In honor of writing, I thought I'd share that I'm currently rolling around in awesome books. I just finished Colm Toíbín's The Master, which was bliss, and I'm still reading his short story collection The Empty Family.
And for all those authors out there looking self-promote, this is why I started reading him: my friend S. lent-then-gave me the book The Secret Miracle: The Novelist's Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcón. It's interviews with authors--divvied up by theme--about various aspects of the writing process (well, specifically the novel-writing process).
Anyway, S. and I both agreed that some authors came off wonderfully--as in, "How insightful/charmingly self-deprecating! I'd bet we'd be total BFFs and could go down to the pub and have a pint and talk about George Elliot/insert author of your choice! And even if we cannot or should not ever develop a personal relationship, some of these writing insights are both reassuring and useful!" --while some came off a utter douches.
Sidebar on the word douche: Many people argue that the word "douche" is sexist. After all, a douche was/is a product to "clean" the vagina. So calling someone "a douche"--to imply that they are bad/stupid--is essentially saying that "you are associated with the vagina--thus bad/stupid" and implying that there is something wrong with the female genital parts.
In fact, once while watching an episode of Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, I saw Lily Tomlin say to Kathy that she refused to go on Conan O'Brien's show, as he wouldn't stop using the word "douche-bag" or acknowledge that it was sexist.
However, I see it differently. You know what? Vaginas aren't dirty. It is a sexist notion that vaginas "smell bad" and need to smell like flowers or soap. Douches were a stupid idea (your vagina does not need a stream of water up it!) and in fact often caused or worsened infections.
So...you know what's ultimately pretty douche-y? Douches. Douches were the original douche-y invention.
So I think calling someone/thing "a douche" is to call them a misguided, unnecessary, prissy, sexist apparatus that is no longer in common use. That seems like a pretty good insult to me.
Back to the topic at hand: S. and I both agreed that among the most charming of authors in The Secret Miracle was Colm Toíbín (no, I don't know how to pronounce it, either).
Maybe in part because he justified the inclination to do other things than write:
In answer to the question, What is most distracting for you? How do you deal with it?
Colm Toíbín: I go online. That takes ages. I go to America. That takes longer. I go to meetings. I am a member of the Arts Council in Ireland and I enjoy looking at everyone talk. I teach because it gets me out of the house. I go to parties. But never enough. I go to see my Aunt. I love her. I go to London. And come home like a drowned rat. I have no intention of dealing with distractions. I intend to look for more. Anyone with any ideas can get to me via my publisher.
Me: (internally) I love you.
Are there certain authors you won't read for fear of undue influence?
Colm Toíbín: It would be like saying: Do you refrain from sex when you are writing a novel? No, I don't.
[But this probably suggests that he just makes fun of all the questions, which isn't true. The authors that did that came of as douches. He does give some serious answers, even though they're still charmingly self-deprecating and apt:]
How polished do you try and make the prose in the first draft?
CT: I try and make sure when I am working that I will never have to go through this again. So I write as though I will never get another chance. It is disappointing to find that you cannot get things right just because you decide that you should.
What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you before you began writing your first novel?
CT: John McGahern was a great help to me. He had a gap between novels of ten years when I first knew him. He moved slowly and deliberately and was a real perfectionist. He said to me slyly: "I hope I do not have another idea until after Christmas." It was still Spring. I wish he had said more wise things that.
[Me: Don't you think someone could write an entire novel based on that answer?]
How rigorous are you about maintaining a schedule?
CT: I finish everything I start and I always feel guilty about not working hard enough but I am not rigorous.
How do you decide to break up your narrative?
CT: I walk a lot and think about this and I often get ideas when I am sad on airplanes or lying in bed being lazy. I know this before I begin. When to stop. When to start again. It's crucial.
[Me: I GET SAD AND LAZY, TOO. SOUL TWINS!]
So I picked up his work almost entirely based on the charming and aptness and poetry of his interview answers. He answered the questions seriously, but had a sense of humor and often a tongue firmly planted in his cheek; he was self-deprecating without being shut-down; and had his own take on things without being aggressive and shout-y about it.
