Some sequels seem fitting or inevitable while others, usually ones written by somebody besides the original and dead author, feel more like grave robberies. But the impulse toward exhumation can be hard to resist.
Novelists send their characters abroad for the same reason we send ourselves: for a change of pace, to get out of a rut, to shake off the rust. Henry James built a whole career on exploring the theme of Americans traveling abroad and being transformed by the experience.
When you're writing a book based on archival research and you have two children who come home from school at three, no matter how much you love libraries, you become grateful for Google. For three years, I sat down most mornings at my dining room table in my slippers and read newspapers in the 1870s. No need to travel to distant archives, or spend fruitless hours turning the wrong pages. I could open a browser, punch in a range of dates and a few search terms, and within seconds have a presorted queue of articles, every one of which was relevant.
Writers are known to suffer a few categories of envy. There is envy of money, of accolades, of publication in this or that place. There is envy of profligacy and of well-managed scarcity. There is envy of accomplishment and of potential. There is envy of great writing and envy of those who despite not being great seem immune to self-doubt. And all of these envies are simply a feeling that is shorthand for one thought: "He doesn't deserve that….but I might."
E-book sales have plateaued. Bookstores have staged a modest resurgence. Turning off your phone has become a prized luxury. Over these last few years all of us, readers and writers alike, have developed a growing appreciation for what the Internet wants to take away: our time alone with the written word.
A book, Proust wrote, "is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices." This may explain why authors are often a disappointment in the flesh, particularly when you have admired their wisdom on the page. The common-place vices of an other-directed existence--vanity, envy, insecurity--seem to be magnified many times among these denizens of solitude.
Katherine Anne Porter argued (or at least asserted) that "novella" is "a slack, boneless, affected word that we do not need to describe anything"; her stern yet vague taxonomy recognized only "short stories, long stories, short novels, novels."
When people ask me what I do for a living, I try to change the subject. If they persist, I tell them I teach writing, judge writing contests, edit manuscripts, and give lectures and readings. These are not lies; I do all these things. They are, in fact, what I do for a living--that is, to pay the rent and health insurance. What I do for a life is write, and that's the part that's hard to explain.
The pithiest book about writing is E. M. Forster's Aspect of the Novel, in which he chose to reveal some of the trade's darkest secrets. "Nearly all novels are feeble at the end," he observed. "This is because the plot requires to be wound up, and usually the characters go dead." My own interpretation is that all novels are hobbled at their end by a fundamental problem of verisimilitude: Life goes on, but a novel does not.
Young adult fiction is filled with despair, mental illness and violence. I don't believe that young adults should be shielded from these elements of existence, but why don't we create a more balanced picture? It is as if moral courage, kindness and joy do not really exist, or worse, that they are not really interesting, not the real stuff of life.
I don't read a Don DeLillo novel for its plot, character, or setting…I read a DeLillo novel for its sentences. [Give me a break. Who wants to read a book-length collection of literary pretentious sentences?]
I think that out of seven years of teaching [at the University of Pennsylvania] I found maybe two students who had their own voice, in my judgment. There were lots who were competent but only two who were startling.
It's easy to recognize the tools in the journalist's kit that also work in a novelist's hands: an economic but energetic prose style; solid intuition about the motives of the characters; an appreciation for detail; a good sense of how individuals connect in society.
There are several compensations for growing older as a writer, as you get to know yourself better, in your writing inclinations and so on. One gets more cunning, improves one's technique slightly as one gets older.
The attitude that writers are a special class, that really alienates me. They talk about stress and how awful it is to be a writer--you hear that talk a lot in Hollywood. I had to catch a flight out of L.A. at eleven the night before last, so I walk around a little bit goofy for a couple of days because I'm sleepy, but that is nothing like unloading trucks for 20 years.
Just write your novel in the first person, and you won't be tempted to let the viewpoint wander. If your hero or heroine is "I" instead of "he" or "she," you'll never find yourself slipping into any other viewpoint accidentally, just because it makes the plot work out more easily. You're locked into one character for good or ill.
The screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker once said that no one in Los Angeles is ever more than fifty feet from a screenplay. They're stowed in the trunks of cars. In desk drawers at work. In laptop computers. Always ready to be pitched. A winning lottery ticket for its jackpot. An un-cashed paycheck.
There's a difference between a vocation and a profession. A vocation is a calling--something you are called to do. A profession is something that you practice. In the United States, I think about 10 percent of the novelists writing actually make a living out of their novel writing. [It's more like 1 percent.] The others have the vocation, but they can only partly have the profession, because they have to spend the rest of their time making money in order to keep themselves in their habit. They are word junkies. They've got to pay for their fix. I chose university teaching because there is a long summer vacation, and also because you could fake it.
