You were an editor for about ten years before you started writing professionally. Do you feel being an editor has generally helped or hindered your writing process?
It helps up to a certain point. As an editor, you’re learning the whole time: learning tricks, acquiring tools. You’re getting to watch writers that are much better than you work on their pieces at the workshop level. So you could ask, “Why did you take out that comma?” “Why did you cut that page?” “I don’t just want to know that you did it; I want to know why you did it. What was influencing the mechanism at the moment that caused you to think that this thing wasn’t working or that it needed to be better?” That was my education.
But there does come a point where you have to make this mental decision to shut off the editing instinct; otherwise, you can’t exist as a writer; the writer is a little antagonistic with that voice. You go to write one sentence and can instantly think of five good reasons why it shouldn’t be like that, but that’s not the way writing works; you’re saying something because you have to say it. A good writer is not necessarily best buddies with the editor: that’s your playing partner, you’re trying to beat that person. It took me a while to figure that out. I’m still not sure I’ve totally figured it out.
—John Jeremiah Sullivan, in interview