Putting Pen to Paper with Ken Follett

Ken Follett

Ken Follett

You then have to elaborate your basic idea. I write down my one sentence on a piece of paper and I try and make it two. I begin to imagine the people in the story, where they came from and what their motivations are. I think about how they will approach this problem, whether it be losing all their money or trying to catch a German spy.

I am trying to create interesting characters and show how their lives are devastated by a series of events, how they fight against adversity and how they triumph. I elaborate more and more. Two sentences become three, and before too long I’ve got three paragraphs, a page, two pages and so on as I constantly rewrite and tease out the story, trying to create extra dramatic situations out of this basic idea. Eventually, I get to the stage where it takes me all day to write a summary of the novel. As I go through, I look at what I wrote the day before, sentence by sentence, trying to improve it by, for example, making it more dramatic or a character more interesting.

You have to ask yourself questions all the time about these people that you have created and the problems they are confronted with. You ask about how clever they are, how courageous and you must always ask, in every situation they confront, what are they afraid of? I then see that any little changes have consequences later in the story and I have to change the story to adjust it.

Every change suggests new opportunities and new notions. If a character triumphs or has some kind of success, I plant earlier in the story the notion that this is the kind of triumph or success that they have always longed for. Any time they are confronted with something scary, I plant earlier in the story the notion that this is what they have been terrified of all their lives. This technique heightens the emotion and raises the stakes.

In creating these stories the writer must always be aware of raising the stakes. Think of a German spy in wartime England. He’s not just trying to get home with some information, he is trying to get home with information that will change the course of the war. The people who are trying to catch him must know that he’s got that information and then for them the stakes are higher. Preferably there should also be some personal thing that makes this the most important thing that has ever happened in their lives. Perhaps one of the people who is trying to catch him failed to catch a spy a year earlier and is terribly ashamed of having failed. So not only does he want to catch this spy but he wants to in order to vindicate his whole life.

From Wikipedia:

Ken Follett (born 5 June 1949) is a Welsh author of thrillers and historical novels. He has sold more than 100 million copies of his works. Four of his books have reached the number 1 ranking on the New York Times best-seller list: The Key to Rebecca, Lie Down with Lions, Triple, and World Without End.

 

How Dave Barry Writes

Dave Barry

Dave Barry

Why: The most logical profession for me, based on my natural gifts, would be male underwear model. But I’ve always loved to write, because it gives me a chance to express my ideas. Unfortunately, I ran out of ideas in 1987, but by then I’d been a writer for 15 years and had no useful skills. So here I am.

Where: I write in an office in my home. My desk is a few feet from that of my wife, Michelle, a sportswriter who also works mostly at home. We can hear each other chewing.

How: I use a computer. Unfortunately, this computer also has the Internet on it, so I spend a lot of time looking at sites that have nothing to do with what I am allegedly writing about.

Ideas: I scrawl notes when I think of something. My house has scrawled notes all over. They say things like “snail rocket,” and when I look at them later on, they serve as a reminder to me that when I wrote them down, I had consumed a lot of beer. So I throw them away and go into a state of panicky despair and then write a column. Panicky despair is an underrated element of writing.

Influences: Robert Benchley is my idol. I’ve been reading him since I was a kid, and still return to his essays regularly for inspiration. My mom was pretty funny, too.

Writer’s block: I believe “writer’s block” is the normal state of writing; that is, you rarely have anything just flow easily from your brain to the keyboard. And if it does, it’s usually pretty bad. Good writing is almost always hard, and what I think sometimes happens is that writers forget how hard it is, or don’t want to do the work anymore, and they call this “writer’s block.”

Writing novels vs. columns: The hard part of novel-writing is the plot; you have to make so many decisions, and each can affect what can and can’t happen later. So I had to do a whole lot more planning than when I write columns, and planning is not one of my strengths, the way underwear modeling is. What I liked best about the novel was making up characters, and watching them develop and turn into people whom I did not totally control.

The challenge of humor writing: Overcoming the fear that whatever you think is funny really isn’t.

Advice to writers: Don’t be boring. Don’t assume every thought you have is fascinating to others. Your job is to give people a reason to keep reading.

From Wikipedia:

David “Dave” Barry (born July 3, 1947) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author and columnist, who wrote a nationally syndicated humor column for The Miami Herald from 1983 to 2005. He has also written numerous books of humor and parody, as well as comedic novels.

Successful Schizophrenia: Why Jodi Picoult Writes and Other Advice

Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult

I write because I can’t not write. Just ask my husband. If I have an idea circling in my brain and I can’t get it out, it begins to poison my waking existence, until I’m unable to function in polite company or even hold a simple conversation.

When I’m actively writing, in the thick of a book, I’ll find myself hiding up in my attic office to get just one more scene down on the page before I go downstairs to dinner. A lot of times, that one scene will turn into two or three.

But beyond the itchiness I’d feel if I weren’t able to write, I write because it’s a way of puzzling out answers to situations in the world that I don’t understand. The act of writing a book gives me the same experience that I hope reading it gives readers. It forces me to sort through the various points of view on a given issue or situation and ultimately come to a conclusion. Doing that might not change my mind, but it almost always gives me a stronger sense of why my opinion is what it is—a question we rarely ask ourselves.

Riding a bike down a hill

The way I feel about writing changes on a daily—or an hourly—basis. Sometimes it’s like riding a bicycle down a hill, with the wind whipping through my hair and my hands in the air. And then there are the times when writing feels like slogging through the mud that was left behind after Hurricane Irene.

I’ve always seen writing as a job. Granted, it’s one I love to do, but it requires me to park my butt in a chair even when I don’t feel particularly motivated.

Sometimes, it’s magical. The characters seem to breathe and take over. I hear their voices very clearly in my head. That’s why I’ve always called writing “successful schizophrenia”: I get paid to hear those voices. But at a certain point in every book, something happens that I never saw coming—at least, not consciously—and it’s exactly the puzzle piece the story is missing, the element that ties the threads of the book together. Characters seem to pick their own paths. They have an agenda that I don’t even know about until the conversation or the plot begins inching its way across the typed page. Even though I know the end of my books before writing a single word, I often find that the middle section—how I get from point A to point Z—is a delightful surprise.

I’m often asked if I cry when I write. Of course I do! There are some scenes I’ve written, often between moms and kids, where I find myself sobbing at the keyboard. I know the characters better than I know anyone else, so it stands to reason that I’m emotionally invested in them.

Physically, when I write, I feel the years. I’ve been a writer for two decades and like every other writer I know, I have tendinitis. A good day writing can mean a very bad day for my arm or shoulder. I remind myself it’s a pretty sweet problem to have.

Home Depot time

My hardest time as a writer was when I realized that I’d grabbed the brass ring. I’d published a bunch of books, and I still wasn’t a success.

