Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Can a Writer Retire?

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Philip Roth, long one of my favorite writers, recently announced his retirement. In his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side there’s reportedly a post-it note stuck on his computer screen that says, “The struggle with writing is over.”

But how does a writer retire?  Particularly one as single-mindedly devoted to his craft as Roth.

Philip RothFor more than fifty years Roth wrote constantly, turning out book after book from the novella Goodbye Columbus in his early twenties in 1959 to his last, Nemesis published in 2010.  More than thirty books, some better than others, but all with legitimate literary merit.

According to a piece by David Remnick in the New Yorker, “Roth’s writing days were spent in long silence-no distractions, no invitations entertained, no calls, no e-mails. After I wrote a Profile of Roth, around the time of the publication of “The Human Stain,” we would meet every so often, and he told me the story of how a friend had asked him to take care of his kitten. “For a day or two, I played with the cat, but, in the end, it demanded too much attention,” he said. “It consumed me, you see. So I had to ask my friend to take it back.” Four years ago, he told me that he was interested in trying to break the “fanatical habit” of writing, if only as an experiment in alternative living. “So I went to the Met and saw a big show they had. It was wonderful. Astonishing paintings. I went back the next day. I saw it again. Great. But what was I supposed to do next, go a third time? So I started writing again.”

My question is what will he do this time?  Go back to the Met over and over and over? 

Nevertheless Roth claims he has already said what he had to say.   In Remnick’s piece, Roth quotes the boxer Joe Louis  “‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ It’s exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had… I don’t think a new book will change what I’ve already done, and if I write a new book it will probably be a failure. Who needs to read one more mediocre book?”

I repeat my question, what will he do this time.  Keep returning to the Met?  He’s not young.  He turns eighty this year. But his mind is still sharp. His skills have barely diminished, if at all.  And writing a book is not an effort that demands physical strength like mining for coal or loading heavy furniture onto a moving van to help a still-active crime writer move from his island home to Portland.  Most writers, with some obvious exceptions, are not people who worked simply to make money, to amass a fortune and, having amassed it, now want to spend the rest of their days doing something more fun like chasing potential trophy wives. Or doing something more noble like helping hungry children in Africa or starting a foundation.

Philip Roth is and I believe always will be a writer. Being a writer requires a certain turn of mind. To sit (or in Roth’s case stand) at a desk and dream what it is like to live someone else’s life.  Whether you’re Roth who, no doubt, will be long remembered for his best works or James Hayman who almost certainly won’t, a writer writes. And both Roth and I are writers.

Somebody once asked Mel Brooks who is 87, when, if ever, he planned to retire.  He reportedly responded “Retire? Retire from what? I sit in a chair with a pencil and pad and when I think of something that makes me laugh, I write it down.”

I’m considerably younger than either Roth or Brooks. I’ve still got most of my hair, though now it’s mostly silver instead of its original black. And I’m certainly not as obsessive or disciplined about my writing as Roth.  I do go to parties. I do go to movies and museums. I do have lunch with friends. But at the end of the day, or more accurately, at the beginning of the next day, I go back to my writing.  I feel pretty much the way Brooks does. There’s never any reason to retire from a writing career other than Alzheimers , the horrible disease that felled British writer Iris Murdoch.

Harper Lee wrote one book. She published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1961. And, as far as anyone knows, has written little, if anything since.  Like Mel Brooks she’s now 87.  I don’t know how she did it or how she spends her days. But I think she’s an anomaly.

 Some retirees play golf.  Others do good works. Or take care of their grandchildren. Or travel. I’m not a golfer and at this point have no grandchildren. I have enough money not to be forced to put on a blue jacket and welcome people to Walmart. While I’ve served on a few boards, I’m not very good at it.  I’d like to be able to travel but nobody ever said you can’t travel and still write. In fact, writers have the unique luxury of legitimately being able to deduct the cost of travel from their taxes as research or reading tours. Even Amtrak is reportedly offering writers free train rides as “fellowships,” to write and I for one love writing on trains.

Having recently completed and survived a move from our island home to a house in Portland, I’ve started, after an enforced hiatus, to get back to writing my fourth McCabe/Savage thriller.  I’m 17,000 words in and I like what I’ve got so far and, more importantly, I’m enjoying the days I get to spend inside my characters’ heads.  It’s where I want to be.

