Tag Archives: Paul Auster

Q&A: Aldrich on order & randomness

Marcia Aldrich reflects on her Companion to An Untold Story.

On her book trailer, Aldrich reads from “what was mine to tell.” After my recent review of her memoir, she gave the e-mail interview below to Narrative:

How did you decide upon the “companion” form for your memoir?

A prior version of the book was organized chronologically and told a fuller, more conventional story about Joel. There was, for example, a much longer discussion of his relationship with his brother. At one point I thought I was writing a literary biography of a suicide under the mistaken assumption that if I put together a biography it would provide me with answers as to why he killed himself and what my role in his story was. But each account led me farther away from my subject. This earlier form implied that I had confidently grasped Joel’s life and death, whereas I was haunted by questions. What I discovered at nearly every turn was an inexplicable gap between the gifted man I knew and the man who suffered so many disappointments. Why do some people with modest gifts succeed, while others blessed with ability struggle to survive? Why can you help one person, while another person turns away your help? There are mysteries in this life, and I needed to find a form that allowed me to reveal them in this man, a truer picture of the aftermath of his death, the little pieces that I tried to assemble. What was my experience, my role? I needed to find a way to puzzle through my own unruly and mixed feelings.

There is the story of Joel’s actions and there is the companion story of my actions in response to what his suicide set into motion.  These are not neat strands running in parallel formation, but narratives that cross, tangle, knot, and break.

This fragmentation and entanglement is reflected in the book’s form. It is modeled on an adult’s reference tool and guide to something already known called a “companion” (one of the books my friend gave us, for example, is the Oxford Companion to English Literature). The alphabetical approach imposes a kind of order, but an order that contains randomness within it, an order that undoes order. One thing I have learned is that suicide imposes a narrative on a life. The alphabetical form goes some way in counteracting that narrative inevitability. It is the reader’s task to assemble a story by means of the elements provided in my companion to it. I have also chosen the “companion” form to imply that the story it accompanies has weight, and the subject merits the treatment I give it, as much as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman insists that his subject’s death is worth presentation as a tragedy.

You resist filling in all the blanks, letting some facts emerge but making no attempt at a complete narrative or exhaustive portrait. Was this decision hard to keep to, or natural for you?

What was hard was composing the early versions of the book in which I attempted an exhaustive account of Joel’s life, writing against the grain of what was essentially characterized by gaps, holes, incompleteness. My initial approach was at odds with the shape of Joel’s life. Once I found the right structure and realized what was mine to tell, everything got much easier.

How did you decide what got what treatment, a sentence instead of a page?

In some cases an aphorism came to me that struck a strong spark and seemed complete. Sometimes I worked against what I thought would be the reader’s expectation of a long discussion. Although in my remarks here I’ve emphasized the incompleteness of the story, the reader does need some background to make sense of things, and in some cases the material needed a longer, narrative form—for example, Joel’s history as a student. The fact that I had done the labor of producing a more complete book allowed me the freedom to carve a more nuanced and surprising book out of the material.

I also wanted uncertainty, a variety of tones and lengths, to keep the reader’s ears pricked.

Did you wonder as you worked what Joel would make of your efforts to depict his life, his death, and your relationship?

Over a period of months Joel gave away or disposed of everything he owned. His apartment was empty when he died. I interpret his behavior to mean that he didn’t want to leave any record of himself behind. On that point I am defying his last wishes. I refuse to erase Joel from the records of the living, from love’s ledger, as I put in the Companion. We may not be able to save people from disaster, but we can remember and honor them—that is the intention behind my writing.

I hope he would not say, were he to look over the book, that I’ve badly misrepresented him.

What did you learn in the writing process?

That writing isn’t emotionally cathartic! At least, I’m not a great success story for the therapeutic model. I can still go to pieces talking about Joel’s death. Recording the voice-over for the book trailer was pure misery. I was stepping back into the tangled mess of my emotions once again. I’ve learned that you don’t get to the end of any powerful experience and are done with it. Part of the reason I employed a system of cross reference in the book—a forward sweep that is simultaneously looping backwards, is to suggest there’s always another ripple in this dying business, in this business of feeling.  Thus, even the final entry returns the reader back to the beginning through its cross references.

I have, nonetheless, over the years achieved a measure of acceptance, even admiration, of what Joel did.

What works inspired you?

