If a novelist has a secret, it is not that he has a special something but that he has a special nothing…..a writer has to be an ex-suicide, a cipher, a naught, a zero. Being a naught is the very condition of making anything….writing well is simply a matter of giving up, of surrendering, of letting go. It’s a question of being so pitiful God takes pity on you, looks down and says, He’s done for. Let him have a couple of good sentences. —Walker Percy
The other day, when writing my novel was like driving through a fog I pulled a literary journal from my bookcase and re- read an interview that I’d given a month after my last book was published. As the rain drummed on the skylights of my studio, I noted–with detached fascination, even envy–that the interviewer had described me as ‘bold’. I also admired the elusive, shimmering creature, who said she always worked on more than one story at once, and simply ‘went on to the next thing’ if an idea wasn’t moving.
When I finished the interview and closed the journal, this creature, The Writer, disappeared inside its pages. Once more I was confronted with a wastebasket that contained the botched beginning of one story, a completely muddled revision of another, and a terrible ending of a third. This interview—like most interviews with writers–fed the myth that the writer is a fixed and solid entity, someone who can describe a map, if not the territory, of a working day. I’d talked about the creative process in the interview, even acknowledging how difficult it was; however, I couldn’t recreate the experience, either for myself or the interviewer, of what it’s really like to have a working day in which one accomplishes absolutely nothing. Nor could I explain those odd, serendipitous moments that occur just before a story begins to work, the inchoate sense of knowing that one path, rather than another, is the path to take. As I’d sat in a cafe with burnished lights and little plates of tapas and people discussing movies, writing became an object, something to be sketched, fictionalized, talked about. The interviewer leaned forward, the soft lights of the cafe added to the illusion of being inside a painting, and I became a found character–The Writer.
In truth, I’d never met The Writer, nor will I ever meet her. She’s an imaginary creature, created as a kind of ambassador for the real writer who has no idea how she manages to write stories or novels and is always surprised that she can do it again. Other writers I know also say they can’t recognize themselves in interviews, even if (as one writer does) they prepare with written notes. “It’s not that I’ve said anything that isn’t true,” a novelist once told me. “It’s simply that it never really captures the experience. Also, when I sit down to write again, nothing I said in that interview ever describes what I actually do.”
Having made this disclaimer, I can now tell you that I love to read interviews with other writers. Collectively, they comprise a vast, cerebral People Magazine, and often have the aura of delicious, slightly illicit intimacy. In The Paris Review, one page of the writer’s first draft is always reproduced, with many scribblings and corrections. I can look over P.D. James’ shoulder, see that she substituted ‘strap’ for ‘rope’ and think I hear a tree fall in the forest –the perverse philosopher’s tree that falls without making a sound. James’ manuscript is typed and her corrections are easy to read, but in the same issue there’s a handwritten, nearly hieroglyphic page by Patrick O’Brian, a page which surely only he can decipher. Indeed, his writing looks like the Rosetta Stone, and I can imagine an enormous installation of Patrick O’Brian’s first drafts, one that might require over twenty rooms, allowing viewers to glimpse the origin of his stories. I know, of course, that these manuscripts are not the real origin. The real origin is concealed–in the fragment of a dream, or an image of a child in summer twilight, or a vision of a Mediterranean village–as well as in hours and hours of daydreaming, writing and revising, not to mention everything the writer has lived and experienced up to that point. The perennial questions posed to writers about whether they write longhand or use a computer, who has influenced them, where they get their ideas, and what routines inform their working day, can’t possibly expose these origins. We’re content to settle for what whatever is in superfluous orbit around the writer, accidents of fate, history and personality.
Thus we discover that Joan Didion sleeps in the same room with her novel, that Tom Robbins spends half-an hour a day looking at the sky, and that P.D. James got the setting for Devices and Desires when she was looking at a nuclear power plant near the North Sea. These tell us nothing about the actual process. They are stand-ins, understudies, markers. The literary interview is a bit like a failed detective story, seeking the answer to the question how does the writer do it? when everybody knows that no one can explain how the writer did it–not even the writer. As John Steinbeck said: “We work in our own darkness a great deal with very little knowledge of what we are doing.” Remembering this darkness, we concoct stories about how stories finally came to be written. These meta-stories always are told after the real stories are finished. Ultimately it doesn’t matter that the literary interview is a masquerade ball, in which the writer and the interviewer meet in a ritual promenade, never taking off their mask. In a sense, this doesn’t matter because the real meeting happens when the reader reads, and this meeting is so clandestine not even the writer can witness it In the privacy of their rooms, readers immerse themselves in the writer’s language to recreate the writer’s story as a personal living theater. This immersion–intense, solitary, yet deeply interactive—can result in a sense of connection to the writer more intimate and profound than connections with many people the reader knows.
Thus readers, seeking to sustain this anonymous connection, write letters to writers, have fictitous conversations with writers, and sometimes imagine dinner parties where guests are their favorite writers. There’s always a paradox to this connection: The more the writer is willing to let go of a persona and allow every fiber of their being to disappear into a story, the more the reader feels that, in addition to having met particular characters, they have met a very particular person. Even third-person narrators, in the grand tradition of 19th century omniscience, manage this slight-of-hand feat, imbuing every novel with a distinct quality of presence. You speak of liking Jane Austen and not liking Anthony Trollope. You would never mistake Charles Dickens for Emily Brontë. Because we are curious, because we are uncomfortable with the invisible–and because our culture revels in the cult of personality–we will always write literary interviews, and we will always greatly enjoy them. Readers will read to discover secrets that don’t exist, settling for odd bits of information that are ultimately tangential to the actual process of writing. Writers will be guaranteed a temporary reprieve from their lonely, uncharted days. These interviews serve us well if we take them for what they are–talismans of a mysterious, alchemical triad, the reader, the writer, and the story.