A lot of writers think of the publishing contract as the Holy Grail, but it’s not. It’s a huge mistake to think that just because your book is being printed, your publisher will publicize it. If you’re a new author, it’s much more likely that they won’t. You have to stump yourself and find book clubs to talk to and go to book fairs and set up signings at bookstores and libraries—anything to get word of mouth going. Your publisher’s more likely to pay attention to your book if it starts magically selling. Then they might put some money into promoting it. It’s a vicious cycle.

That’s why I was really disheartened when I was a young mom of three kids, and I’d had multiple books published, but I was still toying with the idea of getting a job application from Home Depot so I could help support my family.

Can’t beat number one

The best time I’ve had as a writer is every time I’ve found out that a book of mine is debuting at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s happened a few times, and it never gets old. I have to pinch myself to say, Wow, look how far I’ve come. When I’m number one, I know it’s not just my mom and her friends buying the book. I can remember the precise moment when my editor called with the good news. I’d write even if no one ever read my stuff, but it’s so gratifying to know that people do.

Another amazing moment was when I did an event at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. Gone with the Wind is the book that made me want to be a writer. To sit at the desk where it was written had me trembling.

Jodi Picoult’s Wisdom for Writers:

  • Take a writing course. It’s how you’ll learn to get and give feedback, and it’ll teach you to write on demand.
  • There’s no magic bullet that’ll make you a success. If you write because you want to be rich, you’re in the wrong business. Write because you can’t not write, or don’t write at all.
  • Write even when you don’t feel like writing. There is no muse. It’s hard work. You can always edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page.
  • Read. It’ll inspire you to write as well as the authors who came before you.

From Wikipedia:

Jodi Lynn Picoult (pron.: /ˈdʒoʊdi piːˈkoʊ/;[1] born May 19, 1966) is an American author. She was awarded the New England Bookseller Award for fiction in 2003. Picoult currently has some 14 million copies of her books in print worldwide.

Picoult became the writer of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman (vol. 3) series following the departure of fellow writer Allan Heinberg. Her first issue (#6) was released on March 28, 2007, and her last was issue #10 (released on June 27, 2007).

Nineteen Minutes, Picoult’s novel about the aftermath of a school shooting in a small town, has become her first book to debut at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list. Her book Change Of Heart was published on March 4, 2008, and became Picoult’s second novel to debut at #1 on the NYT Best Seller list.

 

On the Subject of Dry Spells with Erskine Caldwell

Erskine Caldwell

Erskine Caldwell

INTERVIEWERS

Do you ever have to overcome inertia to get yourself writing in the morning?

CALDWELL

No, I wouldn’t say so at all. Now, I might have the feeling coming in here that I don’t know what I’m going to do. I might be worried about that. But I’ll come in anyway and sit here until something happens. You see, it’s something I wanted to do to begin with and so I’ll still have that urge to see it through. I guess that talent is just a part of being a writer. You’ve got to have desire in order to make it all work.

INTERVIEWERS

Have you ever had any long dry spells?

CALDWELL

No. You can always write something. You write limericks. You write a love letter. You do something to get you in the habit of writing again, to bring back the desire.

From Wikipedia:

Erskine Preston Caldwell (December 17, 1903 – April 11, 1987) was an American author. His writings about poverty, racism and social problems in his native South in novels such as Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre won him critical acclaim, but also made him controversial among fellow Southerners of the time who felt he was deprecating the people of the region.

 

Writing Posthumously with Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides

Posthumous

by Jeffrey Eugenides
The following text is adapted from a speech given to the 2012 Whiting Award winners.

In his 1988 book of essays, “Prepared for the Worst,” Christopher Hitchens recalled a bit of advice given to him by the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. “A serious person should try to write posthumously,” Hitchens said, going on to explain: “By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints—of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion—did not operate.” Hitchens’s untimely death last year, at the age of sixty-two, has thrown this remark into relief, pressing upon those of us who persist in writing the uncomfortable truth that anything we’re working on has the potential to be published posthumously; that death might not be far off, and that, given this disturbing reality, we might pay attention to it.

It’s not very nice of me to bring up death tonight, as we gather to celebrate ten emerging writers. Talented and accomplished as you all are, you’re just getting going, so why should I rain on your parade? Here’s why: because Gordimer’s advice about writing posthumously may be the best way to help your writing in the here-and-now. It may inoculate you against the intellectual and artistic viruses that, as you’re exposed to the literary world, will be eager to colonize your system.

All of the constraints Hitchens mentions have one thing in common: they all represent a deformation of the self. To follow literary fashion, to write for money, to censor your true feelings and thoughts or adopt ideas because they’re popular requires a writer to suppress the very promptings that got him or her writing in the first place. When you started writing, in high school or college, it wasn’t out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you’re receiving tonight. It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive. Remember? You were fifteen and standing beside a river in wintertime. Ice floes drifted slowly downstream. Your nose was running. Your wool hat smelled like a wet dog. Your dog, panting by your side, smelled like your hat. It was hard to distinguish. As you stood there, watching the river, an imperative communicated itself to you. You were being told to pay attention. You, the designated witness, special little teen-age omniscient you, wearing tennis shoes out in the snow, against your mother’s orders. Just then the sun came out from behind the clouds, revealing that every twig on every tree was encased in ice. The entire world a crystal chandelier that might shatter if you made a sound, so you didn’t. Even your dog knew to keep quiet. And the beauty of the world at that moment, the majestic advance of ice in the river, so like the progress of the thoughts inside your head, overwhelmed you, filling you with one desire and one desire only, which was to go home immediately and write about it.

Does that sound like you? O.K., but that’s only half the story. You’re also the college sophomore standing in a corner of a keg party in the basement of some desperate dorm. You’re standing in the corner because the light is dim. Dim light is a plus. In the hour or so before leaving your room, while you were lying on your bed innocently reading Flaubert, a zit of incomparable size and ferocity erupted in the middle of your forehead. The size of this blemish, its fiery and painful swollenness, were almost enough to keep you from coming to this party in the first place. Better to just stay in bed and read “Sentimental Education.” But there’s this person of interest you’re hoping to see at the party and you thought that maybe with a little concealer or by combing down your bangs you might be able to appear in public, so this is what you do, only to end up, sometime later, standing in the corner, feeling the zit on your forehead actually pulse, like a second heartbeat. Your friends come up to say, “Hi,” pretending not to notice. You love them for this. You begin to think that your existence on earth isn’t a total mistake when suddenly you spy the person of interest across the room. Here’s your chance. With your head down, like someone using a Geiger counter, you make your way across the room. As you pass the person of interest, you gather courage and lift your face, despite everything, but the person of interest is talking to somebody else, and so you keep on going, all the way out of the party and the dorm. And then you’re outside, under the black, unfeeling sky. In that moment there is no one as lonely, lovelorn, and unlovable as you; and yet this feeling of hopelessness mixes, oddly, with a perverse kind of hope, of resistance to the regrettable physical facts, and you’re filled with the desire to write something, to go back to your room and be like Flaubert, solitary and misanthropic and a God-damned genius.