Perhaps the single most important decision a writer makes when he begins a story is who the narrator is and where he's going to stand. The decision casts itself in the first sentence and is more complex than it seems on first sight. In making it, the writer answers a surprising number of questions, and those answers lay down the ground rules for the story he is writing. They will forecast the shape his story is going to take, and they will inform his style.
Many writers are reluctant to talk about the creative process--that is, how and where they get their talent, ideas, and inspiration to write. Many deny that talent is an inborn phenomenon, while others ridicule the notion that writers have to be inspired to create. Perhaps creativity is less a mystery than lack of creativity is. When a reader tells a writer that he can't image how one can produce a book, some writers may wonder how one cannot.
Some writers find their first novel, written on the sly during coffee breaks at their day job, easier than their second, with the success of the first has allowed them to become full-time professional writers, with all the attendant anxieties.
Making writing a big deal tends to make writing difficult. Keeping writing casual tends to keep it possible. Nowhere is this more true than around the issue of time. One of the biggest myths about writing is that in order to do it we must have great swathes of uninterrupted time.
Almost anything drawn from "real life"--house, town, park, landscape--will certainly be found to require some distortion for the purpose of plot. Wholly invented scenes are as unsatisfactory (thin) as wholly invented physiques or characters.
It's often said of aspiring young writers in creative writing courses that they write the same six stories. Old man dies; old woman dies; why I hate my mother; why I hate my father; how I lost my virginity; how I tried to and failed. That's it.
When discussing characters and characterization, principally in the context of fiction, writers speak of round versus flat characters, changing versus static characters, dull versus interesting characters, and characters drawn from real life versus characters entirely imagined. Writers who have developed the skill to create compelling characters have also mastered the crafts of dialogue and description. It seems that the relative focus on characterization, vis-a-vis plot, is one of the elements that distinguishes genre from serious fiction.
Many people ask why a writer commits suicide. But I think that people who ask don't know the vanity and the nothingness of writing. I think it is very usual and natural for a writer to commit suicide, because in order to keep on writing he must be a very strong person.
I often wonder if all the writers who are alcoholics drink a lot because they aren't writing or having trouble writing. It is not because they are writers that they are drinking, but because they are writers who are not writing.
Writing novels is something you have to believe in to keep going. It's a fairly thankless job when no one is paying you to do it. And you don't really know if it's ever going to get into the bookshops.
In case no one's noticed, a novel is long. The prospect of writing four hundred pages about something yet undiscovered is daunting at best. The first page is as far as many writers get, frozen as they are into a solid block of ice.
Dialogue, when properly handled, is one of the most entertaining divisions of action. The man who speaks even one truly significant word is as much in action as the man who throws the villain over the cliff from the thundering express train.
At the age of thirty-four I am weary, tired, dispirited, and worn out. I was a decent-looking boy six years ago--now I am a bald, gross, heavy, weary-looking man. I wanted fame--and I have had for the most part shame and agony.
Large numbers of people apparently want to write, or think they do. They speak as if they are going out to catch a bus or whip up a batch of fudge: "One of these days I'm gonna sit down and write a book," or "I got an uncle Carl, he's real funny; if he'd just come and spend a long weekend then me and him could write a book."
Most writers like to talk, and one of the things they love to talk about is writing. In interviews and letters, in table talk and memoirs and manifestos, writers have always held forth in surprisingly full detail about how they do what they do. It adds up to a vast, largely untapped literature on technique.
Producers of films tend to involve writers of books in the moviemaking process as little as possible, for the sensible reason that it's hard enough to make a film without having an interested amateur meddling in the process.
Athletes and dancers accept that their carers will be short. But--rightly or wrongly--we think of writing as a spiritual exercise, a project coextensive with the writer's life. When such a project is cut off early, it will always feel incomplete, a glorious cathedral nonetheless missing a spire. The idea, like the image, is itself highly romantic. But it might help explain what is so poignant about a dead young writer.
One of the great challenges of setting down the history of marginalized people is how to amass enough information to produce a clear picture of subjects who didn't write letters themselves or only appeared in the letters of others, who didn't enter the public realm through the legal system or gain notoriety in other ways.
No one ever questions the value of analyzing tragedy, but skepticism about breaking down comedy is a strangely enduring prejudice. Blame E. B. White. "Humor can be dissected, as a fog can,"he memorably groused, "but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind."
What is the point of reading biographies of artists? Critics have frequently come down hard on them. They contend that the details of a life are helpless to explain the majesty of art. What matters are not the despairing childhoods and difficult relationships, the questions of whether a particular artist was altruistic or plainly cruel--but the object that emerged in the end, an object unburdened by life, succeeding or failing on the basis of its appeal to the eye.
