Brian Moore: ‘my real strength is that I am a truthful writer’

On the 20th anniversary of his death, an unpublished interview paints a revealing portrait of one of Ireland’s finest writers

Brian Moore: if I am to be moved by experimental writing, it has got to be magnificent, it’s got to be as virtuoso as Ulysses or as interesting as Borges

Brian Moore: if I am to be moved by experimental writing, it has got to be magnificent, it’s got to be as virtuoso as Ulysses or as interesting as Borges

 

Brian Moore, one of Ireland’s finest modern writers, died 20 years ago on January 11th, 1999, having been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize (for The Doctor’s Wife, 1976; The Colour of Blood, 1987; and Lies of Silence, 1990). Seven of his novels written as Brian Moore have been filmed. He also wrote the screenplay for Torn Curtain. This is an edited version of an unpublished interview recorded on Easter Saturday, 1973, in Moore’s Malibu home by Tony Kilgallin, author of The Canadian Short Story, who had been commissioned by the TLS to write a major essay on Canadian fiction. Sadly, the Malibu home Moore shared with his wife Jean was destroyed last year by a forest fire.

Brian and Jean Moore with interviewer Tony Kilgallin’s baby daughter in their Malibu home at Easter 1973. 

One of your many successful techniques is the maintenance of a sense of immediacy between your narrator and the reader despite shifting viewpoints. Which points of view have you experimented with?
Most of my books, while written in the third person, are presented as though they were written in the first. Judith Hearne is a book which seems to be written from the point of view of Judith Hearne, where in fact it is not, it’s written partly from my point of view as the invisible narrator and partly from the point of view of the other characters. In An Answer from Limbo there is no invisible narrator. Instead, there are two third-person narrators, the wife and the mother, and a first-person narrator who is the writer. In that novel I used multiple points of view which made it, I think, the most technically complex of my novels. Also in Limbo no part of the action is ever repeated in narration. It’s the opposite of the Rashomon technique where each person carries the narrative forward to a new point of action.

How has the modern novel changed in regard to authorial intrusion?
Well, you know Joyce is said to be the writer who destroyed the omniscient 19th-century novelist. Actually Chekhov did it earlier when he said that “the artist must not be a judge of his characters, only an objective observer”. And so, for the past 50 years we have been trying to keep the novelist out of his novels. We try to let the characters tell their own story.

However, that may be changing now. The novel is once again trying to redefine itself. We are now seeing novels written which do not have a narrator, which actually do say “look, I am an author writing a novel, remember this. I am not trying to deceive you, you are listening to a man who is writing a novel and the devices of this novel are always on display.”

However, although I am interested in these experiments, I don’t sit down to write a book with this or that experimental technique in mind. The technique must be subordinate to the problem of telling what you want to tell in each particular book. At the moment I am trying to write a book in which the basic situation is totally unreal. It’s about a man who has his dream come true. Literally. So I must work especially hard to convince the reader to suspend his initial disbelief. And so I’ve worked to make all the other elements in the book terribly real so that the reader may be lulled into believing the unbelievable part.

I first ran into this question of “non-suspension of disbelief” with Fergus, which was not my most successful book, and I think one of the reasons for its failure with many readers was that a great number of people could not accept the idea of revenants, or ghosts, or whatever you call them, interspersed into a completely realistic narrative, whereas they will read cheerfully people like Barthelme or Pynchon, or any of today’s writers who basically deal all in fantasy, in irreal situations. They will accept these writers because these writers say “look, this is a novel, and we’re writing about writing, and this is what it’s all about, and therefore you accept it because you do not expect our characters to be real”.

I think Fergus was one of my more interesting books because I was attempting to do something unusual, which is to mix a very irreal thing with a very real thing and in this new book there is also an element of satire which enters into it. That may be the problem. The minute you deal with something that isn’t real, with fantasy, you are in some sense dealing in satire, because we don’t write straight fairy-tales anymore.

