Sunday, September 30, 2012

Salman Rushdie

I saw Salman Rushdie in a public appearance in Marin last week. He’s just published an account of his 12-1/2 years in hiding, following the condemnation of his novel, The Satanic Verses, in 1989 by Muslim extremists and a death sentence handed down by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The new book is called Joseph Anton, the title coming from the code name used for him by the British Secret Service, MI6, who guarded him. (Rushdie chose the name himself from two of his favorite writers: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.)

Rushdie’s talk described how the news of his “fatwa” first came to him, how it changed his life and that of his family, how he continued to write, and his desire to write his autobiography. His talk had elements of the terrifying obviously, but also, as relayed with Rushdie’s wit, a surprisingly amount of humor.

Here are some highlights:

I never thought of myself as a religious writer…. I never thought of The Satanic Verses as a political novel, certainly not as much as my earlier novels. I intended it to be about the migrant experience, which was my own story and that of many others in our time. It shows how a writer can be wrong about his own book.

But then, somewhat depressingly, I acquired what most writers don't have, which is an interesting life.

Scotland Yard rated the threat level against me as Level 2, which I shared with just two people, the prime minister and the Queen of England. I asked what Level 1 was, and they said that’s when someone is actually outside your home shooting at you.

Being a writer is a kind of disease. Even when terrible things are happening, you think: good story!

For a long time, I didn’t think I could write about the experience, because I didn’t know the last chapter.

For someone whose work was not known for happy endings, I became very interested in one.

I was never interested in spy novels. Then my own life turned into a spy novel, and I found myself stuck inside exactly the kind of novel that I didn’t enjoy reading.

It was quite common that people who objected to the novel had not read it. Years later, one of men who organized the demonstrations against me in England said that he had recently read the book, and now he couldn’t make out what all the fuss was about.

I wasn’t the first writer to be attacked for his writing. It’s been a part of the history of literature. What was unusual was that a leader in one country reached across several continents to another country to say that I should be killed.

At the end, the Secret Service said that the threat had been “frustrated.” It was such an odd word. I tried to imagine frustrated assassins.

I was surprised at how quickly I got back to normal. I think I learned that the need of human beings for normalcy is so great that when you return to it, you grab it.

What sustained me was a line from Joseph Conrad’s novella The Nigger of the Narcissus, where a sailor ill with tuberculosis says: “I must live until I die.” I thought to myself, “Do that. Don't stop being yourself. Write your books, try and be a father to your children, a friend to your friends, and live until you die.” And that helped me get through it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Close Encounters with Famous Authors: John Updike (1973)

It happened at a now long-forgotten little bookstore on an out-of-the-way side street, in Cambridge Massachusetts, a few hundred yards from the gates of Harvard University.

The store was the Phillips-Brentano Bookstore, and I was working there as a clerk and hardcover buyer while I finished my graduate thesis and tried to figure out how to be writer. It was a pleasant space, with large glass windows across the front, old-fashioned brick floor, and stairs leading to an open, second-story loft.

The store had begun life as an independent bookstore owned by someone named Phillips, until it was bought in the late 1960s by Brentano’s, an American bookstore chain with a noble history, starting with a store opened in nineteenth-century Paris by August Brentano. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited,” the protagonist Charlie Wales rides in a cab along the Avenue de l’Opera and describes the blue hour of a Paris evening this way: “They were closing the iron grill in front of Brentano's Bookstore, and people were already at dinner behind the trim little bourgeois hedge of Duval's.”

Thursday, September 13, 2012

More on Writers' Practices

This post is a follow-up to my earlier post of June 24 on writers’ work habits.

John Cheever
After the Second World War, John Cheever, who was to become one of the country’s great short story writers, moved with his family to an apartment building at 400 East 59th Street, near Sutton Place, Manhattan.  For much of his life, Cheever would be self-conscious over his lack of education and what was considered at the time a suitable vocation. At this point in his career, his writing had not yet earned him much money, and he could afford only one suit. In the mornings, to keep up appearances, he put on the suit and rode the building’s elevator downstairs, along with the address’s other lawyers and stockbrokers. But Cheever took the elevator all the way to a windowless room in the basement, where he worked alone in a kind of makeshift office. Not wanting to muss the suit, he hung it on a hanger and sat dressed in his boxer shorts to write until nightfall, when he put the suit back on and rode the elevator back upstairs to his apartment.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Eating Locally . . . Reading Locally

Over the past decade or so, a movement has arisen in this country to “eat locally”—to choose food (fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meat) grown, raised, or made within a 50-mile radius of our homes. The food is fresher, we use less energy to get it, and we support our neighbors who produce the food.
I’d like to propose a similar movement to “read locally”—to seek out novels, poetry, plays, graphic novels, memoirs, and other nonfiction written by those who live in our part of the world.

