Truman Capote on writing

Standard

Capote

I’ve always enjoyed Truman Capote’s writing and his flamboyant personality. The guy was a stellar talent. In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s are well worth the time–but if you haven’t read his collected short stories, I highly recommend you do so. Brilliant stuff. Recently, I stumbled across an interview Capote gave to The Paris Review in 1957, during which he discussed his early ambition to be a writer and the art of crafting short stories. Here are some highlights.

On when he first started writing at the age of 10 or 11:

I had to go into town on Saturdays to the dentist and I joined the Sunshine Club that was organized by the Mobile Press Register. There was a children’s page with contests for writing and for coloring pictures, and then every Saturday afternoon they had a party with free Nehi and Coca-Cola. The prize for the short-story writing contest was either a pony or a dog, I’ve forgotten which, but I wanted it badly. I had been noticing the activities of some neighbors who were up to no good, so I wrote a kind of roman à clef called “Old Mr. Busybody” and entered it in the contest. The first installment appeared one Sunday, under my real name of Truman Streckfus Persons. Only somebody suddenly realized that I was serving up a local scandal as fiction, and the second installment never appeared. Naturally, I didn’t win a thing.

On the moment he realized he wanted to be a writer:

I realized that I wanted to be a writer. But I wasn’t sure I would be until I was fifteen or so. At that time I had immodestly started sending stories to magazines and literary quarterlies. Of course no writer ever forgets his first acceptance; but one fine day when I was seventeen, I had my first, second, and third, all in the same morning’s mail. Oh, I’m here to tell you, dizzy with excitement is no mere phrase!

On controlling your material:

Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence— especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I don’t mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all.

On developing a short-story technique:

Since each story presents its own technical problems, obviously one can’t generalize about them on a two-times-two-equals-four basis. Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.

On improving one’s technique:

Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. Even Joyce, our most extreme disregarder, was a superb craftsman; he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners. Too many writers seem to consider the writing of short stories as a kind of finger exercise. Well, in such cases, it is certainly only their fingers they are exercising.

Read the full interview here.

Writing advice from Hemingway

Standard

ErnestHemingway

A while back, while reading Hemingway: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers, I came to what I consider the best part of any literary biography: a breakdown of the subject’s writing process. Even if reading the biography of an author I don’t necessarily enjoy, I’m always fascinated by the way they work and the approach they take when hunkering down with a manuscript. Here, according to Meyers, is Hemingway’s strategy:

Study the best literary models.
Master your subject through experience and reading.
Work in disciplined isolation.
Begin early in the morning and concentrate for several hours each day.
Begin by reading everything you have written from the start or, if engaged on a long book, from the last chapter.
Write slowly and deliberately.
Stop writing when things are going well and you know what will happen next so that you have sufficient momentum to continue the next day.
Do not discuss the material while writing about it.
Do not think about writing when you are finished for the day but allow your subconscious mind to ponder it.
Work continuously on a project once you start it.
Keep a record of your daily progress.
Make a list of titles after you have completed the work.

An interesting list, to be sure. The one thing that struck me was his advice to stop writing when things are going well to ensure you have something to write about the next time you’re at your desk. I’ve done this from the beginning, and it serves me very well. I never read a manuscript I’m working on, however, until I’m done with the first draft. I think reading what you’re putting down on paper as you’re going along is a terrible idea. Personally, I’m guaranteed to fall into the trap of rewriting everything before I have the rough draft done. That, for me, is the kiss of death.

I don’t write early in the morning but late at night when the house is quiet. I’ll write for several hours if I can—but if the words aren’t flowing, I don’t force it. Admittedly, I don’t write slowly or deliberately. If the idea is fully formed in my head, I frantically pound the keys to get it down before it vanishes into the ether. My revisions are slow and deliberate, but my first draft is a race to get the story out.

According to Meyers, “It often took Hemingway all morning to write a single perfect paragraph.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to have that luxury of time?

‘Few authors are rich men’

Standard
The man.

The man.

I’m currently writing a book for Da Capo, detailing Winston Churchill’s adventures as a young war correspondent from 1895 to 1900. Reporting for various newspapers, he covered wars from the jungles of Cuba, India’s Northwest Frontier against the ancestors of today’s Taliban, the deserts of the Sudan, and the endless veldt of South Africa. His was an action-packed existence. As part of my research, I’ve been gathering his various articles and working my way through his personal correspondence.

One letter in particular recently caught my attention. While stationed in India in 1896, Churchill read Rudyard Kipling’s volume of poetry, The Seven Seas. He was not impressed and, on January 7, 1897, wrote an astute letter to his brother on the finite skills of an author:

Few writers stand the test of success. Rider Haggard – Weyman – Boldrewood are all losing or have already lost their prowess. What happens is this. An author toils away & has many failures. Rejected contributions—books which the publishers won’t publish accumulate. Money does not. One day he writes a book which makes him famous: King Solomon’s Mines, A Gentleman of France or Robbery Under Arms. His name now is on every one’s lips—his books are clamoured for by the public. Out come all the old inferior productions from their receptacles, and his financial fortune is made. Few authors are rich men.

