Meg Wolitzer and Andre Dubus III on What It’s Like to Write a Novel
A Conversation on Curiosity, Empathy, and How to Start...
Novelists Andre Dubus III (whose latest novel, Gone So Long, is available from W.W. Norton) and Meg Wolitzer (author of The Female Persuasion) corresponded over email and discussed writing as an act of empathy, the things that spark their curiosity, and how to actually get through writing a whole novel.
Andre Dubus III: We’ve both been writing our entire adult lives, and because we’re the same age, I’m wondering if you view the creative act any differently than you did years ago. I sometimes think of a phone conversation I was lucky to have had with Elmore Leonard when he was in his early eighties. I asked him what he was working on, and he told me that it was another novel, but he was having the toughest time just getting his protagonist down to the barn to mount his horse. He’d been writing for over 50 years and was beginning to lose his enthusiasm for the endeavor. Somehow he got through this period and went on to publish at least two more novels between that phone call and his death a few years later.
I’m no Elmore Leonard, but I have been writing five to six days a week for over 35 years, and I’m amazed that I love the act of putting my pencil to paper as much as I ever did. Whenever I start writing something new, I feel like I’m writing the very first thing I ever wrote and that I still don’t know what the hell I’m doing, which is strangely invigorating and keeps me going, trying to find one true word at a time that will take me somewhere I cannot yet see. How about you?
Meg Wolitzer: I share both your enthusiasm and uncertainty, and I’ve been thinking about this very subject lately because I am in fact starting a new book. Once again I’m experiencing a mix of wired excitement and fear, which is a combination I’ve felt many times before. I think my emotional connection to writing remains mostly the same, in strength and tenor, as it’s always been. I take this blend of optimism and fear and somehow use it in the best ways I know how. We are living in such a fraught time, which god knows has its effects on how we write, and sometimes on what we write, but I find that the vault-like quality of a fiction mindset allows me a certain kind of concentration that is both necessary for fiction, and also a kind of balm.
Now here’s a question for you, Andre. How do you start a new book? (she asked sneakily, looking for ways in as she begins her own new book). I wonder if the feeling that surrounds the desire to begin something new has the same valence each time. Or is the impetus—and perhaps also the sensation around it—entirely different depending on the book? I usually begin a novel using what I half-jokingly call my 80-page plan. I like beginning a novel as a way of addressing a problem I want to work out. Not necessarily to answer it, but perhaps to clarify it a bit. And then I might start to write without any goals beyond that, and certainly without any overarching sense of structure. I try to embrace the blob as I formulate and form it. And when I have about 80 pages (less than 100, so that if I end up putting the thing I aside I won’t feel that I’ve wasted too much time, but enough volume so that it has a certain heft I can feel excited by), I stop and assess what I have. This is the point at which I look not at what I hoped to do, but what in fact I did do. There can be a sadness attached to this moment, because the initial dream of the novel might need to be reconsidered and altered. And I might consider creating a structure at this point, now that I see what it is I am working with.
ADIII: Yes, starting a new book with “wired excitement and fear”! I love this line from some anonymous ancient Chinese poet: “We poets knock upon the silence for an answering music.” I am constantly in awe that if we just show up to the desk in an open and receptive state, with faith that something will come, something always does. How do I start a book? Slowly, even with that “wired excitement and fear”. I’ve noticed that it tends to go better for me, creatively/artistically speaking, if I know very little before I begin. Faulkner was asked late in his life what he thought the young writer needed to create literary art, and he said he used to think it was talent but as he got older he concluded that it was curiosity that was needed more than anything. I could not agree more. And in the same way that it’s hard to make yourself fall in love with a particular person—you either fall or don’t—you can’t quite choose what you’re curious about either; you’re either drawn to a certain human situation, or you aren’t.“I am constantly in awe that if we just show up to the desk in an open and receptive state, with faith that something will come, something always does.”
