So let me call you Ian, if that’s OK with you. Not that I want to show off with my pals, but we kinda know each other a bit through what you gave me to read… Those questions are the one I would have liked to ask Bukowski after he wrote “On Writing”. The last one is the one he might have wanted to ask you.
1 – When you write only to get famous you shit it away. I don’t want to make rules but if there is one it is : the only writers who write well are those who must write in order not to go mad.
Does that speak to you? Do you ever feel to be on the verge of madness?
That’s an interesting question to consider. I think it probably helps you to stay sane, although it doesn’t always feel like that when you are sitting at the desk. For me, art is always a way of trying to make some kind of sense of the world and our experience of it. And even if the conclusions the artist comes to are gloomy or pessimistic, the very fact they made that effort to understand, and they created something out of that urge, is a hopeful and admirable thing.
2 – I’ve been tired of poetry for years, for centuries but I kept writing it because the others were doing it so badly.
What about you? Do you ever write or read poetry?
I stopped trying to write poems in my early twenties. My poems were always very bad, the only half-decent ones were actually short stories, but I didn’t realise it. Yes, I do read poetry still. Not every day or every week, but quite often. There are certain kinds of days when reading poetry feels like the only thing to do. I have some very good friends who are poets, and I read and enjoy their work, and I also go back to the greats like Walt Whitman, Rilke and Yeats.
3 – I don’t know where you got your talent from but the gods undoubtedly endowed you well with it. » (To John Fante)
You believe in that ? In fairies tilted on your cradle when you were a baby ? Or it is just a lot of work?
It’s not all hard work, although hard work and persistence are absolutely required. There is something else on top, which you could call talent or aptitude, or even a kind of intelligence, and I’m not sure where that comes from. Brain chemistry maybe? But then what decides a person’s brain chemistry?
4 – There isn’t any excuse fort a creation crippled by directives of school and fashion, or the valetudinarian prayer book that says : form, form, form !! Put it in the cage ! Let’s allow ourselves space and error, hysteria and grief.
What do you think about schools of writing ? About writers who end up writing the same book all over again ? About words put in the cage ?
That’s Bukowski at his most Romantic, and most American I think. The idea that a writer needs to reject everything that’s gone before and do something fresh and entirely individual sounds very exciting, but I can’t completely agree. Cormac McCarthy, another great American writer, once said ‘books come from other books’ and that sounds better to me. For me, originality involves understanding the tradition you are working in, and then adding something interesting to it, rather than imagining you can reject the tradition and start from scratch. Having said that, there are plenty of very dull, formulaic novels published every year, so I’m not saying a writer should just repeat what’s been done many times before. That’s too boring.
5 – I do not believe in technique or school or sissies… I believe in grasping at the curtains like a drunken monk… and tear them down, down, down…
Do you also grasp at the curtains ? Tear them down ? Does it happen to you to work so hard on a text that you end up throwing it away ?
Yes, I have thrown a lot away. More pages than I like to think about. It’s very painful at the time, but so long as you take something from the experience it can be helpful. Writing fiction is a kind of experiment which can easily go wrong, but that may be the best way of learning how to do it well.
6 – It is the unread and the unprepared, those so hasty to splash into print that they have not reached into the ages for a sound and basic springboard, that I take task with.
Is your springboard sound ? Do you believe in these trendy “creative writing” courses ? Places where people are taught to write books ?
In my experience, it can take a very long time to become a consistently good writer. Years, or even decades, of trying, failing, succeeding a little, then failing again, then trying more etc etc. Creative writing courses can’t make someone into a good writer if they don’t already have some talent or aptitude for it, but they can sometimes help a writer develop more quickly, and can give them confidence to keep on trying.
7 – My question is this : does a writer become public property to be ransacked without notice upon publication or does he still retain the rights of privacy as a tax-paying citizen ? Would it be gross to say that the only eucharist of many an artist is (still) isolation from an only-too-fast closing society, or is this simply a desuetude ?
What’s your take on that one ?
I think it’s a question of personality mainly. Some writers really like giving interviews, making public appearances etc. They find it easy and enjoyable to talk about themselves and their work, and they don’t worry too much about saying something stupid or being misunderstood. Other writers are very shy or private, and hate having to do all that stuff. I’m somewhere in the middle, I can talk about my work in public without worrying too much about it, but, at the same time, I do think the experience of writing and reading a novel is essentially a private one, and when you try to talk about it afterwards something important is usually left out.