Sarah Waters: When you approach your desk in the morning, do you ever find yourself wanting to run screaming in the opposite direction? If so, how do you get yourself to sit down and start writing? (I’m asking for a friend.) Hilary Mantel: I haven’t the energy for running and screaming but often I want to lie and groan under a tarpaulin.
Many years ago I went to a writers’ round table conference at the Edinburgh Literary Festival. I only recall two of the participants now: Gore Vidal (because he was Gore Vidal), and the late, great Beryl Bainbridge, on account of her reply to a question from a member of the audience.
‘How,’ she was asked, ‘do you overcome the urge to stay away from your desk and do all the other things that need to be done, such as the housework?’ For a moment, Bainbridge was flummoxed, as if trying to get her head round such a bizarre question. Then she explained that she’d never had that urge; her urge was to write, which was what she did while the house descended into chaos and grime around her.
I’m fully with Bainbridge here. (Not, I hasten to add, because Mrs B does the housework – she’s kept busy by her own projects, so it’s only when a certain threshold is reached that we tackle the chaos and grime.) It might even be said that searching for an excuse not to write means that you’re not really a writer. Significantly, in her question to Mantel, Sarah Waters added that she was asking for a friend; I’m sure that she, indubitably a writer, approaches her desk very differently.
Up to a point, though, I can see where Mantel is coming from when she says that being a novelist is no fun. The frustration when a paragraph won’t come right, the anxiety when the plot won’t hold together, the dreadful uncertainty about where the whole thing is heading. John Banville puts it more strikingly: ‘Writing a novel is like wading through wet sand, at night, in a storm, with no lantern to guide one’s steps and no lighthouse to warn of the submerged reefs and wrecks that lie ahead.’
But none of this deters me enough to keep me away from my desk. I love the challenge of solving the problems as I go, I love seeing each draft get successively richer, more detailed, and I love the satisfaction that comes with knowing when I’ve got something right. Sure, the end result always falls short of the vision, but that’s what spurs me on to write the next one. No one’s denying it’s an effort, there’s always a struggle involved. But surely that’s where the pleasure lies, isn’t it? A vaccuum cleaner? What’s that?
Most lovers of fiction, in the course of a lifetime of reading, have acquired a personal library of their favorite authors’ works. In addition to this idiosyncratic collection, we oftentimes have an ever-growing stack of “to be read” volumes weighing down our favorite end table, desktop, or spare chair. A life-long reader is also most painfully, poignantly aware that there are thousands—strike that; tens of thousands—of other great works of fiction that he or she will never find the time to read.
Given these facts of limited time and an ever-increasing number of newer books clamoring for our attention, isn’t it curious that many of us reread beloved works of fiction? I refer here to those rare books that spoke to us in an especially personal and compelling way; that taught us something about ourselves and the world-at-large that enriched and deepened our “planet time” in a fashion lesser works failed to.
Why indulge in rereading? Why reread a book—any book—when multitudes of unread books insistently call out with seductive siren song? I submit to you that the essential reason can be summed up in one word: comfort. It is remembrance of the experience we had with certain books that lures us back to turn those familiar pages once again. (And please understand—by use of the word “comfort” I mean in the sense of “alleviating or diminishing a person’s level of psychic and/or physical distress” and of “an expectation of aesthetic satisfaction and intellectual, emotional, and spiritual stimulation via renewed engagement with a work of art”. Definitions mine.)
One book I reread every decade is Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. An extended meditation on the joys of being a boy only just now discovering what it means to be alive (while simultaneously realizing the inevitability and ubiquity of death), the novel is by turns saccharine sweet and . . . something darker . . . though never bitter. When I first read the novel as a teenaged boy of 14 callow years I confess to being bored out of my mind. (How can one feel nostalgia for a time one is only now experiencing?) What kind of narrative was this, I wondered. No flinty-eyed men killing bad guys with “barking” .45 automatic pistols and/or “chattering” submachine guns. No explicit sex. No “glimmering arc” sword-play whilst contending against orcs/Vikings/wizards/other. (yawn) Words words words.
When I reread the book in my 20s I found myself noting and appreciating Bradbury’s prose-poetry style (your mileage may vary) and thought, “Yes; the book is quite evocative of a certain time and place. Well done.” My response was primarily an intellectual one. When I reread the book in my 30s my heart was pierced and my vision blurred at certain poignant passages. Rereading the book in my 40s I found myself all but overcome with emotion. Upon rereading the book in my 50s I found myself still an admirer of the book—delighting as ever in Bradbury’s consummate word-smithery—but the raw emotional reaction to plot and theme wasn’t there. The most I could summon was a wistful smile at certain incidents and passages of description. I still deeply appreciated the book, to be sure, but was all-too-aware of the authorial techniques Bradbury was using to wring response from the reader: my own hard-won knowledge of the craft served as a distancing mechanism that muted textual poignancy and experienced emotion. I was sorely disappointed and more than a little unsettled—in the reader, not the writer.
