Interview, May 1, 2012
Interviewer: Rob Neufeld
Q: What mode are you in now with your new novel?
A: I’m in a composing and finishing mode because I’m writing this book under contract, and I’ll turn in a rough draft in December. I’ve done a lot of research, and I keep doing research, as I go along and narrow my questions. With this one, I’ve done a lot of plotting ahead of time. I’m working from a pretty detailed plot summary. That doesn’t mean I always know where it’s going. Part of the obvious pleasure of writing fiction is the surprises. Every now and then, a new character emerges or I stumble on something in my research that points to something I want to write a scene about. I also make a lot of notes. Many of the writers I’ve talked with over the years also keep a notes file. I have a notes file that’s probably 40 or 50 pages single-spaced at this point. That includes all kinds of things that are not plot outlines, but that I want to make sure I cover in the book, or explore.
Q: So that’s in a Word document format.
A: Yes. I’m really constantly working from several different documents. Of course, I have the text of my novel, and I have my great big notes files, then I have my plot outline, and I also keep a running log of the work hours I put in. I’m always curious about how long it really takes to write a novel, and that’s such an amorphous thing, even if you’re working for hours every day.
Q: How long does it take?
A: I don’t know yet. (laughs) I have to admit—I should do this, but I’ve never gone through and added up all up all of the hours for my previous books, but maybe I’ll try to do that before we have our talk. Hundreds to thousands of hours, obviously.
Q: Well, get your amanuensis to do that for you.
A: Oh, yeah, right.
Q: Let’s go back to the time that the idea for this novel first came to you in some form. How long ago was that?
A: I had the idea for this novel four years ago. I was still busy with “The Swan Thieves,” but a year later, as my work publicizing “The Swan Thieves” started to settle down, I started this novel. I’ve been writing it for almost three years.
Q: That’s really nice that you had something already to go, to bloom, when you were ready to work on the next one.
A: That was wonderful thing. I usually have too many ideas for books rather than too few, and it’s really a matter of finding or choosing one that feels hefty enough to be a novel for that investment of time.
Q: The first thing a writer needs is a good seed.
E: And you really have to be honest with yourself about that. I think sometimes we4 have ideas that we think could make a book, but we know deep down there’s something not big enough about the idea, or not right about it.
Q: What was the initial idea or ideas?
E: It’s a little embarrassing. I actually had a dream that inspired this book. That’s something we could talk about in the interview on stage. I think it might be interesting for other writers because a lot of writers use their dreams in some way, or are tempted to use their dreams, or keep logs of dreams; and some writers ignore dreams altogether. I’ve rarely had a dream that resulted in work, and I’m always a little wary—I think dreams have their own logic that often doesn’t work in fiction. But in this case, I had been wrestling with a big body of material about my experience and reading over the years about Bulgaria, especially in the twentieth century, the Bulgaria I’ve spent 20 years of my life visiting, off and on, and getting to know. I started thinking about using that material. I wanted to use it somehow. And I was thinking about writing a non-fiction book about Bulgaria, kind of a literary memoir/travelogue with a lot of historical research and geography thrown in. There really isn’t quite a book like that in English. I would fill a little niche, and would be something I could bring experience and research to. But it just didn’t feel quite compelling. That kind of book is a tremendous amount of watching work, and you have to have a lot of leisure to travel to do it. You have to re-travel to make a book like that thoroughly accurate. And that’s pretty hard in my life—to do that kind of extended, almost guidebook travel. You also have to be in a non-fiction mode. I really enjoy writing non-fiction. I write an essay or two almost every year, sometimes for a lecture, sometimes for a publication, and I put a lot of serious work into those projects, but a non-fiction book is a big undertaking. I had a dream one night that put me right in the middle of a scene that I knew was the opening of a novel that used all this material—a very dramatic opening, and a story I’d never seen before, but it fit this material perfectly. Then I dreamed, not event by event, but a kind of journey for the center of the book; and I dreamed the final scene, which was also very dramatic. These were characters that I’d never seen before, and it was very vivid; and, in my dream, I knew that it was a novel. And then I dreamed that I saw the book lying on a shelf. It was a tattered paperback. I’m happy to say it was tattered because someone had been reading it. I could see it lying horizontally on a shelf, and I could read the title. And the title was perfect for these characters. So, I woke up from that dream, I jumped out of bed, I sat down and wrote four or five pages of notes so I wouldn’t forget anything because you know how dreams fade so quickly, even if you don’t want them to. I went back to it later wondering if it would be useful because often a dream makes so much sense, and then you revisit it and you think, “That’s completely illogical.” But it actually made sense as a plot, and I based my plot summary on the dream, and I’ve been working from that almost three years now; and it never stopped working. It was a remarkable experience. It is a little embarrassing. “I had a dream…” It’s become a problem for me because I had the idea for my first novel, standing on top of a mountain, which is almost as embarrassing as having a dream.
