Nina MacLaughlin grew up in Massachusetts. She earned a B.A. in English and Classical Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, then worked for about eight years at the Boston Phoenix, the award-winning alternative newsweekly. In 2008, she quit her journalism job to work as a carpenter’s assistant. Her experience leaving her deskjob to learn the carpentry trade is the subject of her first book, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, and she continues to pursue both building and writing. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Believer, the Boston Globe, the Rumpus, the Millions, Bookslut, and many other places. She lives near the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
NAW- Tell us about your book ‘Hammer Head’. How did you get the idea for it?
I never anticipated writing a non-fiction book, particularly one about my life doing carpentry. I was lucky to have an editor approach me about doing the project. He saw a book review I’d written, got in touch with praise, I responded with my thanks and he saw that I worked as a carpenter. “If you ever consider writing a book, please let me know,” he wrote. It was one of the best emails I’ve ever gotten.
NAW- Most authors tend to look for financial stability these days but you made such a brave choice. Were you apprehensive what you would do if it didn’t work out?
I was definitely terrified when I left my newspaper job without anything lined up. It was a destabilizing stretch of months; there were financial fears, career fears, and so much of how I’d defined myself was wrapped up in my work. When I saw the post on Craigslist – carpenter’s assistant, women strongly encouraged to apply – I knew immediately that this was what I wanted, and now, six years later, feel so lucky that I ended up getting the job.
NAW- Writing a memoir is a very brave thing to do as unlike fiction, it’s like putting your soul on display. Are you happy with the reception of Hammer Head?
I’d argue that any sort of writing, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, it’s all, to a certain extent putting your soul on display. In terms of writing about my own life, I found it hard to quiet the voices in my head that said, who cares about your dumb life? But I learned how to quiet them enough to let me get through the writing. I feel extremely happy with the reception – the book got so much generous attention, much more so than I anticipated.
NAW- We like the way the chapters are named but you have also dwelled upon the history behind many aspects of carpentry. Did you have to research actively for getting the facts right? Tell us about the research you carried out for Hammer Head. How did you go about it?
My research was done primarily at the Cambridge Public Library, reading books on tools, histories of work, dictionaries, etc. The research actually ended up deepening my appreciation for the tools and for the work. After the research, using the screwdriver, for example, or the Japanese saw, it felt neat to know how and when they came to be. I hadn’t done that sort of research since college, and it felt so good to return to it. It was a particular pleasure of working on the book.
NAW- The best thing about Hammer Head is that it can be interpreted in a number of ways. It’s equally good for people who are looking to change their career or even for people who are looking for a great story. How did you structure Hammer Head? Did you plan it well in the beginning itself or let the writing take its course?
That was the most difficult part for me, figuring out how to tell the story. All I’ve done in my life is read – a lot of my professional writing has been writing book reviews – and I figured I’d just sort of absorbed how to shape a story. Turns out I hadn’t, and that was very challenging. It was a raw experience of coming up against my own limits. It took a lot of trial and error, a lot of scrapped drafts, and a lot of cutting of the musing, meditative stuff which I tend to get carried away on.
NAW- Had you planned what profession you’d choose after quitting your day job? Why choose carpentry?
When I left my journalism job, I only had a vague crave that I wanted to be away from the screen, that I wanted to do something a little more tangible. I had absolutely no experience with carpentry, and didn’t have any clue when I quit that that’s what I’d end up doing. Carpentry, to me, felt like something amazing and useful to learn, something totally new, challenging, practical, physical, and hugely satisfying. There’s something essential about building with wood.
NAW- As with all aspiring writers (who often go through a string of jobs before they can sustain their living from writing alone) you have also given up a secure day job. What do you plan to do next and if you could change one thing about the transition period (from an editor to a carpenter) what would that be?
My plan is to stick with what I’ve got cooking for right now, the combination of writing and carpentry. The combination of the two is ideal for me, mentally, physically, and financially. The two balance each other and compliment each other in incredible ways, and I’m grateful to have these dual pursuits.
As for changing anything in the transition, I’m not sure I would. I think big changes like that are necessarily frightening and difficult. Facing yourself, figuring out what you want, what you don’t want, trying to find something that rewards you, that feeds you and puts a roof over your head, these are the big challenges, and often yield the biggest rewards.
NAW- Tell us about your publishing journey. How did Hammer Head find its publisher?
I was lucky to have Matt Weiland, an editor at W.W. Norton, approach me about doing this project after he saw a book review I’d written about Phil Connors’s amazing book Fire Season. He set me up with an agent, and I worked on a proposal, submitted it first to him at Norton, and it turned out they wanted to publish it. It still sometimes feels too good to be true that it worked out like this.
NAW- What will you be working on next?
I’m working on an extended lyric essay about the month of November, and am about to start a bathroom renovation job.
NAW- Any advice for upcoming authors?
Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Revise, revise, revise. Pitch. Submit. Again and again and again. Also, learn to write when you don’t want to. Learn to write when you’d rather be doing anything but writing.