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Comment from the book world in January 2014


'A 19th-century plot'

22 December 2014

'I've always been interested in those painful moments between people which can't be fully articulated, and even if they were fully articulated might become even more unbearable. There's no way out. Nor do I think in situations like that there's that horrible American word 'closure'. Because for all the sexual liberation, the great social changes through the 60s and 70s, one meets loads of people who seem to have been married for ever. I'd say at least two-thirds of my contemporaries have been married since their twenties. It's still possible to write, as it were, a 19th-century plot in which one person having one affair is as explosive as anything you can imagine, and never to be forgiven - or at least never to be forgotten.'

Ian McEwan, talking about The Children Act in the Sunday Times magazine


'Genre fiction was looked at as a ghetto'

13 December 2014

‘I didn't follow the sf rules and conventions unless I felt like it; essentially I went on writing what I wanted to write, and they could call it what they liked. To publish genre fiction of course branded me as a sub-literary writer in the eyes of the literary establishment, critics, award-givers, etc., but the great potentialities of the field itself, the open-mindedness of its editors and critics, the intelligence of its readers, compensated for that. Genre fiction was looked at as a ghetto, but I wonder now if realist fiction, sealing itself off in the glum suburbs of a dysfunctional society, denying the uses of imagination, was the ghetto...

I've always been interested, the way anthropologists are, in the different things people do and the different ways they do them, which led me, as a fiction writer, into thinking about different ways they could do them, and inventing different societies and cultures. I was inventing - not in a didactic, prescriptive way, but descriptively, in the thought-experiment mode. What would it be like if we did it differently? What would an ungendered society, or an anarchist society, actually be like to live in? How would it work? What kind of problems would it run into?

There's still a whole range of options for professional writers - between the poet who has no "market" at all, yet writes and publishes for love of the art, through the ordinary novelist who tries to balance artistic standards and conscience with demands for easy saleability, to writers eager to sell themselves and their product to the highest bidder. E-publication has changed the rules, and made self-publication temptingly easy. It's not easy to know how to be an author these days! I'm way too old to give any advice on the matter to anyone. All I can do is keep on going as I always did, in the direction that seems to promise the most freedom.'

Ursula Le Guin, author of The Left Hand of Darkness and Lavinia in Salon

'Writing can take me out of myself'

8 December 2014

'I grew up in London for the first 10 years, then my parents divorced, which was agonising. But it was while I was at boarding-school that I made the connection between putting my mind into some imaginative world and finding solace for homesickness and sadness. If I did that, I felt better. It would be like crying. I discovered this miraculous thing that has held true all my life, which is that writing can take me out of myself to such an extent that it's a great palliative for bad times. I'm not one of those writers who goes around writing things down. I've an insane belief that the things that are going to be necessary for my writing, that are going to inspire stories, are the thing I'm going to remember.

In a sense writers live their lives twice over. We live in a day-to-day life, but our minds are always turning over the possibility of the transmutation of that life into something else. If, for some reason, I couldn't be a writer any more, my life would seem rather thin to me, sort of without substance.'

Rose Tremain, author of Restoration and The American Lover, in the Sunday Times magazine

'It's perfectly possible that the great 21st-century American novel is in a shoebox in somebody's closet'

1 December 2014

'I hope I never condescend to the audience. I think you should write as if people who are smarter than you are will read it, because they are out there.

I don't know where these great governing clichés (about writing) come from - that you have to follow a convention, or that the first sentence has to hook the reader in. That's just poison. So much of the time I spend teaching, I actually spend unteaching...

I think my childhood made me very aware of language. I was interested in writing before I really had any conception that there were professional writers. I just did it for the pleasure of it - these bad little poems that I produced quite prolifically...

I have been very well treated by the literary world but, at the same time, I know enough literary history to know that doesn't necessarily mean that you're the person in the world doing the important work... You have to keep in mind that it's perfectly possible that the great 21st-century American novel is in a shoebox in somebody's closet, and won't be found for 50 years.'

Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping and Lila, in the Sunday Telegraph's Stella

'True work is done for the sake of doing it.'

24 November 2014

‘Beginners' failures are often the result of trying to work with strong feelings and ideas without having found the images to embody them, or without even knowing how to find the words and string them together. Ignorance of English vocabulary and grammar is a considerable liability to a writer of English. The best cure for it is, I believe, reading. People who learned to talk at two or so and have been practicing talking ever since feel with some justification that they know their language; but what they know is their spoken language, and if they read little, or read schlock, and haven't written much, their writing is going to be pretty much what their talking was when they were two...

While planning a work, the writer may and often must think about readers: particularly if it's something like a story for children, where you need to know whether your reader is likely to be a five-year-old or a ten-year old. Considerations of who will or might read the piece are appropriate and sometimes actively useful in planning it, thinking about it, thinking it out, inviting images. But once you start writing, it is fatal to think about anything but the writing. True work is done for the sake of doing it. What is to be done with it afterwards is another matter, another job. A story rises from the springs of creation, from the pure will to be; it tells itself; it takes its own course, finds its own way, its own words; and the writer's job is to be its medium.'