Brian Moore at his Malibu home in January 1987: I think Beckett is a marvellous writer, but he has one essential flaw which seems to me almost a failure. It’s that there is nothing in a Beckett story which drives the reader forward. Photograph: Paul Harris/Getty Images

Right, and satire is something that is new to you, though irony isn’t.
Satire, I feel, is a weak and dangerous form because unless it is carried out in an absolutely masterful way, with a lot of Swiftian indignation, it is usually a cop-out, because in satire, black humour novels and the anti-roman, a lot of the solutions are basically cop-outs because the writer doesn’t have to solve essential problems which are inherent in a true novel. A novel doesn’t come to life unless in some way the reader is duped, carried, lifted, tricked into reading the novel.

Who is your ideal reader?
I suppose I’m writing for a reader like myself. And if I am to be moved by experimental writing, it has got to be magnificent, it’s got to be as virtuoso as Ulysses or as interesting as Borges. To my mind one cannot write truly experimental books unless they are masterpieces. So that one’s chance of failure is enormous. And then you have to have enormous self-confidence which I don’t always have when I’m writing a book. I start every book feeling it is going to fail. If it comes, if it succeeds in being 50 per cent of what I thought it would be, then I’m happy, very happy. To maintain my drive during the year, year and a half, two years that I’m writing the book, I have to feel that the book has a chance of being very good.

For instance, when I was writing Fergus I would experience the usual accidie which writers feel at points when they say that this book is not going to go, or I’m not going to be able to carry it off, or I’ve gone to 150 pages and now I’ll have to abandon it. It’s a thing that happens to one all the time. But in Fergus it was exacerbated enormously by the fact that I had these revenants, these ghosts in it, and I was trying to say, “well, I myself might not accept this convention”. For that reason a wholly experimental novel like the one I’m writing now is very, very difficult for me, because I am not working from my own strengths, which are realistic, I am not working from observation, I am not working from what I feel is my real strength, which is that I am a truthful writer.

When one habitually starts with untruth and unreality, the experimentation becomes the reason for the writing. And so, for me, the Barthean type of novel does not succeed. I can read Barthes only in short bits. I can read Pynchon in short bits and in short bits I find him interesting. I think Beckett is a marvellous writer, but he has one essential flaw which seems to me almost a failure. It’s that there is nothing in a Beckett story which drives the reader forward. The reader must exercise an enormous amount of concentration to move from page to page. Even though those pages are filled with poetry, images, great feelings and everything else, the grinding feeling persists that there is no story there. Ultimately, it defeats the whole purpose of reading. To me, reading should be, even on its highest level, a pleasure. If it isn’t, it becomes an exercise for professors. Or exegetes.

I find it impossible to rifle through any of your novels. Each page presents its own justification sufficient to rule out any need of flipping ahead, despite the linearity of your works. Hailey talked about his novels as page-turners, compelling the reader to turn on as he turns the pages, but your pages have a different compulsion.

The reader is probably aware, subconsciously, that there is a structure here, which is the unliterary structure of storytelling. Perhaps there is an element of this in all Irish writing based on an oral tradition stemming from tales told in a farm kitchen which had to be told in a time-space intelligible to the audience. In other words, you could tell a long saga in Gaelic literature, one with many episodes like Scheherazade, but each episode had to be memorable, the characters had to be central, and the story had to be able to end nightly with the storyteller knowing where and how he could take up the tale the next night. This requires a completely integrated sense of what a story is. Behind the complicated structure of Ulysses there is the basic myth, a story told within the framework of a single day in which a young man goes out in the morning to later meet an older man who winds up spending the evening with him. Also in Joyce you are always aware of humour, of scenes in which things happen. Something very ordinary is happening on a real level even in the midst of the most amazing verbal pyrotechnics. But nothing happens in these strange amorphous fictions of Barthes and Robbe-Grillet. Things happen in Barthelme – I think he is an interesting writer, by the way, but he is quoted as saying he only believes in fragments. A man who believes only in fragments is the opposite of an Irish writer.

Are there other viewpoints available to you or your contemporaries?
Well, my idea of fiction hasn’t really changed. From the beginning I decided that the weakness in writing about the “problems” of intellectuals was that everyone who writes is an intellectual or a would-be intellectual and so the story of the alienation of the artist has been done a thousand times. When I wrote my first book I decided that the interesting thing would be to describe – to find out how an ordinary person becomes alienated – loses faith. So I picked a very ordinary person, a silly, lonely, middle-aged spinster, whose religion was mostly emotional. And in that way I set myself what may have been part of my life’s task, because I realised, even in the writing of this book, that through the ordinary you could perceive the extraordinary.

