What’s your writing routine?
Well, like the nineteenth-century novelist Balzac, I get up early, really early, usually around 3. Unlike Balzac, though, I have avoided (so far) spilling coffee on my manuscripts. (I grind my coffee beans the night before so I don’t wake up my wife.) Typically, I’ll write or edit or incubate ideas until around 8, break for breakfast (how clever!) and sit-ups and walking the dogs, then start writing again from 9 to noon, then break for lunch and rollerblading and walking the dogs, then write again from 1 to 5. By that time, I’m pretty much fried and supremely ready for a nice tall Balvenie 12-year-old single-malt scotch, with lowfat gouda and raw almonds on the side. Then watch some cable news or a ballgame, cook a gourmet dinner with my wife, knock off around 9:30, and start all over again the next morning at 3 or so.
How did you get into writing novels?
I’ve always loved writing, but before 1994, I never considered it as a full-time way to make a living. Prior to that, I was a French professor for eleven years, during which time I wrote over fifty articles and four books, primarily on nineteenth- and twentieth-century French poetry. Then for eleven years, I was in advertising, first as a copywriter, then a Creative Director at a number of New York ad agencies, writing print ads and radio and TV commercials. Both very different types of writing, but in a strange way, both very useful to me when I write fiction.
Then, I began writing nonfiction books about sports for another ten years before I wrote my first novel. That was a pretty big risk, financially and otherwise, but one I’ve never regretted. And now that I’m writing novels, it’s hard to see ever going back to writing in other genres, but strangely, those experiences were very helpful, in terms of discipline and creativity, to my fiction writing.
What would you do if you couldn’t write?
Perish the thought! Happily, I’ve had two professions before I began to write books that I enjoyed immensely: I was a French professor (at Harvard, Purdue, and Ohio State) for eleven years, and after that, I was a writer in advertising for eleven years. So I have no desire to do anything else for the duration of my life. And no regrets about what I’ve done in the past. A nice situation, if you ask me.
Writing is that rare vocation that, if you really, really love it and are willing to make personal sacrifices and persevere despite rejection and struggle, pays you back a thousandfold in joy and satisfaction. And it never occurs to you at all that there’s anything else you’d rather be doing or could be doing instead.
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it best, I think, in Letters to a Young Poet: “No one can help or advise you—no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”
Do you wait to finish writing a book before you start thinking about your next book?
No. For me, it’s impossible to turn off the creative faucet. (Maybe that’s why I, along with many other people, from what I can tell, find thinking in the shower natural and productive!) So when I was writing Match Made in Heaven, for instance, as well as the novel I’m finishing, I came up with four or five intriguing ideas for future novels. I have them in special files in my computer, and I’m sure I’ll add to them when the ol’ Muses visit me again.
Do you prefer writing on the computer or longhand?
Both. I’ve been writing longhand for so long that it’s become part of my writing routine. I usually write out a bunch of ideas and then even flesh out sentences and whole paragraphs, all longhand. On legal pads, but also on index cards, Post-It Notes, or whatever paper product is close at hand. Then, eventually, I’ll transfer it all to my laptop (I use a Mac iBook, which is incredibly easy, since I’m pretty much of a computer imbecile). When a chapter starts rolling, I’ll just sit down at the computer and type until it’s done.
What do you like best about writing?
Everything! Perhaps best of all, I love the challenge, the struggle. Many years ago, in high school, I remember learning an aphorism in Latin class (yes, they used to teach Latin!): per aspera ad astra. To the stars, through struggle. No pain, no gain. Or, as the French say, Il n’y a pas de roses sans épines. Writing is impossibly difficult to do. Which makes it indescribably sweet when you can finally get the words out to express what you’re feeling or thinking. There’s nothing in the human experience quite like this pleasure born from struggle that I can think of. Also, I’ve always loved the fact that the word passion comes from both the Greek (pathein) and Latin (pati ) words meaning “to suffer”! (So does the word “patience”….) And writing, like all passions, certainly has suffering, or struggle, as one of its major components.
Beyond this, I also really enjoy the search for le mot juste, which is endless and supremely satisfying. Finding just the right word you need for the occasion, just the right nuance. There are many times, in fact, when the reader may not even be aware of the nuance and would gladly have settled for a less appropriate word choice. But the writer, if he or she is really sensitive to the written word, always knows. Or should know. And that’s what’s crucially important, at least for me. Even if you’re the only one in the world who knows the difference, it’s what writing is all about. And that’s why writing is not just a craft or an art, but at its core a process, which never ends and always can be improved upon. And I love this process, all the drafts, all the changes and improvements, and the steps backward and then forward, and the evolution of a manuscript.
The amazing French poet Paul Valéry put it this way: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” He meant that at some point, a work of art must find some closure; it has to be “abandoned” because the publisher has a deadline or the Emperor needs the symphony or the museum needs the bust for its exhibition. But the work of art is never “finished” in the sense that the process could always go on forever, with the artist’s endless ability to improve it and to allow it to be reborn in various new incarnations.
Do you write every day?
Yes. Well, no, if you define writing as putting words down on paper or on a computer. But that’s not how I define writing. To me, writing may take the form of gestating, cerebrating, ruminating. I can never turn off the faucet. Even if I’m on a desert island or on vacation or playing tennis or in my sleep, I’m always turning ideas around in my head. Ideas or characters or plot twists or even specific words or phrases.
There are weeks that go by when I may not even write or type a single word, but that doesn’t mean I’m not writing. I’ll think about something, then I’ll think some more, and then POP! The idea bursts forth from my forehead, like Minerva full-grown and clad in armor from the brow of Zeus. It’s an amazing process. So yes, in that deepest sense, I am writing every single day of my life.
What’s the best training a writer can have?
Living. Experiencing. Feeling. Thinking about things. Developing your mind so that it is alert, lively, and resilient. But mostly living. That’s why, unlike many other professions (sports in particular) where you get worse as you get older, writers generally get better as they mature and have more to say about the nature and meaning of life, and other stuff like that.
Also, loving the language. Personally, I love looking up new words in the dictionary and the thesaurus. I never stop learning. I’ve always been fascinated by words, their etymologies, their synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms. Stuff like palindromes—words or sentences spelled the same way backward and forward. (My favorite: “A slut nixes sex in Tulsa”!) So knowing the language well is crucial, since, when you’re mulling over the “rightness” of a word, it gives you many options from which to choose.
What do you love besides writing?
For me, life only has meaning when you have passions. So besides the people (my wife, my kids, and my close friends) for whom I feel great passion, there are a number of things about which I am incredibly passionate.
They are, in no particular order, sports (all sports, but especially golf and tennis), animals (especially my dogs!), writing, travel (especially to places like Paris, Brittany, London, Barcelona, Florence, Venice, Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Rio), playing the acoustic guitar, music (Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, Francesco De Gregori, Roberto Vecchioni, Randy Newman, Van Morrison, Elton John, Indigo Girls, Joe Cocker, Phil Collins, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Gershwin, Gilbert and Sullivan, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, The Beatles, James Taylor, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Leo Kottke…), art (Goya, Blake, Picasso, Ronald Searle, Rembrandt, Leonardo, Van Gogh…), and classical literature (Dante, Shakespeare, Poe, Dostoyevsky, Mallarmé, Valéry, Rilke, Neruda, Dylan Thomas, Cervantes, Dickens, Flaubert, Proust…).