More from Joseph Kanon
Published: December 30, 2005
|On research: I find that you can get place rather quickly. Researching postwar Berlin [for The Good German] took a year. It was very pleasurable, but I essentially just laid out a course for myself: I'm going to learn about the Occupation. |
How much of this shows on the page, I don't know. My own theory about this is that if you write in period, don't billboard it to the reader. Writers usually do this with brand names. An example would be, "Oppenheimer sat back and lit a Chesterfield." Well, this is only the writer telling the reader he knows what kind of cigarette was popular. In fact, the way they would have thought about it in 1945 was, "He sat back and lit a cigarette." Now you should know [such information] if you're the writer, but it doesn't mean you need to show it to the reader.
What's really key is how people talk to each other. And I don't mean slang, I just mean you [the writer] have to imagine you are the person who's just seen the movies that came out that year, or the political issues in the papers--what people might be talking about. You don't necessarily have to mention them, but you have to know what your characters know and what informs their thinking. In a sense, you time-trip with them. At some point you really have to stop [researching] and live in that time.
[In our interview and in his novels, Kanon shows a visceral sense of how World War II has profoundly shaped our history, as well as an instinctual feel for how its many moral ramifications might be spun into a serious, but entertaining, story.]
The effects of World War II: It doesn't go away. World War II was the great turning point in the century. The reason I'm so drawn to it, I think, is that this is a time when history foisted upon people the need to make the kinds of compromised decisions we make all the time, but not necessarily in such a dramatic way. Sixty million people were killed in that war--it's the worst thing that ever happened. Nothing since has been remotely as terrible, although we'd like to think so, because it happened to us
Writers and publishers: Having been on both sides, I can say writers and publishers will always be approaching this process differently. As a publisher, you are frequently publishing 150 books. A writer is publishing one. That's a real difference in focus and attention, and no publisher can possibly be as on top of things as you would like them to be.
It is important, also, though, to let the publisher take ownership of what he does; don't try to publish for him. There's nothing more annoying when you're on the other side of the desk than someone who's constantly trying to tell you what to do, and then treats you as a kind of travel agent or service operation. If you are lucky enough to have a good publisher, treasure them by trying to understand what they're going through. They're trying to get a blip on the screen for you in a culture that is so saturated with all forms of popular art that getting any form of attention is an extraordinary achievement.
The future of writing: So far as alternative media are concerned, writers could do themselves a favor by not complaining and just getting on with it. Things are as they are. There is no turning back the clock--or the computer games. I've seen my own children utterly absorbed [in the latter] hour after hour after hour. Do I wish they were sitting down with an early edition of Mark Twain? Well, sure. Do I wish their idea of a great time was curling up with a Victorian novel, as it may have been when I was that age? Yes. But it isn't, and it won't be. But that doesn't mean that you as a writer shouldn't be trying to reach them.
I think there's virtually nothing prose can't do. I think it's still the great medium. I can't speak for what's going to happen 50 years from now on computer screens. Maybe I'm of the older generation--I cannot read long text on a computer screen. I think it's annoying; I usually print it out and then read it on paper. But think about this technology: You've got a portable, attractive, keep-it-in-your-hand medium that offers you the universe, and it's the price of a ticket and a half at the movies. I think that's a medium that's probably here to stay.