He really nailed it with that last sentence.

Although primarily known as Britain’s iconic wartime leader, Churchill made his living as an author. He wrote countless books and articles during his long life. Indeed, by the age of twenty-five, he had four bestsellers to his name. In 1908, he gave a lecture to the Author’s Club in London. Here is an excerpt, courtesy Richard Langworth’s brilliantly edited Churchill By Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations.

The fortunate people in the world—the only really fortunate people in the world, in my mind—are those whose work is also their pleasure. The class is not a large one, not nearly so large as it is often represented to be; and authors are perhaps one of the most important elements in its composition. They enjoy in this respect at least a real harmony of life. To my mind, to be able to make your work your pleasure is the one class distinction in the world worth striving for . . . To sit at one’s table on a sunny morning, with four clear hours of uninterruptible security, plenty of nice paper, and a [fountain] pen—that is true happiness.

In the first volume of his Second World War memoirs, he described writing a book this way:

Writing a long and substantial book is like having a friend and companion at your side, to whom you can always turn for comfort and amusement, and whose society becomes more attractive as a new and widening field of interest is lighted in the mind.

To write a book about Churchill is to spend time in the company of a most entertaining gentleman.

Stories to terrorize your children

Standard

struwwelpeterCover

On my bookshelf sits a copy of Struwwelpeter, one of the most disturbing books for children ever put in print. It’s been around since 1845, first published in Germany, and features illustrated rhymes that stress the terrible consequences of bad behavior. There’s the story of Harriet, who burns to death while playing with matches; and Augustus, consigned to an early grave after refusing to eat his dinner night after night.

The story that truly horrified me as a child, however, was that of “Little Suck-a-Thumb.” Young Conrad is a chronic thumb sucker. One day his mother goes off to market and tells him before leaving, “Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away. The great tall tailor always comes to little boys who suck their thumbs.” The tailor in question is “The Great, Long, Red-Legged Scissor Man,” who likes to cut children’s thumbs with his giant scissors. You can guess what happens to Conrad while his mother’s out:

ScissorMan

It’s funny that today we should worry about the impact of violent videos games and movies on young people when, for generations, kids have been raised on tales of murder and mutilation. Perhaps I’ll start using the book to terrorize my kids at bedtime when they misbehave.

Writers’ Rooms

Standard

briggs

Here’s a great series that ran a while back in London’s Guardian newspaper. Simply called Writers’ Rooms, it’s comprised of “portraits of the spaces where authors create.” The image above shows the writing desk of British author and illustrator Raymond Briggs, of whom I’ve been a fan since childhood. You can check out the entire series here. It’s well worth the time. Each picture is accompanied by a short essay by the featured author, explaining his/her creative space and working habits.

Writers and doubt

Standard

FountainPen

Every writer struggles with doubt. It’s a terrible moment to read something you’ve put down on paper only to realize there’s a total wreck on the page. Of course, it’s not always that bad—hopefully. The next time you’re fretting over the quality of your work, consider this letter penned by a first-time author to a friend:

I had the idea that one could write a thriller with half one’s mind, and I simply wrote 2,000 words a day to show myself that I could. I didn’t read it through as I wrote it, and when I returned to England and did so I really was appalled.

The dialogue, a lot of the descriptions and the main characters are dreadfully banal and three-quarters of the writing is informed with what I can only describe as vulgarity. Such good action moments as there are in the story have been more or less thrown away and so far as I can see the element of suspense is completely absent.

After riffling through this muck you will probably never speak to me again, but I have got to take that chance. For God’s sake don’t mention this dreadful oafish opus to anyone else, and for heaven’s sake believe, as I am sure you will after you have read a few pages, that this is not mock humility.

The author goes on for another couple of paragraphs and rips his work to shreds. Long story short, the manuscript wound up in the hands of UK publisher Jonathan Cape, who thought highly of the story and the writing. So it was, on April 13, 1953, Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, made its debut.

Murder and witchcraft

Standard

Fabian

Every now and then I have to do some shameless self-promotion—such as right now. Next month, UK publisher The History Press will release my next book, The Case That Foiled Fabian: Murder and Witchcraft in Rural England. The book is a non-fiction account of the unsolved 1945 pitchfork murder of Charles Walton in the village of Lower Quinton. Some believe the murder was the last ritual witchcraft killing in Britain. Scotland Yard dispatched its best man, Chief Inspector Robert Fabian, to investigate. Here’s the jacket copy.