What had changed since my first reading of the novel? The book remained the same—the exact same words were printed on those pages, after all—but the reader over the course of those five decades was five different people: a teenaged boy, a 20-something-marine, a 30-year-old married man, a 40-year-old married man, then a divorced man in his mid-50s. Each person brought his own life-lived experience and wisdom (or appalling lack thereof) to the text. Each reader was in dialogue with the author—but not every reader was Bradbury’s “ideal reader” during the course of those five decades. What will be my experience be when I reread the novel again in my 60s, I wonder? Assuming I live that long. . . .
Another writer I reread regularly for pleasure is James Thurber. Witty, understated and urbane, the best of his writing conjures wistful daydream and wry, world-weary melancholia. What also comes through in his narrative voice is the sense of a genteel, bespectacled man alternately startled and irritated by the shrill boors around him. Mr. Thurber is a devastating and shrewd observer of human nature. I envy anyone just discovering his writing for the first time.
What books have not held up upon rereading? Well . . . Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan: The Executioner series, for one. Don’t laugh! For those of you rolling your eyes please understand: Don Pendleton was the best-of-the-best of the late 60s and 70s “men’s action-adventure” writers. (Pendleton all but single-handedly created that genre.) His hard-boiled writing was a cross between the toughness of Dashiell Hammett and the ferocity of Robert E. Howard: each of the 36 books in the original 37-book series (excepting #16: Sicilian Slaughter, written by Jim Peterson, a hack brought in to grind out the next book in the series during Don’s dispute with Pinnacle Books) was so packed with gunfire and explosions that the pages fairly reeked of cordite and the iron-rich tang of blood. As for the teeth-gritted machismo of the exchanges between Bolan and the gangster scum he was exterminating, well . . . that dialogue was broken-bottle-to-the-eye poetry of the streets. (Note: Marvel’s Punisher anti-hero was a total rip-off of Pendleton’s character. Consider: Bolan was a combat-hardened Vietnam veteran who returned home after his family was killed by the mob to launch a vendetta against “la cosa nostra”. Frank Castle was a combat-hardened Vietnam veteran who . . .) I recently reread the first three books in the Executioner series and found them entertaining as ever, though marred by right-wing philosophizing and neo-fascist authorial asides. I also found the characterization paper-thin and descriptive narrative passages lean to the point of non-existent. There is also a whiff of sexism and misogyny presented as chivalric knight-errant-championing in the patronizing attitude of Bolan/Pendleton toward his female characters. All of this went over my head reading as an enthralled teenage boy, of course; I worshipped Mack Bolan as the exemplar of what an alpha male should be: tough as gun metal, stoic as a brick, ready to fuck or fight at the twitch of a hip or the sneer of a lip. (When I went through Marine Corps boot camp as a 17-year-old and found myself ready to drop from exhaustion during extended platoon formation runs, I summoned the energy to stagger forward by envisioning Conan the Barbarian running at my left side, Bolan the Executioner on my right. I won’t repeat here what these hard-bitten warriors said to me. But mark this: they got me through it. Some turn to deities, angels and saints for life-sustaining strength and consolation; others to muscle-ripped melancholy barbarians and flint-eyed executioners, heh!)
As to other authors: H. P. Lovecraft was a weird tales writer that utterly baffled me when I first attempted reading him at 12 years of age. I found his syntax and vocabulary utterly impenetrable. Nowadays, I delight in his measured, polysyllabic prose and the dark cosmicism of his horrific plots and ghastly imagination.
John Irving has held up—in fact, gotten better with every passing decade. The World According to Garp is one of the funniest, yet at one and the same time wince-inducing, examinations of the human condition and the disordered workings of lust upon male/female relationships that you will ever read.
Jack London is as great and relevant and riveting as he ever was. Ditto Mark Twain. Oscar Wilde. Tolkien.
Certain works of Philip K. Dick reward rereading. (I especially enjoy his short stories—vastly under-rated. Favorite novels: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Flow My Tears, thePoliceman Said.)
Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire, and Stephen King’s The Shining get reread and wolf-whistled at by me every couple of decades.
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was reread three times in succession: first for the immersion of the fictive dream and the tick-tock unfolding of plot (turn pages—faster!), the second time for writing instruction (How did she do that?), and the third time as awed worship due an acknowledged master. (Is this book really as good as I think it is? My god, it is! Absolutely brilliant.)
Pat Conroy’s deep and abiding humanity, lust for life, and sharp intelligence infuse his characters with vivid three-dimensionality and realism. His books—rather curiously, I think—neither diminish nor grow in stature over the years; upon re-reading they remain as engrossing and seemingly effortless and compelling as ever. (Is this the true mark of authorial genius, then: the ability to reach readers of nearly every age and life-lived experience?)
