The Write Stuff
By Jon Meacham
From the magazine issue dated Jul 13, 2009
Holden Caulfield had it right. The test of a great book, he said in The Catcher in the Rye, was whether, once you finished it, you wished the author were a great friend you could call up at home. I remembered Caulfield's insight when we convened a roundtable of writers to come to NEWSWEEK. The conversation was honest, and a persistent theme emerged: that for all the frustrations of writing, the uncertain future of publishing, and the terror of rejection by readers and critics, our authors couldn't imagine doing anything else. Ever.
Because they are all inveterate (and deft) storytellers, even when they're just talking shop. Elizabeth Strout revealed that she hides pages of her manuscripts in her home so she can come across them by surprise—and thus see them with a fresh eye. Susan Orlean said the first book she bought on Kindle was by…Susan Orlean. Robert Caro reminded us how he was told, repeatedly, that a book on Robert Moses wouldn't sell. (It did, and it won a Pulitzer.) Want to know more? Read on. And yes, we think you'll want to call everyone up.
Jon Meacham: Mr. Block, why do you do what you do?
LAWRENCE BLOCK: I don't know. I started when I was too young to know better, actually, and before very long was qualified for nothing else. I don't know that there's any better answer than that. I can't think of any way I'd prefer to have spent the past 50 years. I've reached a point now where I'm slowing down and thinking that there may not be more novels. It's been enough years and enough books so that anything I had to say to the world I've long since said and probably repeated myself enough times to be done with it. But it's interesting to contemplate not doing it anymore.
You say novels. Would there be something else?
BLOCK: Well, I'll probably write one way or another. The current book is a memoir, which I never thought I would do. I never felt temperamentally inclined to write anything about myself. And I suspect I'll still do short stories when something comes to me. But the heavy lifting of the novel I may not feel like doing.
ELIZABETH STROUT: It's just a compulsion. It's absolute madness in a way, I think. The few times that I contemplate not doing it, it's almost like there's a flavor that leaves ordinary life. But it's never lasted more than a couple days and probably only three times that I remember that I thought, I won't do this anymore.
Was one of the three times ever in the middle of writing?
STROUT: No, it was in the middle of not getting any responses from anybody in the entire publishing world.
SUSAN ORLEAN: I wish I could say something really original like I was planning to be a professional athlete and the opportunity to be a writer came up. It's all I have ever thought of doing. It was observing, telling stories, performing this magic trick of being the conduit for experiences for other people. It's interesting because there was a point when the idea of being somebody writing for print started to have the slight tinge of antiquarian charm.
It's turned into a full-blown rash. [laughter]
ROBERT CARO: You know, what I first liked about writing was finding out. My first story in sixth grade was "Hank the Moose," which was basically a biography of a moose. It was too long. It was in three volumes. [Laughter] I always wanted to find out, to explain, to find out how things work. One of the things about Hemingway was they asked him about his basic motivations and he said he wanted to find out how fly-fishing worked, how bull-fighting worked. I always felt I had that in myself.
KURT ANDERSEN: One thing I'll say about all these answers is there's too much pure pleasure. It sounds like it's just all fun. It's true, but I just want, for the record, to tell all of you who aren't writers who are out there reading this to know it's also...
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: I never felt that, though.
ANDERSEN: Really? It's always pleasurable?
GORDON-REED: Hell is endnotes. Endnotes in order are hell. But writing stuff doesn't feel like hell to me.
STROUT: It feels difficult to me a lot. Which doesn't mean I don't love it and I'm not pulled to it on a daily, nightly, insomniac basis. Your point about it being very hard work is a good one. It's tremendously hard work. Yes, I love arranging the words and having them fall on the ear the right way and you know you're not quite there and you're redoing it and redoing it and there's a wonderful thrill to it. But it is hard. It's a job of tremendous anxiety for me.