Q: Well, that is an incredible story, Thomas DeQuincy.
A: (laughs) Actually, there were no substances involved.
Q: I understand. But the dream, that was one continuous dream.
A: Yeah. I don’t expect it ever to happen again.
Q: Can you say the title?
A: Actually, I’ve been keeping that under my hat because it is under contract, and even when you think a title is great, sometimes your editor doesn’t.
Q: So when you finally had the time to write this, there really wasn’t any question about whether you should commit to this story or any other.
A: You know, I already felt committed to it. I think that was because I had been churning the raw material for it over in my mind already. I knew the background material I would use. But the dream gave me the characters and a lot of the plot.
Q: Let’s talk about The Swan Thieves. There doesn’t seem to be a dream or mountaintop experience involved in this. There seems to be a very strong theme—the theme of the artist personality, and particularly the woman artist. Was the theme the big thing?
A: You mean as an initial idea?
A: It began much more abstractly than my other two books, as an exploration most of all of two things. One of them, I had wanted for a long time, in an abstract way, to write a book about a painter or an artist. A couple of people had commented to me that they really felt, from reading a description of a painting in “The Historian,” that I really liked to write about art, and create a painting on a page. That was true. I really enjoyed writing that scene. I thought about that, and I thought about my lifelong desire to write a novel about an artist. Over the years, I’ve admired other novels about artists very much. It was something I wanted to try my hand at. And the second factor was a kind of vision of a character, and that character was not one of the female artists, but the character of Robert Oliver, the 20th century artist at the heart of the book. I imagined a painter who would be a central figure, but whose figure would be built up by other people’s voices because he would never be allowed to speak for himself. So there was also an abstract, literary experiment at the heart of this book. There’s this character who’s larger than life, but he’s silent. So everyone else is going to express his life for the reader. That was something else I wanted to try my hand at. It was an opportunity to try to do a couple of things that had interested me for a long time. Then, out of that I began to build character, and setting, and all of those things. But it really began as a couple of abstractions that I tied together with pieces of string and worked from.
Q: That makes us focus on what’s so fascinating about Robert, and as it turns out, it’s his fascination with something else, the unfulfilled woman artist.
A: Yes, and painting cut short. In his own life, painting is almost cut short because of his own mental ups and downs. When you write a novel, you’re faced with a lot of logical problems, especially if you write a novel that is an exploration of events. One of the first problems I had to solve was—alright, I have this man who doesn’t speak. Why does he not speak? The question that had driven “The Historian” for me was, “Why would Dracula be listening to stories told about him in the 20th century?” So, what is the reason I could give for making this painter silent? I sort of had the silence in myself. And, of course, that reason turned out to be this kind of breakdown he had, fueled by his obsession with another artist’s life. So even though it’s a very psychological novel, I think there was a lot of logical problem-solving that went into starting a novel in an abstract way. When you start a novel with a whole set of characters, something that happened, you don’t have to add in as much. Starting with a couple of abstractions is very challenging.
Q: You are so clear and substantial about how writers work.
A: Well, thank you. You know the way writers work is something I always loved to read about and hear about from other people. I think if we can put together a presentation that is really of interest to people who are working with craft issues, that would be really delightful, I think. I always enjoy being present at that kind of discussion myself because we all need to hear about the way writers set out on a project.
Q: We might get some writers in the audience wanting to know about their writing challenges of the moment. Well, let’s talk about the development of a theme. We could talk about developing the idea of the artist. Or we can talk about what happened when you decided that Leda and the swan was going to be a primary image, and started developing the parts of the novel connected with that?
A: Which one would you like?
Q: I’m leaning toward Leda because it’s a new topic. But you can choose.
