Q. What inspires your writing?
A. I’ve loved to write since I was a young girl. My dad made a little writing room for me in our attic and I had a very old typewriter, in those days, and I’d peck out stories. Everything around me inspires me. Like many writers, I have a sort of writing muse—there are times when I can hear my words (or the words I should write) in my head and I can’t get them down fast enough. There are other times when I could sit and stare at a screen without a jot of inspiration. I simply can’t write when I’m not inspired—so I usually don’t even try. When I start having thoughts and ideas rattle around in my head, then you can’t get me to a computer fast enough.
Q. What inspired you to join forces with Clayton M. Christensen and James Allworth and write HOW WILL YOU MEASURE YOUR LIFE?
A. This was a very special book for me to work on. I had originally worked with Clay when I was the editor of Harvard Business Review. Clay is one of the most respected innovation experts in the world—and he’s also a wildly popular teacher at Harvard Business School. Two years ago, I was casting around for ideas for an article to help fill our special double summer issue. At the time, I thought it might be interesting to find out how the graduating class of MBAs had changed their world view—they were the class of 2010. But most of them had applied to business school two years before when the economy was booming and the post-MBA options must have seemed intoxicating. I was curious if they had reset their expectations while in school. In the course of trying to answer that question, a student at HBS told me that Clay had just spoken to the graduating class and that he’d been truly inspiring. So I reached out to Clay to find out what he’d said. That, in turn, became the article I had been looking for in Harvard Business Review. It was a short preview of what later became the book. Our readers responded immediately—they were touched by the questions Clay asked in the article. The article on our website went viral—I think it’s still the single most read article of all time on HBR.org. And I, personally, was profoundly moved, too. What Clay shared in that article made me fundamentally question my own life. It led to a complete recalibration—within a year of that article, I had resigned from HBR and was reprioritizing my life to focus on my family.
At the same time that article came out, one of Clay’s former students, James, was beginning a fellowship with Clay and he had the idea that the article could also be a fascinating book. James and Clay asked if I’d join them in writing the book. Which I was thrilled to do.
Q. What is your favorite thing about being an author?
A. When you know you’ve got it right. I can just hear the flow in my head when the writing and thinking come together perfectly. I love when I know I’ve crafted a great lede or the perfect ending to an article or a chapter. Sometimes I’ll work for days on getting that first paragraph or two right and people may think that I’m not being productive or dithering. But in reality, once I get that right, the rest can come quite quickly. In the book that manifested itself in getting the intro to each chapter right. I also love interviewing colorful characters. Some people are just such great quotes and such free thinkers. I love writing about (and with) them. I will make a sweeping generalization that some of the most colorful quotes in my career have come from people with accents (southern, British, and so on.) There’s just something magical about the way they recount a story or share details of something.
Q. What is the toughest part of being an author?
A. Fixing things that aren’t working. In a perfect world, every first draft would be exactly right. But that’s never the case. Sometimes getting very constructive feedback is overwhelming—not because it’s not right, but because it’s so hard to figure out how to go back to the piece and start pulling out threads to reconstructing until it is right. But then again, when you do fix something, it’s so so satisfying. It’s also hard to know which feedback and criticism to take – and when to stick to your guns and write something the way that feels right to you.
Q. If you could not be author, what would you do/be?
A. Does screenwriter count as different enough? I’ve also thought I might have been a good emergency room doctor…
Q. What would the story of your life be entitled?
A. A Journey of Unexpected Joys
Q. What is your favorite book of all time?
A. Oh. That is a tough question. Just one? I have read the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder series many, many times. And Judy Blume was a trusted friend all through my adolescence. The books you first love in life really do stick with you forever. I remember hearing Judy Blume on NPR not too long ago. Lots of 40-somethings like me were calling in and fawning over her, deservedly so. I love Toni Morrison, even though sometimes I’ve had to give a couple of her books second chances after putting them down initially. I always love them in the end. The Color Purple was the first book I read in a college class that I simply couldn’t put down until I was done. And in recent years, The Kite Runner has moved me beyond words. I associate favorite books with periods in my life when reading that particular book has somehow moved me, helped me through a transition or gotten me into loving reading again after a fallow period. The Kite Runner was the first book I was able to read start to finish while on a vacation with my then-young children. Being able to sit still and sink into it, even with kids fluttering around, was a gift and a reminder of how powerful escaping into a great book can be.
Q. Which character from ANY book are you most like?
A. I think I would have said Laura Ingalls Wilder for many decades of my life. Not sure it’s still relevant now, but when I was a girl, I completely wanted to be her. I’m sure I should say Elizabeth Bennett or some great heroine of classic literature, but in my heart of hearts, I’m somebody much more fun. Probably now, I’d give my kids a chuckle by saying Hermione Granger. I certainly hope I’m as fearless and loyal as she is.
Q. What is your favorite season?
A. Autumn. I love the sense of endings and new beginnings all wrapped up into one season. I’m drawn to the melancholy of summer fading away and the new scents and sounds and smells of fall kicking in. Everything seems possible in the fall.
Q. Tell me something funny that happened while on a book tour or while promoting your book.
A. I don’t know if it’s funny, but it’s sure a sign of the times. I moved with my family lock-stock-and-barrel to London just as we were starting to write this book. So we had one super busy academic in Cambridge, one night-owl MBA grad in Cambridge, and me on a mom schedule in London trying to work together. I came to love SKYPE, dropbox, and googledocs. I spent hours and hours with my colleagues virtually and it became quite a comfortable way of working.
Q. Are you working on something new?
A. My 11 year old daughter is a wonderful writer. She and I have talked about writing a mother-daughter book together. But we haven’t gotten past that basic idea yet!
Q. Anything you want to say to followers of this blog or those that are just stopping by?
A. It’s been a pleasure thinking about these questions. What a lovely reminder of how powerful and transformative a great book—reading one or aspiring to write one!--can be. If any of your followers do read the book How Will You Measure Your Life, I’d love to hear how it affected them.