David L. Ulin, writing in The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time, tells us:
Rereading can be a tricky process, in which, for better or worse, you’re brought face-to-face with both the present and the past. It’s different than reading, more layered, more nuanced, with implications about how we’ve changed. In her 2005 bookRereadings, Anne Fadiman traces the distinction between reading and rereading: “The former had more velocity; the latter had more depth. The former shut out the world in order to focus on the story; the latter dragged in the world in order to assess the story. The former was more fun; the latter was more cynical. But what was remarkable about the latter was that it contained the former: even while, as with the upper half of a set of bifocals, I saw the book through the complicating lens of adulthood, I also saw it through the memory of the first time I’d read it.”
What books have you reread? Has your opinion/reaction to a particular book or writer changed over time? Explain.
Story fodder can be something unknown to the quantum physicist, astronomer, psychologist, or oneirologist (dream studier) – whatever you find fascinating.
This is exactly the approach taken by the authors of The Encyclopaedia of Ignorance. The book is an old collection of short essays, some of which have proven prophetic. What, the authors asked leading scientists, don’t you know in your field that you find the most intriguing? It just makes sense to start your fiction with the other man’s ignorance. Such is the space inviting imagination.
Fantasy writers might benefit from knowing that intelligence is now measured by how many conflicting bits of information one can hold in working memory. That bit of knowledge makes it easy to show-not-tell a character’s intelligence and why they relate to others the way they do.
With new discoveries coming like rain, it’s difficult for an author to know what it is that the reader does not know. Research, even a quick Google on minor points, can prevent tripping the reader out of the story with an obviously false fact. And, of course, y’gotta feel for any author who set their story in 2020 before knowing about the Covid.
Ignorance is a sci-fi goldmine, but only if the author ain’t ignorant.
One piece of advice often given to writers is to read. It might seem obvious: you can’t learn to write unless you’ve been exposed to many, many examples of other people’s writing. But looking closer it isn’t very clear how this works, and there aren’t many activities where the same advice applies. Teaching perhaps: if you want to teach it helps to observe other teachers. But you won’t learn to play the piano by listening to Chopin, nor learn to drive by sitting in a car with Lewis Hamilton.
I think there are two ways the reading-writing relationship can operate, explicit and implicit. In my student days we used to engage in literary analysis, dissecting a text to see how such and such an effect was achieved. A writer could then consciously apply a similar technique to their own writing. But such deliberate imitation will surely be sterile. I went through a Kerouac phase in my youth, but his influence was more on my outlook than on my writing; the only time I tried to imitate the breathlessness of his style, the result was rubbish. Or rather, it might have been fine if Kerouac hadn’t already done it, but to a reader it would come across only as what it was: imitation. Writing is all about finding your own voice.
Which is where the implicit learning comes in, the cumulative effect of the millions of sentences we’ve read. Here we pick up not just the obvious points of vocabulary and syntax, but the more subtle matter of style. But every writer’s style is different so what is the result of reading 100 different writers? Is our writing then a mishmash of them all? More likely, we’ll be receptive to the style of writers we enjoy, the others having only a minimal effect. But if, out of those 100 writers, there are 20 we enjoy, we still have to find a style of our own, so how does reading those 20 writers help us?
The question could be, and often is, put another way: who are the writers that have influenced you? Here again, I think there are two ways of looking at it. There are writers who have revealed to me the many forms a novel can take, extended the boundaries of what I saw as possible. Virginia Woolf, for example, showed me how a character’s inner life can be portrayed; Gabriel Garcia Márquez showed me that reality can be bent in different ways according to our purpose. These are general lessons that stay with us all our lives, to be tapped into at will. But there’s also the more transient influence of the books we read while we’re working on our own. Some writers, I know, don’t read while they’re writing, precisely in order to escape that influence. And I can understand that – we don’t want the call of another’s voice to deflect the one we’ve been honing for so long. And it’s insidious. I recently read Bleak House, thinking that I couldn’t be influenced by such outmoded prose, but 700 pages of Dickens gets into your mind and I found my sentences becoming a little bit more elaborate, more ornate. So there’s a lot to be said for not reading at all while writing, or at most reading non-fiction. But I find it hard to back off completely, and now I trust my own judgement to tell me if I’m straying too far in one direction or another.
For example, I’ve just finished Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which, with its scrupulously detailed dissection of the central character’s emotions, is far removed from what I’m writing myself. But it so happens that I’d chosen anyway to grant more prominence to my own character’s state of mind, and I’m ready to be receptive to the ways it can be done. What’s important is to be vigilant, rein back if I’ve gone too far, not lose sight of the overall blend of character and plot. I have no doubt that in the revision process, I’ll need to delete or attenuate certain passages, because after all, it’s a mystery novel, not an exploration of a person’s character. But there’s no reason why a mystery novel can’t do that as well – it’s simply a matter of how the two are dosed.
Perfecting our own unique voice, developing it to accommodate the overall purpose of our novel, all the while drawing upon what we read – writing is decidedly a complex and mysterious affair .