Keith McWalter: “Don’t try to fit into a genre”

Don’t try to fit into a genre. There’s too much categorization in the publishing and book-selling world. Writing shouldn’t be an alternative to opening a cupcake shop; once you think of it as a money-making venture, you’re dead. I did a blog post called So You Still Want to be a Writer that sort of […]

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Don’t try to fit into a genre. There’s too much categorization in the publishing and book-selling world. Writing shouldn’t be an alternative to opening a cupcake shop; once you think of it as a money-making venture, you’re dead. I did a blog post called So You Still Want to be a Writer that sort of sums it up.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Keith McWalter.

Keith McWalter writes the essay blog Mortal Coil (www.keithmcwalter.com), and his narrative nonfiction and opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, and the San Francisco Chronicle. A collection of his essays, No One Else Will Tell You: Letters from a Bi-Coastal Father, won the Writer’s Digest Award for Nonfiction, and his family memoir, Befriending Ending, was anthologized in the online literary magazine Feathered Flounder. McWalter grew up in Mexico and Pennsylvania, is a graduate of Denison University and Columbia Law School and spent much of his first career in the legal and investment banking worlds of New York and San Francisco. He and his wife live in Granville, Ohio, and Sanibel, Florida.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

I was an English major in college and have always been a compulsive writer, but got sidetracked into a legal career for several decades. Fortunately, legal writing requires the same skills as any other compelling writing: you’ve got to write clearly and unambiguously, you’ve got to self-edit, and you’ve got to pick your strongest positions and go with them. I was lucky that I started out in a law firm where the culture was that older lawyers heavily mentored younger ones, and that meant I had strong editors. So all those years in law weren’t wasted when writing came back to prominence in my daily life, but they did make me hunger to be able to return to creative writing.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Years ago I had a couple of essays published in The New York Times Magazine, one of them on the mildly salacious topic of upscale “gentlemen’s clubs” where one might witness what was called couch dancing. The piece, which took a carefully feminist, dystopian view of such proceedings, caught the eye of a producer for Geraldo Rivera’s daytime talk show, and I was invited to appear on it as part of a panel that would discuss the rather non-debatable pros and cons of couch dancing and other forms of live but touchless sex.

I flew from California to New York and rode in from JFK in a limo arranged by the producer, met my panel-mates, which included, unsurprisingly, a couple of very pleasant sex workers, and got a nice on-air compliment from Geraldo, who was then at the height of his credibility. I can’t recall what little I said, but my thinly veiled skepticism wasn’t the point. Soon after, I was contacted by an agent who wanted to know if there was anything else I’d written that might be publishable — a novel, for instance. At the time I had nothing to offer, and treated the overture as though it were a pitch for a time-share in Cancun.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

I don’t mean to be a smartass, but the biggest challenge in becoming an author is actually becoming an author — that is, someone who writes consistently and coherently and well. It’s a huge effort for most of us who have day jobs to find time to write, and I failed at that for most of my legal career. That and dispensing with the idea that the only legitimate outlet for writing fiction is the New York-dominated publishing scene. It took me awhile to get over that, as I had a completely elitist and frankly unrealistic view of what it meant to be a writer.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It’s not that funny, but it would have to be when a New York agent approached me after my appearance on the Giraldo Rivera show and I treated her as though she were a used car salesman. I was young and full of myself for having been published in The New York Times and having been on TV and must have assumed there’d be any number of opportunities like that down the road. And there weren’t. It was such a different, more receptive, less competitive publishing world when I was starting out, and I just didn’t recognize it for what it was.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m hoping to co-author a non-fiction book on a topic I can’t disclose with a friend of mine who’s an accomplished published author of nonfiction. And just for balance, I have an idea for a semi-dystopian novel that would explore the downsides of the quest for immortality currently in vogue with some very well-funded tech companies.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Life is short. Cherish each day. Love as openly and selflessly as you can.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”?

  1. You will need luck and contacts as well as skill and perseverance.
  2. Don’t hesitate to exploit your contacts. False modesty will get you nowhere.
  3. Learn to self-edit. Most of what most of us write should never see the light of day, or needs much more revision than we usually give it.
  4. Read voraciously. I find I do my best writing when I’ve been reading the best writers. Seek out voices from other generations who did it a different way, and learn from them.
  5. Don’t try to fit into a genre. There’s too much categorization in the publishing and book-selling world. Writing shouldn’t be an alternative to opening a cupcake shop; once you think of it as a money-making venture, you’re dead. I did a blog post called So You Still Want to be a Writer that sort of sums it up.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

We writers, even those few who have been published, need to learn to content ourselves with the inherent pleasure of writing and stop distracting ourselves and lining others’ pockets in our Sisyphean efforts to get the world to acknowledge it. We need to tamp down our narcissism and recognize the universal cultural urge toward fame for the waste of time that it is. If Getting Published is our only litmus test of whether we’re good writers, we’re probably not, because we’re writing for some imagined audience rather than ourselves. This is not to say that if we write for ourselves and write well, such authentically good writing will win out, because it probably won’t — the likelihood that it will has diminished, not increased, in the current world of publishing. We nonetheless need to write for ourselves, for the sheer love of the right words in the right order on the page, and perhaps for those relatively few others who might care to read us, even if they’re only a handful of friends and family. We might never (or never again) be published, and that’s perfectly alright.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

Among currently-publishing fiction writers, Richard Ford stands out for me. I just find is narrative voice deeply affecting and immersive. Of recently-deceased writers, I idolize James Salter, both his fiction (e.g., Light Years) and non-fiction (Burning the Days). And of the old guard, I’m a huge fan of John Updike, who impressed on me and continues to impress on me the grandness of what we tend to dismiss as “domestic” fiction. And I stand in perpetual awe of Cormac McCarthy, whose Blood Meridian is a continued rebuke to those of us who think we’re real writers.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My blog at keithmcwalter.com

On Twitter @kgmcwalter

On Tumbler Kmcwalter

On Facebook

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