That’s what you were probably like. I know you guys. We recognize each other.

So what I’m saying is, this is what got you here tonight: your over-stimulated, complicated, by turns ecstatic and despondent, specific self. And if you’re anything like I was when I got one of these awards, some twenty years ago, you didn’t know exactly how you did it. You write your first stuff pretty much for yourself, not thinking anybody will read, much less publish, it, not thinking it’ll earn money, therefore not worrying about pleasing anyone or falling in line with any agenda; not worrying about censoring yourself, either, because who’s going to see it? And, miraculously, it worked out. Not only did you get published but older, established writers read your stuff and nominated you for a Whiting and the selection committee met and picked you out a huge body of nominees. And so here you are tonight, in New York City, and—I don’t want to ruin your night or anything—but everything’s about to change. You’re not writing for yourself anymore. Now you’re a published author or a playwright whose one-act has been produced—and suddenly everybody thinks you’re a professional. You did it before, wrote a book, a play, a collection of poetry, so you can do it again, right? And as you begin to worry about how to do that, that’s when your immune system is at its weakest and the pathogens can make their way in.

Fashion will come at you from two directions, from outside and in. You might start noticing what’s getting attention in the press. You might begin to forget the person you are in order to write and sound like someone else. Alternately, you might be tempted to repeat yourself. To follow the fashion of your own previous work, to stop exploring, learning and trying new things, for risk of failure.

If you try to write posthumously, however, fashion doesn’t apply. You step off the catwalk, ignoring this season’s trends and resigning yourself to being unfashionable and possibly unnoticed, at least for a while. As Kurt Woolf, Kafka’s first publisher in Germany, wrote to him after Kafka’s book tanked, “You and we know that it is generally just the best and most valuable things that do not find their echo immediately.” Fashion is the attempt to evade that principle: to be the echo of someone else’s success and, therefore, to create nothing that might create an echo of its own.

The Yankees played the Detroit Tigers in the A.L.C.S. last week, to a highly satisfying conclusion, from my perspective. Doug Fister, starting right-hander for the Tigers, when asked how the team was dealing with the pressure, had something like this to say: “We just try to stay within ourselves. That’s what we’ve been doing all year, as a team. The important thing to do, as a pitcher, is I just try to stay within myself. So, yeah, when I’m out there, on the mound, in a game like that, a big game, what I’m thinking about is staying within myself. Because the important thing to do in a situation like this is, you know, to stay within yourself.”

Professional athletes aren’t always the most articulate people. Athletes are rarely nominated for a Whiting Award (though the committee might consider R.A. Dickey of the Mets next year). A lack of articulateness, however, doesn’t mean that the speaker doesn’t know what he’s talking about. A Major League pitcher is dealing with big-time pressure. Don’t discount the wisdom of “stay within yourself.” Fister knows whereof he speaks. And don’t for a minute think that you, as writers, are under any less pressure. Society at large may not recognize it, but every morning when you go to your writing desks you’re up against not the Yankees but the literary tradition, two thousand years of great works to admire, learn from, compete against, and, hopefully, expand. It’s no small task you’ve set yourself. Don’t let anybody tell you different.

The other trap you might fall into is to start thinking about money. “No one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” said Samuel Johnson. Well—and I’ve never gotten to do this before—I’d like to disagree with Dr. Johnson. Once you start conceiving of your book as a commodity, you start thinking about readers as potential buyers, as customers to be lured. This makes you try to anticipate their tastes and cater to them. In doing so, you begin to depart from your own inclinations rather than respond to what the Irish novelist, Colm Toibin, has referred to as “the stuff that won’t go away.” “It seems that the essential impulse in working is … to allow what haunts you to have a voice, to chart what is deeply private and etched on the soul, and find a form and structure for it.” Facing up to what haunts you and finding a form and structure for it can never be a commercial enterprise. That stuff’s too chaotic and unpredictable, too messy and gorgeous, to fit a popular template. But it’s the source of your originality and may well prove popular in the end.

Your audience, as it grows, your need for a teaching job, the fact of being taken seriously and reviewed by people—all these things might lead you to over-analyze your words and censor them. As Adrienne Rich put it, “Lying is done with words and also with silence.” You’re too young to remember this—I’m too young to remember this—but in 1976 Vivian Gornick wrote an essay called “Why Do these Men Hate Women?” Underneath this boldfaced headline were the photos of Normal Mailer, John Updike, and Philip Roth. Mailer probably enjoyed that, but I doubt Updike and Roth did. Still, what did Philip Roth do in response to that attack? He went on to publish books like “Sabbath’s Theater,” in order to provoke such critics rather than placate them. And the important thing isn’t whether you like Philip Roth or think he’s a nice person or a misogynist or a pervert or just really funny; the important thing is that no one would dispute that Roth has continued to be the writer he had to be, a writer who has been lionized and vilified. But, let’s face it, mostly lionized.

And why do people like Roth live way out in the country, anyway? Because living in the sticks is like being dead—it’s a way of forgetting that anybody’s watching. It’s a way of writing posthumously. Better, of course, if you can do it in Brooklyn, where you can get a decent meal, but do whatever you have to do.

Equally insidious is to adopt a bien pensant manner, to make sure that everything you say is earnest and well meaning, the kind of thing Bono might put in a lyric. Piety can be another form of censorship.

You get what I’m saying. The same goes for spouting popular ideas, intellectual or otherwise, that aren’t your own. You have to watch yourself closely because it’s easy for some trendy notion to filter in. You put it in a sentence and it sounds reasonably intelligent. Then your book comes out and, out of all the thousands of words in it, that one little word gets noticed by some wag in Cobble Hill, who traces it back to the source you borrowed it from, and in that moment you feel very, very small. You feel undeserving of the privilege of being a writer, in the company of all the writers whose stringent examples you set out, long ago, to emulate.

I’m winding down now. They tell me there’s going to be a party after this. I don’t want to keep you from your rightful fun. In closing, let me say one more thing about Mr. Kafka. When Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis, in Berlin, he reacted at first with a serenity amounting almost to relief. As his health deteriorated, he became more fearful: “What I have playacted is really going to happen,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life and now I will really die.”

To die your whole life. Despite the morbidity, I can’t think of a better definition of the writing life. There’s something about writing that demands a leave-taking, an abandonment of the world, paradoxically, in order to see it clearly. This retreat has to be accomplished without severing the vital connection to the world, and to people, that feeds the imagination. It’s a difficult balance. And here is where these ruminations about writing touch on morality. The same constraints to writing well are also constraints to living fully. Not to be a slave to fashion or commerce, not to succumb to arid self-censorship, not to bow to popular opinion—what is all that but a description of the educated, enlightened life? Anyway, it’s the one you’ve chosen, the first fruits of which we’re here to honor tonight. It’s an honor for me to preside over this ceremony. I’m happy to do it in gratitude for the help the Whiting Foundation has given so many writers, including myself. I don’t remember who made the speech and read the citations my year, as you probably won’t remember me. That’s O.K. Just remember what Doug Fister of the Detroit Tigers said: “Stay within yourself.” And, most of all, don’t forget Nadine Gordimer’s advice. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t go along with the crowd. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be cheap. Young as you are, play dead—so that your eyes will stay open.