We identify with ordinary people because, at heart, we or most of us believe that we are ordinary. Besides, we no longer live in an age of kings and heroes. We live in an age of Nixons and Eisenhowers. Another point. You cannot write about extraordinary people unless you yourself are extraordinary. Most people who are extraordinary are doers, and most people of that nature are not writers and do not write novels and this leads me to the thing which I think is interesting today – it is as if writers have realised that they are no longer capable of creating fiction from the lives of ordinary characters.

Someone said, every middle-class fiction is basically a story of adultery. And now, because some modern writers realise they have lost touch with ordinary life and ordinary characters they have started to make themselves into extraordinary characters. Many of today’s writers are their own oeuvre, their own work. The Mailer syndrome has become a way of life. The writers, God help them, look at Mailer, he’s a middle-aged man, a small fellow with grey hair who couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag and fantasises himself as a boxer. He fantasised himself as a politician. When he couldn’t run for Ward Heeler, but the very fact of him fantasising himself into those roles interests other people because he is a good phrasemaker and he writes well. People don’t see, I think, the inherent, and sort of splendid, tragedy in Mailer: it is that he is an unfunny Walter Mitty. He is a man who wanted to write a great novel and hasn’t written it. And because he hasn’t written a great novel he has now become a public performer, as has Capote, as have so many people. There is a tradition in literature today which seems to me frightening; it’s the writer as a performer. And the writer is performer is a writer who is no longer going to write and no longer writes – whereas the writer who is not a performer, let’s say Bellow, or Philip Roth or even Updike, whether you like his work or not, is constantly writing.

Can you see a real distinction between serious fiction and escape literature?
Serious fiction is a dream which can become a nightmare. Escape fiction is a dream which can only become a wet dream. It’s a fantasy and it cannot be truly moving. The borderline between serious and escape fiction is that when you sit down to write serious fiction you don’t know how it will turn out; it can turn out to be a depressing book, a painful book, or even, if you’re lucky, a tragic book. Because if it reaches tragic status there will be catharsis for the reader. But it can fail, and most often it does fail and remains a painful failure. Escape fiction doesn’t fail because it knows its boundaries; it succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is entertain millions of people by gratifying their fantasy. Its aim and end is making money. It has nothing to do with writing.

Graham Greene differentiated between his novels and his entertainments. Is he an exception?
I think so, because he is a very peculiar writer, a very talented writer who really composes all his books within the thriller form. Perhaps with some he said “I’m not going to do anything except a thriller this time” so he decided to call it an entertainment, but the interesting thing is, that as the years go by we the readers don’t differentiate between his works. I read This Gun for Hire, Stamboul Train the same way as I read The Power and the Glory. All three are completely identifiable as his work. The Power and the Glory may be better than the first two, but then Stamboul Train or This England is better than The Comedians, so it would be lovely if you or I could label all the things we do and say this is good, this is bad, or don’t take this one seriously, but the world doesn’t judge you this way. The world doesn’t allow you to label your books – it labels them.

Can you compose novels without identifying yourself in a way with a character?
Well, I was able to write Judith Hearne because I was lonely, and that made me Judith Hearne in one sense. Giving her a different sex and age allowed me to distance myself from my characteristics and thus make the book art not autobiography. Reference books and newspapers never seem to work for me. There has to be something in the central character of each of my novels with which I can identify. In Catholics, for example, the abbot is 70 but I can identify with him. He is a religious, which, of course, I have never been, but I had a period of feeling depression once, some years ago, and I could, therefore, describe his depression because depression and loss of faith are probably very similar events. Secular or spiritual, they’re the same thing. Once I could identify with his depression and grasp the fact that he might be depressed because he didn’t believe in God anymore, thus making his whole life a sham, he became a character I could create. The obverse law, that is, if I have a character to whom I am unsympathetic, I always try as I write the book to become more sympathetic to him because it gives him depth and prevents him from being a caricature.

