William Gibson, The Art of Fiction No. 211

INTERVIEWER

How do you begin a novel?

GIBSON

I have to write an opening sentence. I think with one exception I’ve never changed an opening sentence after a book was completed.

INTERVIEWER

You won’t have planned beyond that one sentence?

GIBSON

No. I don’t begin a novel with a shopping list—the novel becomes my shopping list as I write it. It’s like that joke about the violin maker who was asked how he made a violin and answered that he started with a piece of wood and removed everything that wasn’t a violin. That’s what I do when I’m writing a novel, except somehow I’m simultaneously generating the wood as I’m carving it.

E. M. Forster’s idea has always stuck with me—that a writer who’s fully in control of the characters hasn’t even started to do the work. I’ve never had any direct fictional input, that I know of, from dreams, but when I’m working optimally I’m in the equivalent of an ongoing lucid dream. That gives me my story, but it also leaves me devoid of much theoretical or philosophical rationale for why the story winds up as it does on the page. The sort of narratives I don’t trust, as a reader, smell of homework.

INTERVIEWER

Do you take notes?

GIBSON

I take the position that if I can forget it, it couldn’t have been very good.

But in the course of a given book, I sometimes get to a point where the ­narrative flow overwhelms the speed at which I can compose. So I’ll sometimes stop and make cryptic notes that are useless by the time I get back to them. Underlined three times, with no context—“Have they been too big a deal?”

INTERVIEWER

What is your writing schedule like?

GIBSON

When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.

INTERVIEWER

And your schedule is steady the whole way through?

GIBSON

As I move through the book it becomes more demanding. At the beginning, I have a five-day workweek, and each day is roughly ten to five, with a break for lunch and a nap. At the very end, it’s a seven-day week, and it could be a twelve-hour day.

Toward the end of a book, the state of composition feels like a complex, chemically altered state that will go away if I don’t continue to give it what it needs. What it needs is simply to write all the time. Downtime other than simply sleeping becomes problematic. I’m always glad to see the back of that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise?

GIBSON

Every day, when I sit down with the manuscript, I start at page one and go through the whole thing, revising freely.

INTERVIEWER

You revise the whole manuscript every day?

GIBSON

I do, though that might consist of only a few small changes. I’ve done that since my earliest attempts at short stories. It would be really frustrating for me not to be able to do that. I would feel as though I were flying blind.

The beginnings of my books are rewritten many times. The endings are only a draft or three, and then they’re done. But I can scan the manuscript very quickly, much more quickly than I could ever read anyone else’s prose.

INTERVIEWER

Does your assessment of the work change, day by day?

GIBSON

If it were absolutely steady I don’t think it could be really good judgment. I think revision is hugely underrated. It is very seldom recognized as a place where the higher creativity can live, or where it can manifest. I think it was Yeats who said that literary revision was the only place in life where a man could truly improve himself.

INTERVIEWER

How much do you write in a typical day?

GIBSON

I don’t know. I used to make printouts at every stage, just to be comforted by the physical fact of the pile of manuscript. It was seldom more than five manuscript pages. I was still doing that with Pattern Recognition, out of nervousness that all the computers would die and take my book with them. I was printing it out and sending it to first readers by fax, usually beginning with the first page. I’m still sending my output to readers every day. But I’ve learned to just let it live in the hard drive, and once I’d quit printing out the daily output, I lost track.

INTERVIEWER

For a while it was often reported, erroneously, that you typed all your books on a typewriter.

GIBSON

I wrote Neuromancer on a manual portable typewriter and about half of Count Zero on the same machine. Then it broke, in a way that was more or less irreparable. Bruce Sterling called me shortly thereafter and said, “This changes everything!” I said, “What?” He said, “My Dad gave me his Apple II. You have to get one of these things!” I said, “Why?” He said, “Automation—it automates the process of writing!” I’ve never gone back.

But I had only been using a typewriter because I’d gotten one for free and I was poor. In 1981, most people were still writing on typewriters. There were five large businesses in Vancouver that did nothing but repair and sell typewriters. Soon there were computers, too, and it was a case of the past and the future mutually coexisting. And then the past just goes away.

INTERVIEWER

For someone who so often writes about the future of technology, you seem to have a real romance for artifacts of earlier eras.

GIBSON

It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable. It would be harder to accurately imagine what New York City was like the day before the advent of broadcast television than to imagine what it will be like after life-size broadcast holography comes online. But actually the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we’ve already been there and nobody paid any attention. That world is gone.

My great-grandfather was born into a world where there was no recorded music. It’s very, very difficult to conceive of a world in which there is no possibility of audio recording at all. Some people were extremely upset by the first Edison recordings. It nauseated them, terrified them. It sounded like the devil, they said, this evil unnatural technology that offered the potential of hearing the dead speak. We don’t think about that when we’re driving somewhere and turn on the radio. We take it for granted.

Interview by David Wallace-Wells
Full Interview at The Paris Review

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