From Wikipedia:

Jeffrey Kent Eugenides (born March 8, 1960) is an American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer. Eugenides has written numerous short stories and essays, as well as three novels: The Virgin Suicides (1993), Middlesex (2002), and The Marriage Plot (2011).

 

In Between the Words: An Interview with Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

The Art of Fiction No. 134

Interviewed by Elissa Schappell, with additional material from Claudia Brodsky Lacour

The Paris Review

INTERVIEWER

You have said that you begin to write before dawn. Did this habit begin for practical reasons, or was the early morning an especially fruitful time for you?

TONI MORRISON

Writing before dawn began as a necessity—I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama—and that was always around five in the morning. Many years later, after I stopped working at Random House, I just stayed at home for a couple of years. I discovered things about myself I had never thought about before. At first I didn’t know when I wanted to eat, because I had always eaten when it was lunchtime or dinnertime or breakfast time. Work and the children had driven all of my habits . . . I didn’t know the weekday sounds of my own house; it all made me feel a little giddy.

I was involved in writing Beloved at that time—this was in 1983—and eventually I realized that I was clearer-headed, more confident and generally more intelligent in the morning. The habit of getting up early, which I had formed when the children were young, now became my choice. I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.

Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was—there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard—but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular . . . Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.

I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?

INTERVIEWER

What about your writing routine?

MORRISON

I have an ideal writing routine that I’ve never experienced, which is to have, say, nine uninterrupted days when I wouldn’t have to leave the house or take phone calls. And to have the space—a space where I have huge tables. I end up with this much space [she indicates a small square spot on her desk] everywhere I am, and I can’t beat my way out of it. I am reminded of that tiny desk that Emily Dickinson wrote on and I chuckle when I think, Sweet thing, there she was. But that is all any of us have: just this small space and no matter what the filing system or how often you clear it out—life, documents, letters, requests, invitations, invoices just keep going back in. I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write after work?

MORRISON

That was difficult. I’ve tried to overcome not having orderly spaces by substituting compulsion for discipline, so that when something is urgently there, urgently seen or understood, or the metaphor was powerful enough, then I would move everything aside and write for sustained periods of time. I’m talking to you about getting the first draft.

INTERVIEWER

You have to do it straight through?

MORRISON

I do. I don’t think it’s a law.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write on the bottom of a shoe while riding on a train like Robert Frost? Could you write on an airplane?

MORRISON

Sometimes something that I was having some trouble with falls into place, a word sequence, say, so I’ve written on scraps of paper, in hotels on hotel stationery, in automobiles. If it arrives you know. If you know it really has come, then you have to put it down.

INTERVIEWER

What is the physical act of writing like for you?

MORRISON

I write with a pencil.

INTERVIEWER

Would you ever work on a word processor?

MORRISON

Oh, I do that also, but that is much later when everything is put together. I type that into a computer and then I begin to revise. But everything I write for the first time is written with a pencil, maybe a ballpoint if I don’t have a pencil. I’m not picky, but my preference is for yellow legal pads and a nice number two pencil.

INTERVIEWER

Dixon Ticonderoga number two soft?

MORRISON

Exactly. I remember once trying to use a tape recorder, but it doesn’t work.

INTERVIEWER

Did you actually dictate a story into the machine?

MORRISON

Not the whole thing, but just a bit. For instance, when two or three sentences seemed to fall into place, I thought I would carry a tape recorder in the car, particularly when I was working at Random House going back and forth every day. It occurred to me that I could just record it. It was a disaster. I don’t trust my writing that is not written, although I work very hard in subsequent revisions to remove the writerly-ness from it, to give it a combination of lyrical, standard, and colloquial language. To pull all these things together into something that I think is much more alive and representative. But I don’t trust something that occurs to me and then is spoken and transferred immediately to the page.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever read your work out loud while you are working on it?

MORRISON

Not until it’s published. I don’t trust a performance. I could get a response that might make me think it was successful when it wasn’t at all. The difficulty for me in writing—among the difficulties—is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on. So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.

INTERVIEWER

How many times would you say you have to write a paragraph over to reach this standard?

MORRISON

Well, those that need reworking I do as long as I can. I mean I’ve revised six times, seven times, thirteen times. But there’s a line between revision and fretting, just working it to death. It is important to know when you are fretting it; when you are fretting it because it is not working, it needs to be scrapped.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever go back over what has been published and wish you had fretted more over something?

MORRISON

A lot. Everything.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever rework passages that have already been published before reading them to an audience?

MORRISON

I don’t change it for the audience, but I know what it ought to be and isn’t. After twenty-some years you can figure it out; I know more about it now than I did then. It is not so much that it would have been different or even better; it is just that, taken into context with what I was trying to effect, or what consequence I wanted it to have on the reader, years later the picture is clearer to me.

INTERVIEWER

How do you think being an editor for twenty years affected you as a writer?

MORRISON

I am not sure. It lessened my awe of the publishing industry. I understood the adversarial relationship that sometimes exists between writers and publishers, but I learned how important, how critical an editor was, which I don’t think I would have known before.

INTERVIEWER

Are there editors who are helpful critically?

MORRISON

Oh yes. The good ones make all the difference. It is like a priest or a psychiatrist; if you get the wrong one, then you are better off alone. But there are editors so rare and so important that they are worth searching for, and you always know when you have one.

INTERVIEWER

Who was the most instrumental editor you’ve ever worked with?

MORRISON

I had a very good editor, superlative for me—Bob Gottlieb. What made him good for me was a number of things—knowing what not to touch; asking all the questions you probably would have asked yourself had there been the time. Good editors are really the third eye. Cool. Dispassionate. They don’t love you or your work; for me that is what is valuable—not compliments. Sometimes it’s uncanny; the editor puts his or her finger on exactly the place the writer knows is weak but just couldn’t do any better at the time. Or perhaps the writer thought it might fly, but wasn’t sure. Good editors identify that place and sometimes make suggestions. Some suggestions are not useful because you can’t explain everything to an editor about what you are trying to do. I couldn’t possibly explain all of those things to an editor, because what I do has to work on so many levels. But within the relationship if there is some trust, some willingness to listen, remarkable things can happen. I read books all the time that I know would have profited from not a copy editor but somebody just talking through it. And it is important to get a great editor at a certain time, because if you don’t have one in the beginning, you almost can’t have one later. If you work well without an editor, and your books are well received for five or ten years, and then you write another one—which is successful but not very good—why should you then listen to an editor?

INTERVIEWER

You have told students that they should think of the process of revision as one of the major satisfactions of writing. Do you get more pleasure out of writing the first draft, or in the actual revision of the work?

