Barbara DeMarco-Barrett: On the show, you'd mentioned an author you just read and loved. Farrell? Book was...?
Jincy Willett: The title is The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.G. Farrell. It won the Booker Prize in 1973. It's about the Sepoy Rebellion, p.o.v. clueless Brits under siege and facing wholesale massacre. It's got everything: wicked satire, adventure, horror, humor, tragedy, great suspense, you name it. And terrific character work. It's fabulous.
BDB: I wanted to ask you more about why you think writers shouldn't spend time on memoir.
JW: Well, first of all, the facts of most people's lives just aren't that interesting. This is not to say that we don't all have great stories to tell. We do, absolutely. But the stories aren't strings of facts. Facts are just raw material. What distinguishes successful writers is the ability to discern what the real stories are, the underlying truths, and that has to do with how we connect certain facts in our minds, how we invest certain sequences with significance.
Second is the moral issue. How does one publicize one's own life without betraying family, lovers, friends, all those with whom one has had and intimate connection? I know that some great writers have had no scruples about this, but I'm with Elizabeth Bishop: "[A]rt just isn't worth that much." And anyway, why do this when you can use your family, lovers, friends, and everybody else as inspiration for your fictional characters? As long as you're not a total slob about it, they may suspect, but they'll
never know, and in any event they won't be publicly embarrassed.
I don't know why the recent public appetite for memoir, or why fiction is the red-headed stepchild these days. A really wonderful memoir--the two by Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy's, M.J. Andersen's, Robert Graves's--is a work of art and would be severely disimproved if rendered fictional. But great memoirists have great raw material, for Pete's sake, and sharp eyes, and an ability to look at their lives and themselves without pity.
If you want to write, and you don't have all those gifts in abundance, then do the right thing. Make stuff up.
BDB: That Eleanor Roosevelt quote I butchered in paraphrasing was: "The reason that fiction is more interesting than any other form of literature,to those who really like to study people, is that in fiction the author can really tell the truth without humiliating himself." What do you think?
JW: That's so interesting! I'm not sure I agree completely. I mean, in fiction the author can tell the truth (see above) without humiliating everybody else. I guess it follows that the author risks less self-humiliation through fiction than through memoir, but only to the extent that icky factoids aren't being broadcast all over the place. But there's plenty of humiliation available to all writers, including and especially poets and the writers of fiction. After all, if you're doing your job,
you're putting yourself out there--everything you value, everything you know, or think you know. There's always risk.
BDB: Those discussion questions at the ends of books interest me. Did you come up wih the questions, or did the publisher, and what do you think of them?
JW: The publisher does these. I could never do it, because I wouldn't be able to resist horsing around. My Inner Benchley would come out, as in:
In the passage on page 421 about the simultaneous gas leaks, do you the writer intended the asphyxiation of Maud Knuckles to be humorous? Why? What's wrong with you?
Seriously, I'm grateful to publishers for doing these, because I think they serve a function with book clubs and therefore sell more books. As a reader, I don't care for them, but that's just me. If I want to talk about a book I've just read--and what's more fun than that?--I want to ask my own questions, follow my own train of thought.
BDB: Authors never talk about writing novels, and money. Should a writer expect to make a living writing novels?
JW: No. Keep your day job. If you're really lucky and middling successful, like me, every now and then you'll get a nice chunk of money, but if you calculate that money spread out over the timespan of your writing life, you'll realize... Well, you'll wish you hadn't. And anyway, I do believe that if you're lucky enough to be a writer--to produce books that strangers pick up and read and keep reading, not because they know you or owe you but because you've interested them--you've got more luck than most. Day jobs aren't all that bad.
And now, Bret Anthony Johnston:
Barbara DeMarco-Barrett: In Corpus Christi, in the end-of-the-book interview, you said that each
of your stories was revised 15-20 times. How long, on average, did it take to write each story?
Bret Anthony Johnston: Some took months, and some took much longer, but I tend not to think of stories in those terms. I would find it, I fear, too discouraging. Some stories come more easily, more quickly, than others, but my only concern is rendering the characters as they need to be rendered. I’ll work on stories as long as it takes to do the characters and their experiences justice. I feel beholden to the story not the clock or calendar. Editors, as you can imagine, hate me.
