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Covering the book beat

By Bob Thompson

November 19, 2009


 

When I first encountered Joan Didion, I was on a bus heading back to my apartment in the middle of the night. This was in Cambridge, Mass., in 1975, and I had picked up a paperback copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion’s first nonfiction collection. The opening piece, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” begins with a description of the San Bernardino Valley, east of Los Angeles, and of “the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.” Three pages later, with an October Santa Ana bearing witness, a dentist’s wife named Lucille Miller watches her husband burn to death in the family Volkswagen. By the time I emerged from this sinister dreamscape, I had overshot my bus stop by a mile.

Three decades later, as I could not possibly have imagined in 1975, I found myself in Didion’s Manhattan living room, interviewing her for The Washington Post.

I was an aging rookie on the Post’s book beat, which I’d recently been asked to take over. I was also quietly terrified, as I would be many times when talking with writers I admired. Fear isn’t a bad thing for a reporter. It forces you to prepare and keeps you alert. But in retrospect, I put this interview in a category of its own.

That’s because preparing to talk with Didion—though I was scarcely conscious of this at the time—taught me how to think about my job.

Didion had just published The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir of the sudden death of her husband and the simultaneous, life-threatening illness of their only child. I had read the book in galleys and found it remarkable. “Are you going to talk to her?” an editor asked, and I quickly said yes. But I had not thought the assignment through. The real question, I soon realized, was what we were going to talk about. Here was a writer, after all, who had just put everything she knew about death and grief into print.

What was I supposed to do—ask her how she felt?

Didion is a tiny woman in the best of times. In the fall of 2005, she couldn’t have weighed much more than her age, which was 70. Her daughter, Quintana, had died that August, after Didion had finished the book, and we sat down to talk just a few days after the memorial service. “Many people have said to me: You don’t have to promote this,” she told me, but “if I didn’t do it, it still wouldn’t bring her back.”

Late in the interview I managed a few questions about the memorial. She’d been touched, she said, when her brother handed her a handkerchief, because Didions normally avoid displays of emotion (“It was so sweet, you know? We don’t usually hand each other handkerchiefs”). But mostly, I went with the plan I’d worked out. I stuck to questions about writing—about Didion’s experience of creating this particular book, and about how it had differed, or not, from the writing she had done before.

Here’s some of what I learned:

She has never written from outlines, but she would sometimes think as much as 30 pages ahead. Not this time. “It didn’t feel like writing,” she said. “Writing to me is really hard. And I just sort of sat down and wrote this—or typed it.” She knew she wanted to come back to key scenes over and over, foregrounding different details to evoke the obsessive nature of her grief. She sensed that a crisis in her daughter’s illness would form a “movement” that would fall a certain distance into the narrative. That was it.

Her husband, John Gregory Dunne, also a writer, had drilled into her the need for a “billboard”—a short passage, early in your story, that tells readers what it will be about. So when the time came, she typed one in. It mentions marriage, children, illness, memory, and disorienting grief, and it includes the best description I’ve seen of Didion’s pre-Magical Thinking literary persona. “As a writer, even as a child,” she writes, “I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.”

Polished withholding, she had discovered, wasn’t enough for her anymore. But in talking to Didion, the most surprising thing I learned was that her writing had begun to change with her previous book.

Where I Was From was mainly a reported meditation on the nature of California. “But there were memoir aspects to it,” Didion said, especially near the end, where she wrote about her mother’s death. That part of the book was “the most open emotionally” she had ever been in her writing: “I mean open emotionally in the sense that something just occurs to you and you write it down, which is not my normal mode.”

Talking about writing, we both managed to keep our composure for an hour and a half. When the interview was over, Didion walked me politely to the door. She looked relieved to move on to her next task.

My own relief came from finding a story that could be more than a close-up of grief.

I spent four years on the book beat, and looking back—I took early retirement from the Post last summer—I’m still amazed and grateful for what it permitted me to do. An obsessive reader since childhood, I got paid to read mostly excellent books and have extended conversations with their smart and interesting authors. And if those conversations threatened to become problematic for any reason, all I had to do was remember the Didion Rule:

When in doubt, ask writers about writing.

It sounds childishly simple, and perhaps it is. But it helped me avoid (mostly, not always) the more formulaic book beat stories: how Writer A struggled and struggled and finally made it big, for instance, or how cleverly Writer B’s new novel was being marketed, or what a buzz Writer C’s advance had caused (“My God, they paid a million bucks for that? They’ll never make it back”).

I’d fallen for the struggle narrative right away, as it happened. A month into the beat, I wrote it about Michael Cunningham. The story line was accurate enough: The author of The Hours had struggled plenty, writing badly for a decade, he said, as he labored to produce “the kind of stories that would be published to wide acclaim. They tended to be about bad marriages in Connecticut, about which I knew nothing at all.”

The best part of the interview, however, came when Cunningham talked about the genre origins (ghost stories, thrillers, science fiction) of his new book, Specimen Days. I shortchanged this. In the process, I produced a piece that inspired a headline writer to call it “Success Story.” Oh, great, I thought. I’ve written that one now—would I end up writing it again and again?