MORRISON

They are different. I am profoundly excited by thinking up or having the idea in the first place . . . before I begin to write.

INTERVIEWER

Does it come in a flash?

MORRISON

No, it’s a sustained thing I have to play with. I always start out with an idea, even a boring idea, that becomes a question I don’t have any answers to. Specifically, since I began the Beloved trilogy, the last part of which I’m working on now, I have been wondering why women who are twenty, thirty years younger than I am are no happier than women who are my age and older. What on earth is that about, when there are so many more things that they can do, so many more choices? All right, so this is an embarrassment of riches, but so what. Why is everybody so miserable?

INTERVIEWER

Do you write to figure out exactly how you feel about a subject?

MORRISON

No, I know how I feel. My feelings are the result of prejudices and convictions like everybody else’s. But I am interested in the complexity, the vulnerability of an idea. It is not “this is what I believe,” because that would not be a book, just a tract. A book is “this may be what I believe, but suppose I am wrong . . . what could it be?” Or, “I don’t know what it is, but I am interested in finding out what it might mean to me, as well as to other people.”

INTERVIEWER

Did you know as a child you wanted to be a writer?

MORRISON

No. I wanted to be a reader. I thought everything that needed to be written had already been written or would be. I only wrote the first book because I thought it wasn’t there, and I wanted to read it when I got through. I am a pretty good reader. I love it. It is what I do, really. So, if I can read it, that is the highest compliment I can think of. People say, I write for myself, and it sounds so awful and so narcissistic, but in a sense if you know how to read your own work— that is, with the necessary critical distance—it makes you a better writer and editor. When I teach creative writing, I always speak about how you have to learn how to read your work; I don’t mean enjoy it because you wrote it. I mean, go away from it, and read it as though it is the first time you’ve ever seen it. Critique it that way. Don’t get all involved in your thrilling sentences and all that . . .

INTERVIEWER

Do you have your audience in mind when you sit down to write?

MORRISON

Only me. If I come to a place where I am unsure, I have the characters to go to for reassurance. By that time they are friendly enough to tell me if the rendition of their lives is authentic or not. But there are so many things only I can tell. After all, this is my work. I have to take full responsibility for doing it right as well as doing it wrong. Doing it wrong isn’t bad, but doing it wrong and thinking you’ve done it right is. I remember spending a whole summer writing something I was very impressed with, but couldn’t get back to until winter. I went back confident that those fifty pages were really first-rate, but when I read them each page of the fifty was terrible. It was really ill-conceived. I knew that I could do it over, but I just couldn’t get over the fact that I thought it was so good at the time. And that is scary because then you think it means you don’t know.

INTERVIEWER

What about it was so bad?

MORRISON

It was pompous. Pompous and unappetizing.

INTERVIEWER

I read that you started writing after your divorce as a way of beating back the loneliness. Was that true, and do you write for different reasons now?

MORRISON

Sort of. Sounds simpler than it was. I don’t know if I was writing for that reason or some other reason—or one that I don’t even suspect. I do know that I don’t like it here if I don’t have something to write.

INTERVIEWER

Here, meaning where?

MORRISON

Meaning out in the world. It is not possible for me to be unaware of the incredible violence, the willful ignorance, the hunger for other people’s pain. I’m always conscious of that though I am less aware of it under certain circumstances—good friends at dinner, other books. Teaching makes a big difference, but that is not enough. Teaching could make me into someone who is complacent, unaware, rather than part of the solution. So what makes me feel as though I belong here out in this world is not the teacher, not the mother, not the lover, but what goes on in my mind when I am writing. Then I belong here and then all of the things that are disparate and irreconcilable can be useful. I can do the traditional things that writers always say they do, which is to make order out of chaos. Even if you are reproducing the disorder, you are sovereign at that point. Struggling through the work is extremely important—more important to me than publishing it.

INTERVIEWER

If you didn’t do this. Then the chaos would—

MORRISON

Then I would be part of the chaos.

INTERVIEWER

Wouldn’t the answer to that be either to lecture about the chaos or to be in politics?

MORRISON

If I had a gift for it. All I can do is read books and write books and edit books and critique books. I don’t think that I could show up on a regular basis as a politician. I would lose interest. I don’t have the resources for it, the gift. There are people who can organize other people and I cannot. I’d just get bored.

INTERVIEWER

When did it become clear to you that your gift was to be a writer?

MORRISON

It was very late. I always thought I was probably adept, because people used to say so, but their criteria might not have been mine. So, I wasn’t interested in what they said. It meant nothing. It was by the time I was writing Song of Solomon, the third book, that I began to think that this was the central part of my life. Not to say that other women haven’t said it all along, but for a woman to say, I am a writer, is difficult.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

MORRISON

Well, it isn’t so difficult anymore, but it certainly was for me and for women of my generation or my class or my race. I don’t know that all those things are folded into it, but the point is you’re moving yourself out of the gender role. You are not saying, I am a mother, I am a wife. Or if you’re in the labor market, I am a teacher, I am an editor. But when you move to writer, what is that supposed to mean? Is that a job? Is this the way you make your living? It’s an intervention into terrain that you are not familiar with—where you have no provenance. At the time I certainly didn’t personally know any other women writers who were successful; it looked very much like a male preserve. So you sort of hope you’re going to be a little minor person around the edges. It’s almost as if you needed permission to write. When I read women’s biographies and autobiographies, even accounts of how they got started writing, almost every one of them had a little anecdote that told about the moment someone gave them permission to do it. A mother, a husband, a teacher—somebody—said, OK, go ahead—you can do it. Which is not to say that men have never needed that; frequently when they are very young, a mentor says, You’re good, and they take off. The entitlement was something they could take for granted. I couldn’t. It was all very strange. So, even though I knew that writing was central to my life, that it was where my mind was, where I was most delighted and most challenged, I couldn’t say it. If someone asked me, What do you do? I wouldn’t say, Oh I’m a writer. I’d say, I’m an editor, or, A teacher. Because when you meet people and go to lunch, if they say, What do you do? and you say, I’m a writer, they have to think about that, and then they ask, What have you written? Then they have to either like it or not like it. People feel obliged to like or not like and say so. It is perfectly all right to hate my work. It really is. I have close friends whose work I loathe.

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel you had to write in private?

MORRISON

Oh yes, I wanted to make it a private thing. I wanted to own it myself. Because once you say it, then other people become involved. As a matter of fact, while I was at Random House I never said I was a writer.

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

MORRISON

Oh, it would have been awful. First of all they didn’t hire me to do that. They didn’t hire me to be one of them. Secondly, I think they would have fired me.

INTERVIEWER

Really?

MORRISON

Sure. There were no in-house editors who wrote fiction. Ed Doctorow quit. There was nobody else—no real buying, negotiating editor in trade who was also publishing her own novels.

INTERVIEWER

Did the fact that you were a woman have anything to do with it?

