Writers@Work: An Interview with Nick Petrie
January 3, 2017
Note From Rochelle
Happy New Year!
For today’s tip, I’m delighted to welcome Nick Petrie to talk about writing and his new novel, Burning Bright. I heard Petrie speak at Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee, and he’s got plenty of helpful tips for new writers. If you’re a Milwaukee-area resident, Petrie will be speaking and signing books at Boswell Book Company on January 10, 2017 at 7:00 PM (that’s next Tuesday). More details at the Boswell Book Company website.
The Write Now! Coach
Writers@Work: An Interview with Nick Petrie
By Rochelle Melander
Rochelle: Congratulations on the success of your first novel and the publication of your new one. Can you tell our readers how you got started writing?
Nick Petrie: I started writing in high school, working on my school newspaper. By my senior year, I was the editor-in-chief, but I wasn’t interested in the news. Instead I wrote an eight-episode soap opera featuring poorly-concealed caricatures of my fellow students. Mr. Huth, the faculty advisor, was very tolerant, and recognized early on that facts weren’t my strong suit. I’d also exhausted the English department’s selection of classes, so I took a creative writing course at my local university while still in high school. That’s when I knew I was doomed to a life of writing.
For readers who are just getting to know you, can you talk a bit about your books and the main character, Peter Ash? Who is he and what is he up against?
Nick Petrie: Peter Ash is a Marine Corps veteran who made it through his wars in one piece, but finds himself living with post-traumatic stress on his return home. He’s become claustrophobic, so it’s difficult for him to be indoors for even a relatively short time. But like many of the veterans I spoke with during the writing of these books, Peter hasn’t lost his strong desire to help others and be useful in the world.
In The Drifter, Peter travels to Milwaukee to help the family of his best friend from the service. To save them, he must deal with career criminals and crooked cops and a great deal more. In Burning Bright, Peter is hiking in the redwoods when he finds a woman on the run who needs his help.
The books are meant to be entertaining, with both action and humor throughout, but I’m very interested in the question of how veterans return to civilian life after deployment to a war zone. It’s one of the most profound questions of our time, and one that we as a society haven’t thought much about.
Rochelle: You own a business and have a family—how do make time to write?
Nick Petrie:It’s not easy! Right now, my business takes up about 75% of my work week, and writing takes up another 75%. Which tells you something about how my life is right now.
In order to spend time with my family, I’ve pretty much eliminated everything else. It’s really a question of priorities. We all have more time than we think. No matter how much I’d love to binge-watch Homeland or Game of Thrones, I’d rather invest that time spinning my own stories on the page.
What are one or two writing habits that have contributed to your success?
Nick Petrie: I love to read, and I’m lazy, so if I’m faced with reading one of my favorite authors or working on my own current writing project, reading often wins. But I’ve developed a few small life hacks to help me out. I don’t read while I eat breakfast, I just take my peanut butter and pickles right up to the office and turn on the computer. Similarly during the day, I don’t carry a book to work with me, so I have nothing else to do but write at lunch. It’s amazing how much you can get a lot done in 30 or 45 or 60 minutes, especially if you tell yourself, I’m just going to do a little bit until my alarm goes off.
The phone is a much bigger problem. It’s so easy to lose focus when my phone is always jangling at me. I both enjoy and need email and social media, but they’re a huge time-suck, and the mental muscles required are entirely different from those needed to write fiction, especially long-form fiction. So I try to start my writing day without checking my phone. I switch the ringer off or, better yet, leave it on airplane mode while I’m working. Some days I get lucky and leave it that way the whole day!
What are you reading now?
Nick Petrie: I get to do a few events in January with authors Ingrid Thoft, Thomas Perry and Brad Taylor, so right now I’m reading Ingrid Thoft’s new book, Duplicity. I just finished Thomas Perry’s new book The Old Man, and Brad Taylor’s new book Ring of Fire. Wonderful, all of them. Before that, I chewed through Lee Child’s latest, Night School, and E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate. When I’m done with Ingrid’s book, I might try another Chris Holm book. I also read The New Yorker magazine every week. The prose is spectacular.
Any final words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
Nick Petrie: It’s a long haul. I wrote three unpublished novels before Putnam agreed to publish The Drifter. There are no groupies, no green M&M’s. You’re mostly alone starting at a screen. You have to do it because you love it, because you can’t help yourself, because you love the challenge. You only have one life. What do you really want to do with it?
That aside, my advice for aspiring writers is pretty simple.
- You won’t get better until you put in the time, and you also have to let the muse know where to find you. The best way to do both is to write every day. Write a bunch of bad stories. Once you’ve hit 10,000 hours of writing, it gets easier.
- After writing comes rewriting. Learn to edit your own work. Rewrite until it starts to get worse again. That’s how you know you’ve gotten as far as you’re going to get on your own. Then show it to other people. And rewrite some more.
- Don’t get hung up on publishing – put your finished story or the book in the mail, then start something new immediately. Eventually your publisher will find you – I’m living proof of that. It only took me 25 years!
- It’s got to mean something to you. If it doesn’t mean anything to you, it won’t mean anything to your readers. Put your heart on the page.
- Don’t save anything up for next time. Put it all out there right now. And write as if your parents (and siblings, and kids, and sweethearts) are dead. They’ll understand once you’ve sold the movie rights.
Nick Petrie received his MFA in fiction from the University of Washington, won a Hopwood Award for short fiction while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, and his story “At the Laundromat” won the 2006 Short Story Contest in The Seattle Review, a national literary journal. A husband and father, he has worked as a carpenter, remodeling contractor, and building inspector. He lives in Milwaukee. Burning Bright is his second novel, and the sequel to The Drifter.