It would work like this. Readers would buy (or borrow from libraries) books by local authors, ask their stores or libraries to recommend local authors, attend readings, and notice reviews. The more you do this, the more you’ll discover the richness of the creativity around you.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

John Irving Redux

Several weeks ago, when I posted my blog story about meeting John Irving, my wife thought that Mr. Irving himself might enjoy story, and she suggested that I send him a copy. So I mailed a hard copy with a two-sentence cover letter to his agent in Vermont, and never expected a reply. Last week, I received the following letter:

 “Dear Mr. Weisel: My wife, who is also my literary agent, showed me your letter to her of August 12, 2012, together with your account of meeting me at the Boston Ritz-Carlton in ’78. I remember the snotty way the dress code was enforced there. One of my children was not allowed to have dinner because he was wearing white athletic socks. He was wearing a suit and tie, but with white socks. I had to go out and buy him some dress socks on Newbury Street. I enjoyed your account, and I’m glad I behaved myself. It is nice to get a letter not asking me for anything; I enjoyed hearing from you. Yours truly, John Irving.”

I’ve long thought that John Irving is one of the best American novelists of the last 40 years. Now I also think that, even with the success and fame that he has earned, he has somehow managed to remain very much the same genuine, down-to-earth man whom I first met in 1978.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Close Encounters with Famous Authors: J. K. Rowling (1999)

In 1999, J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, came to our small town for a book signing, and the event was as much like a normal book signing as, say, a hot dog eating contest or a prison riot.

Rowling was then on the front-end of her seven-part set of fantasy novels. She had written three of the books, with a fourth due out soon. But, among literary sensations, she was a bit of an oddity. Her audience consisted largely of adolescents, who were not typically responsible for bestsellers. And her books sold in quantities never before encountered. (A news report at the time calculated that her books had sold more copies than any book except the Christian bible—which actually seemed an unfair competition since the latter had something like a two-thousand-year head-start and, well, quotes from God.)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Last Lines

Readers have long admired the first sentences of novels. But what about the last lines?

Most readers remember the first line of Moby Dick (“Call me Ishmael.”) How many recall the last line? (“It was the devious-cruising Rachel that, in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”)

Are last lines important? Are they memorable? Are they even supposed to be?

Many novels, even some good novels, seem to wind down at the end, until they just run out of sentences. The authors skillfully finish their stories, but the last lines lack any special power, mystery, or style.

For novelists, the danger of the last lines is unintentionally creating a trite, aphoristic ending that seems to wrap up the story, and in doing so, belies the novel’s own complex subtlety.

But isn’t it important to try to create an ending worthy of the rest of the book? After all, the last lines are the reader’s final impression of the novel.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Close Encounters with Famous Authors: John Irving (1978)

I was in my late twenties then and working as a technical editor at a consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One afternoon, the Vice President for Marketing stopped by my office and invited me to a party that night in honor of a new young writer, who had just published a much-anticipated novel. She couldn’t recall the writer’s name, but she remembered the book had a funny title. She knew that I was an aspiring novelist and thought I’d enjoy the occasion. She was attending the party with the Vice President of Business Development, but she was sure the party’s hostess wouldn’t mind a third. Before she left my doorway, she said, oh by the way, she and Business Development were having dinner before the party at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and they would be happy to treat me.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Writing Fast

“I write fast because I have not the brains to write slow.”

His name was Georges Simenon. He’s best known for two things. He wrote a series of 75 Inspector Maigret novels featuring Paris police superintendent Jules Maigret. And he wrote each his novels very quickly: usually in about a week and a half.

He was born in Liege, Belgium and quit school when he was 15. He published his first novel at 18, and in the next seven years wrote more than 150 novels and novellas. Over a career of 50 years, he wrote some 500 novels.

In a recent article in the New Yorker, Joan Acocella describes his writing practice: “Every morning, he sat down and completed his self-assigned daily quota of eighty typewritten pages. Then he would vomit, from the tension, and spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing.”

Sunday, June 24, 2012

What Writers Look Like When They Write

Frederick Weisel
Whenever an author does a public reading and invites the audience to ask questions, one question is nearly always posed: “When you write, do you use a computer or write in longhand?”

This question was more pertinent in the late 1980s, when personal computers were just beginning to be used in the mainstream, and many writers had to adjust to the new technology. But, oddly, the question persists. Last week, at a public reading that I attended, it was the first question.

Readers especially seem to enjoy the anomalies. John Irving is still well known today for writing in longhand in lined notebooks. Wendell Berry once said he refused to use a computer, because to do so would mean supporting electric utilities. Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk writes on graph paper. Annie Proulx writes in longhand, because she believes “writing on a computer produces facile prose.” The great Michael Ondaatje uses Muji brand notebooks. Ian McEwan composes on the computer but tries out sentences in longhand. J.K. Rowling writes in longhand and then edits as she types the text into a computer, and if you care, uses black, not blue, ink.