The Writing Life: Thomas M. Kostigen

Thomas M. Kostigen is the most important environmental writer in the U.S. That’s not only because he’s trekked through the Amazon to record how we’re destroying it, or because he climbed into the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island to…smell how badly it stinks. Or because his ground-breaking New York Times bestseller The Green Book gave us all a checklist for ways to improve the environment around us. It’s also because when he writes about these vital issues he does it with a vibrant touch that brings a sometimes dry scientific and political issue to life. For this reason – if not also for the diversity of his writing experience, as a financial writer, playwright, and screenwriter -- I asked the Santa Monica-based Kostigen to talk about The Writing Life.

How long did it take you to get published?

I actually started writing in college. I interned at a local newspaper that happened to win the Pulitzer Prize while I was working there. So I had these great clips to go along with my degree. From there, well, I continued to publish in newspapers, magazines and wire services. I ghost-wrote a couple of books in my early twenties. I also wrote some plays that were produced, a film, and then turned to books. My first book came a decade after college.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

I think Syd Field's book on screenwriting applies to all writing forms because it's about process, structure and tenacity. But really the best books are authors' memoirs or autobiographies.

What’s a typical writing day?

I write every day. Every day! Usually I get informed in the morning. By that I mean reading a lot of newspapers, blogs, and the wires. This helps me wake up and usually sparks an idea or two. I'm an early riser, so by 8 a.m. I am a pot of coffee into the day and cranking away at my quota. I aim for a thousand words a day.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

My latest book is entitled You Are Here: Exposing the Vital Link Between What We Do and What T.... I traveled around the world to very exotic locales to research how we affect the planet by the simple, everyday things we do in our lives. It's great because it's an adventure story as well as a book that has information that can change the world for the better.

How much of what you do is completely original?

I write nonfiction. And while I try to write in my own unique voice, I do rip off Bowles, Theroux, and Chatwin...

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Hemingway wrote that as supposedly his shortest, short story. And he thought it his best work, or so it's said. Anyway, I like it.

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?

I think John Irving's description of Owen Meany is up there. He made me hear Meany's voice. Quite a feat for a writer...

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

I'd have to give that to DeLillo. His rhythm is unmatched, and he really shades things nicely.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?

Rushdie. Who can think like that?

How much research is involved in each of your books?

As a nonfiction writer, I put an enormous amount of research in everything. (I have to footnote.) Memoir editors take note.

What’s your experience with being translated?

I've been translated into about a dozen different languages. My only problem is with Chinese grammar. (They never get it right!) I also learned that my last name in Swedish means "cow path." Hmm....

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?

I've actually always lived solely off my writing. Now, I live off my books and my freelance journalism. I started making real money after one of my books hit the New York Times best seller list. That moniker gives you lots of cred.

How many books did you write before you were published?

I finished two full manuscripts before I got anything published by a house.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

Ah. Funny story. I was met by my author escort at the airport. She looked exactly like Kathy Bates in Misery. She had double parked her junk car at the sidewalk and got a ticket. An old pizza box was on the passenger seat, which she cleared for me to sit on. After the death ride to my first talk, I came out to find her -- and she had gone. Never saw her again. Crazy.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

The History of the Pogo Stick.

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