I'm sure someone's already invented the app that turns commercial prose into literary prose. Because at one level, it's simply a lexical matter. Sentences that include the word "skein" or "susurration," or use in any form of the disgusting verb "to limn"--they're literary. A line like " 'Be quiet, Paul' snapped Louise," on the other hand--that's commercial…Good language is about nailing the details, pinning down reality. Sometimes literary language gets this done--more often, it doesn't.
Life and fiction are different. Life has no obligation to make things seem real, since things in life just are real, whether they're believable or not. In fiction, though, things and events have got to be handled in such a way as, no matter what, to make them seem believable and thus real. Life often doesn't do that work, since it doesn't have to.
If you have difficulty with writing, do not conclude that there is something wrong with you. Writing should never be a test of self-esteem. If things are not going as you want, do not see it as proof of a flaw in your subconscious.
Most poetry won't be read even five years after it's published, let alone 20, and definitely not 100. Most poets won't find their work growing more and more noticed; they will find it growing less and less noticed, until it vanishes entirely from everything but a few water-stained notebooks in a cardboard box in the basement.
Are we really supposed to rely on that crowd of editors and critics variously empowered to decide that is literary and what is commercial?…Isn't that literary-designating crowd broadly afflicted with pettiness, self-seriousness, social-class blinkers, an unsober love of language and erratic insightfulness? Sure. That great work gets overlooked and superfluous work gets deemed great is a given…Fiction that aims to, and often does, reach a wide audience and make a lot money is, in effect, Commercial Fiction. Fiction that, one argues, has a value that exceeds its commercial appeal would be Literary Fiction.
Why I write, sheer egoism. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen--in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.
I wanted to write novels, but I thought it was presumptuous to think I could write them and get published, so I thought I'd better get a job. I had a friend in advertising. I went and talked to her. She was running around her office in a T-shirt, she was funny, was making a lot of money, and she said this is easy. So I said, Ok, I can do this while I'm trying to write novels.
I have been crawling through one of those depressive fits that seem to fall upon me. Please believe me, I am not trying to play the sensitive Artist bit--that's sickening. I only wish it wouldn't happen. It's just like all the walls fall down upon me. I've almost analyzed it--it happens mostly after I have been on a drunk with two or more people. I don't understand it--I can drink more, all by myself, and don't even awaken with a hangover.
Guggenheim, all those prizes and grants--you know how they go--most money is given to people who already have money. I know a professor who can't write but wins a prize every year--usually the same one--and he goes off to some island and works on some project, meanwhile still getting paid half salary for doing nothing at the university he's supposed to be teaching at.
I am not so worried about whether I am writing any good or not; I know I write a valley of bad stuff. But what gets me is that nobody is coming on that I can believe in or look up to. It's hell not to have a hero.
Sometimes I don't understand why my arms don't drop from my body with fatigue, why my brain doesn't melt away. I am leading an austere life, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent frenzy, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but never abates, I love my work with a love that is frantic and perverted, as an ascetic loves the hair shirt that scratches his belly.
I never expected any success with To Kill a Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but, at the same time I sort of hoped someone would like it well enough to give me encouragement.
I don't believe in draining the reservoir. I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say. I know that to sustain those true moments of insight one has to be highly disciplined, lead a disciplined life.
I write whenever I am able, for a few days or a week or a month if I can get the time. I sneak away to the country and work on a computer that's not connected to the Internet and count on the world to go away long enough for me to get a few words down on paper, whenever and however I can. When the writing is going well, I can work all day. When it's not, I spend a lot of time gardening and standing in front of the refrigerator.
I really don't adhere to writing schedules at all. The times that I've tried that, when I have been in a slump and I try to get out of it by saying, "Come on, Ann, sit down at the typewriter," I've gotten in a worse slump. It's better if I just let it ride. I've learned I can't force it. I certainly am a moody and, I would say, not very happy person.
I spent two or three hours a night on it for eight years. I gave up once and started watching television with my wife. Television drove me back to Catch-22. I couldn't imagine what Americans did at night when they weren't writing novels.
I am a completely horizontal writer. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I've got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.
Sometimes, when I am empty, when words don't come, when I find I haven't written a single sentence after scribbling whole pages, I collapse on my couch and lie their dazed, bogged down in a swamp of despair, hating myself.
Creative nonfiction requires the skills of the storyteller and the research ability of the conscientious reporter. Writers of creative nonfiction must become instant authorities on the subjects of their articles or books. They must not only understand the facts and report them using quotes from authorities, they must also see beyond them to discover their underlying meaning, and they must dramatize that meaning in an interesting, evocative, informative way--just as a good teacher does.
