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Posts Tagged ‘the art of fiction’

Purity of Essence: One Question for Nell Zink

December 8, 2014 | by

Nell Zink-6-Fred Filkorn

Photo: Fred Filkorn

Nell Zink’s novel The Wallcreeper came out in October and was listed last week among the 100 Notable Books of 2014 by the New York Times. Jonathan Franzen—who had earlier tried to interest publishers in Zink’s first novel, Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Shats—wrote, “Her work insistently raises the possibility that the world is larger and stranger than the world you think you know.”

The Wallcreeper is the coming-of-age story of Tiffany, a young woman who marries a man she hardly knows and follows him to Switzerland. Zink’s compressed scenes and chapter-less form showcase her mastery of tonal register—think Diane Williams with a little less bathos—as the newlyweds’ shared interests in each other and birding quickly shift to other lovers and separate environmental causes. Meanwhile, the zingers and bon mots fly so fast and furiously that one often forgets that Tiffany is on the brink of poverty.

Zink, now fifty, has also published several pieces in n+1. She lives in Bad Belzig, Germany, where she worked most recently as a translator. As a writer living abroad, she does not seem fond of things like e-mail interviews, and understandably so. This exchange took place in August—part of a longer interview filled with some of the most riotous, pummeling insults I’ve ever absorbed—and Zink explained that the course of her experience as a writer has involved a great deal of travel, marked by an intense effort to insulate her creative life from the work required to make rent. Her second novel, Mislaid, is due out next year. She sold it, as she has said elsewhere, for “megabucks.” This may be half jest, but it hints nevertheless that her fortunes have shifted for the better since this summer, when she shared the following account of her personal history.

What kind of jobs have you had? Do you write full-time now, “living the dream”?

I was always a bit concerned about purity of essence. I never wanted a job that might affect the way I wrote or thought. I remember how in college I was very proud of having finagled a job in the English department, where I spent most of my time collating and stapling. I didn’t major in English, obviously, because I preferred being challenged in courses where I might get bad grades. Once, Gordon Lish came to speak there and warned us explicitly against going to work in publishing, because it forces you to read bad prose all day every day and spoils your style. After his talk, all the other student writers jumped up to beg him for jobs in publishing while I wandered off strengthened in my resolve to do manual labor. Read More »

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Marvels and Mysteries

December 3, 2014 | by

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A caricature of Conrad by David Low, 1928.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define fantastic, then?

BORGES

I wonder if you can define it. I think it’s rather an intention in a writer. I remember a very deep remark of Joseph Conrad—he is one of my favorite authors—I think it is in the foreword to something like The Dark Line, but it’s not that …

INTERVIEWER

The Shadow Line?

BORGES

The Shadow Line. In that foreword he said that some people have thought that the story was a fantastic story because of the captain’s ghost stopping the ship. He wrote—and that struck me because I write fantastic stories myself—that to deliberately write a fantastic story was not to feel that the whole universe is fantastic and mysterious; nor that it meant a lack of sensibility for a person to sit down and write something deliberately fantastic. Conrad thought that when one wrote, even in a realistic way, about the world, one was writing a fantastic story because the world itself is fantastic and unfathomable and mysterious.

INTERVIEWER

You share this belief?

BORGES

Yes. I found that he was right. I talked to Bioy Casares, who also writes fantastic stories—very, very fine stories—and he said, “I think Conrad is right. Really, nobody knows whether the world is realistic or fantastic, that is to say, whether the world is a natural process or whether it is a kind of dream, a dream that we may or may not share with others.”

—Jorge Luis Borges, The Art of Fiction No. 39, 1967

Since it’s Joseph Conrad’s birthday, I went in search of his foreword to The Shadow Line—it was an author’s note, actually, appended to the novel’s second edition in 1920. And Borges’s memories of it are largely accurate: Conrad uses it to mount a defense of “the world of the living,” which “contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is … I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvellous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural.”

The Shadow Line, which is now in the public domain, was first published in 1916, when it appeared over the course of two months in Metropolitan Magazine. It tells the story of a young man who assumes the captaincy of a ship in “the Orient.” The ghost of the ship’s previous captain, Mr. Burns, lurks: “His face in the full light of day appeared very pale, meagre, even haggard. Somehow I had a delicacy as to looking too often at him; his eyes, on the contrary, remained fairly glued on my face. They were greenish and had an expectant expression.”

Here’s the author’s note Borges mentions: Read More »

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Tools of the Trade

November 17, 2014 | by

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Foote‘s nib of choice. Photo: Elizabeth, via Flickr

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard that during the middle of writing The Civil War you bought all the dip pens left in the United States.

FOOTE

My favorite pen-point manufacturer had all but gone out of business—Esterbrook. I was running out and fairly desperate. On Forty-fourth Street just east of the Algonquin Hotel, on the other side of the street, there used to be an old stationery shop, all dusty and everything, and I went in there on the chance he might have some. He looked in a drawer. He had what I wanted—Probate 313. I bought several gross of those things, so I’ve got enough pen points to last me out my life and more. Another problem is blotters. When I was a kid and when I was writing back in the forties on into the fifties, you could go into any insurance office and they had stacks of giveaway blotters for advertising.

