Over the last two weeks or so I have spent some time reading some of the online Paris Review Interviews and many ofthem have been very interesting to read. Some of them have inspired me to read certain, possibly lesser known, novels from great and well loved authors. If you enjoy the interviews as much as I did you may be interested in the Four Volume Boxed Set of The Paris Review Interviews full of many more of these wonderful in depth interviews with leading novelists, poets, and playwrights.
Here are 9 pieces of writer wisdom put together from some of my favourites of the interviews.
1. Write as if you are writing in secret.
How does your father feel about your books?
He gave me those nickels, remember? It didn’t occur to me that my books would be widely read at all, and that enabled me to write anything I wanted to. And even once I realized that they were being read, I still wrote as if I were writing in secret. That’s how one has to write anyway—in secret. At a certain point, you have to not please your parents, although for me that’s painful because I’m close to my parents and of course I want them to be happy.”
2. You don’t need to go to college to learn to write.
You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.
3. Don’t overwrite.
I’d started by working for months and months on the first chapter, which was about Probst walking his dog and thinking with culpably extreme satisfaction about his accomplishments. I poured countless hours into very purple sentences describing the beauty of the light in Webster Groves, my hometown, on a late weekday afternoon. It was a chapter that ended with the death of the dog. It was terribly overwritten.
What do you mean by overwritten?
Trying to do too much with a sentence. I was very much still under the spell of the Germans. You can do things in German with sentence structure that are less advisable in English—pack in all sorts of syntactical elements before the final verb. I was playing with language and with the possibilities of sound, although not so much with alliteration. I’d read Rabbit, Run at a certain point and spent a couple of weeks being highly alliterative before coming to my senses and realizing that not only was my alliteration bad, Updike’s was, too.
I was doing a lot of punning, though. I was very attached at that young age to pure linguistic play, and blissfully unaware of how it might all read. I thought the concept of my book, the unfolding of a conspiracy, ought to be strong enough to drag the reader through any amount of linguistic playfulness.
I was reaching; I was writing about stuff I didn’t really know anything about and trying to incorporate every scrap of information and interesting observation I’d ever had. I would write as many pages as I could in a day. I once wrote seventeen pages in a day. And those seventeen pages are in the finished book. When I got rolling, my determination to get the book done and have it be good and get it published was so strong that I had limitless energy. The finished manuscript was thirteen hundred pages. I was twenty-five.
4. A character’s choice of words or dialogue is a powerful tool because it is so revealing.
Dialogue is a halfway house. I heard the British crime writer David Peace speak last year. David’s a second-person narrative specialist, and a member of the audience asked what it is about the second person that appeals to him. David’s deadpan reply was, Well, it’s halfway between the first person and the third. Dialogue-driven narrative is a more conventional means of having first-person connection with third-person detachment from you, the writer. It’s an elastic-tether way for people with first-person dependency issues—like me—to range further than the “I” form usually allows. Dialogue can be a revealing tool—you can smuggle in a lot about your characters simply by their choice of words. On seeing a snapshot of my infant son, an elderly and somewhat racist relative exclaimed, But he doesn’t even look Japanese! Rather than get angry, I thanked her, inwardly, for reminding me how revealing a person’s choice of words can be. I also thought, I’ll use that line one day.
5. Give your first draft time to breathe before you go back to it to rewrite.
What do you do once you finish a first draft?
It’s good to give the thing at least six weeks to sit and breathe. But I don’t always have that luxury. I didn’t have it with Cell. The publisher had two manuscripts of mine. One of them was Lisey’s Story, which I had been working on exclusively for a long time, and the other was Cell, which I had been thinking about for a long time, and it just sort of announced itself: It’s time, you have to do it now. When that happens, you have to do it or let it go, so Cell was like my unplanned pregnancy.
You mean you wrote Cell in the middle of writing Lisey’s Story?
I was carrying both of them at the same time for a while. I had finished a first draft ofLisey, so I revised it at night and worked on Cell during the day. I used to work that way when I was drinking. During the day I would work on whatever was fresh and new, and I was pretty much straight as an arrow. Hung over a lot of the time, but straight. At night I’d be looped, and that’s when I would revise. It was fun, it was great, and it seemed to work for me for a long time, but I can’t sustain that anymore.
I wanted to publish Lisey first, but Susan Moldow, Scribner’s publisher, wanted to lead with Cell because she thought the attention it would receive would benefit the sale of Lisey. So they put Cell on a fast track, and I had to go right to work on the rewrite. This is one thing publishers can do now, which isn’t always necessarily good for the book.
Can’t you tell them no?
Yes, but in this case it was actually the right thing to do, and it was a huge success. Cell was an unusual case though. You know, Graham Greene used to talk about books that were novels and books that were entertainments. Cell was an entertainment. I don’t want to say I didn’t care, because I did—I care about anything that goes out with my name on it. If you’re going to do the work and if someone is going to pay you for it, I think you ought to do the best job that you can. But after I finished the first draft of Lisey, I gave myself six weeks. When you return to a novel after that amount of time, it seems almost as if a different person wrote it. You’re not quite as wedded to it. You find all sorts of horrible errors, but you also find passages that make you say, Jesus, that’s good!