The word “null” at the end of Catholics is more powerful than nil, nada, nothingness and void all put together. Did you experience this “null” while writing Catholics in particular, or was it a part of your earlier depression?
The doubts of the abbot could also be the doubts of the person who is writing novels. If you are like me, when you are writing novels, you get up every morning, come out here and say “Why am I not doing something useful, like my brothers, like being a doctor and helping people in this world. I’m sitting here, a middle-aged man writing fantasies, spinning out stories which, in essence, may be read and enjoyed by some people for all the wrong reasons.”

You have no knowledge whether your books will be read when you are dead or even if they will be read 10 years from now or whether they will be remembered two years from now. So that anyone who writes novels without having financial profit as his goal, who writes novels simply in the hope that he is going to create something that will last, is bound to be filled with self-doubt, and he is bound to be a person who becomes reclusive or gloomy at times. So the abbot’s crisis of faith is my crisis of faith. Hopefully with a reader – a reader who identifies – the reader will recall his own crisis of faith which may have nothing to do with mine or with the abbot’s. That crisis of faith may be, if it’s a woman, that she can no longer have any children or that her life, she may feel, is over, or that she has sold out to a bad marriage or something, but the fact that she hasn’t had a crisis and identifies with the fictional character’s crisis, that’s what makes fiction work.

Can you use the novel you are writing as a mirror to reflect what you are becoming?
Well, I exorcise my troubles, I suppose – I don’t like to think about it too much – but in some way I seem to exorcise my devils, if you like, by writing about them. I used to have recurring nightmares about school, about being caned at school and being late for school until I wrote The Feast of Lupercal. After that I never had the nightmare again. In some way, by writing it out I write it out of myself.

Brian Moore and his wife Jean enjoy the view from his seaside home in Malibu, California in January 1987. Photograph: Paul Harris/Getty Images
Brian Moore and his wife Jean enjoy the view from his seaside home in Malibu, California in January 1987. Photograph: Paul Harris/Getty Images

So it’s like these Malibu waves: if you go with the wave you eventually don’t have to worry about them.
Yes, I go with the wave in writing too in the sense that when I start a book I don’t know if the book will succeed, I don’t know if I will abandon it, I don’t know how it is going to end, and it may end in a way which doesn’t satisfy me. For all of these reasons, the kind of books I write don’t become bestsellers. They have never really been bestsellers, although they have had an audience in different countries which is great from my point of view. But I don’t write books that become bestsellers because unlike some great writers, people like Dickens and even Dostoevsky, I don’t think of a market, of a body of readership, or a subject which would be of interest to people, or a subject which I feel is important and so, because it is contemporary and important I should write about it.

I think I am more in the Joycean vein in that I don’t think in terms of this book being like my last book, or of repeating a success. The thing I am interested in doing is not writing the same book twice. Many people write the same book over and over again and they are very good books. I am not knocking that. Evelyn Waugh said that everyone has very few tunes to play. He’s right and he wrote a similar book over and over and it was always brilliant and you could read every one of them and enjoy them and each of them was done from a different point of view and was marvellous. In fact, he is probably the greatest English writer of the century, I think.

But because I feel time pressing in on me, I want to write a different book each time, even if I fail. It encourages me when I think about Melville. His early books, now completely forgotten, met with great initial success and made him money; and then, stubbornly, he decided to write books each of which was different. Bartleby is so different from Typee and Omoo is different from Moby Dick. Every book of his stands up for me. Not that I am an unabashed admirer of Melville, but he’s an interesting writer in that he did try to do something different. Joyce was gripped by this need for change and development when he wrote Finnegans Wake.

What do you think of Arthur Hailey’s plan to write one book every three years until he turns 60? Each book is plotted out automatically regarding a different corporate establishment.
Well, I think Hailey is the other type of writer, a marvellous businessman who writes dreams for the world, filled with research and that sort of stuff. Burgess is another one of these compulsive people who announces he is going to write nine novels. I sort of enjoy picking up Burgess’ stuff because he says “I’m now doing a musical one, four reviews, six novels.” I used to think, and still do, that that is the mark of a bad writer. The minute a writer says he is doing a trilogy, I always think “forget it”.

