July 29, 2002
Forget Ideas, Mr. Author. What Kind of Pen Do You Use?
Here is a truth to which all writers can attest: Readers are more interested in process than in product.
Authors know this for certain, because authors undergo Trial By Event, "event" being publisher-speak for anything from a chilly book signing in a half-empty general store with one paperback carousel next to the soda cabinet to a grand festival colloquium held before an audience of readers so literary that you just know they have terriers called Scott and Zelda and a parrot called Trilling.
No matter how well read the audience may be, when it comes to the Q&A, it is always the same. After a few polite interrogatory skirmishes for form's sake come the only questions that matter to the reader.
"Do you write in longhand or on a computer?"
If longhand: "Pencil, ballpoint or old-fashioned ink pen?"
If computer: "PC or Mac? Which font do you prefer?"
No doubt if you were to reveal that you dictated your work, there would come a fresh slew of questions. "Into a machine or to a secretary?" "
As it happens I have never heard an author say that he did use dictation; this seems to be a method of the Erle Stanley Gardner generation that has fallen into desuetude. Perhaps the rise of computer speech recognition will change this. But if I did happen to be sharing a festival stage with a literary dictator, I would be fascinated by his answer. You see, writers (perhaps especially writers) want to know how to write, too.
Musicians tend not to face these questions because it is not generally held that everyone has a symphony in him somewhere. Language however belongs to us all. Is there a hint of resentment in readers? "We all speak English. We all write e-mails and letters every day. What's your secret? Just give us enough detail, and we can be inducted into the coterie, too." It is almost as if some people feel that they were off sick or at the dentist's the day the rest of the class was told how to write a book, and that it isn't fair of authors to keep the mystery to themselves.
I exaggerate for effect. Not every reader wants to be a writer, and literary festival audiences are hardly the most reliable sample group from which to extrapolate.
I once shared a stage with Gore Vidal in Manchester, England, which was a very great honor indeed, although he did not appear to appreciate it. No, but, tush. Mr. Vidal was asked if he felt there had ever been an age in recent history that could boast so few good writers as the present. "There are as many good writers as ever there were," he replied, and I wish I could reproduce on the page the trademark patrician Gore-drawl that transforms his lightest remark into a marmoreal epigram. "The problem is that there are so few good readers."
The rise of digital cameras and desktop editing software is starting to create the same effect with filmmaking, by the way. A director is now as likely to be asked by a film fan, "Do you prefer anamorphic or super-35?" or "Do you favor the bleach bypass process?" as once he would be asked, "What's Robert Redford really like?" or "Does Clint do his own stunts?'`
A loss of innocence or a thrilling indication that soon we will all be artists? I don't know. I do know that, as I suggested earlier, writers are just as interested as readers in the trivial detail of another writer's day.
For example, I read somewhere that Graham Greene used to leave his last sentence of the writing day unfinished. In this way he always had something straightforward to do the next morning. I have copied this idea and find that something as simple as completing a sentence works very well as a way of priming the pump at the start of the day. Such a technique doesn't transform one into a literary master any more than growling bad-temperedly, beetling your brows and using an ear trumpet will enable you to write great symphonies, but every little helps.
My latest novel, "Revenge," caused me a very specific hair-raising and sleep-depriving problem. I had planned it out in my head, which is about as much planning I ever do, not being an index-card, scenario or flow-chart sort of a person. It was to be a story of wrongful imprisonment and subsequent vengeance. As I thought the narrative through, a little voice started whispering wicked thoughts into my ear.
"This isn't very original," it would say. "I've heard it before."
At first I didn't pay much attention. When did any of us last read an original story? Original writing is the issue. Treatment is all. But then one night I sat bolt upright in bed and screamed in horror. The truth had suddenly exploded into my consciousness.
The story, the plot I had been working out with such pleasure, was not just unoriginal, it was a straight steal, virtually identical in all but period and style to Alexandre Dumas's "Count of Monte Cristo."
What does a writer do on such occasions? Abandon his narrative and embark upon another? I was already three chapters in, and those authorial juices that takes so long to summon up were flowing nicely. Should I rely on the fact that "The Count of Monte Cristo" is one of those novels that few (myself included at that point) have actually read? I was in one heck of a pickle, let me tell you.
I arose early next day and drove into the medieval university town of Cambridge, where there are more bookshops than people, and bought every copy of the Dumas original I could find, for now a new, more benign voice was whispering in my ear.
"I bet Dumas pinched the story, too."
And sure enough, in an introduction to one of the editions I found came the welcome news that the story of a wrongly imprisoned sailor who escapes the Chateau d'If was, in Dumas's day, a kind of urban legend that he had gratefully lifted.
If we're talking process incidentally, Dumas's publishers paid him by the line. Can you imagine anything so foolish? This is why his work is crammed with dialogue.
"Pass the mustard."
I said, "Pass the mustard."
"You want some custard?"
Each carriage return a happy ring on the cash register.
Anyway, once I was assured in my own mind that the outline of the story was not original to Dumas, I continued with the book, deciding that a "literary reworking" or "homage" was perfectly acceptable, and that I could not in all seriousness be charged with that most unforgivable of literary crimes, plagiarism.
As a further safeguard I changed the names of my protagonists to anagrams of the originals. Thus Edmond DantĖs, who reinvents himself as Monte Cristo, becomes in my story Ned Maddstone, who reinvents himself as Simon Cotter. Baron Danglars is turned into Barson-Garland and so on. Edmond's affianced Mercedes transforms herself (in an unforgivable example of automobile paronomasia) into Portia.
Interestingly, and I had not meant in any way to trap or test, my French translators were the only people to pick up on the story's similarity to Monte Cristo. Since then, in new editions, including the current American one, we have proudly announced the book's connection to Dumas. No one, however, has noticed the jeu d'esprit of anagrams and awful puns. All that work for nothing. If you have an hour or so to kill, you might like to pick up a copy (you can read it on a bookshop sofa, far be it from me vulgarly to hawk for business) and see how many you can spot.
Oh, I use a Mac, by the way. Times Roman, 14 point. Very traditional.