ORLEAN: There's also this new question, which is, will anyone buy this? Will someone pay for this? Will the magazine I'm working for go out of business? I don't know anyone no matter how successful they are—beside, you know, J. K. Rowling and what's-her-face who does the Twilight stuff—but I think the realities of the industry are present. I think you'd be foolish not to be at least aware of it. Maybe not suffering from it, but conscious of it.
BLOCK: I suppose you have to be, in the sense that you're professional. But I think the less attention I pay to what people want and the more attention I pay to just writing the book I want to write, the better I do. The enormous mistake a lot of young writers make is that they want to know what people want.
ANDERSEN: The problem is, any time you try to game it in that way and then it doesn't work, then you feel like a complete schmo.
BLOCK: Yes, absolutely.
ANDERSEN: You sold out and nobody's bought.
BLOCK: Absolutely. If you set out to please yourself, then maybe you will.
GORDON-REED: It's sort of a luxury, being an academic. Because I have tenure. I have a job unless something catastrophic happens.
ANDERSEN: The last luxurious job in America!
CARO: When young writers ask me if I think something will sell, what I want to say to them is you really shouldn't care about that because if you want to write any serious book you're going to be spending three or four years of your life. What are you spending those three or four years of your life on? If you feel you have something to say, then whether you're right or you're wrong, at least you feel like you're doing something that's contributing something. For seven years I heard people in publishing saying no one's going to buy a book on Robert Moses.
How often does everyone check their Amazon rankings?
Do people do that?
ANDERSEN: UH, yeah! [Laughter]
How often do you check?
ANDERSEN: Well, it depends. When the book is new, I check it with some neurotic -frequency.
ORLEAN: The real question is, who reads their Amazon reviews?
STROUT: How could you do that? I would never…cto me that's like a pit of snakes. Every so often somebody will say to me, well, you should at least hear this…and I'm like, oh, okay. But I mean I just know myself, and I can't…And friends will call me and go, oh, did you know…c? And I'm just like, don't do it, don't open the door, it's awful.
ORLEAN: Now and again, someone says, did you see the review of your book…cand you know, they're all horrible and nasty, snarky. So you just have them write one that says, this is the single most important book in the English language, and it will push the next one down.
As you're writing, do you think about the audience? If you didn't, presumably you wouldn't be in this room—you'd just be writing for yourselves or for your soul.
ORLEAN: For me the idea of writing not for publication is a little like drinking alone. To me, drinking is sort of a social experience. [Writing] is like coming home from a great trip and sitting around a dinner table and saying, I've got to tell you about this.
STROUT: I think of it very much as a relationship. It has different stages when I'm first putting it down, but it's a relationship, and it's a very intimate relationship, which is what's sort of mysterious and wonderful about it. It's solitary—obviously we all know that we work alone—and yet there's this voice. You're trying to reach another person with this voice.
ANDERSEN: Elizabeth, you told me recently that you made Olive Kitteridge a series of stories rather than a novel about her because you thought the readers would get sick of the voice of that one character.
STROUT: That's because I believe the story of Olive Kitteridge is one that should be told, but I also believe you have to serve this in a way that, you know, people are going to be able to digest. It's a constant juggling of how can I tell something that I feel so intensely but that can be received with, not joy every minute or anything like that, but in a way that's truthful to you.
Do you find that the public ascribes to you wisdom about the world beyond what's normal?
CARO: I'm constantly being asked at dinner parties to explain something that's happened that day, and often I don't know what's happened that day. [Laughter]
GORDON-REED: I was down in Australia a month and a half ago. I went down to do a symposium about Jefferson; the University of Sydney was sponsoring this with Monticello. And it was all fine and good about the symposium, but they wanted me to do a public talk. And what they wanted me to talk about was Barack and Michelle Obama. [Laughter] And I'm like, I know who they are, they came to law school a few years after I graduated, but I've not met them. But because I'm black and American and they're Down Under …cI thought, OK, so I'll give this lecture. I'm down in Australia and nobody will ever see this. But I forgot about podcasts, which they put up. It's everywhere, you know? So yes, I get questions about tangential stuff all the time. Anything about race, obviously.