Marcia Aldrich’s “holy book”

In writing I found myself returning to my modernist training. I thought about the great quoting poems of modernism: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, and Marianne Moore. Samuel Beckett is never far from my mind. I read Krapp’s Last Tape every year.

Closer to my time and within the field of memoir I have learned from Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir—a holy book to me.


Filed under Author Interview, memoir, modernism/postmodernism, structure

Unrolling those narrative threads

“We construct a narrative for ourselves, and that’s the thread we follow from one day to the next. People who disintegrate as personalities are the ones who lose that thread.”—Paul Auster

A friend who is writing a complex book on evolution has been inspired by watching his artist daughter screen-printing layers of a picture successively in different colors, so that the image gradually emerges organically as a whole. He’s realized he needs similarly to line out his ideas slowly, giving readers the tools necessary to understand his theory’s major revelations deep into the book, as opposed to “describing each of the parts separately in detail, which just doesn’t work.”

Narrative literature must bring readers along, too, and for similar metabolic reasons. Multiple storylines are a commonplace in drama and comedy—watch almost any movie—and sometimes there are current-action threads while past threads move, in successive flashbacks, toward the present: How did that screwed-up guy or gal get there?

I’ve struggled with tugging along more than two storylines, however, in a book-length work. I can keep the main narrative unfolding across many chapters, maybe with a related subplot—a reappearing villain, say—but want to tie off other threads as they arise. Introduce them, wrap them up, get them over with. Snip! This is because I feel I’m already doing a lot in a chapter, and shoving one more thing into it seems to imperil its shapely arc. Sometimes, I think, a thread must be used in a discrete heap. But maybe then it’s not really a thread? And too much of such summary turns narrative essayistic, in the old-fashioned sense—bloodless.

I like narrative, event sequence leading to incidents that culminate in a big incident. But readers need to experience, with the main character or characters, all threads develop if they are going to feel the emotions the writer desires. This is how it happens in life too: ongoing issues and layers of backstory keep moving into the present. Rarely does something arise out of nothing. The car with bald tires wrecked at least partly because you were broke because of your troubled friend and because, two years ago, your dumb brother-in-law got you a deal on those tires, a deal, you learn, that really benefitted him . . .

Unroll all those threads over the course of a larger narrative and, wham, what a payoff the reader receives, when the car wrecks, for all that you’ve shown across 300 pages. It took me an embarrassingly long time to see that leaving out any element from the prior narrative, such as that mendacious brother-in-law, greatly dilutes the climax. His role cannot be revealed and wrapped up when the car wrecks without the reader feeling distanced or cheated.

Feeding the threads out inch by inch is both difficult to do and rich, conceptually and emotionally, for readers. To pull  all the strings, a writer must see clearly his main threads—surely defined as those connected directly to climaxes—and bring them along steadily. There’s much craft and artifice to this, unfolding while steadily and consciously withholding, and readers love writers for it.

An example in nonfiction is Jon Karakauer’s Into the Wild, as well as the movie Sean Penn made from it, which shrewdly dramatizes the book’s twin-story parallel structure. The ostensible main narrative is of Alex steadily dying of starvation in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. There’s a flashback thread, magically vivid in the movie, of his road adventures that took him ever-closer to the bus: he tests himself dangerously by kayaking through whitewater rapids and repeatedly turns his back on promising human relationships. A recurring thread set farther in the past explores his difficult early family life.

It fascinates me how much we get invested in the thread that gets Alex to the bus, when that setting constitutes the story’s present action and is the only thing “really” happening. But the bus is boring compared with Alex’s past adventures on the road, plus his disturbed childhood explains his final wilderness ordeal more than anything. There’s actually very little action in the “now” of Alaska compared with the long physical and emotional journey toward it. And those backstory threads within Into the Wild connect directly to the death of the smart, ascetic idealist who realizes, too late, that he must rejoin humankind for the meaning that he craves. All story elements support the same theme and form a whole that resonates.

Such thematic and event layering works beautifully but doesn’t happen accidentally. It takes work and conscious craft. Even then, there are no guarantees. A novelist once defined a novel as “a book with something wrong with it.” And in her 1989 New York Times essay “Write Till You Drop,” quarried from her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says, “Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too—the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed.”

So, it appears, I’ve noticed my latest impossible task: driving more story threads through a larger narrative, so that they run along with the main story, without creating a worse problem than what I’ve already got. To fix this flaw I’ve got to pull apart a bowl of spaghetti—making a mess of what I so carefully built. The result may work better but will be a different book, one surely with its own unique blemish.