On Wednesday 14 February 1945, the body of Charles Walton was discovered on the lower slopes of Meon Hill near the sleepy Warwickshire village of Lower Quinton, his torso pinned to the ground by a pitchfork. Myths and rumours soon swirled about the crime. Accounts claim Walton, a lifelong resident of Lower Quinton and a retired labourer, was believed by many to be a clairvoyant who could talk to birds and exercise control over animals. It’s been reported that many villagers believed Walton’s death was carried out according to ritual witchcraft—but what is fact and what is fiction? The most famous police officer in Britain, Chief Inspector Robert Fabian (Fabian of the Yard), was promptly dispatched by Scotland Yard to solve this increasingly peculiar and foreboding mystery.

‘Fabian of the Yard’ was not a man prone to superstition and had dealt with some of the most notorious killers of his time—but there was something strange about the Walton murder. Did the clues point to ritual witchcraft as the modus operandi, or was the Black Magic angle merely a ruse? With the villagers unable—or unwilling—to shed light on the matter, Fabian faced, for the first time in his glittering career, the daunting prospect of failure. The Case That Foiled Fabian lays out, for the first time, what actually happened and distills the truth from the many myths that are today mistaken as facts.

The book is now available for pre-order on Amazon.co.uk.

Killer writing

Standard
(Image source: W-Orks)

(Image source: W-Orks)

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

–James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss

One of life’s great pleasures, in addition to single-malt scotch and a well-cooked steak, is reading a book and discovering a sentence or paragraph that hits you with its beauty. One of my favorites is from The Wrong Case by James Crumley, a brilliant but, sadly, underrated author of violent, hardboiled detective novels. His stories are set in the Pacific Northwest; his protagonists are hard-drinking, drug-taking burnouts who, at their core, hold tight to some faded sense of justice. A critic for the New York Times once wrote if Hunter S. Thompson and Raymond Chandler had a child, James Crumley would be the end result. That pretty much nails it. Crumley’s stories are imbued with Thompson’s drug-fueled, Gonzo madness and Chandler’s hard-edged style. Like Chandler, his plots don’t always make perfect sense, but that hardly matters. It’s Crumley’s characters and writing that’ll keep you coming back for more. In the passage below, private eye Milo Milodragovitch, searching for a client’s missing brother, has just followed up a lead in a slum bar and is now standing in the rain-slicked parking lot after sunset.

A car full of drunks hissed over the Ripley Avenue bridge and down the ramp above us, fleeing through the night down black and wet streets, heading home or to another gaily lighted bar rife with music and dancing and sweaty women with bright eyes and lips like faded rose petals. As the driver down-shifted, the exhaust belched, the tires snickered across the slick pavement, a girl’s shrill laughter flew out, abandoned like a beer can in the skid. The colored lights from the discreet Riverfront sign reflected off the dark asphalt, wavering as the wind sifted the rain, glowing like the lights beneath a black sea.

Awesome, isn’t it? There’s nothing contrived here. There’s no sense Crumley is writing to impress. It’s just a beautiful piece of writing that evokes a great sense of atmosphere. Unfortunately, Crumley passed away in 2008, but he left behind a legacy of some of the best crime fiction out there.

Life is too short for boring books

Standard

boringbooks

“The most common form of diversion is reading.  In that vast and varied field millions find their mental comfort.”

— Winston Churchill (Thoughts and Adventures, 1932)

I lived by a steadfast rule when I was younger: always finish a book.  Even if a tome was mind-numbingly dull, I stuck with it to the bitter end.  To give up on a book was to be a quitter.  I am no longer that sadomasochistic youth.  Now, fully ensconced in middle age, I am a curmudgeon where books are concerned.  With the pressures put upon me by work, family, and the simple struggle to stay sane, I am very particular about my hardcover-and-paperback companions (I’m a traditionalist when it comes to books).  If a story hasn’t grabbed my interest by page 100, I toss it on the heap destined for the used bookstore.  Time is a finite thing, and there are too many books on my to-read list that I hope to tackle while I’m still on the right side of the grass.

My bookshelves are lined with many volumes I have yet to read.  Some are titles I received for past birthdays and Christmases; others, I purchased myself but just haven’t got around to cracking the spines.  Their day will eventually come—and, if they don’t make the grade, into the discard pile they go.  In the meantime, there is something to be said for a crowded bookshelf.  I enjoy being surrounded by books.  They make for excellent company.  Here’s an excerpt from an essay by Winston Churchill I’ve always enjoyed on the subject:

“What shall I do with all my books?” was the question; and the answer, “Read them,” sobered the questioner.  But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them.  Peer into them.  Let them fall open where they will.  Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye.  Then turn to another.  Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of unchartered seas.  Set them back on their shelves with your own hands.  Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are.  IF they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances.  If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.

How’s that for some good advice?