'What would Jefferson do about Iran?'
GORDON-REED: Yeah, exactly. The Barbary pirates. You know, what would Jefferson do about all kinds of things. I get asked that all the time. As if I would know.
As if he would know.
BLOCK: I think signings and appearances and all of that are sometimes a bad idea in that if I really like somebody's work a whole lot, I'm probably going to regret meeting them, which is very often the case.
STROUT: I've thought of that so many times.
GORDON-REED: But do you think people regret meeting you?
BLOCK: I think they must regret meeting me.
STROUT: I know they do. The very first time when Amy and Isabelle was published I went for an interview with somebody and she said to me, you're not at all what I expected. And I was furious.
BLOCK: A fault of yours, clearly.
STROUT: You know, I'd put on a skirt and a matching top. It was very disconcerting. So I thought, well I should just stay home.
Do you all read your stuff out loud as you're going along?
BLOCK: No, I don't. I've heard that recommended and I've heard some people do that, but I think I hear it internally as I write it so I don't feel the need.
STROUT: I do sections at different points. Sound is very important to me, and also I have noticed that reading aloud is physically very exhausting, so I've learned that if I find that tiredness in myself, there's probably a sogginess in the prose.
ANDERSEN: I read dialogue aloud a lot. I wasn't aware that I was doing it until my children told me. [Laughter]
ORLEAN: I always do. I read everything and use it as a way of editing. In fact, when I do readings I find myself editing on the fly and thinking, ugh.
ANDERSEN: The other thing like this that I find interesting—and I guess it's a subtler thing—but the difference between reading what you've written on the screen and reading it printed out on paper. I find entirely new things that are wrong and that I need to change once I've printed it.
ANDERSEN: I don't know. It's a little bit, I guess, that your mind is focused, you're taking it more seriously on a certain level. It's not as though the hours I spent writing it on the screen were not. It's just like looking at it from a different angle.
STROUT: I will leave pages around the apartment to come upon by surprise. Like, what does this look like if I'm putting my earrings in and it's on the bureau and I have to turn. What does it look like if I come upon it? I've done that for years.
Is Bob the only person who uses a typewriter?
STROUT: I write by hand.
CARO: I write by hand for first drafts, and then I work using a typewriter.
STROUT: What kind of typewriter?
CARO: Smith Corona Electric 210, which they stopped making about 25 years ago, so you have to have this supply of typewriters cause if a key breaks you have to cannibalize another typewriter.
ORLEAN: I remember there was a -typewriter-repair shop on Amsterdam and 79th. It just kept getting smaller and smaller and then it turned into a luggage shop.
STROUT: And those people were so lovely. I mean, not the people in that particular shop, but -typewriter--repair people. You had this relationship with them, because they were saving you.
ANDERSEN: Speaking of antiquarian tinge! I can't even write letters at this point. I can't write anything longer than three sentences by hand. I was so happy to give up the typewriter.
CARO: The whole world today believes that speed is a good. But maybe writing is something in which slowing yourself down isn't bad. The reason I write my first drafts in longhand is that when I went to Princeton and I took creative-writing courses, my professor was this teacher named R. P. Blackmur, who was a great critic. So you had to hand in a short story every two weeks, and I could always do it starting at midnight the night before. I got pretty good marks, and I thought I was really fooling him. Then my senior year, in what I remember was one of my last sessions with him, he looked me in the eye, handed me my story, and said, "Mr. Caro, you're never going to be what you want to be unless you learn to stop thinking with your fingers." And I understood exactly. When I wrote my first book, I remembered what Blackmur said, and I said to myself, I must slow myself down. And the way I did was to write in longhand.
