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.”

“Usually he took seven to eight days to write a novel, and then two or three days to revise,” Acocella writes. “Furthermore, when he started a book, he had no outline of the plot, only a sketch of the characters. He said that, upon beginning, he entered into a trance, in which, chapter by chapter, the plot came to him.”

“This was obviously a high-pressure business, but he seems to have taken pleasure in it. When he felt a novel coming on, he cancelled all appointments and had a checkup with his doctor to make sure he could endure the stress. Four dozen freshly sharpened pencils were lined up on his desk, and a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign, stolen from the Plaza Hotel in New York, was hung on his study door. He wrote one chapter per morning, but even in the afternoon his family and staff were ill-advised to speak to him. For each book, he had a ‘lucky shirt.’ It had to be washed every night.”

Henry Anatole Grunwald, in a Life Magazine article in 1958, wrote that Simenon made a sketch of each novel’s outline at the start. The sketches were single pencil lines on a white paper and looked like fever charts, some with a steadily rising line, others with jagged, rising and falling lines.

Acocella notes that Simenon’s practice of writing so quickly damaged his work: “Halfway through some books, subplots get dropped, characters change weirdly.” In the Maigret novels, “in many cases, the culprit turns out to be the person we suspected all along, or the opposite—someone out of left field, a person we’ve never met before.”

His biographer wrote: “With few exceptions, he wrote his novels the way you make waffles: with a mold.”

Nonetheless, Simenon was hugely commercially successful. Each of his books sold in the hundreds of thousands; in all, his books sold in the hundreds of millions. He obtained full subsidiary rights, so he received money on translations in 55 languages. More than 50 films were made from his novels. Of his practice of selling books to movies, Grunwald wrote: “Every year, like a farmer sending his sheep to market, he sells off two or three more.”

He lived lavishly, with apartments and homes in several countries, including a sixteenth-century chateau. Still, with all his success, he was dissatisfied, believing he should be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. On the day that Camus won the prize in 1957, Simenon got drunk and hit his wife.

Simenon continued to write. In addition to the Maigrets, he churned out potboilers, psychological novels, and what he called roman durs, or “hard novels”. Then one day in 1973, when he was having trouble with his latest novel, he abruptly declared he was through with fiction. After that, he spent six years, writing 21 volumes of a memoir.

In 1989, he died at the age of 86. In the end, according to Acocella, he expressed indifference to the books he had written: “So many hours, so many pages. Why?”

Favorite Simenon story: According to a 1997 New York Times article by Deirdre Bair, Alfred Hitchcock once telephoned Simenon. Simenon’s secretary said the author couldn’t be disturbed because he had begun a new novel. Hitchcock, who knew the writer’s practice of writing fast, said: “That’s all right, I’ll wait.”