And I loved his work. So, well done CT. You sold two books and gained one fan. Because of a book of interviews published in 2010. Such is the lightening speed of the book industry.
On the other end of the spectrum, one author came across as the douche-iest of them all. The douciest douche that every douched a douche. I don't know why or how or what combination of factors led this author to even agree to take part in the project, and clearly he has some kind of philosophy about Not Thinking or Talking About Craft Because I Guess That is Some Kind of Weakness or Something? His answers were so minimal and douche-y that they actually formed an almost zen-like play when typed out in a row:
What do you look for in a novel?
Haruki Murakami: If I want to read it again, it must surely be a good novel.
How do balance reading widely with reading that is immediately useful to your work?
Haruki Marakami: I read books for fun.
Is there a novel you go back to again and again? If so, why? What does it teach you?
HM: Some books I read again and again. What does it teach me? I want to write those kind of books myself, if I could.
What do you read before/during the writing of a novel? Is there a logic to your reading?
HM: I don't care much about what to read when I am writing.
What was the trigger for your last novel?
HM: Just a scene.
Do you do any research before you begin writing? If so, do you find it helpful, or does it constrain your imagination?
HM: No research.
How polished do you try to make the prose in the first draft?
HM: I am just curious about what is going on. So I don't care much about the prose in the first draft.
Do you write in sequence?
HM: Always in sequence.
How much do you draw from your own life in constructing a character?
HM: It depends.
Have you ever consciously used a fictional character to draw a portrait of a real person? What did you learn?
HM: Sometimes I do. Nobody notices it anyway.
How do you get to know your characters?
HM: Living with them.
What makes good dialogue good?
HM: I have not given thought to what is "good dialogue." It's just bread and butter for a novelist.
Describe the scene you've found most difficult to write. Why was it so hard?
HM: Skinning a man alive. Too bloody. You could even laugh while you are writing about skinning a man.
How do you measure a succesful writing day? Is there a word count you shoot for? An amount of time you demand of yourself?
HM: No good day, no bad day, in my case. I write almost the same amount every day.
How rigorous are you about maintaining a schedule?
HM: I work constantly.
Where do you write? How important is your writing environment?
HM: Quiet room. Decent desk. Hopefully, music of Telemann. Early in the morning. No work after sunset.
What was the longest period of time you've left an unfinished manuscript rest?
HM: Once started, I finish it.
How do you move forward when you are blocked?
HM: I have not had the experience when I was blocked, so far.
Did you run into any false starts? How did you overcome them?
HM: I have not experienced any false start. I prepare very carefully as to when to start.
When, in the course of writing, do you know that a manuscript is a novel?
HM: Before I start to write it. Just know it.
What makes for a successful conclusion for a novel?
HM: I don't know. It just comes.
Are you always a novelist? Are you ever able to turn it off?
HM: Leaving the desk, I am not a novelist.
...Really, Haruki? You could write hundreds of pages of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, including that scene of the guy getting skinned alive, but you couldn't take five seconds to even THINK about what makes good dialogue, the "bread and butter of the novelist"? Especially since the proceeds of the book went to a non-profit. Jeez.
Susan Lori-Parks once came and spoke at my graduate school. Unlike many visiting speakers and writers, who simple phoned it in or looked deeply uncomfortable the entire time, she was engaging and didn't appear as if the whole thing pained her soul with its crass intrusiveness. She spoke about when you'd "made it," so to speak, when you climbed to a certain height, your job, your obligation, was to help those who hadn't climbed quite as high yet. She said some people saw success as a an excuse to withdraw into assholeishness, but that it actually worked the other way around--success obligates you to give, not to get.
So: I get that it's weird and awful when someone asks you about "your process" or asks you to define something (like "good dialogue") that's hard to define. The instinct is to withdraw, to save your energy for your writing. But if there are lots of people out there looking up to you, wanting to learn, your obligation is to try. To reach out and and at least try. Success doesn't give you carte blanche to be a jerk. And if you choose to be a removed jerk, you aren't better than all those other people who are out there fumbling to answer the unanswerable questions. You just look like an ass because you wouldn't even try.