You’d prefer to keep your trump cards hidden then? Do you also adhere to Joyce’s motto “Silence, exile and cunning”?
I want to be a very private figure. I think it works best for me. I can do television interviews or things like that and it doesn’t upset me or make me nervous. On the other hand, I don’t think I am interesting enough for just anybody to look at or see me. I don’t have a very colourful private life. If there is any interest in me, it is in my work. If there is any reason people should read me it’s because of my work, not because I am a great raconteur on the Dick Cavett Show.

In terms of Cyril Connolly’s book Enemies of Promise what enemies do you think you have overcome as a writer thus far in your career?
I haven’t overcome any enemies because my writing career isn’t over. The war is still going on and I don’t know what enemies I have succumbed to. The real new enemy is great success because, particularly in America, the critics take writers to their bosoms when the first or second novel appears. They praise the writers to the skies. What has happened is that they have come in contact with something new in a writing style, but when the writer appears again he is doing a repeat performance and the critics start to denigrate him. The writer in his middle years gets bad treatment if he doesn’t épater les bourgeois in a new way each time. So success is a danger, and great monetary success is always an enormous danger. It removes him from the class which he was in, unless he was born a duke, and very few dukes are good writers, or a millionaire, and very few millionaires bother to write. He is in trouble because he is starting to live a new life and to meet people who are different from the persons he knew formerly. The whole celebrity thing is a danger and an enemy.

Brian Moore  in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, in 1987. Photograph: Eddie Kelly

Could a writer who wished to avoid this celebrity game write under a pseudonym or remain anonymous?
Anonymity is still one of the most important tools the artist has. Matisse, the painter, wrote in Jazz: “An artist must never be the prisoner of himself, or a manner, or of a success. The Japanese artists of the grand époque changed their names several times in their life. I admire that. They wanted to safeguard their liberties." In other words, your work, not you is what counts. And if the work is strong enough it lives on its own. Your style is there whether you sign your name to it or not. I’m probably going on a bit about this, but I admire people like Joyce and Conrad enormously for their public stance. They were interested, ruthlessly so, in their work becoming famous, but not themselves. They didn’t want to stand up beside a new book as if it were a little street stall, as I often think so many of us are forced to do. Instead, the writer should be the Bunraku puppeteer, the man in black, the faceless mover and manipulator of his writings, the puppets. Salinger withdrew completely from the fray and his work was no less popular because of that; no one knows who Pynchon is because he doesn’t give interviews. I tend to really admire that because he wants his work to be the important thing, not him.

Do you think your nomadic lifestyle has benefitted your novels in any specific ways?
If you don’t move you are conditioned. My characters don’t move, so perhaps I leave them in the position in which I would be if I hadn’t moved. Writers like myself tend to live in a place long enough to know that they sort of know it, that they can use it. If the place fulfils these requirements a new literary territory has been gained, though it may not be as powerful as the writer’s original literary territory. Let’s say that Ireland, Belfast in particular, was my original literary territory which would have made me an Irish writer committed in a sense to that area. By moving away from Belfast I was then able to write about it, but in the meantime I was living somewhere else, in Europe. I didn’t live long enough in any one part of Europe, mainly Poland and France, to gain it as territory. I merely held it for a short period. Then, when I moved to Canada, I lived 12 years in Montreal, and without even knowing it it became literary territory for me.

Did Catholics spring from your original territory?
When I wrote Catholics it was unlike any of my other works in that when I had the idea of writing about monks on an island off the west coast of Ireland I had never been on an island where there was a monastery, though I had been to the west coast of Ireland. I knew nothing about that landscape, and so one year when we were in Ireland I went with my wife to Mayo and we saw an island off the coast. I arranged to go over on this boat on a day when the boat could come in to the mainland, take us out and bring us back that evening. I said to myself, if you are ever going to write this story now, you must remember everything about this day. I didn’t take written notes, but I did remember the island, the boat, the boatman, and I got a feeling of place into the story which is probably stronger than in most of my other stories because it is completely concentrated.

