As far as I’m concerned, I believe the subject chooses the writer. I’ve always had the feeling that certain stories imposed themselves on me; I couldn’t ignore them, because in some obscure way, they related to some kind of fundamental experience — I can’t really say how. For example, the time I spent at the Leonico Prado Military School in Lima when I was still a young boy gave me a real need, an obsessive desire to write. It was an extremely traumatic experience which in many ways marked the end of my childhood—the rediscovery of my country as a violent society, filled with bitterness, made up of social, cultural, and racial factions in complete opposition and caught up in sometimes ferocious battle. I suppose the experience had an influence on me; one thing I’m sure of is that it gave rise to the great need in me to create, to invent.

Up until now, it’s been pretty much the same for all my books. I never get the feeling that I’ve decided rationally, cold-bloodedly to write a story. On the contrary, certain events or people, sometimes dreams or readings, impose themselves suddenly and demand attention. That’s why I talk so much about the importance of the purely irrational elements of literary creation. This irrationality must also, I believe, come through to the reader. I would like my novels to be read the way I read the novels I love. The novels that have fascinated me most are the ones that have reached me less through the channels of the intellect or reason than bewitched me. These are stories capable of completely annihilating all my critical faculties so that I’m left there, in suspense. That’s the kind of novel I like to read and the kind of novel I’d like to write.  I think it’s very important that the intellectual element, whose presence is inevitable in a novel, dissolves into the action, into the stories that must seduce the reader not by their ideas but by their colour, by the emotions they inspire, by their element of surprise, and by all the suspense and mystery they’re capable of generating. In my opinion, a novel’s technique exists essentially to produce that effect — to diminish and if possible abolish the distance between the story and the reader. In that sense, I am a writer of the nineteenth century. The novel for me is still the novel of adventures, which is read in the particular way I have described.

Mario Vargas Llosa
Interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell and Ricardo Augusto Setti
Paris Review Fall 1990

Henry James rewrote simple, understandable stuff so it was obscure and difficult. Actually, I’ve done it recently. The story “Carried Away” was included in Best American Short Stories 1991. I read it again in the anthology, because I wanted to see what it was like and I found a paragraph that I thought was really soggy. It was a very important little paragraph, maybe two sentences. I just took a pen and rewrote it up in the margin of the anthology so that I’d have it there to refer to when I published the story in book form. I’ve often made revisions at that stage that turned out to be mistakes because I wasn’t really in the rhythm of the story anymore. I see a little bit of writing that doesn’t seem to be doing as much work as it should be doing, and right at the end I will sort of rev it up. But when I finally read the story again it seems a bit obtrusive. So, I’m not too sure about this sort of thing. The answer may be that one should stop this behaviour. There should be a point where you say, the way you would with a child, this isn’t mine anymore.

Alice Munro
Interview with Jeanne McCulloch and Mona Simpson
Paris Review Summer 1994

When I was young, I was a passionate reader of Sartre. I’ve read the American novelists, in particular the lost generation — Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos — especially Faulkner. Of the authors I read when I was young, he is one of the few who still means a lot to me. I have never been disappointed when I reread him, the way I have been occasionally with, say, Hemingway. I wouldn’t reread Sartre today. Compared to everything I’ve read since, his fiction seems dated and has lost much of its value. As for his essays, I find most of them to be less important, with one exception perhaps—“Saint Genet: Comedian or Martyr,” which I still like. They are full of contradictions, ambiguities, inaccuracies, and ramblings, something that never happened with Faulkner. Faulkner was the first novelist I read with pen and paper in hand, because his technique stunned me. He was the first novelist whose work I consciously tried to reconstruct by attempting to trace, for example, the organization of time, the intersection of time and place, the breaks in the narrative, and that ability he has of telling a story from different points of view in order to create a certain ambiguity, to give it added depth. As a Latin American, I think it was very useful for me to read his books when I did because they are a precious source of descriptive techniques that are applicable to a world which, in a sense, is not so unlike the one Faulkner described. Later, of course, I read the nineteenth-century novelists with a consuming passion: Flaubert, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Hawthorne, Dickens, Melville. I’m still an avid reader of nineteenth-century writers.

As for Latin American literature, strangely enough, it wasn’t until I lived in Europe that I really discovered it and began to read it with great enthusiasm. I had to teach it at the university in London, which was a very enriching experience because it forced me to think about Latin American literature as a whole. From then on I read Borges, whom I was somewhat familiar with, Carpentíer, Cortázar, Guimaraes Rosa, Lezama Lima—that whole generation except for García Márquez. I discovered him later and even wrote a book about him: García Márquez: Historia de un decidio. I also began reading nineteenth-century Latin American literature because I had to teach it. I realized then that we have extremely interesting writers—the novelists perhaps less so than the essayists or poets. Sarmiento, for example, who never wrote a novel, is in my opinion one of the greatest storytellers Latin America has produced; his Facundo is a masterwork. But if I were forced to choose one name, I would have to say Borges, because the world he creates seems to me to be absolutely original. Aside from his enormous originality, he is also endowed with a tremendous imagination and culture that are expressly his own. And then of course there is the language of Borges, which in a sense broke with our tradition and opened a new one. Spanish is a language that tends toward exuberance, proliferation, profusion. Our great writers have all been prolix, from Cervantes to Ortega y Gasset, Valle-Inclán, or Alfonso Reyes. Borges is the opposite — all concision, economy, and precision. He is the only writer in the Spanish language who has almost as many ideas as he has words. He’s one of the great writers of our time.