6. Don’t worry about getting the story perfect in the first draft because you can go back to it and tweak it once it has revealed itself to you.
You say that you don’t know who the killer is as you’re writing, but a possible exception occurs to me: the character of Gotanda in Dance Dance Dance. There’s a certain deliberate buildup in that novel toward the moment at which Gotanda makes his confession—in classic crime-novel style, he’s presented to us as the last person to suspect. Did you not perhaps know that Gotanda was guilty in advance?
In the first draft I didn’t know it was Gotanda. Closer to the end—two-thirds in or so—I knew. When I wrote the second draft I rewrote the Gotanda scenes, knowing it was him.
Is that one of the main purposes of revision, then—to take what you’ve learned from the end of the first draft and rework the earlier sections to give a certain feeling of inevitability?
That’s right. The first draft is messy; I have to revise and revise.
How many drafts do you generally go through?
Four or five. I spend six months writing the first draft and then spend seven or eight months rewriting.
7. Experiment with narration points of view until the character comes through you and leads you through the story.
What was it about Saleem Sinai that released you?
I’d always wanted to write something that would come out of my experience as a child in Bombay. I’d been away from India for a while and began to fear that the connection was eroding. Childhood—that was the impetus long before I knew what the story was and how big it would become. But if you’re going to have the child born at the same time as the country, so that they’re twins in a way, you have to tell the story of both twins. So it forced me to take on history. One of the reasons it took five years to write is that I didn’t know how to write it. One early version opened with the line, “Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.” I meant that children don’t come naked into the world, they come burdened with the accumulated history of their family and their world. But it was too Tolstoyan. I thought, If there’s one thing this book is not, it’s Anna Karenina. The sentence is still there in the book somewhere, but I buried it.
The third-person narration wasn’t working, so I decided to try a first-person narrative, and there was a day when I sat down and I wrote more or less exactly what is now the first page of Midnight’s Children. It just arrived, this voice of Saleem’s: quite savvy, full of all kinds of arcana, funny but sort of ridiculous. I was electrified by what was coming out of my typewriter. It was one of those moments when you believe that the writing comes through you rather than from you. I saw how to drag in everything from the ancient traditions of India to the oral narrative form to, above all, the noise and the music of the Indian city. That first paragraph showed me the book. I held onto Saleem’s coattails and let him run. As the book developed, as Saleem grew up, there were moments where I felt frustrated by him. As he got older, he became more and more passive. I kept trying to force him to be more active, to take charge of events—and it just didn’t work. Afterwards, people assumed the book was autobiographical, but to me Saleem always felt very unlike me, because I had a kind of wrestling match with him, which I lost.
8. To create genuine characters, good and bad, we have to identify with them but there must be areas where they don’t represent you.
One of the great women characters you have created, I think, is Beatrice in Anthills of the Savannah. Do you identify with her? Do you see any part of yourself in that character? She’s sort of a savior, I think.
Yes, yes, I identify with her. Actually, I identify with all my characters, good and bad. I have to do that in order to make them genuine. I have to understand them even if I don’t approve of them. Not completely—it’s impossible; complete identification is, in fact, not desirable. There must be areas in which a particular character does not represent you. At times, though, the characters—like Beatrice—do contain, I think, elements of my own self and my systems of beliefs and hopes and aspirations. Beatrice is the first major woman character in my fiction. Those who do not read me as carefully as they ought have suggested that this is the only woman character I have ever written about and that I probably created her out of pressure from the feminists. Actually, the character of Beatrice has been there in virtually all my fiction, certainly from No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, right down to Anthills of the Savannah. There is a certain increase in the importance I assign to women in getting us out of the mess that we are in, which is a reflection of the role of women in my traditional culture—that they do not interfere in politics until men really make such a mess that the society is unable to go backward or forward. Then women will move in . . . this is the way the stories have been constructed, and this is what I have tried to say. In one of Sembene Ousmane’s films he portrays that same kind of situation where the men struggle, are beaten and cannot defend their rights against French colonial rule. They surrender their rice harvest, which is an abomination. They dance one last time in the village arena and leave their spears where they danced and go away—this is the final humiliation. The women then emerge, pick up the spears, and begin their own dance. So it’s not just in the Igbo culture. It seems to be something that other African peoples also taught us.
9. There is no right or wrong way to write a novel. Whether you write it linearly from beginning to end or write it in segments as scenes come to you what matters is that you write it how you are comfortable.
Do you write a novel from page one through to the end?
No. Scenes present themselves. Sometimes it proceeds in a linear fashion, but sometimes it’s all over the place. I wrote two parts of Surfacing five years before I wrote the rest of the novel—the scene in which the mother’s soul appears as a bird and the first drive to the lake. They are the two anchors for that novel.
Yes, I do. I’ve never done it any other way. If you write in bits, you lose some kind of very valuable continuity of form. It is an invisible inner continuity. Sometimes you only discover it is there if you are trying to reshape.