Have any of your completed novels ever stopped you halfway through their composition?
Limbo was a book which I almost didn’t finish because I ran into a serious problem and was going to ditch it. Thank goodness I didn’t. I have written two novels, or parts of two novels, which I’ve never published because I couldn’t solve the problem.

Let’s turn from that problem to the general state of publishing today. As an experienced writer what are your feelings towards the present market for novels?
Publishing today is in a state of crisis. There is a smaller, not a greater market for serious work than there was 18 years ago when I first started writing. Publishers, particularly in the US, only push what are called the superbooks. Subsidiary rights, paperbacks, book clubs, those are everything to the hard cover publisher today. When I started to write there was such a thing as a “prestige” writer, the writer who didn’t make any money, who lost money for his publisher, but whom publishers were proud to have on the list. That’s not really true anymore.

The commercial pressure on the new writer is indirect, but it’s there. You know, you see people whose books absolutely never sell starting to disappear from sight. Why? Because in a way it is frightening for people to realise they have no audience. It’s frightening for a man to sit down and write a book which may take him two years and to know that unless it is reviewed in the New York Times and Time and by three or four other publications it might as well never have appeared. As far as the public is concerned, as far as librarians are concerned, his book just disappeared into the woodwork. And so many books do that. And so many people just don’t have the heart to go on writing under those circumstances because they’ve invested a lot of their lives in the book and if it’s ignored that’s worse than getting bad notices. So many books are ignored today; those that are ignored completely don’t sell five copies. Those that are noticed, whether it is well or badly noticed, sell, so we’re back to the writer as performer again. There is less interest in prestige writers and fewer foreign writers.

Who do you remember reading most fervently?
It’s awfully hard to remember with any real honesty. I remember being very impressed by Madame Bovary, but then reading and not liking his others. Altogether I like only two of Flaubert’s. I was terribly impressed by Joyce, of course, and by poetry when I was young. Poetry is something no one discusses any more. I read poems and would have liked to write like Isaac Rosenberg an English poet of my generation, and like Auden. I’d like to write like Yeats. Those people had more influence on me and the way I wanted to write than any prose writers of their generation.

And Wallace Stevens?
That was much later and was a different type of interest. One doesn’t fall in love with writing and books in quite the same way at 40 as one did at 19. Yet it is funny, if you read Waugh over again, if you liked Waugh, it is just as funny, the fourth or fifth time round. You begin to spot his bigotries, his snobberies and various things like that, but he still stands up remarkably well. I’ll still pick up most books by Greene or English writers of that period. You just sort of know that they write in some way that will hold your attention, which is getting back to the thing we were discussing. They all have a deep and abiding sense of what is funny, what is plot.

I wonder if you prefer writers like Waugh and Greene partly because their keen sense of observation and their clean style of perception combines the best of journalism and fiction?
There’s a journalistic element in all of Joyce’s fiction too. He absolutely had to get the interior of the National Library right so he could write about it, and he was always sending letters off to people in Ireland for very unimportant seeming pieces of information which weren’t really needed for his books. Like what was playing at the Gaiety on a certain day. It seemed ridiculous, but he needed all that bumph to create that one day, Bloomsday, and give it that absolute feeling of reality. It gives Ulysses a marvellous solidity.

It’s a book which is really finest in its first half, because that solidity is there, the day is there. It’s when he began to lose the solidity that he began to write all these experiments, and yet it’s still marvellous. The book is a classic of realism despite its irreality. When he goes into doing parodies of different English prose styles or parodies of mathematics, somehow the book, for me anyway, loses the magic of the early sequences, even in the sequences where he tried to write to a pattern-like musical sequence with the barmaids Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy and he tried to write about the viceregal carriage passing through Dublin and all the people it met and here is Bloom coming up one street and Boylan coming up another. All that stuff written to a musical scale was a piece of madness, but because he concentrates so terrifically hard on keeping that realistic pattern alive behind this experiment, the book still comes to life.