A: Leda came along a little bit later as I was putting this together. First, I chose the Impressionists. Actually, the Impressionists hadn’t painted Leda. They were breaking away from the Classical themes of paintings that had preceded them; and it was the post-Impressionists who went back to some of those themes with a new, very different stylistic take. I had started to get interested in swans as a motif through the history of art; and the legend of Leda and the swan is such a powerful commentary on male and female mythologies. It’s a violent story, but it’s also the story of creation, and it’s also this strange meeting of person and animal. It’s a myth that says, Well, the male and the female are so different that they’re almost like different species. That’s one reason that myth has fascinated artists. It’s so full of complex ideas. But I also wanted something that would show what difficult lives a lot of woman painters led in the 19th century. There were many successful 19th century woman painters, but they had to be very courageous socially—especially in France, which was quite conservative—to paint, display their work, and as we discussed before, a painter like my fictional creation, Beatrice de Clerval, would not even be allowed to paint unchaperoned, either to sketch in museums or to paint landscapes. They had to be part of a family party or a chaperoned situation to do that. I wanted a myth that was dramatic and part of the history of art, and also had an echo of beauty and the attack on the feminine. It’s just a myth that crops up over and over again in the history of art, and I thought it would be great one to use. The more I read about swans, and the imagery of swans, the more I noticed them everywhere. They’re really a powerful part of our visual culture. It was kind of like the experience I had thinking about dragons (in “The Historian”), and how the image of the dragon has come down to us from the Middle Ages, and had many revivals over the years, including this recent one. It was the chance to take another archetypal image and try to make something personal and concrete out of it.
Q: I can understand your keeping so many files. It’s like: “Why did I say that word? Now I have to research it.” The settings in your books—there are many in “The Historian,” and there are also many in “”The Swan Thieves.” For instance, Acapulco. When you get to Acapulco, do you say, “Now I have to research Acapulco. I’ve got to make a trip.”
A: Frequently, I have notes from places I’ve been, and I back those up with research. I don’t often have the flexibility to just pick up and go back to a place. I do try to use places I have knowledge of, and I do try to make settings as accurate as I can. In the case of Acapulco, I had been there once, and I certainly didn’t go back to research that, although that would have been a nice assignment. But I had some publisher friends who live in Acapulco, and I wrote to them, and said, “I’ve written these chapters out of my memory, and using research and photographs, but could you just read these two chapters for me, and see if there’s anything I’ve said here that’s really not right.” They very graciously read the chapters and said, “We think you’ve got everything right except the drinks that the elderly artist serves in Acapulco. He would serve something different, and here’s what it is. Other people can be such a resource for novelists. In my experience, people are almost always generous to a novel with their own expertise.
Q: And Acapulco had a resonance for you, and you were able to use it in a way that supported the mood and the set-up you were creating.
A: The one place I did go in “The Swan Thieves,” and I really felt I needed to, and of course it was no chore, but I did go to France for ten days. I did that after I had written the first draft so that I would have carefully narrowed research questions. I went to Paris and to some of the villages on the Seine where the Impressionists found that they could go and live very cheaply, very simply, and paint wonderful landscapes in Normandy. I then went out to the coast and looked very carefully at Étretat, the coastal town that appears in the book. I took a lot of photographs. That was one of the first times I’d ever gone deliberately to places I wanted to include. I had never been to Étretat, but I had studied it, read about it, looked at paintings of it. I went there as a researcher with a camera and notebook and questions, almost the way you would as a journalist. That was a great experience. There were a lot of things I found there that I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t gone there in person.
Q: I was going to say, “And how did that work for you, as Dr. Phil says,” but it sounds like it worked well. What was one of those things that you found?
A: One of the things was the sound. Sound is one of the hardest things to get out of a place unless you go there. When you go to a place in person, you hear what it sounds like, and that’s hard to get in an accurate way from a movie, even from a documentary. One of the sounds in Étretat is this incredible sound of the water of the channel pulling these big slate stones back from the beach with every outgoing wave. The beach is not sand, but mostly shale, stones that have been worn down for thousands of years. When they’re pulled back, they make a rattling, almost metallic sound. It’s very loud, and if you have your window open at night, you hear this huge rattling sound of thousands of pounds of stone being pulled backward on the beach. Some of them are big stones, but there’s gravel, a mix of sizes, and it makes this very special sound. And that, I put in the book, and it’s something I never would have known if I hadn’t shown up in person. I think that kind of concrete detail, which you might well want for an article or a travel book, is absolutely essential to a novel. You can’t ask your readers to be in a place without giving them a sensory experience of that place.