INTERVIEWER

What precisely is a blotter?

FOOTE

This is a blotter [pointing] and if you haven’t got one you’re up the creek. You use the blotter to keep the ink from being wet on the page. You put the blotter on top and blot the page. I was talking about blotters in an interview, what a hard time I had finding them, and I got a letter from a woman in Mississippi. She said, I have quite a lot of blotters I’ll be glad to send you. So I got blotters galore. Ink is another problem. I got a phone call from a man in Richmond, Virginia who had a good supply of ink in quart bottles. I got three quarts from him, so I’m in good shape on that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you reckon you’re the last writer to be using dip pens in the United States?

FOOTE

There’s probably some other nut somewhere out there doing it.

—Shelby Foote, the Art of Fiction No. 158, 1999

Shelby Foote was born on November 17, 1916, and died in 2005, six years after this interview was published. Though he was a prolific novelist, he remains best known for his three-volume history of the Civil War.

His is one of my favorite Writers at Work interviews, and not coincidentally it’s probably one of the longest—Foote’s three (!) interlocutors find him in a loquacious and expansive mood, such that almost whenever he opens his mouth he seems to speak in wry, eloquent, discursive paragraphs. He declaims on everything from pajamas to the Ku Klux Klan, and he appears to have known more or less every writer of relevance; his anecdotes include the likes of Faulkner, Hemingway, O’Hara, Kubrick, and Walker Percy, among others.

He also relishes the role of gentle, aging eccentric, as evidenced in the passage above. I’ve just spent an embarrassingly long while trying to find the name of the defunct stationery shop he references—no luck. I can report, though, that the Esterbrook Probate 313 is readily available for all your dipping needs, even as blotter paper seems now entirely relegated to the realm of LSD paraphernalia.

The Esterbrook Pen Manufacturing Company, founded by Richard Esterbrook in 1858, was once the oldest and largest manufacturer of steel pens in the United States. A midcentury brochure (“INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT ESTERBROOK STEEL PENS”) notes that the company once turned out more than two hundred million pens a year, “used in every civilized country in the world.” The factory went under in 1972.

“You have to communicate sensation,” Foote said of the writer’s mission,

the belief in what life is, what it’s about, and you do it through learning how to handle a pen. That’s the reason why I have always felt comfortable with the pen in my hand and extremely uncomfortable having some piece of machinery between me and the paper—even a typewriter let alone a word computer, which just gives me the horrors.  

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God, Satan, Waugh

October 28, 2014 | by

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A portrait of Waugh by Carl Van Vechten.

Evelyn Waugh was born today in 1903. You can read his Art of Fiction interview here, but there’s also, courtesy of the Spectator’s seemingly endless archives, this unverified bit of trivia from a letter to the paper sent in 1971:

Sir: Colin Wilson, your reviewer of Graham Greene’s autobiography A Sort of Life quotes from a supposed remark that Evelyn Waugh made to Greene—‘You know, Graham, you’ve made more money out of God than Wodehouse made out of Jeeves.’

I believe there are other versions of this story, although I cannot now remember who told me mine.

A few years ago, while in New York, I was but a stone’s throw from the Algonquin Hotel, Mr. Waugh and Mr. Greene were staying in the hotel. Late in the night Mr. Waugh popped into Mr. Greene’s room where a publisher’s party was still going strong to celebrate another Greene book. At some point during this party Evelyn Waugh announced: ‘You know, Graham, you’ve made more money out of the Devil than I’ve made out of God.’

Apocryphal or otherwise, the story does contain a more typical Waugh bite than the Jeeves analogy.

Michael Hastings

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A Sensual Act

October 16, 2014 | by

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From Die Vorzüge der Windhühner (The Advantages of Windfowl), 1956.

I started writing and drawing at an early age … My first book was a book of poetry and drawings. Invariably the first drafts of my poems combine drawings and verse, sometimes taking off from an image, sometimes from words … With drawing, I am acutely aware of creating something on a sheet of paper. It is a sensual act, which you cannot say about the act of writing. In fact, I often turn to drawing to recover from the writing.
—Günter Grass, the Art of Fiction No. 124, 1991

Happy eighty-seventh to Günter Grass. That “first book” he refers to is Die Vorzüge der Windhühner (The Advantages of Windfowl), from 1956; Princeton’s Graphic Arts Collection has a few of the lithographs on their site. As Martin Esslin writes, “It is hard to tell whether the poems are there to illustrate the drawings, or the drawings to illustrate the poems”—which accords with Grass’s fairly circular description of his process. Here’s another:Read More »

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Love Among the Chickens

October 15, 2014 | by

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INTERVIEWER

Of all the books you’ve written, do you have any favorites?

WODEHOUSE

Oh, I’m very fond of a book called Quick Service and another called Sam in the Suburbs, a very old one. But I really like them all. There are very few exceptions.

—P. G. Wodehouse, the Art of Fiction No. 60, 1975

I wonder how Wodehouse (born today in 1881) came down on Love Among the Chickens, one of his earlier novels and, to my mind, one of his strangest. It is, as its title page quite clearly states, “A Story of the Haps and Mishaps on an English Chicken Farm.” (Wonderful use of haps, there. Why is it that we only hear of mishaps these days?) Read More »

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