It’s inevitable during Q&A sessions with published authors -- “What time of day do you write?” “Do you use a computer, or write longhand?” “Where do you find your ideas?” I admit it. I’ve asked. The truth is we are desperate to uncover the secret. Please tell us there is one. Some little trick. A time of day. A brand of pen. The key they all jangle in their pockets, while the rest of us scrabble around in the dirt looking for it.
I know better. There are no easy tricks. The work should be the joy. I know. I know. Yet, I still look. I read author biographies and follow publishing blogs. Thanks to 49Writers, I hit the jackpot – the Paris Review interviews. Louise Erdrich, Seamus Heaney, William Vollman, Toni Morrison. It’s like a box of chocolates that I can’t stop gorging on.
But one of the interviews was cautionary. The editor Robert Gottlieb said he advised Joseph Heller to not talk publicly about the role Gottlieb played in the final form of Catch-22. “The most famous case of editorial intervention in English literature has always bothered me,” Gottlieb said. “—you know, that Dickens’s friend Bulwer-Lytton advised him to change the end of Great Expectations: I don’t want to know that!”
It has happened to me. I dig into an author’s background, and what I find takes away from my enjoyment of the writing.
The Education of Little Tree began for me as a surprising, quietly wonderful little book. It was funny and touching. It wasn’t until after I finished reading it that it went bad. Looking for other writing by Forrest Carter, I found an essay about him. He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and a speech writer for the Alabama Governor George Wallace. Critics have argued that his short novel was in fact an argument for the segregation of Native Americans.
In an NPR interview, Billy Collins said he doesn’t like mixing biography in with his reading of an author. Was Emily Dickinson a lesbian, a celibate? Did she have an affair? “So there are many speculations about her, but I think the poems are self-sufficient,” he said. He said he prefers the poems to the life.
With most modern authors, you don’t have to dig far to learn about their lifestyles and beliefs – interviews, Facebook, Twitter, blogging. You can read about their influences, their feuds with other authors and critics, their difficulties with editors and agents, their personal situations, their politics.
A few, like Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx, keep to themselves. Remote ranches. Unlisted phone numbers. I doubt they are friending people on Facebook. It’s possible their political views are different than mine. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. I want their fiction, and maybe it helps that I don’t know a lot about them. Then again, I do know McCarthy was once so down-and-out that he didn’t have any toothpaste until a free sample showed up in his mailbox. And Proulx is in the Paris Review interviews, and she is deliciously cantankerous. I think all that might be inspiring. I haven’t decided.
So I end with a dilemma. On one hand, true-life details about authors bring them down to earth. It’s interesting, following an author’s development of an idea and struggles with revisions. It’s liberating, knowing that the best of them have doubts and have been doubted. Just like the rest of us, they put down one word at a time, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. As a writer, I find hope in this.
As a reader, though, I want the illusion. I want to read a cohesive, powerful creation that sprang from the author’s forehead fully intact. No second guesses. No doubts. No last-minute character swapping or alternative endings. I don’t want to know that the author drinks too much or voted for the wrong guy or once stabbed his wife with a penknife. I just want the novel. The poem. Free and aglow, unencumbered by anyone else’s vanity or smallness. "The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.” Ezra Pound. I don’t know a thing about him.
So as I prepare for my first novel to be launched into the world, I wonder – how much do I share? Do I talk about my writing process so I can connect with other people? Do I share my Alaska lifestyle that some will find fascinating, others incomprehensible? Or do I go with reclusive and secretive, leaving all to the reader’s imagination?
How much have you shared about yourself with your readers? How much do you want to know about your favorite authors?
Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel THE SNOW CHILD is set to be published next winter by Little, Brown & Co. She is a bookseller at Fireside Books in Palmer.