I’ve learned to trust what I’m drawn to and try not to second guess it too much, though sometimes I do find myself resisting it. With my latest novel, Gone So Long, I met a man who had done 15 years for the murder of his wife. Now I have a particular hatred for any act of violence against women (or children) by men. I grew up around a lot of that, and raged against it whenever I found it, and now I was standing before this man (60-ish, quiet and unassuming) who had done the worst thing possible to another human being, a woman he vowed to love and care for at that. I asked him if he had kids, and he said, “Yeah, but they don’t want to see me.” That sentence echoed in my head for a few years. And I wanted nothing to do with it. I did not want to step into where it was pulling me, to that kind of darkness, to that awful human experience. But I could no more shut off my curiosity about that particular situation than I could shut off falling in love with my own wife, 30 years ago.
And once the flame of authentic curiosity starts to burn, I begin to see a possible opening scene, or at least the sliver of one. And then I sit down with my Blackwing 602 pencil and my open Mead Composition notebook, and I begin to describe what I see, trying with each word to get inside the head and heart of the character, trying to write, as Flannery O’Connor put it, “not about character but with character.” I write like this until I have a beginning, a middle, and an end, trying to find the causality that makes story itself. This can take me three to five years, working five to six days a week. After all that, is when I begin to fully commit myself to the final structure of the book, which means I start cutting sometimes hundreds of pages, and rearranging the sequence of scenes (plotting, as you know), until I finally end up with what feels like the leanest and truest shape of the story.
If I do this structuring too early in the composition process, though, I find that I’m prematurely anticipating someone reading all of this, which keeps me from fully surrendering to the story itself, which I know will lead me down paths and whole passages and characters I will ultimately end up cutting. Does this make any sense, Meg? And has this happened to you, too? Being creatively drawn to subject matter you inherently resist?
MW: Your story of meeting that man and resisting the related material is so compelling to me. In fact, some part of me wants to resist what you’re saying here about what writers do—the ways we end up in territory we hadn’t wanted to enter––but I know it to be true. I haven’t had an experience remotely like yours—I can feel the power and riveting hold and necessity of your story even as you briefly describe it––but I can offer a very different, much more low-key example of an experience that threaded through my interior life. For a very long time, I often thought about a summer I spent as a teenager at a performing arts workshop in the Berkshires. My closest friend to this day is someone I met there, and we spoke over the years about that summer, and the people we had known. We wondered what had happened to some of them, including ones who were unusually talented. This was long before the Internet, so it was hard to find answers.
I began to think about what happens to talent over time, but for decades it didn’t occur to me to write about any of this. You could say that it was a kind of resistance, a sense that the ideas and thoughts I had seemed to me too unpolished to become the way in to a novel. Of course, I’ve come to see that what’s unpolished is, in a certain sense, in perfect shape; you haven’t pre-worked it or pre-decided the meaning and usefulness it will have within a novel. I ended up taking that initial feeling and curiosity about talented people I had known when I was young, and started to write my novel The Interestings. It might be, of course, that that kind of “resistance” is actually more of a kind of marinade; that a writer sometimes waits until a lot of time has passed before giving it a go.“I’ve come to see that what’s unpolished is, in a certain sense, in perfect shape; you haven’t pre-worked it or pre-decided the meaning and usefulness it will have within a novel.”
ADIII: Writerly resistance as a kind of “marinade”. What an important and original insight! Because this entire act of creating a universe with words, it seems to me, is not about the writer at all, or even—in the first stages of the novel’s creation anyway—the reader; it’s about unearthing and setting into flight these nearly sacred beings called characters, no matter how flawed or reprehensible many of them may be. Blaise Pascal writes: “Anything written to please the author is worthless.” Such a harsh line, but true, I believe. This is not to say that we writers cannot take pleasure in the daily act of writing; I certainly do, and I know you do, too. But it truly does seem to me that if a life of writing creatively is nothing else, it is a sustained act of practiced empathy, where we keep stepping into the question: “What’s it like to be you?”