For seven years I ate at Bob's Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee--with lots of sugar. And there's lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It's a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas! I would write them on these napkins. I was like I had a desk with paper. All I had to do was remember to bring my pen, but a waitress would give me one if I remembered to return it at the end of my stay. I got a lot of ideas at Bob's.
Some people criticize nonfiction writers for "appropriating" the techniques of fiction writing. These techniques, except for the invention of characters and detail, never belonged to fiction. They belong to storytelling.
In a novel, implausibility is fatal. And fakeness almost always ensues when situations and characters are extracted from ideas. When ideas emerge organically from situations and characters, the opposite effect is produced. Philosophy, however, must not seem real. It must actually be real, advancing its arguments, as in a geometric proof, through a succession of facts.
As a college student in the 1980s whose major was comparative literature, I had no choice but to take a course on literary theory: It was required. The smug bloviator who taught it told us that the defining characteristic of the written word was its inability to express meaning. Thea act of writing a novel, which I had previously regarded as a natural process, as organic as breathing, was actually a battle in which words engulfed readers, fuddling our wits and scattering the import of the text. Truth he added, deploying Nietzsche, was a mobile army of metaphor, metonym, and anthropomorphisms--without a general. He himself, he said, would be that general.
Enviously noting the insatiable public appetite for television dramas like "Downton Abby," writers often lament the prospects for their historical novels, which have faint hopes of attracting anything resembling such sizable audiences.
Why bother writing a book that someone else could write--just a historical novel that you research in libraries and on the Internet? If I'm going to add a book to the endless mass of books out there, then it should be a book that only I can write.
No advice is useful, as you, an aspiring writer, already know. You have read Rilke's letters to a young poet. I'm sure you remember the first letter: "No one can advise and help you, no one." You know James Baldwin's words in is Paris Review interview: "If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you're not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you."
M. F. A. programs have developed something of a gate-keeping function. The system is certainly flawed: Programs vary wildly in quality and cost. They can inspire inflated expectations--after all, the formalized study of writing isn't an alchemic formulas by which every student becomes Tolstoy, or even publishes a book. It is also the case that the M. F. A's workshop model, with its intense scrutiny of new work, can be crippling for some writers.
Nonetheless, M. F. A. candidates spend a couple of years studying the craft of literature, immersed in its more esoteric and ineffable qualities, as readers and as writers. That's no small thing.
Murder. Dismemberment. Rape. Cannibalism. Jack the Ripper. The Newtown Shooter. Why are we fascinated by murder and murderers, by acts of evil and those who perpetrate them?
Tabloids, biopics and even dignified, well-researched accounts of serial murders indulge our appetite for real-life horror, dishing up the lurid details--the mutilated body, the serving woman found bleeding on her pillow, the severed head floating downriver--and sell millions of copies. But these works usually leave the central, most troubling questions unanswered. Not only the obvious ones: Why did the murderer commit the crime?
I write and write and write, and rewrite, and even if I retain only a single page from a full day's work, it is a single page, and these pages add up. As a result I have acquired the reputation over the years of being prolix when in fact I am measured against people who simply don't work as hard or as long. Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.
Coal mining is hard work. Writing [novels] is a nightmare. There's a tremendous uncertainty that's built into the profession, a sustained level of doubt that supports you in some way. A good doctor isn't in a battle with his work; a good writer is locked in a battle with his work. In most professions there's a beginning, a middle, and an end. With writing, it's always beginning again. Temperamentally, we need that newness. There's a lot of repetition in the work. In fact, one skill that every writer needs is the ability to sit still in this deeply uneventful business.
The vogue for memoir, like all vogues, comes and goes. But the impulse perseveres. Celebrities, addicts, abuse victims, politicians, soldiers, grieving children: Everyone has a story to tell and a conviction that the world wants to hear it--and often enough, if the best-seller lists are any indication, the world does.
Novels have to primary sources: writers' life experiences or their art experiences--although I suppose more religious writers might also make room for divine inspiration. While it's popular in publicity to focus on the life experience that informs a book, a writer's art experiences are just as responsible for how a story emerges from the imagination and eventually appears on the page. As Cormac McCarthy once said: "the ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written."
If you shoot for timelessness in your writing, consciously orient yourself to the upper realm, the shinning truths and the inexhaustible symbols etc., you will--by a kind of law--produce drivel. You will waft and drift and never get a toehold. If, on the other hand, you bet it all on the particular, really dive unreservedly into specificity, you will find--inevitably, magnificently--that your novel about three plumbers in Milwaukee in 1987 becomes a singing blueprint of human significance.
I wish I had a routine for writing. I get up in the morning and I go out to to my studio and I write. And then I tear it up! That's the routine, really. Then, occasionally, something sticks. And then I follow that. The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightening storm.