Mario Vargas Llosa
Interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell and Ricardo Augusto Setti
Paris Review Fall 1990

Pastimes

May 13, 2019

Just leave me alone
to write poetry
and play the
piano. My hands
pirouette
and dance over
the keys. My pen
spins and twirls
over the page

I am happy now.

Thomas H Scott

When I say I have written from the beginning, I mean that all real writers write from the beginning, that the vocation, the obsession, is already there, and that the obsession derives from an intensity of feeling which normal life cannot accommodate. I started writing snippets when I was eight or nine, but I wrote my first novel when I left Ireland and came to live in London. I had never been outside Ireland and it was November when I arrived in England. I found everything so different, so alien. Waterloo Station was full of people who were nameless, faceless. There were wreaths on the Cenotaph for Remembrance Sunday, and I felt bewildered and lost — an outsider. So in a sense The Country Girls, which I wrote in those first few weeks after my arrival, was my experience of Ireland and my farewell to it. But something happened to my style which I will tell you about. I had been trying to write short bits, and these were always flowery and overlyrical. Shortly after I arrived in London I saw an advertisement for a lecture given by Arthur Mizener – author of a book on F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Far Side of Paradise  – on Hemingway and Fitzgerald. You must remember that I had no literary education, but a fervid religious one. So I went to the lecture and it was like a thunderbolt — Saul of Tarsus on his horse! Mizener read out the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms and I couldn’t believe it—this totally uncluttered, precise, true prose, which was also very moving and lyrical. I can say that the two things came together then: my being ready for the revelation and my urgency to write. The novel wrote itself, so to speak, in a few weeks. All the time I was writing it I couldn’t stop crying, although it is a fairly buoyant, funny book. But it was the separation from Ireland which brought me to the point where I had to write, though I had always been in love with literature.

Edna O’Brien

Interview with Shusha Guppy for Paris Review summer 1984

writing poetry

April 13, 2019

When writing poetry one is always assisted and even carried away by the rhythm of all things outside, for the lyric cadence is that of nature: of the waters, the wind, the night. But in order to shape prose rhythmically, one has to immerse oneself deeply within oneself and detect the blood’s anonymous, multivaried rhythm. Prose is to be built like a cathedral: there one is truly without name, without ambition, without help: up in the scaffolding, alone with one’s conscience.

Rainer Maria Rilke

The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke

 trans. Ulrich Baer

Characters simply come and find me. They sit down, I offer them a coffee. They tell me their story and then they almost always leave. When a character, after drinking some coffee and briefly telling her story, wants dinner and then a place to sleep and then breakfast and so on, for me the time has come to write the novel. In a novel there’s not much autobiography. There are characters in transit. Naturally, I can project something of my experiences onto these characters, but they have their own autonomy, a personality that is often a mystery to me. I don’t always understand my characters. I write to understand them better.

Dacia Maraini

The Silence of the Outcasts: an interview with Dacia Maraini

Words without borders March 2008

an intimacy going

April 6, 2019

Every work has a shape. I work in a lot of different kinds of forms and a lot of the poems are long. I’m aware of using musical forms. I’m quite influenced by the symphonic form, for example, the sonata form. But I feel it’s really necessary to make as much of the formal construction of it as I can obvious and at the same time there’s an intimacy going on that has to do with the use of the human voice and the fact that one is talking to others and there’s the possibility of having some sort of enormous performance thing happen, as if performing a play.

Alice Notley

Seeing the future: a conversation with Alice Notley

not the salvation

April 2, 2019

The orgasm focuses. I lust to write. The coming of the orgasm is not the salvation but, more, the birth of my ego. I cannot write until I find my ego. The only kind of writer I could be is the kind who exposes himself.. . .To write is to spend oneself, to gamble oneself. But up to now I have not even liked the sound of my own name. To write, I must love my name. The writer is in love with himself. . .and makes his books out of that meeting and that violence.

Susan Sontag
Journal entry 19th November 1959

keepers of the unsayable

March 31, 2019

If poets are the keepers of the unsayable, then silence, not language, is a poet’s natural element, the realm where the unsayable lives. Poets fetishize silence as much as words; they are disturbed and comforted by the sounds that interrupt it. This is what John Keats means by Negative Capability, his notion of a poet’s basic qualification, the need for ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’ This a fancy way of describing ambivalence, also a basic qualification for a poet, the ability to passionately hold two opposing feelings at once. Poets need ambivalence in order to acknowledge the unsayable and speak nonetheless. The hidden subject of all poems is the silence that surrounds them, the things that can’t be, that will never be said; a real poem points to everything beyond it.

Craig Morgan Teicher
Ars Poetica: Origin Stories