Ursula K Le Guin , author of the classic The Left Hand of Darkness and Dancing at the Edge of the World on Brain Pickings

'Wrenching to write but satisfying'

17 November 2014

‘I'm very conscious that as I get older, I think less nimbly and feel more keenly than I used to. Fingersmith, with its very complicated plot and its big twist, had an energy to it. I don't think I could write a book like that any more. Not that I'd especially want to. What I enjoyed about The Paying Guests was the depth of emotion in it. It was very heartfelt, wrenching to write but satisfying...

The Paying Guests is a sad book and that might be because, in your 40s, sadness enters your life. Before 40, you say hello to things; after 40 you say goodbye to them. But I'm hoping this will just be a phase because I don't want to write sad books forever.'

Sarah Waters, author of Fingersmith and The Paying Guests, in the Observer


‘This one better be good. Otherwise you're toast.'

8 November 2014

‘Midway through writing the fucker (his first novel, The Sportswriter)' his literary agent advised him: ‘This one better be good. Otherwise you're toast.' I guess I kinda knew that but (I thought) thanks for putting it so clearly for me.'

‘My audience is someone similar to who I was when I got started with serious reading: a young person - I was 19 - who can simply read... My students at Columbia I teach to read. If you can be a good reader and can think that reading and literature are great pursuits, you can perhaps teach yourself to write. For every ‘lesson' one would try to propound there's a wonderful story or novel that violated any rule. But that's about all.

Most books don't last in the public consciousness beyond the author's lifetime. If mine don't, I still take immense pleasure from the use they were put to in my lifetime - by readers.'

Richard Ford, author of Let Me Be Frank With You in the Observer


You have to be solitary

3 November 2014

‘That thing of treating the writer like a famous boxer or a rock star has harmed writers, because one of the ingredients most essential for writing is that you have to be solitary. You can't be gregarious. You can't do both. The brain won't take it. That is why poor Mrs Woolf went off her rocker. Too many people, too much outside life.

If I see too many people, I lose myself. I lose my truth. And my dedication to what I have done for 55 years and want to do for whatever time is left. I also become secretly impatient, because of all the gifts in the world that I value, after good health, imagination is the thing I value most. Well, you don't get a glass of imagination out there at parties.'

I am lucky that I have not yet been in a lunatic asylum. I would not call myself stable. Maybe some writers are. Maybe they are not the writers I want to be.'

Edna O'Brien, author of The Country Girls and Country Girl (an autobiography) in the Independent on Sunday


'They take on lives of their own'

27 October 2014

'I've a pretty good idea of what the story is and where it's going. The trouble is that, though you've laboured to create these characters and thought of plausible things for them to do, they take on lives of their own. I've often thought that writing fiction was like industrial management. Sometimes I've felt like putting thumbscrews on my employees to prevent them messing up on my plans, but you have to persuade or compromise or negotiate with them. And allowing them to develop does give them more life.'

Michael Frayn, author of Noises Off and Matchbox Theatre, in The Times



'That romanticised idea of writing a novel'

18 October 2014

‘I am wary of that romanticised idea of writing a novel, you just have to pick up a pencil or a pen and open your laptop and it is far more boring. It's not glamorous. I learnt that I can write anywhere. You do need time and space but you don't need a cottage in Wales, I'd say...

The Miniaturist was written under cloak of darkness with nothing to lose and now I am No 1 in The Sunday Times charts and it's a bit mad, but you are still the same person, the same writer, you have to remember that nothing has changed. That's what I am telling myself.'

Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist



"Will this make sense in Brazil?"

13 October 2014

'I think the worst thing you can do when you start to write is think: "Will this make sense in Brazil?" I actively tried not to write in a way that felt unnatural or to twist things, cut out cultural references, alter the sense of humour, or have any of those cliched notions about what might appeal to a French audience or a Spanish audience. I am aware of the expectations of people in Sweden and Brazil and the US, but it's crazy to let them interfere.

You can only hope that the stories you write are universal enough to make sense. I have this nightmare that I'll go to press junkets and people will say: "I didn't enjoy this book as much as One Day, but tell me where the idea came from". I didn't want to be defensive about it. I'm sure some people won't enjoy it as much as they enjoyed One Day, but I feel really fond of it and I really feel it is different - I am pleased it is.

Writing a book is something you do alone, whereas films are collaborative. If Us ever has a life in film I would never write the script because I think authors can lack the ruthlessness and the objectivity you need to develop a script. It is very demanding, and as the creator you feel as if you should have some sort of a trump card when it comes to decisions but film isn't like that.'

David Nicholls, author of One Day and Us in the Bookseller


'If they're meant to be writers, they will write.'

3 October 2014

‘Young writers, if they're meant to be writers, they will write. There's nothing that can stop them. It may kill them. They may not be able to stand the terrible indignities, humiliations, privations, shocks that attend the life of an American writer. They may not. Yet they may have some sense of humor about it and manage to survive.'

Tennessee Williams in Writers at Work