Not with the Didion Rule in place.

I would find myself, instead, asking Dave Eggers and the former Sudanese “Lost Boy” Valentino Achak Deng how their break-the-mold collaboration had worked. Eggers signed on to help Deng tell his story, it turned out, after a woman who worked with the Lost Boys called out of the blue and asked him to. He ended up writing What Is the What as fiction because, among other reasons, he didn’t want his Well-Known-Young-American-Writer voice to intrude on Deng’s, which it had started to do when he had tried a biographical approach.

Or I’d find myself being set straight by Art Spiegelman about the nature of graphic novels. I had tossed out a widely held theory that Maus had succeeded because, unlike Spiegelman’s earlier experiments with comics, it satisfied the universal craving for narrative. True, but way too simple, Spiegelman said, jumping up from a chair in his Soho studio to pull a copy of his masterpiece off a shelf. He then walked me patiently through it, highlighting the hidden (to my eyes, at least) artistic dialogue between visuals and words.

MargaretAtwood_WikimediaCommons_Vanwaffle

Once, when Margaret Atwood (at left) came through Washington, I bought her a glass of lemonade and watched her draw waves in the air to illustrate the differences among literary forms. “The wavelengths of a poem are very short,” she said, chopping a hand quickly up and down. “You’re looking at the patterns of syllables, and how consistent they are with other syllables a little further down, and words and rhythms.” The wavelengths of a novel are long, like a tidal wave’s, so “if you put the pistol on page 30, you’re probably going to see it again on page 162 and then it goes off on page 415— kaboom.” As for the short story, which was what I’d come to ask about, “the wavelengths are in between those two forms, and you can get a very condensed amount of power into that, of a different kind.”

Call it Atwood’s First Law of Literature: “It’s just a question of wavelength, how far away the bits of it are from the other bits.”

Four years of interviews produced more high points than I can list. There was Chinua Achebe, remembering how, as a shy boy in colonial Nigeria who didn’t know that Africans could be writers, he still asked enough questions about Igbo customs to fill the “mental notebook” that would help him write Things Fall Apart (“It was the main preparation for my mission, which I didn’t know was a mission”). There was Jane Smiley, lamenting the technical difficulties of fictional sex (“There’s a lot of problems with making it central, and one of them is that it’s boring”). There was Junot Diaz, talking about why he didn’t translate the Spanish passages or explain the references to Galactus the planet-eater in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

“There’s always a space in every immigrant’s life which is reserved for what you don’t understand,” Diaz said. He wanted all his readers to share, “in one place or another, this moment of unintelligibility.”

For Diaz and many others I interviewed, the question of how they wrote linked directly to the question of why they became writers in the first place. Diaz turned to reading and then writing as a way to address the troubling space between his Dominican childhood and his New Jersey youth. He was drawn to newspaper classified pages, he said, as “a window into a world I had no access to,” and one day he came across an ad that changed his life. Responding to it, he made repeated four-mile trips with a shopping cart to collect 500 free books an elderly woman hadn’t wanted to throw away.

Marilynne Robinson confronted a different kind of cultural border—and she defined herself as a writer by refusing to cross.

I had read Robinson’s Gilead shortly before starting the book beat. She sounded like no one else, but I couldn’t say why. In September 2008, as she was publishing Home, I went to Iowa City to find out.

Robinson talked about growing up in Idaho, in “quite an unpopulated place” near Lake Pend Oreille. She would sometimes sleep on an open porch at her grandparents’ house where “there was nothing around us but mountains and woods. Nothing. No other sound, no other light, nothing. The way that mountains sound in a wind, you know, it’s impossible not to feel that you are surrounded by deeply living things.” She later wove that feeling into her first novel, Housekeeping.

In this wild isolation, Robinson read whatever she could get her hands on, including Dickens, Twain, Shakespeare and Poe. “You can’t believe how much Poe poetry I can recite to this day,” she said, then demonstrated with the opening lines of “Alone”:

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from the common spring.

Heading east to Pembroke College, she found that her classmates had no notion of the West, let alone a sense of its living landscape. She went through a period of reading modern novels that came highly recommended, but disliked the staleness of their language and “the thinness of how human characters were represented.” When she started a novel of her own, she filled her prose with extended metaphors, mindful of the figurative language of “Emerson and Thoreau and people like that.” It was “very ornate, by the standards of that moment,” she said, and she doubted it would be published.

Housekeeping is now an American classic. Yet there wouldn’t be another Robinson novel for 23 years.

Why? Well, there was motherhood, divorce, teaching and some heavily researched nonfiction. Most important, though, was Robinson’s refusal to cross the border between her sense of who she was and contemporary culture. She didn’t want to recycle her Housekeeping voice, but she didn’t want to enlist in the 20th century, either. So she set out to read herself out of modernity. “I read about the Albigensians, everything in the world,” she said, “simply to create another sort of ecology in my brain.” She read the theology of John Calvin. She read about abolitionism in Iowa. One day, while trying to write something else, she found herself channeling the voice of an old Congregational minister. He became the narrator of Gilead.

