Tasting Life Twice

Archive for the category “Writing”

Interview with Cormac McCarthy

Ahead of The Road’s November 25 film release, The Wall Street Journal has a wide-ranging interview with the author Cormac McCarthy.  In the interview he discusses the creative process, the back story to some of his books, his thoughts on the human future, the presence of beauty and goodness in a world out of sorts and the question of God.


Here are some excerpts from the article, Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy.

WSJ: What kind of things make you worry?

CM: If you think about some of the things that are being talked about by thoughtful, intelligent scientists, you realize that in 100 years the human race won’t even be recognizable. We may indeed be part machine and we may have computers implanted. It’s more than theoretically possible to implant a chip in the brain that would contain all the information in all the libraries in the world. As people who have talked about this say, it’s just a matter of figuring out the wiring. Now there’s a problem you can take to bed

WSJ: Does this issue of length apply to books, too? Is a 1,000-page book somehow too much?

…the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you’re going to write something like “The Brothers Karamazov” or “Moby-Dick,” go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.

WSJ: How does the notion of aging and death affect the work you do? Has it become more urgent?

…I hear people talking about going on a vacation or something and I think, what is that about? I have no desire to go on a trip. My perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank paper. That’s heaven. That’s gold and anything else is just a waste of time.

….I’m not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.

Is there a line between art and science, and where does it start to blur?

CM: There’s certainly an aesthetic to mathematics and science. It was one of the ways Paul Dirac got in trouble. He was one of the great physicists of the 20th century. But he really believed, as other physicists did, that given the choice between something which was logical and something which was beautiful, they would opt for the aesthetic as being more likely to be true.

Do you think people start as innately good?

CM: I don’t think goodness is something that you learn. If you’re left adrift in the world to learn goodness from it, you would be in trouble. But people tell me from time to time that my son John is just a wonderful kid. I tell people that he is so morally superior to me that I feel foolish correcting him about things, but I’ve got to do something–I’m his father. There’s not much you can do to try to make a child into something that he’s not. But whatever he is, you can sure destroy it. Just be mean and cruel and you can destroy the best person.

WSJ: Do you feel like you’re trying to address the same big questions in all your work, but just in different ways?

CM: Creative work is often driven by pain. It may be that if you don’t have something in the back of your head driving you nuts, you may not do anything. It’s not a good arrangement. If I were God, I wouldn’t have done it that way. Things I’ve written about are no longer of any interest to me, but they were certainly of interest before I wrote about them. So there’s something about writing about it that flattens them. You’ve used them up. I tell people I’ve never read one of my books, and that’s true. They think I’m pulling their leg.


The Surprises of Storytelling

RowlingCommonly, we think of a writer as sitting at his or her computer, knowing precisely where the plot is going from beginning to end, who does what, how each character behaves and so on. Such is our notion of authorial intent: the author intends for the character to do that and so the character will. More than one writer of fiction, though, has described the writing task as filled with  unexpected turns along the way. An author describes one of his characters as having surprised them or the story as “taking on a life of its own”. Writers may reflect upon what they have written as if they were witnesses to creation unfolding and not simply the creator of the plot. J.K. Rowling described this in an interview a few years ago. Discussing final the book in her Harry Potter series, she pod-0514described the writing process: “We’re working towards the end I always planned but a couple of characters I expected to survive have died and one character got a reprieve,” she said, declining to elaborate.

I came across another example of this, reading Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story by Evan Schwartz.  Schwartz’s historical sketch describes how The Wizard of Oz came about and explores some of the literary symbolism in the great American classic. 

Balm would tell his editor that “suddenly this one story moved right in and took possession” and again, “The story really seemed to write itself.”


Maud knew when Frank was traveling on the Yellow Brick Road because he would go into a trance, totally absorbed by the fantasy. ‘his best friends could speak to him at such times and he wouldn’t recognize them,’ she said. At one point Frank grew frustrated with the story. ‘My characters won’t do what I want them to do,’ he lamented to Maud. Days later, she checked back and found out that Frank had solved the problem. ‘How?’ Maud asked.

Frank threw up his hands. ‘By letting them do what they wanted to do.’ This kept happening over and over, and Frank just went with the flow. ‘The characters surprised me,’ he said. ‘It was as though they were living people.’

Bearing the Burden of the Mystery


Last year I was privileged to hear Elizabeth Strout speak at The Festival of Faith and Writing on the subject of “Bearing the Burden”. Prior to her talk at the conference, I had just finished her book Abide With Me and found it a stunning work, deeply perceptive about the struggles of clerical life and the anguish of an average congregation. 

Today, Strout was honored with a Pulitzer Prize for her third book, Oliver Kitteridge, which tells of a retired schoolteacher in Maine, the people she encounters in her small town and the emotional sweep of the human condition.

At the conference she described for us why she tells stories:

"That’s why I am a writer.  Nothing has ever interested me more as much as the way people manage themselves, large and small. …if we as writers can record truthfully what lies in our hearts, souls and minds we can offer to the world an image of themselves, ourselves.  We can show that hell is the absence of love and we can show the astonishing power of love.  And we can show people that how we live, matters…I do think the world really is in a pretty precarious situation.  Why write stories now?  Why especially write about an aged white woman in New England.  I guess the answer is, I hope the answer is – her losses, her bafflements, her hopes, her own ability to find what can sustain her is in some form the story of most of us.  We lose, we grieve, we are capable of being returned to ourselves by some small beauty.  Because like it or not, we have to bear the burden of the mystery. And it’s easier to do it, knowing that we’re not alone.”

The Power of Fiction

The power of fiction is to create empathy. If lifts you away from your chair and stuffs you gently down inside someone else’s point of view. . . . A newspaper could tell you that one hundred people, say, in an airplane, or in Israel, or in Iraq, have died today. And you can think to yourself, “How very sad,” then turn the page and see how the Wildcats fared. But a novel could take just one of those hundred lives and show you exactly how it felt to be that person rising from bed in the morning, watching the desert light on the tile of her doorway and on the curve of her daughter’s cheek. You could taste that person’s breakfast, and love her family, and sort through her worries as your own, and know that a death in that household will be the end of the only life that someone will ever have. As important as yours. As important as mine.

Barbara Kingsolver

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