MORRISON

That I didn’t think about too much. I was so busy. I only know that I will never again trust my life, my future, to the whims of men, in companies or out. Never again will their judgment have anything to do with what I think I can do. That was the wonderful liberation of being divorced and having children. I did not mind failure, ever, but I minded thinking that someone male knew better. Before that, all the men I knew did know better, they really did. My father and teachers were smart people who knew better. Then I came across a smart person who was very important to me who didn’t know better.

INTERVIEWER

Was this your husband?

MORRISON

Yes. He knew better about his life, but not about mine. I had to stop and say, Let me start again and see what it is like to be a grown-up. I decided to leave home, to take my children with me, to go into publishing and see what I could do. I was prepared for that not to work either, but I wanted to see what it was like to be a grown-up.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk about that moment at Random House when they suddenly realized that they had a writer in their midst?

MORRISON

I published a book called The Bluest Eye. I didn’t tell them about it. They didn’t know until they read the review in The New York Times. It was published by Holt. Somebody had told this young guy there that I was writing something and he had said in a very offhand way, If you ever complete something send it to me. So I did. A lot of black men were writing in 1968, 1969, and he bought it, thinking that there was a growing interest in what black people were writing and that this book of mine would also sell. He was wrong. What was selling was: Let me tell you how powerful I am and how horrible you are, or some version of that. For whatever reasons, he took a small risk. He didn’t pay me much, so it didn’t matter if the book sold or not. It got a really horrible review in The New York Times Book Review on Sunday and then got a very good daily review.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned getting permission to write. Who gave it to you?

MORRISON

No one. What I needed permission to do was to succeed at it. I never signed a contract until the book was finished because I didn’t want it to be homework. A contract meant somebody was waiting for it, that I had to do it, and they could ask me about it. They could get up in my face and I don’t like that. By not signing a contract, I do it, and if I want you to see it, I’ll let you see it. It has to do with self-esteem. I am sure for years you have heard writers constructing illusions of freedom, anything in order to have the illusion that it is all mine and only I can do it. I remember introducing Eudora Welty and saying that nobody could have written those stories but her, meaning that I have a feeling about most books that at some point somebody would have written them anyway. But then there are some writers without whom certain stories would never have been written. I don’t mean the subject matter or the narrative but just the way in which they did it—their slant on it is truly unique.

INTERVIEWER

Who are some of them?

MORRISON

Hemingway is in that category, Flannery O’Connor. Faulkner, Fitzgerald . . .

INTERVIEWER

Haven’t you been critical of the way these authors depicted blacks?

MORRISON

No! Me, critical? I have been revealing how white writers imagine black people, and some of them are brilliant at it. Faulkner was brilliant at it. Hemingway did it poorly in places and brilliantly elsewhere.

INTERVIEWER

How so?

MORRISON

In not using black characters, but using the aesthetic of blacks as anarchy, as sexual license, as deviance. In his last book, The Garden of Eden, Hemingway’s heroine is getting blacker and blacker. The woman who is going mad tells her husband, I want to be your little African queen. The novel gets its charge that way: Her white white hair and her black, black skin . . . almost like a Man Ray photograph. Mark Twain talked about racial ideology in the most powerful, eloquent, and instructive way I have ever read. Edgar Allan Poe did not. He loved white supremacy and the planter class, and he wanted to be a gentleman, and he endorsed all of that. He didn’t contest it or critique it. What is exciting about American literature is that business of how writers say things under, beneath, and around their stories. Think of Pudd’nhead Wilson and all these inversions of what race is, how sometimes nobody can tell, or the thrill of discovery? Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom! spends the entire book tracing race and you can’t find it. No one can see it, even the character who is black can’t see it. I did this lecture for my students that took me forever, which was tracking all the moments of withheld, partial, or disinformation, when a racial fact or clue sort of comes out but doesn’t quite arrive. I just wanted to chart it. I listed its appearance, disguise, and disappearance on every page—I mean every phrase! Everything, and I delivered this thing to my class. They all fell asleep! But I was so fascinated, technically. Do you know how hard it is to withhold that kind of information but hinting, pointing all of the time? And then to reveal it in order to say that it is not the point anyway? It is technically just astonishing. As a reader you have been forced to hunt for a drop of black blood that means everything and nothing. The insanity of racism. So the structure is the argument. Not what this one says or that one says . . . it is the structure of the book, and you are there hunting this black thing that is nowhere to be found and yet makes all the difference. No one has done anything quite like that ever. So, when I critique, what I am saying is, I don’t care if Faulkner is a racist or not; I don’t personally care but I am fascinated by what it means to write like this.

INTERVIEWER

What about black writers . . . how do they write in a world dominated by and informed by their relationship to a white culture?

MORRISON

By trying to alter language, simply to free it up, not to repress it or confine it, but to open it up. Tease it. Blast its racist straitjacket. I wrote a story entitled “Recitatif,” in which there are two little girls in an orphanage, one white and one black. But the reader doesn’t know which is white and which is black. I use class codes, but no racial codes.

INTERVIEWER

Is this meant to confuse the reader?

MORRISON

Well, yes. But to provoke and enlighten. I did that as a lark. What was exciting was to be forced as a writer not to be lazy and rely on obvious codes. Soon as I say, Black woman . . . I can rest on or provoke predictable responses, but if I leave it out then I have to talk about her in a complicated way—as a person.

INTERVIEWER

Why wouldn’t you want to say, The black woman came out of the store?

MORRISON

Well, you can, but it has to be important that she is black.

INTERVIEWER

What about The Confessions of Nat Turner?

MORRISON

Well, here we have a very self-conscious character who says things like, I looked at my black hand. Or, I woke up and I felt black. It is very much on Bill Styron’s mind. He feels charged in Nat Turner’s skin . . . in this place that feels exotic to him. So it reads exotically to us, that’s all.

INTERVIEWER

There was a tremendous outcry at that time from people who felt that Styron didn’t have a right to write about Nat Turner.

MORRISON

He has a right to write about whatever he wants. To suggest otherwise is outrageous. What they should have criticized, and some of them did, was Styron’s suggestion that Nat Turner hated black people. In the book Turner expresses his revulsion over and over again . . . he’s so distant from blacks, so superior. So the fundamental question is why would anybody follow him? What kind of leader is this who has a fundamentally racist contempt that seems unreal to any black person reading it? Any white leader would have some interest and identification with the people he was asking to die. That was what these critics meant when they said Nat Turner speaks like a white man. That racial distance is strong and clear in that book.

INTERVIEWER

You must have read a lot of slave narratives for Beloved.

MORRISON

I wouldn’t read them for information because I knew that they had to be authenticated by white patrons, that they couldn’t say everything they wanted to say because they couldn’t alienate their audience; they had to be quiet about certain things. They were going to be as good as they could be under the circumstances and as revelatory, but they never say how terrible it was. They would just say, Well, you know, it was really awful, but let’s abolish slavery so life can go on. Their narratives had to be very understated. So while I looked at the documents and felt familiar with slavery and overwhelmed by it, I wanted it to be truly felt. I wanted to translate the historical into the personal. I spent a long time trying to figure out what it was about slavery that made it so repugnant, so personal, so indifferent, so intimate, and yet so public.

