It’s been a long time, but I thought I’d point whatever readers happen to stumble onto this abandoned lot to this interview between George Saunders and his editor Andy Ward (you mean the Andy Ward?). It’s great stuff. I particularly liked this:
Ward: I spent 15 years in magazines, editing stories, and I never encountered another writer who worked like you. Your drafts were incredible. You delivered a version of the story—often a little longer than we’d anticipated, but still: Jesus—and a companion file of “outtakes.” This file consisted of 2,000-3,000 words of perfectly polished sections you had taken out of the story, and yet, obviously kind of wished you had kept in. Otherwise, why the crystalline outtake file? What a beautiful system. So the process, for me, became merging documents, essentially: picking my favorite outtakes, and working them into the final story. How did you come up with that system? I noticed you also do it with some of your short stories, too. Isn’t it hard to put something back into a story once you’ve taken it out?
Saunders: It’s a little like packing for a trip. First you lay out everything that might possibly be useful, with no thought about the size of your suitcase. Then, look at your suitcase. In the case of narrative, there’s a certain obligation to keep the pace up and have each section or subsection be doing something. The ideal thing would be: no merely decorative sections. Every section has to (1) be good in its own right (funny, or sad, or fast, moving, whatever) and (2) advance the story in a meaningful way. With that criteria in mind, some bits are just … goiter-esque. Even if they’re good. If they’re not functional, they’re optional.
12:08 pm • 12 May 2014
"What did Conroy assault us in service of? He wanted literary craft to be a pyramid. He drew a pyramid on the blackboard and divided it with horizontal lines. The long stratum at the base was grammar and syntax, which he called ‘Meaning, Sense, Clarity.’ The next layer, shorter and higher, comprised the senses that prose evoked: what you tasted, touched, heard, smelled, and saw. Then came character, then metaphor. This is from memory: I can’t remember the pyramid exactly, and maybe Conroy changed it each time. What I remember for sure is that everything above metaphor Conroy referred to as ‘the fancy stuff.’ At the top was symbolism, the fanciest of all. You worked from the broad and basic to the rarefied and abstract.
Although you could build a pyramid without an apex, it was anathema to leave an apex hovering and foundationless. I’ll switch metaphors, slightly, since Conroy did too. The last thing you wanted was a castle in the air. A castle in the air was a bad story. There was a ground, the realm of the body, and up from it rose the fiction that worked. Conroy presented these ideas as timeless wisdom.
Pyramid building fosters the hope that we can arrive at the powerful symbol of a white whale, not by thinking it up ahead of time, but by mastering the sensory details of whaling. ‘Don’t allegorize Calvinism,’ Conroy could have barked at me, ‘describe a harpoon and a dinghy!’”
This essay turned out to be really interesting.
10:05 pm • 10 February 2014
Things I wrote down at last week’s discussion between Siri Hustvedt and Nancy K. Miller at the MLA
SH: “Nobody reads a book to get to the middle” -Micky Spillane
SH: Writing is a bid for mastery over something
NM: The 1st person invites ire from reviewers—“Who do you think you are?”
SH: These people weren’t born neurologists
PLACEBO as a way of entering into all kinds of questions
12:00 pm • 15 January 2014
New family-friendly stir-fry formula:
1. Aromatics (spring onion, garlic, ginger) minced/grated, into hot oil.
2. A half to three-quarters of a pound minced or ground meat added, left to brown and get crispy in places, ideally.
3. A vegetable that the kid likes, cut up into bite-sized pieces, par-boiled if needed, then added to the hot pan.
4. Sauce stirred in to season everything and deglaze the pan.
First, I did ground pork+green beans+soy sauce, a la this. Then minced chicken breast+mushrooms+fish sauce+lime juice. Both excellent. Tonight we try lamb and peas. I’m thinking beef and broccoli is a natural?
5:47 pm • 9 December 2013
What it’s about is none of your business
“‘The first draft is really a floor under my feet,’ [Philip Roth] says, addressing a recent class at Columbia taught by a friend, Benjamin Taylor, and speaking, despite his retirement, in a somewhat poignant present tense: ‘What I want to do is get the story down and know what happens.’ Then the language begins to develop, and the story inevitably becomes more complex. ‘The book really comes to life in the rewriting,’ he says, and he does a lot of it. When he’s taken it as far as he can go, he gives the manuscript to a few close readers: ‘people who I know are on my side, but who will speak candidly.’ […] Aside from the specific points these readers make, Roth says, ‘they give me back the subject in a way I haven’t seen it.’ He holds himself to a mantra during the initial writing: ‘What it’s about is none of your business’—meaning he isn’t interested in ‘themes.’ His job is simply to make the book persuasive. ‘I don’t mean to be falsely naive,’ he tells me after the class, ‘By the third draft I have a good picture of what my concerns are.’ Still, it’s helpful and sometimes surprising to have these readers tell him ‘what the book is “about.”’”
-Claudia Roth Pierpont, Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, 146.
9:02 am • 6 December 2013