the art of fiction

One of my favorite features from The Paris Review is their “Art of Fiction” series. The interesting part for me is how the interviewer sets the scene, describing the author’s office or writing loft or what have you. Here are the highlights from their interview with one of my favorite authors. “The Art of Fiction No. 39, Jorge Luis Borges.”

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This interview was conducted in July 1966, in conversations I held with Borges at his office in the Biblioteca Nacional, of which he is the director. The room, recalling an older Buenos Aires, is not really an office at all but a large, ornate, high-ceilinged chamber in the newly renovated library. On the walls—but far too high to be easily read, as if hung with diffidence—are various academic certificates and literary citations. There are also several Piranesi etchings, bringing to mind the nightmarish Piranesi ruin in Borges’s story, “The Immortal.” Over the fireplace is a large portrait; when I asked Borges’s secretary, Miss Susana Quinteros, about the portrait, she responded in a fitting, if unintentional echo of a basic Borgesean theme: “No importa. It’s a reproduction of another painting.”

   At diagonally opposite corners of the room are two large, revolving bookcases that contain, Miss Quinteros explained, books Borges frequently consults, all arranged in a certain order and never varied so that Borges, who is nearly blind, can find them by position and size. The dictionaries, for instance, are set together, among them an old, sturdily rebacked, well-worn copy of Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language and an equally well-worn Anglo-Saxon dictionary. Among the other volumes, ranging from books in German and English on theology and philosophy to literature and history, are the complete Pelican Guide to English Literature, the Modern Library’s Selected Writings of Francis Bacon, Hollander’s The Poetic Edda, The Poems of Catullus, Forsyth’s Geometry of Four Dimensions, several volumes of Harrap’s English Classics, Parkman’s The Conspiracy of Pontiac, and the Chambers edition of Beowulf. Recently, Miss Quinteros said, Borges had been reading The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, and just the night before he had taken to his home, where his mother, who is in her nineties, reads aloud to him, Washington Irving’s The Life of Mahomet.

Each day, late in the afternoon, Borges arrives at the library where it is now his custom to dictate letters and poems, which Miss Quinteros types and reads back to him. Following his revisions, she makes two or three, sometimes four copies of each poem before Borges is satisfied. Some afternoons she reads to him, and he carefully corrects her English pronunciation. Occasionally, when he wants to think, Borges leaves his office and slowly circles the library’s rotunda, high above the readers at the tables below. But he is not always serious, Miss Quinteros stressed, confirming what one might expect from his writing: “Always there are jokes, little practical jokes.”

When Borges enters the library, wearing a beret and a dark gray flannel suit hanging loosely from his shoulders and sagging over his shoes, everyone stops talking for a moment, pausing perhaps out of respect, perhaps out of empathetic hesitation for a man who is not entirely blind. His walk is tentative, and he carries a cane, which he uses like a divining rod. He is short, with hair that looks slightly unreal in the way it rises from his head. His features are vague, softened by age, partially erased by the paleness of his skin. His voice, too, is unemphatic, almost a drone, seeming, possibly because of the unfocused expression of his eyes, to come from another person behind the face; his gestures and expressions are lethargic—characteristic is the involuntary droop of one eyelid. But when he laughs—and he laughs often—his features wrinkle into what actually resembles a wry question mark; and he is apt to make a sweeping or clearing gesture with his arm and to bring his hand down on the table. Most of his statements take the form of rhetorical questions, but in asking a genuine question, Borges displays now a looming curiosity, now a shy, almost pathetic incredulity. When he chooses, as in telling a joke, he adopts a crisp, dramatic tone; his quotation of a line from Oscar Wilde would do justice to an Edwardian actor. His accent defies easy classification: a cosmopolitan diction emerging from a Spanish background, educated by correct English speech and influenced by American movies. (Certainly no Englishman ever pronounced piano as “pieano,” and no American says “a-nee-hilates” for annihilates.) The predominant quality of his articulation is the way his words slur softly into one another, allowing suffixes to dwindle so that “couldn’t” and “could” are virtually indistinguishable. Slangy and informal when he wants to be, more typically he is formal and bookish in his English speech, relying, quite naturally, on phrases like “that is to say” and “wherein.” Always his sentences are linked by the narrative “and then” or the logical “consequently.”

But most of all, Borges is shy. Retiring, even self-obliterating, he avoids personal statement as much as possible and obliquely answers questions about himself by talking of other writers, using their words and even their books as emblems of his own thought.

In this interview it has been attempted to preserve the colloquial quality of his English speech—an illuminating contrast to his writings and a revelation of his intimacy with a language that has figured so importantly in the development of his writing.

Read more.

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how to be a writer

Rebecca Solnit has some great advice over on LitHub. But if you’re too busy to read the article, I’ve distilled it down to her main points.

  1. “Write. There is no substitute. Write what you most passionately want to write, not blogs, posts, tweets or all the disposable bubble wrap in which modern life is cushioned. But start small: write a good sentence, then a good paragraph, and don’t be dreaming of writing the great American novel…because that’s not what writing’s about or how you get there from here. The road is made entirely out of words.” I once cautioned a friend that she was diluting her writing prowess by blogging so prolifically. She and I differed on what writing prowess was, and she went on to be a blogger who doesn’t write much, while I went on to be a writer.
  2. “Remember that writing is not typing. Thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, composing in your head and in sketches, maybe some typing, with revisions as you go, and then more revisions, deletions, emendations, additions, reflections, setting aside and returning afresh, because a good writer is always a good editor of his or her own work.” I am researching a book now that deals with the silk and spice routes.
  3. “Read. And don’t read. Read good writing, and don’t live in the present…Originality is partly a matter of having your own influences: read evolutionary biology textbooks or the Old Testament, find your metaphors where no one’s looking, don’t belong.”
  4. “Listen. Don’t listen. Feedback is great, from your editor, your agent, your readers, your friends, your classmates, but there are times when you know exactly what you’re doing and why and obeying them means being out of tune with yourself.”
  5. “Find a vocation. Talent is overrated, and it is usually conflated with nice style. Passion, vocation, vision, and dedication are rarer, and they will get you through the rough spots in your style when your style won’t give you a reason to get up in the morning…It starts with passion even before it starts with words.”
  6. “Time. It takes time.This means that you need to find that time. Don’t be too social. Live below your means and keep the means modest…don’t develop expensive habits or consuming hobbies.”
  7. “Facts. Always get them right. No one will trust you if you get your facts wrong…Fiction operates under different rules but it often has facts in it too, and your credibility rests on their accuracy.”
  8. “Joy. Writing is facing your deepest fears and all your failures, including how hard it is to write a lot of the time and how much you loathe what you’ve just written and that you’re the person who just committed those flawed sentences…When it totally sucks, pause, look out the window…and say, I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.”
  9. “What we call success is very nice and comes with useful byproducts, but success is not love, or at least it is at best the result of love of the work and not of you, so don’t confuse the two. The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning rather than a consumer of meanings that may be at odds with your soul, your destiny, your humanity, so there’s another kind of success in becoming conscious that matters and that is up to you and nobody else…”
  10. “It’s all really up to you, but you already knew that.”