Friday, August 13, 2010


ROBERTA: Today JRW is delighted to introduce SJ Rozan. She's an amazing writer who's earned a pile of awards for both her long-running Lydia Chin/Bill Smith mystery series and her thoughtful and well-acclaimed stand-alone novels. Besides all that, she's highly opinionated and just the slightest bit crazy. What other five-foot tall fifty-something female would think she belonged playing basketball with the guys? Anyway, we're so glad she's here to talk about traveling, writing, positive procrastination, and more.

SJ: You really can't get away from it all, can you? Not if you're a writer. It chases you around, it's everywhere you look. It's one of those conundrums of the writing life, that you can be simultaneously stuck in a book, immobile, no place to go and without a fresh idea in your head; and at the same time everywhere you turn -- the grocery store, the gym, the museum, the concert hall, or the backyard -- there the book is, up in your face, saying, "What are you going to do about me, huh, huh? What?"

Does it offer to help? No, it does not, anymore than a toddler with a dirty diaper offers to change himself. (This is not an analogy chosen lightly, by the way.) It's right there demanding work, and demanding that you do it.

Sometimes, though, you do have to get away, even if it means taking the toddler with you. In July, at exactly the half-way point in my new book, I went to Mongolia for nearly a month.

I wasn't stuck in the book at the time, more like wrung dry. A roadblock implies a road on the other side. In my case it was as though the road had turned into a footpath and the footpath had just petered out. (Road analogies are not chosen lightly when you're talking about Mongolia, either, by the way.)

I didn't fly off to the opposite side of the globe, about as far from home as I could get without starting to come back the other way, because I was out of things to write, or looking for ideas. This trip had been planned for a year and a half. I'd hoped, in fact, to have the book done, or nearly done, by the time I left. From a year and a half away, that seemed feasible. From a year and a half away, any number of ridiculous things seem feasible.

So I spent three and a half weeks in Mongolia (photos and trip reports on my blog, and more still being posted) with two guides, three drivers, and eight friends, all of whom I knew and liked, none of whom are writers. We bounced over the rockiest excuses for roads I've ever had the pleasure to know. We rode camels, slept in gers (a wood-framed, felt-covered round tent; think yurt), hiked around the rim of an extinct volcano. We saw sheep being sheared in a country where sheep outnumber people ten to one and they're only one of the "five snouts of Mongolia" (sheep, goats, yaks, horses, and camels) all of which graze on the steppes, watched over by adolescent herdsmen on horseback. We saw the monastery built on the ruins of Kubilai Khan's palace, the Flaming Cliffs where dinosaur fossils were first identified, and the world's only truly wild, as opposed to feral, horses. (Didn't know there was a difference? Neither did I until this trip, but there is and the Mongolians are very proud of it.)

What we didn't do was talk about writing. My book was there with me the whole time, in my head, stuck in the same place and not moving, but I couldn't tell anyone my problem. Not that they wouldn't have listened. They would have, and they'd have even been sympathetic. But if one of them had been a mathematician stuck in a proof and telling me about it, my reaction would have been pretty much what I'd have gotten from them if I'd started up. Gee, that sounds awful. But you'll figure it out. Let's go look at the stars. So we looked at the stars and I kept my mouth shut.

And then this astounding thing happened when I got back. After I got over the most amazing case of sleep-deprived, culture-shock jetlag I've ever had, I sat down to work on the book. As though I knew what I was doing. And wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles: I did. While I was rattling over stony so-called roads in an old Soviet van, my well got refilled. This stuff bubbles up from below, and you can't push it. You can scoop it off as fast as it comes, and you can't scoop it at all unless you're at the well (translation: rear in chair, fingers on keyboard). But if the well's empty you just have to wait until it refills. And sometimes, leaving it alone works much better than trying to scrape the mud from the bottom.

So I recommend getting away from it all. Even when you're taking it all with you, which, as a writer, is what you'll always be doing.

ROBERTA: Thanks SJ for coming to visit us here at Jungle Red! SJ's teaching in Italy as we speak, but promises to stop in when she can manage to get online. And meanwhile, don't forget to be on the lookout for On the Line, which will be in bookstores next month. I for one cannot wait. (And that camel picture may be the best photo ever!)


  1. Welcome, SJ.
    This experience also happens to me. I go away, expose myself to new things, and suddenly the writing flows again--as you say, like a well recharged.
    Dying to read the next book

  2. Hi, SJ! Mongolia?? Wow - you are one adventurous traveler. And for 3 weeks. I want to hear what you have to say about packing...

    I went to Greece for 3 weeks (slept in a villa, hotels...swam in the Aegean, really roughing it) but I did come back refreshed and able to see my way out of plot holes that seemed relentlessly opaque before I left. GREAT advice.

  3. Okay, the camel thing definitely tops our horseback ride through Yosemite.

  4. Yes, I have to agree with you Lee!

    When Sisters in Crime's Alaska chapter arranged for authors to be sent to the Bush a couple of years ago, I admired SJ for choosing a tiny island that required a bush plane and sleeping on a floor. I went to Homer and a couple other towns on that peninsula. Absolutely stunning and lovely, but not what you'd call "roughing it." On the other hand, the furniture in my B and B might have been of 50's vintage...

  5. I really have to give up business coaching and take up writing!

    Just joking I know that it isn't all trips to exotic locations to recharge ...or is it?

  6. Lee -- NOTHING beats riding those pregnant mares in Yosemite, with you on the only stallion.

    Hallie -- I'm the world's lightest packer. The funny part was, because I'm a New Yorker, a lot of what I took was black, and what wasn't was plain, say red or brown, not patterned. Which led my tripmates, a flannel-plaid bunch from the western states, to declare me -- ME! -- co-ordinated and well-dressed.

  7. Hey, SJ..welcome home. And yes, maybe you could do another whole blog on how to pack. Although the definition "what you need" probably changes quite a bit once you realize you're in Mongolia.

    SO exciting! And headed over to see your other photos.

    And you know, I bet we can learn to "go to Mongolia" in our imaginations..and maybe get the same recharge value.

    And now you're in Italy. Sigh. SOME YEAR SOON I'd love to be there with you all...

  8. Okay, I'm so jealous. What a great trip. And yes, I so agree, getting away frees you from forcing things. Did you bring home the camel?

  9. SJ, the internet suits you so well--from NYC or Ulaan Bator or Assisi. Sure hope you found that basketball court near your hotel.
    Hank--race you to Italy for SJ's seminar next year!

  10. Laraine, Hank, Rose, I want you ALL here in Assisi with me next year! Rose, I didn't bring home the camel. Camels, to my surprise, really stink. It has to do with sweat glands. I'll do a post on it one of these days over at my own blog, no point in grossing out my nice hostesses here.

  11. SJ,
    I'm not just jealous of Mongolia, I'm jealous of your light packing.

    You, too, Hallie.


  12. Sing it, ET--great post. Love the camel, love the aquifer (and diaper) analogies.

    When I can't escape some place amazing to recharge (you know, like Mongolia or Assisi), just sitting and watching a flock of DVDs and drinking Ovaltine for a couple of days--while determinedly not writing--makes a difference. I include time for end-o'-the-project burn-out. I used to be terrified I'd never start again, but in all my project notes, I can find the spot where I took a couple of days off to good effect.

  13. Oh, but do I need to add, Mongolia is probably more fun!

  14. Dana -- maybe more fun, but DVDs and Ovaltine are undeniably less bumpy.

  15. Couldn't you have just done the Bronx Zoo?

  16. Can I go on your next trip? I promise to talk only about camels, not about novels.