By Eric Olsen
A while back, writer/book reviewer Diane Prokop conducted an extensive interview with Eric and ran a portion of it on her website. She has since decided to take time off from blogging to complete her first novel. Naturally, we applaud her decision and wish her success. But she asked some pretty cool questions, and it seemed a shame to let them forever languish in literary limbo. So . . . voilà! (Couldn’t resist sinking our teeth into the vampire thing again, but that’s the only repeat)
Why are there so many books about vampires? Where did that trend come from and will it ever go away?
I think all trends have a finite shelf life, but the vampire trend seems to have a remarkably long shelf life. Maybe like a Twinkie or Krispy Kreme donut, the vampire novel will never get stale.
Still, the current vampire mania may be cooling off. Not long ago I was in a small indie bookstore where the staff actually read books and can talk about them and I got into a discussion of vampire novels with the guy working behind the counter. I allowed as how I wished I could have found a way to work some vampires into We Wanted to be Writers, and the chap I was talking with said maybe it was just as well, as it was his sense, as a book seller, that the market was saturated and we were due for some new trend——unicorns, maybe, he suggested.
Still, as I say, I don’t think we’ll ever see a complete end to novels with vampires. I think the popularity of vampire novels derives from the fact that they’re a way of writing about politics without being overtly political, which usually leads to boring, unless, of course you happen to be Leo Tolstoy. Vampires are a code. What was Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula but a member of his era’s one per-centers? And today? Same thing, the one per-centers who have been and still are sucking the life blood out of our economy and our culture. What puzzles me is that no one has written a vampire novel yet that features Mitt Romney as a bloodsucker. Bain Capital, anyone? Hmm….
Or how about a “historical” vampire novel that looks at the disastrous Dubya administration as a coven of vampires? (Do vampires have covens? A horde of vampires? How about a fraternity? Like Yale’s Skull and Bones? There’s a thought….) But I don’t mean to suggest that Dubya himself was a vampire; he was too dumb, surely; don’t vampires always seem to be smarter than mortals? Rather, I’m talking about Dick Cheney. Clearly a vampire. Dubya was merely the bug-eating, mortal vampire-wannabe Renfield to Cheney’s Dracula. But Dubya lacked Renfield’s rudimentary conscience.
How has novel writing changed since you studied at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop? Or has it?
I suppose I can only speak for myself and my own writing. So has my novel writing changed since I studied at Iowa? Absolutely. Most of my writing over the past 30 years has been nonfiction, done for a buck, and that process remains more or less unchanged: you gotta write or you don’t get paid. So you write. But through the years, I’ve always been nibbling away at one novel or another at the same time. And that process for me has changed significantly.
In my past forays into novel writing, I’ve always been great at starts; I’d churn out a dozen pages, or three or four dozen, and then I’d make the same mistake again and again: I’d go back and read what I’d written. At which point my internal editor, a vicious bastard, would take over and decide what I’d written sucks and so I’d start again and rewrite the life out of it, or I’d chuck the whole damned thing and start another novel I’d never finish. Thus, while I’ve written hundreds of magazine articles and six nonfiction books in the past 30 years, I’ve finished only one novel, about which the less said the better (my vicious bastard internal editor was right on that one).
But no more. I hope….
Now I’m sitting down every day first thing to write fiction, and only fiction. Now I’m “privileging” my fiction, to use a rather worn-out term. An hour a day, minimum, or better yet two or three. No emailing, no calls, no talking for that hour or three. Just writing. And no looking back at what I did yesterday or a week ago or a month ago. No letting my internal editor tell me it sucks, no tossing it in a file drawer and starting over. That may come later, sure, but only after I have a complete first draft, with an actual beginning, middle, and end. I’ll view that as a significant accomplishment, no matter what my internal editor says.
What would you tell a writer starting today?
In doing the interviews for We Wanted to be Writers, one pattern I noticed among the writers who actually got stuff done and published were the writers who sat down every day and wrote. They privileged their writing, like I’m trying now. No matter what else they had to do on any given day to pay the rent, they still made time to write. I think that is absolutely the most important thing a writer starting today can do. Keep the momentum going. Keep at it. Every day. Butt in chair.
