Writer Makenna Johnston interviews NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty
One sunny November 1st in New York City, I started my first attempt at NaNoWriMo, steamy coffee mug in hand. I thought to myself ‘why not write a novel in a month?’. The answer? It wasn’t as easy as I had though. When November 31st rolled around, I hadn’t completed a novel, but I had spent a month writing daily, drank some 100 cups of coffee, and successfully sat in 20 different coffee shops late at night. I’d call it a success. What I did learn, other than that writing a novel in a month is arduous, is that being a writer wasn’t as novel or romantic as I thought it would be (pun intended). And I certainly didn’t need a fedora or a tweed coat to do it.
So what sort of guy convinces thousands of people year after year to sit down and write a novel in a month? The inimitable Chris Baty.
And guess who’s coming Crossroads this year?! The Chis Baty. The main inspiration and mad man behind NaNoWriMo, I’m not excited, I swear. Ok so maybe I am really excited. I asked a number of our Facebook followers what they wanted me to ask him. I hope I did your bidding appropriately good Crossroad-ers. Without further adieu:
Makenna: So Chris, what was the impetus for you to write a novel in one month?
Chris: Oh man. Such a good question. I think there were several things afoot that lead to the birth of NaNoWriMo. The most important one was just my life-long obsession with novels. I’m an only child, and books were my siblings when I was growing up. They provided an escape from boring adult conversations, helped me survive interminable summer road trips, and taught me that murderous clowns lurk beneath sewer grates (thank you, Stephen King.)
I’d always seen novels as these magical things, but I never dreamed I would write one. Then, in 1999, I found myself working as an editor at a website for business travelers. I was spending my days researching power-lunch spots in Houston and writing up blurbs on the best company to rent a limo in Los Angeles. Spending eight hours a day doing something that I wasn’t really connected to left me feeling pretty drifty. I wanted to tackle a big, personal project that might make life feel exciting again.
That lead me to novel-writing.
M: How did you get 20 other crazy folks to join you?
C: I’m a coward who has trouble finishing projects, and I always feel better (and end up doing more) when I have a group of friends tackling the same project alongside me. Happily, when I sent out an email to my friends inviting them to take part in the escapade (http://blog.lettersandlight.org/post/13563014781), almost all of them signed on.
M: What type of folks were these first vagabonds? Were they writers already or mixed background?
C: There were definitely a couple writers in the mix, but most of the participants that first year didn’t have any literary ambitions—they just liked the idea of a fun, group challenge. (One of the winners that first year was my friend Tim, who adamantly insists he hates writing and has gone on to win NaNoWriMo eight times. It kind gets in your blood.)
M: How many of them are still involved with NaNoWriMo today?
C: I’m the only NaNoWriMo participant who has taken part in the challenge every year since 1999, but a bunch of those original six winners been doing it off and on over the years.
M: What is your favorite part of NaNoWriMo?
Chris Baty founder of NaNoWriMo in his Berkeley apartment.
C: Favorite parts…hmmm…There’s a moment towards the end of the month where you scroll back through all you’ve written and just shake your head in amazement. The quality is very rough, but the potential is huge. And it’s just so crazy that none of these characters or places or conversations existed a few weeks earlier. To me, it’s a real lesson in the power of deadlines to help us achieve huge things.
I also really love the anticipation leading up to November. I’ve learned a ton from every NaNoWriMo novel I’ve written, but I tend to exit November knowing I won’t revise that year’s manuscript. Still, I’ve stumbled into three or four stories that I’ve really loved and never would have discovered without NaNoWriMo. There’s this great Christmas Eve feeling on October 31, where you go to bed knowing that the next day you’ll tear into this mysterious package and find out what’s inside. Sometimes it’s a pair of socks. But sometimes it’s a pair of unicorns who can magically dispense espresso out of their horns. Every year, you hope for the barista unicorns. And sometimes you get them.
Stay tuned for Part 2…
Chris Baty will be the lunch keynote speaker at the 4th annual Crossroads Writers Conference. If you haven’t already registered, do so while you still have time!