BDB: How much editing did you go through with your editor at Random House,or were your stories pretty much there by the time you'd revised them?
BAJ: My editor for Corpus Christi: Stories was the imminent Dan Menaker, who’s also a wonderful writer. He made very few suggestions for the stories, but the edits he suggested were incisive and invaluable. Most of the stories had already been published in magazines, so they were pretty tight, but he found small and brilliant ways to open them up, to fill their cells with oxygen. I’ll always, always be in his debt.
BDB: Do you have readers, and at what point do you allow a reader to read your drafts?
BAJ: I’m lucky enough to have a few deeply gifted readers, and I’m committed to not wasting their time, so I tend to take my pages through countless drafts before I ask for their help. I want to take a story or chapter through so many drafts that when my readers locate something that needs to be addressed—cut, augmented, clarified, expanded, or whatever—I know I couldn’t have found it on my own. They help me identify and isolate my blindspots as a writer. I hope I repay that generosity when I read their work. It’s also how I approach teaching, and how I encourage my students to use our workshops. If a writer shows a piece of work too early in the process, the reader or workshop’s time and energy may be lost on it. The goal is to use those resources once your tools as a writer—your experience and craft, your imagination and vision and voice—are fully exhausted. The readers and workshop provide the fuel to keep working.
BDB: When you visited with my class last month, you said that the job of
the first draft is to deliver us to the second draft. Elaborate?
BAJ: For me, the first draft is almost all lateral movement through a narrative. I want to get from the beginning of a story to the end, and I’ll use anything and everything at my disposal to achieve that goal. I’m pretty Machiavellian in this regard, and I ask my students to view the challenge of the first draft similarly. Once you have a beginning, middle, and end on the page, then you can return to the draft and make informed and sophisticated decisions about how the story and characters—and the reader—will be best served. I don’t worry about narrative structure or metaphor or symbol or theme or anything on that higher plain of imaginative writing until I have a solid foundation on which to build. I worry about clarity—of prose and emotion, of action and detail—and I refuse to fall into the trap of procrastination (editing sentences, doing research, fiddling with character or place names) that so often accompanies the excavation of an initial draft. My only goal is to get to the second, third, fourth, forty-second draft. I trust the work will pay off.
BDB: You also said the way to generate a plot is by giving your character a
tangible desire. Which of your stories do you feel best encapsulates this
BAJ: From Corpus Christi: Stories, I’d say “The Widow.” Minnie, a woman who’s dying of cancer, wants her son to take her to a park with a pond. She wants to feed the ducks. There’s a story on my website (www.bretanthonyjohnston.com
BDB: In Naming the World, you have a section on Hiding the "I." Will you
BAJ: That’s a wonderful exercise by Marlin Barton, a wonderful writer from Alabama. I think the exercise is working on at least two different levels. On a surface level, Barton is offering writers very specific techniques to vary their sentences, to sidestep the pitfalls of starting too many sentences with “I” in a first-person piece. On a different level, he’s encouraging writers to test how deeply they can inhabit a character’s senses and skin, how vividly and persuasively can you imagine someone else’s life. It’s an exercise in empathy, a tool by which you can engage the reader through sensate language and original, precise detail. Many, many people love that exercise. I’m proud it’s in the book.
BDB: One last thing we didn't get to in my show. You've been a
skateboarder for years, and at one time you competed. How is skateboarding
BAJ: I think it comes down to grit, to discipline, to a stubborn refusal to quit. One thing I see in some aspiring writers is a lack of commitment, and for me writing, like skateboarding, depends on commitment. How much punishment are you willing to take? What are you willing to sacrifice? How long are you willing to stay alone in a room with twenty-six letters and their infinite combinations, trying to make order from chaos? As a skateboarder, I’ve been hurt so many times and I’ve worked for years and years—in one case, a decade—on tricks, so while the demands of being a writer are different, I understand and value what it means to log hours, to use pain and discouragement as opportunities. To succeed in these worlds, you need to be an optimist and a masochist. It’s not about talent or inspiration. It’s about showing up for work, clocking in early and staying late. It’s about getting back on the board after you’ve fallen, about revising your every sentence a few more times than everyone else will.