Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fiction Writing : A Serious Business.

Wall Street Journal runs a series on how "creators" go about their work. A recent one on American author Philip Roth ( caught my eye and made me reflect on our common understanding of how writers, fiction writers especially, do their craft. Its easy to think of them as exotic, eccentric, idiosyncratic, anything except methodical. We do not think of a fiction writer as doing something akin to a desk job. It never crosses most of our minds that classics would need subject matter research on the professions of their characters.

When Ayn Rand wrote "Fountainhead" with the protagonist as an architect she consulted extensively with Frank Lloyd Wright, yes Wright himself, no less, to get her basics right.  When Roth's character is portrayed as a javelin thrower Roth studied sports DVD'd to get it right. For avid readers of classical fiction Mario Vargas Llosa is well known. I developed an interest in him after the Nobel Prize, especially when I read that he was an uncommon intellectual whose politics, his economic ideas, was pretty much 'republican'. When I hungrily bought his acclaimed books I chanced upon a lesser known collection of essays "A writer's reality". Llosa details how he did research for his celebrated works. The amount of reading, historical research, local research etc gave a wonderful background flavor to his masterpieces.

Llosa's own favorite novel amongst what he wrote was "The war of the end of the world" based on the suppression of Canudos rebellion by Brazilian government ( He was especially interested in how intellectuals, the progressive types, kow-towed the government. He reads avidly and then finally visits Canudos area. In between he had practically re-written the novel, in an era without word-processors.

I had read Irving Wallace's "The Prize", centered around the Nobel Prize, long back. Then one day in a roadside book shop I discovered his "The writing of one novel". The blurb on the cover for "Prize" would state that Wallace took 14 years to write his book. Only when I read his other book did I understand why. Irving got the idea for the plot one evening during an interview with a Nobel committee member who freely shared the inside controversies are that considered sacrosanct. His "writing of one novel", very rich with anecdotes and literary trivia, is practically a biography of a how a book was written, how the characters were fleshed out etc. Wallace cites how Sinclair Lewis wrote "Arrowsmith". "Arrowsmith" portrays an idealistic doctor. Lewis is said to have influenced many an aspiring doctor with that idealistic version. Wallace says that Sinclair Lewis made detailed maps of the hospitals, labs and towns he portrayed (no google earth!!). Wallace quotes Somerset Maugham from "Great Novels and their Novelists", "Tolstoy and Balzac, wrote, rewrote and endlessly corrected".

Jhumpa Lahiri often impressed me with her detailed descriptions of the environs. Whether its Boston or Rome her detailed imagery of the land, the cuisines, the customs etc are a delight to read. V.S. Naipaul would bring to words details about the texture of soil in Pakistan, squalid conditions of tenements in India and Indonesia. Remember he wrote those books when digital cameras, voice recorders, Iphone cameras were not there. I cannot even fathom the painful notes taking.

Also seldom we consider these writers to follow a "routine" in writing. Philip Roth, John Updike, Martin Amis and many others maintain a strict regimen of regular working hours when they are working on a novel. In an interview Updike says that Bernard Shaw had a 5 page quota for each day ( Wallace gives a rich trivia on the writing habits of writers "I realized that most successful writers invest their work with professionalism. From Balzac, who worked six to twelve hours a day, and Flaubert, seven hours a day, and Conrad, eight hours a day, to Maugham, who worked four hours a day...Hemingway, six hours a day, these authors were uniformly industrious". Ah what a conclusion who would associate the word "industrious" with creative fiction writers of the caliber of Maugham and Balzac.

Ayn Rand took 14 years to complete and publish her magnum opus "Atlas Shrugged". Will Durant's masterpiece "The Story Of philosophy" sen out of his lectures took 14 years to reach completion and every page is testimony to a teacher par-excellence. "The story of Philosophy" remains my most loved book.

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