And I would also tell the writer starting out today to read widely. Most of the writers I know who made it, and made it big, are compulsive readers. If they’re not writing, they’re reading. Of course, Jane Smiley also rides horses. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she reads while riding….
What encouragement can you give writers who don’t go through an MFA program?
First, congrats! Who needs an MFA? Of course, one nice thing about going through an MFA program is that you get two or three years to concentrate on your writing, and maybe even get paid to concentrate on your writing if you get into a program that offers scholarships—assuming you can discipline yourself when it comes to drinking in all those bars any good college town will have. I think for perhaps too many young writers in this country the path of college to writing program to some sort of teaching gig tends to eliminate much in the way of life experience. I think writers who don’t spend those two or three years in a workshop, but who spend that time traveling, working, meeting people, might end up with something more interesting to say than the usual fare of dysfunctional families, middle-class angst, and lost love. And vampires, of course.
What is the one quality that every successful writer possesses?
See my answer above, re sitting down every day and writing something. It’s all about time spent with butt in chair. Even if no words are coming, at least you’re available should a good idea present itself.
Name an author who takes a lot of risks.
A glib answer would be that any author takes a lot of risks simply by trying to write; writing’s all about risks of one kind or another: financial, emotional, or artistic, trying to make something new.
A less glib answer would be: Abraham Verghese. I thought Cutting for Stone was terrific. It has a plot and it’s written in clear prose. I think a lot of writers, especially “literary” writers, use a lot of convoluted “literary” language and an absence of a comprehensible plot to avoid exposing themselves, and their weaknesses, or the fact they don’t really have anything very interesting to say. With the added benefit that if their prose is sufficiently incomprehensible and the plot sufficiently opaque, or better yet completely absent, it might be deemed “literature” by those in the academy who deem such things. This isn’t to say that Verghese isn’t a literary writer. I think he is. But “literary” in a good sense: he tells a good story, he shows us other cultures and other peoples, plus he takes on social and political issues without flinching
Is it possible to write a best seller that is also a great book that for instance James Wood would approve of? Name one.
See above re Cutting for Stone. I think it made the NY Times best-seller lists. I like to think Woods would have liked it. And if he didn’t? Who cares? I did.
What do you think of Wood’s term “hysterical realism?”
I think I like it. If I understand it. I think he’s describing the sort of books I have in mind in my above answer about writers using a lot of words in a convoluted prose style plus an absence of comprehensible plot to avoid having to tell a story, which ain’t easy.
What role do you see book bloggers filling in the literary world?
I think they help create a sense of that sort of community I mentioned above, which I think writers need to be part of to work and thrive. Book bloggers tell what’s going on “out there” in the world of contemporary writing. They make connections. Like neural connections in the brain. The more neural connections you have, the better you can think. Likewise with bloggers, the more bloggers out there writing about authors and books, the more connections among writers and readers, the richer the literary culture.
What do you think of the genre Young Adult?
I’m not sure I can offer an opinion on that, as I haven’t read any of what’s thought of these days as “Young Adult” fiction. But in general I think any reading is good, even reading of books that we adults might not approve of. Maybe especially those books.
I first got interested in reading and writing as a kid and adolescent, and then even as a young and then a not-so-young adult, by reading science fiction. And only science fiction. My teachers did not approve, which made it all the more enticing. I don’t suppose my parents approved, either, but at least I was reading and not hanging out on the corner with the neighborhood punks smoking cigarettes and playing with switchblades. A lot of the stuff I was reading as a kid would today be classified as “young adult,” I suspect. A lot of it was bad and I loved it all. As an aside, a surprising number of the writers I interviewed for We Wanted to Be Writers said they also first got hooked on books and on writing by reading science fiction as kids. Except Jane Smiley, of course, who got hooked on horse books.
Why do you read books?
A good book gives pleasure, above all. And I might learn something. Plus, since I’m trying to be a writer, reading is an essential part of the endeavor.
How much time do you spend reading books?
Less than I should. I think to be a writer, you have to be a reader, and a voracious one at that. I need to read more.
Do you have certain criteria that you use to judge whether a book is good?