In reading some of the documents I noticed frequent references to something that was never properly described—the bit. This thing was put into the mouth of slaves to punish them and shut them up without preventing them from working. I spent a long time trying to find out what it looked like. I kept reading statements like, I put the bit on Jenny, or, as Equiano says, “I went into a kitchen” and I saw a woman standing at the stove, and she had a brake (b-r-a-k-e, he spells it) “in her mouth,” and I said, What is that? and somebody told me what it was, and then I said, I never saw anything so awful in all my life. But I really couldn’t image the thing—did it look like a horse’s bit or what?

Eventually I did find some sketches in one book in this country, which was the record of a man’s torture of his wife. In South America, Brazil, places like that, they kept such mementos. But while I was searching, something else occurred to me—namely, that this bit, this item, this personalized type of torture, was a direct descendant of the inquisition. And I realized that of course you can’t buy this stuff. You can’t send away for a mail-order bit for your slave. Sears doesn’t carry them. So you have to make it. You have to go out in the backyard and put some stuff together and construct it and then affix it to a person. So the whole process had a very personal quality for the person who made it, as well as for the person who wore it. Then I realized that describing it would never be helpful; that the reader didn’t need to see it so much as feel what it was like. I realized that it was important to imagine the bit as an active instrument, rather than simply as a curio or an historical fact. And in the same way I wanted to show the reader what slavery felt like, rather than how it looked.

There’s a passage in which Paul D. says to Sethe, “I’ve never told anybody about it, I’ve sung about it sometimes.” He tries to tell her what wearing the bit was like, but he ends up talking about a rooster that he swears smiled at him when he wore it—he felt cheapened and lessened and that he would never be worth as much as a rooster sitting on a tub in the sunlight. I make other references to the desire to spit, to sucking iron, and so on; but it seemed to me that describing what it looked like would distract the reader from what I wanted him or her to experience, which was what it felt like. The kind of information you can find between the lines of history. It sort of falls off the page, or it’s a glance and a reference. It’s right there in the intersection where an institution becomes personal, where the historical becomes people with names.

INTERVIEWER

When you create a character is it completely created out of your own imagination?

MORRISON

I never use anyone I know. In The Bluest Eye I think I used some gestures and dialogue of my mother in certain places, and a little geography. I’ve never done that since. I really am very conscientious about that. It’s never based on anyone. I don’t do what many writers do.

INTERVIEWER

Why is that?

MORRISON

There is this feeling that artists have—photographers, more than other people, and writers—that they are acting like a succubus . . . this process of taking from something that’s alive and using it for one’s own purposes. You can do it with trees, butterflies, or human beings. Making a little life for oneself by scavenging other people’s lives is a big question, and it does have moral and ethical implications.

In fiction, I feel the most intelligent, and the most free, and the most excited, when my characters are fully invented people. That’s part of the excitement. If they’re based on somebody else, in a funny way it’s an infringement of a copyright. That person owns his life, has a patent on it. It shouldn’t be available for fiction.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever feel like your characters are getting away from you, out of your control?

MORRISON

I take control of them. They are very carefully imagined. I feel as though I know all there is to know about them, even things I don’t write—like how they part their hair. They are like ghosts. They have nothing on their minds but themselves and aren’t interested in anything but themselves. So you can’t let them write your book for you. I have read books in which I know that has happened—when a novelist has been totally taken over by a character. I want to say, You can’t do that. If those people could write books they would, but they can’t. You can. So, you have to say, Shut up. Leave me alone. I am doing this.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever had to tell any of your characters to shut up?

MORRISON

Pilate, I did. Therefore she doesn’t speak very much. She has this long conversation with the two boys and every now and then she’ll say something, but she doesn’t have the dialogue the other people have. I had to do that, otherwise she was going to overwhelm everybody. She got terribly interesting; characters can do that for a little bit. I had to take it back. It’s my book; it’s not called “Pilate.”

INTERVIEWER

Pilate is such a strong character. It seems to me that the women in your books are almost always stronger and braver than the men. Why is that?

MORRISON

That isn’t true, but I hear that a lot. I think that our expectations of women are very low. If women just stand up straight for thirty days, everybody goes, Oh! How brave! As a matter of fact, somebody wrote about Sethe, and said she was this powerful, statuesque woman who wasn’t even human. But at the end of the book, she can barely turn her head. She has been zonked; she can’t even feed herself. Is that tough?

INTERVIEWER

Maybe people read it that way because they thought Sethe made such a hard choice slashing Beloved’s throat. Maybe they think that’s being strong. Some would say that’s just bad manners.

MORRISON

Well, Beloved surely didn’t think it was all that tough. She thought it was lunacy. Or, more importantly, How do you know death is better for me? You’ve never died. How could you know? But I think Paul D., Son, Stamp Paid, even Guitar, make equally difficult choices; they are principled. I do think we are too accustomed to women who don’t talk back or who use the weapons of the weak.

INTERVIEWER

What are the weapons of the weak?

MORRISON

Nagging. Poison. Gossip. Sneaking around instead of confrontation.

INTERVIEWER

There have been so few novels about women who have intense friendships with other women. Why do you think that is?

MORRISON

It has been a discredited relationship. When I was writing Sula, I was under the impression that for a large part of the female population a woman friend was considered a secondary relationship. A man and a woman’s relationship was primary. Women, your own friends, were always secondary relationships when the man was not there. Because of this, there’s that whole cadre of women who don’t like women and prefer men. We had to be taught to like one another. Ms. magazine was founded on the premise that we really have to stop complaining about one another, hating, fighting one another and joining men in their condemnation of ourselves—a typical example of what dominated people do. That is a big education. When much of the literature was like that—when you read about women together (not lesbians or those who have formed long relationships that are covertly lesbian, like in Virginia Woolf’s work), it is an overtly male view of females together. They are usually male-dominated—like some of Henry James’s characters—or the women are talking about men, like Jane Austen’s girlfriends . . . talking about who got married, and how to get married, and are you going to lose him, and I think she wants him and so on. To have heterosexual women who are friends, who are talking only about themselves to each other, seemed to me a very radical thing when Sula was published in 1971 . . . but it is hardly radical now.

INTERVIEWER

It is becoming acceptable.

MORRISON

Yes, and it’s going to get boring. It will be overdone and as usual it will all run amok.

INTERVIEWER

Why do writers have such a hard time writing about sex?

