|Sherry Ellis’ Illuminating Fiction: Today’s Best Writers of Fiction, a collection of interviews with 19 authors, succeeds as a helpful companion to writers and book lovers. Writers will find practical, fingers-to-the-keyboard advice and inspiration, while book lovers will find in her questions the kind of rich literary inquiry that makes reading more pleasurable. |
Ellis’ knowledge of literature and her familiarity with the writing process shine in these interviews. For example, she gets to the heart of writing when she asks Mary Yukari Waters (The Laws of Evening) if she agrees with Virginia Woolf’s statement that “every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.” Ellis must have known from Waters’ work that this quote would strike a chord: “It’s crucial to come from an emotionally honest place when you write fiction,” Waters says. “The world is packed with people who can write well, but the only way a writer is going to stand out is to be completely, emotionally honest in a way that resonates deep down in a reader’s mind.” Ellis divides the focus of the interviews between the strategies and techniques these writers use to tell a good story and literary discussions of overarching themes, metaphors, symbolism, plot structures and characterizations.
The one odd note in the otherwise excellent book is the inclusion of the short story “Stamford” by Edward P. Jones, which, she explains, shows the transitions stories go through in revision. In the Jones interview, however, there is little discussion of the story or revisions. This omission is a mere blip in light of Ellis’ ease with the material and her wide-ranging book knowledge. I like the conversational tone, the intellectual give and take, and the in-depth discussions of writing and literature. One of my favorite interviews is with Arthur Golden, who wrote Memoirs of a Geisha. Since I’m drawn to character-driven novels, I especially enjoyed his discussion of character and plot. “I hate the word ‘plot’ and use the word ‘narrative’ instead,” he says. “I think that plot suggests something that is independent of character and is independent of feelings. I don’t think there is such a thing as plot, at least not for me. ... I start with character. Then I sit down and try to sort out ways to give expression to these qualities and this dilemma and this life struggle that I’ve imagined through a sequence of events that constitute, in the end, the narrative.”
Golden says one of the most common mistakes his students make is to “people their stories with whatever characters they find. It doesn’t occur to them the characters are really going to play roles.” If the characters don’t fill roles in telling your story, then take them out.Another favorite is Margot Livesey (The Missing World), whose novels are tightly written psychological dramas in which suspense hangs on each sentence. Does she plan them out? “I usually do have a destination. I knew in Banishing Verona that the novel would begin in and end in an empty room,” Livesey says. “What would happen between those empty rooms I was less certain about. I wish I were one of those writers like Henry James who could rehearse these things in notebooks and then write them out beautifully as he does, but I’ve never quite managed that.” This answer begged for a follow-up; I wanted more about her process to fill that space between those bookend rooms.
Here’s a sampling of more advice from writers. Each one has a different process. The key is to pick and choose what works for you. Ron Carlson (Plan B for the Middle Class) says fiction “definitely has a vector. There is need. Sometimes it’s not desire; sometimes it’s fear, a desire not to have something happen, a natural dynamic. If there isn’t that dynamic, then you have this fiction that’s chargeless and neutered.”
Details connect Joan Leegant (An Hour in Paradise) to her readers. “One needs to anchor stories in details ... that the reader can see and hear and smell and touch. That’s how I can get the story from my head into yours. ... I’ve learned to stop and take note of things while I’m writing. It’s almost a meditative practice.”Anyone who has a full-time job, family, and other commitments will find Julia Glass’ take on the old adage “write every day” reassuring. “To be a good writer, you don’t have to put words on paper every day,” she says. “Sometimes, because I had to earn a living while I was writing Three Junes, I didn’t get to write for three weeks; but the characters were alive in my head. ... You have to persevere, you have to be able to take rejection, and you have to be patient.”
Among the other writers Ellis interviews are Chris Abani, Steve Almond, Amy Bloom, Yiyun Li, Paul Lisicky, Jill McCorkle, Elizabeth Searle and Matthew Sharpe. A bonus to reading the interviews is that you may, like I did, come away with some names to add to your reading (or listening) list.