I enjoy books that have clear prose and comprehensible plots. I like story. I’m talking about fiction here. But the same applies to nonfiction, generally: clear writing and a point to it. In truth, I read more nonfiction than fiction these days, especially right now as the novel I’m hoping I might actually finish is historical, so I’m reading a lot for background.
I find myself not finishing books that have a lot of self-consciously literary prose (books that would fall into the category Woods defines as hysterical realism). I was a magazine editor for many years and developed an appreciation for how difficult it is to produce clear, tight writing without a lot of excess words and that states the facts, but in a readable and entertaining fashion. It’s much easier to simply blather all over the page, a great way of covering up the fact you maybe don’t have much to say or know what you’re talking about. I know this is a rather narrow-minded view, but these are my criteria.
What do you read when you need comfort?
Murder mysteries or political thrillers, the more convoluted the plots the better, with a tough-guy protagonist and lots of blood.
What’s the last book you read that you thought was five stars?
Cutting for Stone.
Name the author whose book you are most looking forward to reading. Even if it hasn’t been written.
What is your writing schedule?
See above: fiction, first thing in the morning before I’m too awake, but after coffee, of course. Nonfiction, most of the rest of the day. I often try to go back to the fiction near the end of the day, just to jot down a thought or two, should a thought or two come along, by way of setting up the next day’s work.
What are you working on now?
I’m always working on several things at once. A little ADD, maybe? Could be…. There’s the fiction first thing each morning—a novel, historical, as I mentioned. No vampires, though, but maybe I need to rethink that decision.
I’m also working on a revision and update of a nonfiction book I wrote and had published 15 years ago, about exercise, health, and longevity—I used to be a medical writer. And I’m editing a novel by a friend. And working on some copy for a website devoted to a documentary about the life and work of Dr. Stanley Krippner, a psychologist who for the past 40 years has investigated dreams and what he calls “anomalous experiences” such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition. Very interesting stuff. And I’m working on the first annual Best of Books by the Bed from our website.
What is your proudest writing accomplishment?
I think I’m my own harshest critic (see above re: internal editor, vicious bastard), so it’s hard for me to say. Still, I think We Wanted to Be Writers has its moments.
Tell me what can and can’t be taught with regard to writing.
We talk at some length about this in We Wanted to Be Writers, and there’s some disagreement among the folks I interviewed for the book, but I think there is a general consensus that a good teacher can keep a young writer from wasting time by pointing out tendencies that weaken the prose. A good teacher can maybe speed up the maturation process.
For most of us at Iowa in the mid-70s, though, the consensus seems to be that we weren’t so much taught as we learned, and mostly from our peers, usually over pitchers of warm, flat beer at The Mill or one of the many other good bars and burger joints in town. But sometimes we learned something from the examples the faculty or visiting writers presented, “habits of art,” how to be a writer, in that the folks who came through as visiting faculty were usually big time, and so we studied them, and saw how very hard they worked, and how they devoted themselves completely to their work… until late afternoon, that is, when the drinking would usually start. And so we learned from them that if we wanted to make it, we had to work just as hard and be just as devoted. Until late afternoon, anyway.
What is your theory about creativity?
That it’s a process. One thing I noticed doing the interviews for We Wanted to Be Writers is that while each writer adapts the process to his or her own circumstances and inclinations, the basic process seems to have the same broad structure for all of us. Successful writers seem to be those who trust the process and don’t get in the way of it. And of course who also spend a lot of time with butt in chair, working, which is at the heart of the process.
If you had a do-over, what would you do differently with regard to your writing life?
Maybe not giving up so soon on one or two of the novels I started but never finished. Trusting my own instincts more, listening a little less to my internal editor, the vicious bastard.
Would you rather write a bestseller or a long-seller?
Long-seller, for sure.
Will there be a sequel to We Wanted to be Writers?
I’ve been thinking about this lately. I thought it might be interesting to do the same sort of thing but with a much younger group of writers, by way of finding out how they’ve adapted to the present literary environment.
Let me get back to you after our panel at AWP on “What We Wish We’d Known” before—and after—attending a graduate writing program. The next generation will be there, presumably with some very interesting input.
Pick your favorite question/s and share your response/s. You’re among friends.