MORRISON

Sex is difficult to write about because it’s just not sexy enough. The only way to write about it is not to write much. Let the reader bring his own sexuality into the text. A writer I usually admire has written about sex in the most off-putting way. There is just too much information. If you start saying “the curve of . . .” you soon sound like a gynecologist. Only Joyce could get away with that. He said all those forbidden words. He said cunt, and that was shocking. The forbidden word can be provocative. But after a while it becomes monotonous rather than arousing. Less is always better. Some writers think that if they use dirty words they’ve done it. It can work for a short period and for a very young imagination, but after a while it doesn’t deliver. When Sethe and Paul D. first see each other, in about half a page they get the sex out of the way, which isn’t any good anyway—it’s fast and they’re embarrassed about it—and then they’re lying there trying to pretend they’re not in that bed, that they haven’t met, and then they begin to think different thoughts, which begin to merge so you can’t tell who’s thinking what. That merging to me is more tactically sensual than if I had tried to describe body parts.

INTERVIEWER

What about plot? Do you always know where you’re going? Would you write the end before you got there?

MORRISON

When I really know what it is about, then I can write that end scene. I wrote the end of Beloved about a quarter of the way in. I wrote the end of Jazz very early and the end of Song of Solomon very early on. What I really want is for the plot to be how it happened. It is like a detective story in a sense. You know who is dead and you want to find out who did it. So, you put the salient elements up front and the reader is hooked into wanting to know how did that happen. Who did that and why? You are forced into having a certain kind of language that will keep the reader asking those questions. In Jazz, just as I did before with The Bluest Eye, I put the whole plot on the first page. In fact, in the first edition the plot was on the cover, so that a person in a bookstore could read the cover and know right away what the book was about, and could, if they wished, dismiss it and buy another book. This seemed a suitable technique for Jazz because I thought of the plot in that novel, the threesome, as the melody of the piece, and it is fine to follow a melody—to feel the satisfaction of recognizing a melody whenever the narrator returns to it. That was the real art of the enterprise for me—bumping up against that melody time and again, seeing it from another point of view, seeing it afresh each time, playing it back and forth.

When Keith Jarret plays “Ol’ Man River,” the delight and satisfaction is not so much in the melody itself but in recognizing it when it surfaces and when it is hidden, and when it goes away completely, what is put in its place. Not so much in the original line as in all the echoes and shades and turns and pivots Jarret plays around it. I was trying to do something similar with the plot in Jazz. I wanted the story to be the vehicle that moved us from page one to the end, but I wanted the delight to be found in moving away from the story and coming back to it, looking around it, and through it, as though it was a prism, constantly turning.

This playful aspect of Jazz may well cause a great deal of dissatisfaction in readers who just want the melody, who want to know what happened, who did it and why. But the jazzlike structure wasn’t a secondary thing for me—it was the raison d’être of the book. The process of trial and error by which the narrator revealed the plot was as important and exciting to me as telling the story.

INTERVIEWER

Are you ever really surprised when they compare you to the magic realists, such as Gabriel García Márquez?

MORRISON

Yes, I used to be. It doesn’t mean anything to me. Schools are only important to me when I’m teaching literature. It doesn’t mean anything to me when I’m sitting here with a big pile of blank yellow paper . . . what do I say? I’m a magic realist? Each subject matter demands its own form, you know.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you teach undergraduates?

MORRISON

Here at Princeton, they really do value undergraduates, which is nice because a lot of universities value only the graduate school or the professional research schools. I like Princeton’s notion. I would have loved that for my own children. I don’t like freshman and sophomores being treated as the staging ground or the playground or the canvas on which graduate students learn how to teach. They need the best instruction. I’ve always thought the public schools needed to study the best literature. I always taught Oedipus Rex to all kinds of what they used to call remedial or development classes. The reason those kids are in those classes is that they’re bored to death; so you can’t give them boring things. You have to give them the best there is to engage them.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think there is an education for becoming a writer? Reading perhaps?

MORRISON

That has only limited value.

INTERVIEWER

Travel the world? Take courses in sociology, history?

MORRISON

Or stay home . . . I don’t think they have to go anywhere.

INTERVIEWER

Some people say, Oh, I can’t write a book until I’ve lived my life, until I’ve had experiences.

MORRISON

That may be—maybe they can’t. But look at the people who never went anywhere and just thought it up. Thomas Mann. I guess he took a few little trips . . . I think you either have or you acquire this sort of imagination. Sometimes you do need a stimulus. But I myself don’t ever go anywhere for stimulation. I don’t want to go anywhere. If I could just sit in one spot I would be happy. I don’t trust the ones who say I have to go do something before I can write. You see, I don’t write autobiographically. First of all, I’m not interested in real-life people as subjects for fiction—including myself. If I write about somebody who’s a historical figure like Margaret Garner, I really don’t know anything about her. What I knew came from reading two interviews with her. They said, Isn’t this extraordinary. Here’s a woman who escaped into Cincinnati from the horrors of slavery and was not crazy. Though she’d killed her child, she was not foaming at the mouth. She was very calm; she said, I’d do it again. That was more than enough to fire my imagination.

INTERVIEWER

She was sort of a cause célèbre?

MORRISON

She was. Her real life was much more awful than it’s rendered in the novel, but if I had known all there was to know about her I never would have written it. It would have been finished; there would have been no place in there for me. It would be like a recipe already cooked. There you are. You’re already this person. Why should I get to steal from you? I don’t like that. What I really love is the process of invention. To have characters move from the curl all the way to a full-fledged person, that’s interesting.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever write out of anger or any other emotion?

MORRISON

No. Anger is a very intense but tiny emotion, you know. It doesn’t last. It doesn’t produce anything. It’s not creative . . . at least not for me. I mean these books take at least three years!

INTERVIEWER

That is a long time to be angry.

MORRISON

Yes. I don’t trust that stuff anyway. I don’t like those little quick emotions, like, I’m lonely, ohhh, God . . . I don’t like those emotions as fuel. I mean, I have them, but—

INTERVIEWER

—they’re not a good muse?

MORRISON

No, and if it’s not your brain thinking cold, cold thoughts, which you can dress in any kind of mood, then it’s nothing. It has to be a cold, cold thought. I mean cold, or cool at least. Your brain. That’s all there is.

From Wikipedia:

Toni Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford; February 18, 1931) is an American novelist, editor, and professor. Her novels are known for their epic themes, vivid dialogue, and richly detailed characters. Among her best known novels are The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon and Beloved. She also was commissioned to write the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005. She won the Nobel Prize in 1993 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved. On 29 May 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

A Quick Lesson on Persistence from Kathryn Stockett

Kathryn Stockett

Kathryn Stockett

Stockett’s advice for writers and anyone else who keeps hitting a brick wall?

“Give in to your obsession.”

“In the end, I received 60 rejections for The Help. But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me. After my five years of writing and three and a half years of rejection, an agent named Susan Ramer took pity on me. What if I had given up at 15? Or 40? Or even 60? Three weeks later, Susan sold The Help to Amy Einhorn Books.”

From Wikipedia:

Kathryn Stockett is an American novelist. She is known for her 2009 debut novel, The Help, which is about African-American maids working in white households in Jackson, Mississippi, during the 1960s.