Home followed Gilead by four years. Set in the same Iowa town at the same time in the 1950s, it features many of the same characters, though its point of view, themes and plot are new. I loved it. Yet I couldn’t help asking how Robinson had managed to write this one so fast.

Once again, she declined to see as others saw.

“I write novels quickly,” she said. “I’m not supposed to write novels quickly, but I do.”

When your job is talking to writers, people who care about books quite naturally have questions. One I’ve been asked a number of times is: Who was your toughest interview? Usually I duck it. Many interviews were tough, I say, because I never lost the feeling that at any moment, someone like John Banville, Toni Morrison or Michael Ondaatje could expose me as an ill-prepared literary fraud. Yet the toughest interviews, in that sense, were often the most rewarding. Fear is good.

Sometimes, though, I mention Kurt Vonnegut or Philip Roth.

I interviewed Vonnegut a few weeks before I met Didion, but the talk-about-writing insight wouldn’t have done me any good. The reason is simple and sad. At 82, the author of Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five had long since said everything he had to say about his best work — books that could make you laugh and shake your fist at the same time, especially if you were part of a generation beginning to see that no, it really did not make sense to bomb the Vietnamese in order to save them. Vonnegut had written all those books by the time he was 55, he said, and “my life is essentially a garage sale now of stuff I wrote a long time ago,” including the pastiche of speeches and short articles he was supposed to be promoting.

He couldn’t have been nicer or more generous, but he didn’t try to hide his belief that he had lived long enough.

Vonnegut’s mother killed herself in 1943. A year later, as a German prisoner of war, he survived the Allied firebombing of Dresden by huddling in an underground meat locker as tens of thousands of civilians burned to death. Where he most wanted to be now, he said, was home, by which he meant “Indianapolis when I was 9 years old, and you can’t go back there. But I had a mother and a father, a big sister, a big brother, a dog, a cat—and yeah, that’s where I’d like to go.”

The afternoon’s sole upbeat moment came when I mentioned a passage in Slaughterhouse-Five that describes the Dresden bombing as if it were unfolding in reverse. Planes fly backwards over the flaming city. They suck bombs back inside bomb bays and return to England. The bombs go back to bomb factories and all the airmen become school kids again.

“Oh, I’ve made a recording of that,” Vonnegut said. He dug out a CD, hit the play button and grinned. Out floated his alternate reality, set to jazz.

The winner in the “toughest interview” sweepstakes, however, has to be Philip Roth, seen by many as America’s best living novelist.

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Roth (at right) started things off by imposing the Didion Rule preemptively: he said he would discuss only his writing and would answer no questions about his personal life. Fine. Yet in Roth’s case, this created a major hurdle, because, as his readers know, he is an exceptionally brazen alchemist of the personal into the fictional. For that matter, so is his chief fictional alter ego, the Roth-like novelist Nathan Zuckerman — though both writers are prone to arguing the point.

“Life and art are distinct,” Roth has Zuckerman say in one novel. “[W]hat could be clearer? Yet the distinction is wholly elusive. That writing is an act of imagination seems to perplex and infuriate everybody.”

I wasn’t infuriated, but I was certainly perplexed. I was supposed to be talking with Roth about the recently-issued third volume of his collected works. That volume included his 1974 novel My Life as a Man, an act of imagination in which a writer named Peter Tarnopol—whose spectacularly failed first marriage looks a great deal like Roth’s own—struggles to exorcise it. In the process, Tarnopol creates a character named Nathan Zuckerman, who writes his own variations on the marital train wreck.

How, exactly, were we supposed to discuss this without getting personal?

I tried. It mostly didn’t work. Asked why he had used Tarnopol and Zuckerman to play with the fact-fiction divide, Roth objected to the question. “I’m not playing with it. I don’t care to play,” he said. “This man is trying to transform his experience into fiction. He imagines it once, he imagines it twice and says: ‘The hell with it, here’s the straight story.’ As simple as that.”

Not to me, unfortunately. Still trying, I brought up yet another version of the marriage narrative — nonfiction, this time — which Roth included in a not-much-noticed 1988 autobiography called The Facts. That didn’t get me very far, either.

He really didn’t remember The Facts, Roth said.

I’m making this all sound worse than it really was. Despite the obvious frustrations, I had a great time talking with Roth. A few months later, he won the PEN/Faulkner award. When I phoned to talk about that, he surprised me by saying, “I liked what you wrote.”

So did I. But if you’re interested in learning about Philip Roth, it’s not the first thing I would recommend. Better you should stick with The Facts.

Pay particular attention to the beginning and the end, which Roth added because he was dissatisfied with the autobiographical core. The beginning takes the form of a letter from Roth to Nathan Zuckerman explaining what he was trying to do and asking if the result is good enough to see the light of day. The end, which takes up 35 pages, is Zuckerman’s scathing reply. “Don’t publish,” he tells Roth, before itemizing the evasions, distortions and concealments he thinks his creator would never permit himself in a work of fiction.

They’re brilliant, those 35 pages—and they’ll tell you more about writers and writing than even the best interview can do.

 


Photo credits: Vanwaffle (Margaret Atwood); Wolf Gang (Philip Roth).


Bob Thompson is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at bobthompson72@gmail.com.


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