Frequently Asked Questions: Writing
You had an agent in your early years tell you that you’d never be a best-selling writer. Did that discourage you or make you more determined to succeed?
I have more self-doubt than any writer I’ve ever known. That is one reason I revise every page to the point of absurdity! The positive aspect of self-doubt – if you can channel it into useful activity instead of being paralyzed by it – is that by the time you reach the end of a novel, you know precisely why you made every decision in the narrative, the multiple purposes of every metaphor and image. Having been your own hardest critic you still have dreams but not illusions. Consequently, thoughtless criticism or advice can’t long derail you. You become disappointed in an agent, in an editor, in a publisher, but never discouraged. If anyone in your publishing life were to argue against a particular book or a career aspiration for reasons you had not already pondered and rejected after careful analysis, if they dazzled you with brilliant new considerations, then you’d have to back off and revisit your decisions. But what I was told never dazzled me. For example, I was often advised, by different people, that my work would never gain a big audience because my vocabulary was too large.
It’s been said that writers reveal their own struggles, fears, dreams, etc. through their work. Which of your novels reveals the most about you?
Everything I believe about life and death, culture and society, relationships and the self, God and nature–everything winds up in the books, not in one more than another, but equally, title after title. A body of work, therefore, reveals the intellectual and emotional progress of the writer, and is a map of his soul. It’s both terrifying and liberating to consider this aspect of being a novelist.
I’ve read that you will rewrite a page until it’s right before moving on, sometimes redoing a draft thirty or forty times. This must make for a slow process. Approximately how long does it take you to write one novel?
I work 10- and 11-hour days because in long sessions I fall away more completely into story and characters than I would in, say, a six-hour day. On good days, I might wind up with five or six pages of finished work; on bad days, a third of a page. Even five or six is not a high rate of production for a 10- or 11-hour day, but there are more good days than bad. And the secret is doing it day after day, committing to it and avoiding distractions. A month–perhaps 22 to 25 work days–goes by and, as a slow drip of water can fill a huge cauldron in a month, so you discover that you have 75 polished pages. The process is slow, but that’s a good thing. Because I don’t do a quick first draft and then revise it, I have plenty of time to let the subconscious work; therefore, I am led to surprise after surprise that enriches story and deepens character. I have a low boredom threshold, and in part I suspect I fell into this method of working in order to keep myself mystified about the direction of the piece–and therefore entertained. A very long novel, like FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE can take a year. A book like THE GOOD GUY, six months.
You are one of the most prolific fiction writers of our time. What keeps you going?
In addition to the enchantment with language and storytelling, there is the fact that I wouldn’t know what the hell to do if I were not doing this. Some leisure is fine, but not an unrelieved diet of downtime. I’m also writing to ensure that our foundation–which focuses largely on organizations for the severely disabled, critically ill children, and dogs–will be deeply funded and able to support those organizations long after Gerda and I are gone.
You are known as perhaps the hardest working novelist of our time. To what do you attribute your work ethic?
Two things. First, I am enchanted by the English language, by its beauty and flexibility, also by the power of storytelling to expand the mind and lift the heart. Language and story offer possibilities –intriguing challenges–that I couldn’t exhaust in many lifetimes. The work is joy when it’s going well, even when it isn’t. Second, I believe that talent is a gift and that it comes with the sacred obligation to polish and grow it.
As a young writer, did you encounter rejection?–Allison, Pennsylvania
I sold the first short story I wrote. Then I received over 75 rejections before making another sale. My first four novels were never published. Later, after I’d been selling genre fiction routinely, I wrote a mainstream novel, ALL OTHER MEN. Editors sent me enthusiastic letters about it, said they loved it, but turned it down because they felt it was too disturbing and too avant garde to be commercial. But let me get to the heart of your question: young writer. There seems to be an implication here that I’m no longer young. I am as young now, Allison, as I have ever been, and not because of any form of dementia. I am young because my work keeps me young and the daily wrestling with our beautiful and supple language keeps me limber and youthful, as well. You may think that is bullshit, and it is, but it’s a sincere kind of bullshit.
How important were college creative-writing courses to your success?—Alberto, Washington
I’m sure that the right teacher, in a well-designed course, can be a great help to beginning writers who are trying to find their way, but I have no personal experience of that. I found my own way by doing two things. First, I read 150 books a year, sometimes more, (very little TV, later no blogging, no e-mail, that’s how), fiction in all genres, contemporary novels but also the classics, poetry, and a variety of nonfiction. Second, I revise every page of a novel twenty or thirty times, whatever it takes, before moving on to the next page. This line-by-line immersion focuses me intently on language, character, and theme. I began this ceaseless polishing out of self-doubt, as a way of preventing self-doubt from turning into writer’s block: by doing something with the unsatisfactory page, I wasn’t just sitting there brooding about it. I have more self-doubt than any writer I know, which seems healthy to me, and now this method of working, this line-by-line immersion, no longer seems arduous; instead, it delights me. While my conscious mind is on the micro world of a single page, my unconscious is always working on the macro world of the entire novel.
When did you decide you were destined to be a writer? At what point in your life? —Marcy, New Jersey
After a devastating ankle injury forever ended my ice-dancing career. Actually, nothing is destined. Everything depends on the unstinting exercise of free will, and hard work.