 I hope, like Elmore Leonard or Mel Brooks, I’ll still be at it when (and if) I hit 87. I just hope that if I am, someone will want to read about the people I bring to life inside my head and on my computer.

 

The Purpose and Future of Fiction

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

James Hayman: There have been many dire predictions over the past few years that what we do and enjoy as writers and readers is doomed both as entertainment and art.  The arguments are simple. Today, as never before, the competition for attracting interested customers, or as we used to call it when I was in the advertising business on Madison Avenue, for share of eyeballs is fierce.  They competitors are obvious and omnipresent.  TV. Movies. Music. Trolling the Internet.  Finding “friends” and communicating with them on Facebook and other social media. Video games. Online gaming. Texting. Sexting.  There are probably others I haven’t thought of. And, no doubt, there will be even more to come that nobody else has yet thought of either.

With all of these competitors and distractions, there is certainly legitimate reason to ask how many among us will continue to devote ten to fifteen solid hours to sitting and reading a novel either for simple entertainment or in appreciation of literary art.

I think there is hope. The enormous popularity among young people, of the Harry Potter books and more recently the Hunger Games Trilogy, gives me hope for the survival of a class of people willing and eager to spend hours alone reading a novel rather than watching movies or sports or slaughtering realistic cartoon characters in violent video games.

I think people will continue to read the crime novels that we, the “Maine Crime Writers,” create as well as other genre and literary fiction.  My reasoning is simple. Fiction in all its forms offers us something none of those other things can match.

To put it simply, fiction uniquely allows us, both as readers and as writers, to enter into, share and explore the interior life of other human beings.  Both the characters in the book. And the creator of those characters. “The deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction,”  novelist Jonathan Franzen argues, “is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness.” Characters that are well drawn offer readers insights into themselves and to other human beings whose thoughts and feelings are usually as real and intimate as the author can make them. Writers who write well offer eaders similar insights into themselves.

As a writer of fiction, the physically solitary act of creating a character, allows me to explore as deeply as I know how, the inner lives of other people. The the feelings, emotions and attitudes of the characters I create  are of course bent by passing through the prism of my own attitudes and emotions.  But this in no way negates the connectedness Franzen was writing about. It adds to it.

Both writing and reading fiction are voyeuristic exercises. We peer into the lives of others.  But unlike the voyeur who eavesdrops on a conversation or reads someone else’s mail or illicitly peers through a window, the writer and reader of a well-imagined and well-crafted novel get to share the deepest emotions and thoughts of the characters. They come to know and understand them in a way that it is difficult to match in real life where  even those closest to us create emotional barriers and try to reveal only what they want us to know about them.

The removal of those barriers allows the sense of connectedness Franzen was talking about.

But, some may ask, how real can the connectedness be when the characters are made up.  When the characters aren’t real.

The simple answer is that they are real.

McCabe is to some extent the real me.  So is Maggie and the other characters in my books, both male and female, adult and child.  But in the act of creating them, in the process of giving them thoughts and feelings, of putting them in conflict and often in dire straits, the characters often take over and take on lives of their own.

I’ve written before that perhaps the most difficult and interesting character for me to create in the three books I’ve written so far was Abby Quinn the young schizophrenic woman in The Chill of Night.  In creating Abby I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about schizophrenia. I read a number of memoirs written by schizophrenics about their own interior lives.  I began to understand what its like to suffer this terrible disease. Then when I put Abby in extreme circumstances of witnessing a murder and then being pursued by the murderer, my understanding of who she was and how she would react became much deeper.  I believe readers of the book begin to share that understanding and develop a deeper sympathy and empathy for someone like Abby. That kind of understanding and empathy is what Franzen was talking about when he said, “The deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness.

In Praise of a Perceptive Editor

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

James Hayman:  At the moment, I’m in the middle of making final revisions to my third McCabe/Savage thriller. Titled Darkness First the book is due out in the UK in June 2013 and, hopefully, around the same time in the US.

Darkness First is the first of my books to require any kind of extensive editorial rewriting.  Number two, The Chill of Night, sailed through with only minor tinkering and the first, The Cutting, required only one fairly simple, though important change to attain its final form.

Darkness First was the most difficult of the three books to write, in many ways the most ambitious and, in my view, also the most interesting.  It’s also the first of the three that helped me truly appreciate how valuable a perceptive and talented editor can be, in this case Stefanie Bierwerth who works with Penguin UK in London, can be.