If you go back and look at that part of the book you’ll see that the descriptions of Long John Fanning, the High Sheriff, show the way he moves his head or his jaw. Or there’s a description of the brother of the famous Parnell sitting playing chess in a cafe and Mulligan whispers to Haines that the man is Parnell’s brother and the man makes a chess move, then puts his claw fingers to his forehead, thinks, then quickly looks at his opponent for a second through the claw fingers, then again looks at the chessboard, and it’s so visual, I can’t remember the words exactly, but there is the man, the living ghost playing chess and it’s all there, everything that is good writing is there, the man is a living ghost, he’s slightly sinister, slightly pathetic, he’s a part of history, a part of that day, he was there, in that cafe on Bloomsday – everything works at that point.

It is the point in a writer’s life when his material meets his talent or his talent comes up to his material and in that part of Ulysses Joyce’s talent comes absolutely up to his material. It’s what everybody is shooting for all the time, for if your particular talents meet up with your material at some point in your life you will write the book which is not bad. All the others are bad. They may be all right, but they are not what you dreamed they could be.

Do you still trust your own taste?
Well, I fear my taste because my taste often tends to make me destroy things rather than finish them. Anyone who has written eight novels and found that the critics liked one novel better than another, hated novel A and liked novel B, it makes you wonder. Ultimately, you have to rely on your own taste.

What would you look for in the students you will be teaching in your seminar at UCLA this fall? What attributes should a budding writer today possess?
The first thing I would look for is an omnivorous reader who got excited about what he read. If you don’t read a lot and don’t have a lot of enthusiasm you rarely, it seems to me, become a really good writer because you can’t graduate from bad to good in taste. You don’t keep learning, you atrophy. The second requirement would be a willingness to face criticism and work. Some people are incorrigibly lazy once they have written something. Which means they believe everything they write is marvellous. They won’t rework it. Nobody who is any good has any confidence. No one who is any good cannot be shattered by criticism because one of the secrets of writing is that you are writing for a reader, for an audience, for someone whom you must make understand you.

It’s no good to say “this really happened to me, my mother actually ran away with a three foot midget and that is why it is true.” It isn’t why it is true, that is why it is false, because it really happened. You have to make it really happen to the other person and to do that you must be willing to do a lot of rewriting. I believe in novels, and this is the one thing I have never wavered in, beginnings and endings are all, and in the beginning, particularly in this day and age, you may have to rewrite, as I often do, your first few pages 50 or 60 times to make them look absolutely simple, to make them look as if there is no strain in them. If you can do that, you carry the reader for 20 pages, he – every one of us – forgets about style because then you’ve done that essential thing, you have started the reader to swim in your sea, and he is all right then up until the end, when he has got to get out again. When he has to get out of the sea again, you are up to the second big hurdle in novel writing, will you get him out of the sea, or will he say, “that wasn’t a sea at all, it was a pond.”

Endings are terribly important, they’re the other great worry because so many endings are cop-outs, and that is why experimental writing is so difficult to do and it often doesn’t work because a bad writer cannot be detected so easily in experimental writing. The writer can say, “I wanted to finish it this way, arbitrarily,” whereas if you are in the sea of a Dostoyevsky or you are reading a book by Turgenev, you’ve got to get out of that book to your total satisfaction. You can’t say “I forgive him because he decided that was sort of an amusing ending.” It doesn’t work.

You were asking a little earlier, “do you still trust your own taste?” and the thing we forgot to mention at that point, which is very important, I think, is that if you are a novelist who has had some critical success in, say England, America, Ireland, as I have, then it becomes very difficult for an editor or a publisher to tell you that your current book is no good and he doesn’t want to publish it because if he says that he risks losing you as an author. He mightn’t lose me because I might respect his judgment and might think it very honest of him to tell me that. If I disagreed I might take it to be published elsewhere, but if I did, I would at least listen to him.

You see, there is far too much critical overpraise at the moment so that it is very hard to tell a person that his book is no good; therefore, if the writer is sensible, he worries that his friends won’t tell him either. And his friends won’t because if they are less successful than he, he puts it down to jealousy, and they decide they’d better not say it to him. So it’s extremely hard for him, before publication, to get an honest opinion. The critics may then tell him that he has written a very bad book but by that time he is committed, he’s had it.

Interviewer Tony Kilgallin, author of The Canadian Short Story
Interviewer Tony Kilgallin, author of The Canadian Short Story
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