Who are you?
My name’s Larry Atlas, and I live in New York’s Hudson Valley, about an hour and a half north of New York City. For the early part of my work life, I was an actor and playwright, then a screenwriter. In an impulsive but serendipitous career change in midlife, I became a nurse and then a nurse practitioner. I was a hospitalist for ten years, and currently am the principal health care provider at a subacute rehab and nursing facility.
What do you write?
I began writing in earnest at around 19 when I was in the Army. I’d use the typewriter in the company’s orderly room after the staff had left for the day. I wrote poetry there and then wrote and studied it in college after getting out of the Army, before taking up playwriting in earnest. I especially loved that, writing for and working with actors; that led, in turn, to screenwriting, which was less pure fun, but better for the bank account. South Eight is my first novel.
Obviously, all writing draws on personal experience, but I tend to avoid the specifically autobiographical. Although writing can certainly be arduous, at least for me, I do love it. I’ve done a lot of different things in life, but despite occasional breaks always return to writing, now over the course of many decades. I love the way words and phrases and sentences come together.
Where do you write?
I write now on an iMac, but count myself lucky, as I know some other writers do, that I started on a typewriter. For many years I worked on an amazing IBM Executive with proportional spacing. Even if the words didn’t read well, they always looked beautiful. We live in the country, and our house has a little library where I write. I keep a pad by the bed for night ideas. My handwriting has always been terrible, so I have to be especially careful if I wake up and write something down, as it may be unreadable come morning.
When do you write?
I usually write in the morning, after coffee and catching up on the news. Sometimes I’ll work out beforehand as well, to wake up. With South Eight, I tried to write at least 500 words per day, though on “good” days, I’d sometimes reach 1,000 words.
Usually, I’ll write for about three hours though I don’t set limits; as long as it’s productive, I’ll continue. And at the moment, with time obligations to patients, my writing schedule is sometimes more flexible.
I don’t impose deadlines on myself, but have written to deadlines in the past, for example, with rewrites when a play was in or starting rehearsal, and certainly in Hollywood when writing screenplays on assignment. I didn’t mind deadlines as I think of myself as somewhat lazy. Deadlines, particularly in the movie business, like the gallows, had a way of concentrating the mind.
Why do you write?
Well, I love the feeling that comes with writing well, of finding the right word, making the right phrase or sentence. I think we each perceive and organize our world in a particular way. I had a composer friend who described hearing melody and rhythm and harmony in the voices of people she passed on the street, the sound of car tires on pavement. An architect friend tells me he sees the world in terms of shape and line and volumes of space. I suppose I experience the world primarily in words and the way people around me use them. So—perhaps, at a guess—if when writing, I can use words in a way that satisfies me, my own internal world feels better, makes better sense. Basically, I’m inspired by great writing, in serious literary fiction certainly, but sometimes even in more mainstream work. Wherever it is, whenever that great paragraph or passage emerges that takes one’s breath away, that’s what I love.
How do you overcome writer’s block?
First, I’ll try to read something really good, often a poem, sometimes even a few lines, which will help me find my rhythm and get me started. Next, if that doesn’t work, I’ll go back a good distance in whatever I’m working on and try to rediscover the through line that brought me to the stopping point. Finally, if neither of those work, I’ll stop to consider the possibility that I’m off on the wrong track, that where the work is headed is simply not going to work, and that being blocked is actually a smarter part of me telling me to throw it out, part of it anyway, and start again. That’s the worst way, but sometimes unavoidable.
Bonus: What do you enjoy doing when not writing?
Well, I like reading! So I read a lot, mostly fiction. I also exercise fairly religiously, daily for an hour or so, necessary maintenance at this point, but also enjoyable. My wife and I like to watch old movies. We also both like to cook and dream about traveling, pandemic permitting. We have a dog, a black Labrador named Ruby. I enjoy learning about life from her.
My thanks to Larry Atlas for today’s interview.