Yet, Saint Annie promises, “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.”


Filed under audience, braids, threads, Dillard—Saint Annie, emotion, evolutionary psychology, narrative, structure, theme

Prose: hot, fresh & handmade

The above is Gay Talese’s outline for his famous “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”—which Esquire named the best article it has ever published. I was struck by its childlike creativity when I saw it in the Summer 2009 issue of the Paris Review, and it and the journal’s interview with Talese are now on line. His working method is idiosyncratic: writing notes and detailed outlines on the thin cardboard that comes with new men’s shirts. He also supposedly peers at his typed pages, pinned to the wall, through binoculars.

I was reminded of Talese’s playful or at least colorful approach by a recent story in the Wall Street Journal about the composition process of prominent writers, mostly novelists. Of seventeen writers, eight compose initially by hand, and Margaret Atwood alternates between handwriting and typing. Five compose at the keyboard. One, Richard Powers, lounges in bed and speaks into a computer that recognizes his voice. For two writers, their method wasn’t made clear.

But add Talese and John Irving, mentioned in a recent post, and handwriting first drafts seems more common than one would suppose in this age of the computer. And brainstorming and planning seem heavily skewed toward the sketched, pasted, storyboarded, jotted and otherwise handmade. Such organizing efforts themselves result in works of art.

I wonder if this is changing, with so many kids growing up keyboarding. But there’s something about that tactile connection—words are evidence of a way of thinking and seeing and feeling—and computers are cold and mechanical. In adolescence, I got the idea that the real pros typed, especially after I went to work as a journalist for a dozen years. We pounded out stories! Art takes time, though, drawing on the brain’s shy intuitive and wary unconscious realms.

Obviously many fine writers do this work at the keyboard, but just as obviously, many don’t. Poking around the web on this writing-process question, I was surprised by the allegiance of some writers to typewriters for first drafts. It made me nostalgic—I wrote on manual typewriters at my first two newspapers. Although I embraced the ease of computers when they came, I miss the crisp keystroke of a good manual.

Harlan Ellison, prolific science fiction writer and typewriter holdout, spoke for other typewriter users, and perhaps for hand-writers, when he said on his web page, “Making it easier, I think, is invidious. It is a really BAD thing. Art is not supposed to be easier! There are a lot of things in life that are supposed to be easier. Ridding the world of heart attacks, making the roads smoother, making old people more comfortable in the winter, but not Art. Art should always be tough. Art should demand something of you. Art should involve foot-pounds of energy being expended. It’s not supposed to be easier, and those who want it easier should not be artists. They should be out selling public relations copy.”

Paul Auster is famous for relying on a typewriter. But in his interview with the Paris Review, he made clear his initial process is even more hands-on: “I’ve always written by hand. Mostly with a fountain pen, but sometimes with a pencil—especially for corrections. If I could write directly on a typewriter or a computer, I would do it. But keyboards have always intimidated me. I’ve never been able to think clearly with my fingers in that position. A pen is a much more primitive instrument. You feel that the words are coming out of your body, and then you dig the words into the page. Writing has always had a tactile quality for me. It’s a physical experience.”

Annie Dillard, in an interview with NPR, indicated that the decade-long composition of her novel The Maytrees was traumatic—near the end, she cut about 1,000 pages to arrive at a book of a little more than 200—and blamed the computer’s ease, in part: “A story should be simplified and enlarged. Instead the computer dilutes it, spreads it all over the place. It muffles any impact it might have had as the poor reader makes his way through billions of unnecessary paragraphs about billions of unnecessary things.”

Meanwhile a friend of mine, the author of several books, loves his computer—the one he uses for writing isn’t connected to the Internet, to keep him focused—because his process involves thinking, playing around, and exploring at the keyboard. Amidst one of my recent typewriter fantasies (my handwriting is ugly, so when I think of doing something more tactile it’s often a return to typing first drafts), I asked another writer if he missed typewriters. Heavens no, he said. “Computer writing is much more spontaneous and creative, for me anyway.”

Yet, a few years ago at a conference, I heard a panel of first-time novelists describe their method. A commonality seemed to be initial, partial composition by hand—and writing “islands,” the good stuff, ignoring narrative bridges. I got the sense that many moved to the keyboard after the book’s tone was set in fifty or 100 pages.

There’s no formula, but each writer’s task is to find what works in his case. Art is intensely personal. And so must the artist be.


Filed under craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, discovery, fiction, working method