes to a Science Fiction Writer. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975

Burack, Sylvia K., editor, The Writer’s Handbook: 100 Chapters by Famous Writers. Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1987

Card, Orson Scott, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1990

Cassill, R. V., Writing Fiction, Second Edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995

Collier, Oscar with Francis Spatz Leighton, How To Write & Sell Your First Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1986.

Collier, Oscar with Francis Spatz Leighton, How to Write & Sell Your First Nonfiction Book. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1990

Cole, David, The Complete Guide to Book Marketing. NY: Allworth Press, 2004

Elbow, Peter, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998

Elwood, Maren, Characters Make Your Story. Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1942

Forche, Carolyn and Philip Gerard, editors, Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instructions and Insights from the Teachers of the Associated Writing Program. Cincinnati: Story Press, 2001

Frey, James N., How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II: Advanced Techniques for Dramatic Storytelling, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1994

Gardner, John, On Becoming a Novelist. NY: Harper Colophon Books, 1983

Gardner, John, On Moral Fiction. NY: Basic Books, 1978

Hersey, John, The Writer’s Craft. NY: Random House, 1973

Hills, L. Rust, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. NY: Mariner Books, 2000

Holroyd, Michael, Works on Paper: The Craft of Biography and Autobiography Writing. NY: Counterpoint Press, 2002

Kilpatrick, James J., The Writer’s Art. Andrews, McMeel & Parker, 1984

King, Stephen, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. NY: Scribner, 2000

Koch, Stephen, Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction. NY: The Modern Library, 2003

Leder, Meg and Jack Heffron, editors, The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing: Everything You Need to Know About Creating and Selling Your Work. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2002.

Lerner, Betsey, The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. NY: Riverhead Books, 200l

Lukeman, Noah, The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. NY: Fireside, 2000

Lukeman, Noah, The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2002

Maass, Donald, Writing the Breakout Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 200l

Madden, David, Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers. NY: Barnes & Noble, 1988

Rabiner, Susan, Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get it Published. NY: W. W. Norton, 2002

Russ, Martin, Showdown Semester: Advice From a Writing Professor. NY: Crown Publishers, 1980

Strunk, William, Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition. Macmillan Company, 1979

Swain, Dwight V., Creating Characters: How to Build Story People. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1994

Zinsser, William, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, 25th Anniversary Edition. NY: Quile, 200l (first edition, Harper & Row, 1980)


No library featuring writer interviews would be complete without the Writers at Work series, eight volumes containing reprints of Paris Review interviews first edited by Malcolm Cowley and then by George Plimpton. The books were published in hardback by the Viking Press in 1958, 1963, 1967, 1976, 1981, 1984, 1986, and 1988. In paperback, the books were published by Penguin Books. Other collections of author interviews include:

Arana, Marie, editor, The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work: A Collection From the Washington Post Book World. Public Affairs, 2003

Bellamy, Joe David, editor, The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1974

Dembo, L. S., editor, Interviews with Contemporary Writers, Second Series, 1972-1982. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983

Grafton, Sue, with Jan Burke and Barry Zelman, editors, Writing Mysteries, Second Edition. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2002

Graham, John (interviewer) and George Garrett, editor, The Writer’s Voice: Conversations with Contemporary Writers. NY: William Morrow, 1973

Lamb, Brian, editor/interviewer, Booknotes: America’s Finest Authors on Reading, Writing, and the Power of Ideas. NY: Times Books, 1998

LeClair, Tom and Larry McCaffery, editors, Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1983

Levasseur, Jennifer and Kevin Rabalais, editors, Novel Voices: 17 Award-Winning Novelists on how to Write, Edit and Get Published. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2003

McCormack, Thomas, editor, Afterwords: Novelists on Their Novels. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1988

McCullough, David W., editor, People, Books & Book People. NY: Harmony Books, 1981

Mitgang, Herbert, editor, Words Still Count with Me: A chronicle of Literary Conversations. NY: W. W. Norton Company, 1995

Murphy, Stephen M., editor, Their Word is Law: Bestselling Lawyer-Novelists Talk About Their Craft. NY: Berkley Books, 2002

Polak, Maralyn, Lois, editor, The Writer as Celebrity: Intimate Interviews. NY: M. Evans and Company, 1986

Russ, Charles, editor, Conversations with American Writers. NY: Knopf, 1985

Winokur, Jon, editor, Writers on Writing. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1987

This page was last updated on: Tuesday, January 22, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com