ANDERSEN: To me it's not about speed at all. The hours per page at this table is probably the same. But to me it's having a way to have the speed of the process more conformed to what I perceive to be the speed of my brain, and essentially to be able to do 50 drafts of a paragraph or a sentence in 20 minutes rather than what feels like writing the Declaration of Independence if I were writing it by hand.
BLOCK: When I was first starting out, there were things with the typewriter, a certain tyranny. I remember one time I was -writing—I was working at a very low level, let it be said—and I had done what I thought was a 20-page chapter that day. The pages were numbered from page 21 to page 40. I was reading it through and discovered I had left out page 39. I had written page 38 and the next page continued in the middle of a sentence and it was page 40. I didn't want to retype and renumber and everything, so I wrote page 39 to fit. [Laughter]
To what extent is the rise of E-readers going to change what you do, and how do you think the paying-the-rent part of the business is going to develop?
ANDERSEN: [To Gordon-Reed] You have tenure—you don't need to talk about this. [Laughter]
ORLEAN: I don't understand the great fear of e-readers. Maybe I'm missing something, but I think you can look at iPods and music and, you know, it was a shift to a different form that I actually think encourages people buying more music, because you don't have to build yet another shelf in your house to have those CDs.
ANDERSEN: Also it will no longer enable people to have books on their shelves as signifiers of how smart they are. There's no reason to download a book unless you intend to read it. There's no need to show off.
BLOCK: I don't think anybody really expects e-books to supplant printed books, because I don't think that they're ever going to be that much more enjoyable a way to read a book. It was different with downloads and iPods; that's a better way to hear music than a CD is. I think that what e-books will do is enable people to carry a few hundred books with them on a trip rather than struggling with a suitcase to take five along. But I don't think it will be the same transformative thing that audible downloads have been.
ORLEAN: I'm not totally sure. Somebody made this analogy, which I think is extreme, but when cars were developed, people began keeping horses for pets, or if they were really beautiful, they had a beautiful horse for the sake of having a beautiful horse, but they drove a car. I think you're going to continue buying very visual books, or you may give them as gifts.
ANDERSEN: There's something slightly sad and elegiac about the idea of books disappearing, which I agree that they will, or losing the experience that I have walking into your house and immediately seeing the jacket of my book on your bookshelf.
ORLEAN: Placed precisely for your -enjoyment.
ANDERSEN: Well, no doubt. I thought of the horse-and-car thing, I think it's a slower thing. I think it's actually sailing ships to steam. Once steamships existed, it took a century for sails to get cleared out. And what did sailboats become in the last 50, 80, 100 years? Quaint, beautiful artifacts that the rich can still indulge in.
ORLEAN: I'm much more willing to buy a novel electronically by someone I don't know. Because if halfway through I think, I don't really like this, I can just stop. I can't throw books out, even if I think they're crummy. I feel like I've got to give it to the library, I've got to loan it to somebody, or I keep it on my shelf. It's like a plant.
BLOCK: I can throw them out. [Laughter] Sometimes with great enthusiasm.
So who here reads E-books?
ORLEAN: I just finished reading Madame Bovary on my iPhone, for what it's worth.
That's a good first line for a story.
STROUT: So what was it like to read on your iPhone?
Did you curl up with it?
STROUT: Did you notice she killed herself and all that kind of stuff? [Laughter]
ORLEAN: The book is the book, and the story is the story. But it has certain advantages. You can make the font bigger. You can turn it sideways if you want to read it like that. It was actually probably better than reading it in a cheap paperback.
STROUT: Right, because you would have had to have a light..
ORLEAN: And you'd have crummy paper.
BLOCK: And this is Flaubert, who famously said I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon taking it out. [Laughter]
CARO: Just so I know that I've said it, I want to say here that I think, no matter what form books take, I think the basic purpose of writing, serious writing, the kind of writing we all do, is going to be the same: to examine the great questions. I don't think that's going to change at all.
ORLEAN: And it never has.