How I Write: Darin Strauss
Published: August 22, 2002
|Polite fellow that he is, novelist Darin Strauss isn't afraid to stake out a bold position: Literature can be fun. Attracted himself to books with larger-than-life characters such as Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, Strauss has blended historical research with his own significant powers of invention to create two highly entertaining yet distinctly literary novels. Chang and Eng, his debut, imagines the lives of the famed Siamese twins as told by Eng, the quieter of the brothers. While finishing Chang and Eng, Strauss, 32, read a mention of the real-life man who became the model for the phrase "the real McCoy." That led to his novel of the same name, the saga of a turn-of-the-century boxer and con artist. A Long Island native, Strauss studied creative writing with E.L. Doctorow at New York University, where he now teaches a course. He was nominated for the New York Public Library's Young Lion's Fiction Award in 2000 and was a nationally syndicated columnist. His articles have appeared in GQ, Time Out, The New York Daily News, and newspapers and literary journals across the country. He lives in Brooklyn.|
Credits: Chang and Eng (2000), The Real McCoy (2002).
Why: The easy answer is, I can't do anything else well, and I don't know what else I would do. I get really restless when I don't write, even though it's not always an enjoyable process.
How: I don't like to plan too carefully before I start. Otherwise, it would seem too contrived to me. I have a basic idea in mind, and I write for about a hundred pages or so with little planning. Then I stop, survey what I have, and meticulously plot at that point, often cutting much of what I have. But that gives me a chance to feel the story out first.
When and where: I try to write five days a week and one of the weekend days, though I'm not so strict about the weekend day. I have a little writing room in my apartment. I try to work 9 to 5. If I'm on a roll, I'll go later. If it's not going well, I'll stop earlier. I take a lot of phone time during working hours--I get lonely pretty easy. My concentration is easily shaken.
On a solid day, I may write a page, sometimes more, sometimes less. I write on a desktop computer, first, second and third draft: I can't write any other way. I don't often like to think about the process too much. It's
like focusing on the man behind the curtain.
Writer's block: I haven't had it before, but I have it now. To get The Real McCoy done for when my publisher wanted it, I worked intensely for six months, seven days a week. I burned myself out, I think. I am starting to work on some short stories; I haven't really published any before. I'm doing a project for McSweeney's Books (in Brooklyn), writing three 20-minute stories.
Ideas: Both novels have started with an idea: the idea of a character being a false symbol of truth (The Real McCoy); a character serving as a metaphor for our lack of certitude about identity (Chang and Eng).
Advice: Read a lot. Read like a writer, with an eye for how you can use the experience to help you write. When you read a book you don't like, ask yourself, How would I do it better? When reading something you like, ask yourself, How can I use that in my work?
Darin Strauss was interviewed by Jim Higgins, who last wrote about Anchee Min for The Writer.
Photograph by Emma Dodge Hanson