The plot itself is fairly simple.  A large haul of oxycontin is smuggled by boat from Saint John, New Brunswick into Eastport, Maine. A distribution network is set up. The drugs are sold. Money is made.  Eventually, there is a falling out between the two people responsible for the crime. One is a vicious killer named Conor Riordan and the other a beautiful young woman from Eastport named Tiffany Stoddard. On a dark and steamy (no, not stormy) night in Machias State Park, Conor Riordan brutally stabs Tiff Stoddard to death.  The police quickly discover Riordan is the culprit. The only problem is Conor Riordan doesn’t exist.

At the suggestion of her father, Washington County Sheriff John Savage, Detective Maggie Savage of the Portland Police Department comes home to Washington County and volunteers to join the state police investigation into the crime. Eventually, with the help of her Portland partner, Mike McCabe, Maggie discovers the true killer and solves the crime.

However, in my view, what makes the book work is not just the story line (which I think is pretty good), but also the exploration of Maggie’s feelings for the other major characters and the conflicted feelings/relationships she has with them.  She  finds herself trying to mediate a nasty feud between two men she has loved all her life, her seventy four year old father, who she learns may be dying of cancer, and her  wild and irresponsible younger brother Harlan, who has recently returned from service in Iraq and is recovering from a serious wound and suffering from PTSD.

Maggie’s also trying to sort out her screwed-up love life and needs to resolve the strong attraction she feels to both her Portland partner Mike McCabe and a charming and handsome state police detective named Sean Carroll.

In the end unraveling and resolving these feelings and relationships added a lot to the story.  It also made the book more challenging to write and, in my view, ultimately much more interesting. Stef Bierwerth at Penguin understood this and her perceptive insights and suggestions were a huge help in getting it right. Thanks in part to her, I think it may be the strongest of  the three McCabe/Savage books so far.  I hope my readers agree.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

One of my favorite films from the 60’s is Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner starring a very young Tom Courtenay.  The film is based on a short story by Alan Sillitoe who also wrote the screenplay.  It tells the story of a rebellious young man from England who is arrested for robbing a bakery and is sent to a boys reformatory or a borstal as the Brits call it. While there he discovers that he has a gift for long-distance running and much of the film is about how his lonely reveries while running mile after mile, ultimately shape and change his life.

In my view the film provides an excellent metaphor for the craft of writing.


Writing is a solitary, if not anti-social pursuit.  It’s something you must do alone. If the piece you’re writing happens to be a three or four hundred page novel you have to plan on being alone for incredibly long stretches of time.  If you crave or need constant or even frequent attention and interaction with other people, the best advice anyone can give you about writing a novel is don’t.

The single line I remember most clearly from Annie Dillard’s excellent memoir The Writing Life, (which I read several years ago) is her response to a reader’s question about what makes the ideal writing space.

Dillard, at the time, lived in a beautiful house overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Washington and this reader no doubt was expecting Dillard to describe a cozy, book-filled study with endless views of endless waves lapping against the magnificent coastline. Instead she said that the ideal writing room, at least for her, was a cinderblock cell devoid of books, telephone, television and even windows through which she could catch a glimpse of the outside world.

Like Dillard, I’m lucky enough to live in a beautiful house overlooking the ocean in Maine.  My designated writing room is a small, admittedly book-lined room on the second floor of my house and it boasts one of the prettiest views anyone could ever imagine of Casco Bay and the islands stretching out in the distance.  When I write I close the shades and shut it all out. I also turn off the telephone and disconnect myself from the Internet.

Even writers who prefer writing in crowded places, coffee shops for example, or libraries (where I often write) or while riding on trains or planes, essentially have to be alone inside their own minds and imaginations while they craft their pieces. Their only company are the characters who people their stories (whom I sometimes describe as my imaginary friends). The only interesting conversations they get to engage in are the dialogue exchanges they put in their characters’ mouths. The only beautiful views, or views of any sort, they can enjoy are the ones gazed on by the characters in their tales.

All of this makes me, if not other writers, something of a curmudgeon.  When my wife gently knocks on my door, usually to ask me a civil and often necessary question, my typical response is a low dangerous growl. Cujo in spectacles.

I am currently on deadline to finish my third novel and so I spend all my working time by myself. I’ll be happy when the book is finally finished.  So, I daresay, will my wife and any friends I still have left, those who I haven’t totally driven away.