James Atlas: Writers on Writing

Author James Atlas shares the most important thing he has ever learned about writing.

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James Atlas
James Atlas. Photo by Michael Lionstar

James Atlas’ latest book, The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale, discusses his work as a writer and publisher of biographies. He’s penned biographies of the author Saul Bellow and the poet Delmore Schwartz and also launched the Penguin Lives series of short biographies, the Eminent Lives series of biographies jointly published with HarperCollins, and the Great Discoveries series jointly published with W. W. Norton & Company. Atlas is the author of several novels; he’s also an editor, anthologist, and the founder of the publishing companies Atlas Books and Atlas and Co. before becoming an editor at Amazon Publishing. Atlas was a longtime editor at the New York Times Magazine, and his work has appeared in Vanity Fair, the New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere.

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What is the most important thing you’ve learned about writing? And how has that helped you as a writer?

OK, the second question I already can’t answer, because I don’t know yet. I haven’t written anything since I finished this book [The Shadow in the Garden]. So that’s not actually a facetious answer. I don’t know what I’ve learned.

I guess I’ve learned, since I’m just beginning to think of another project, that you have to be free, you have to just write what – I know that sounds ridiculous after 50 years of doing this – but you have to write what you feel like writing and enjoy it and to hell with the consequences. I wrote my last book without a concept, which was agonizing and foolhardy, but I couldn’t think of any other way to do it. And even though it was very difficult, I also learned a lot about this issue – freedom – how it could be done by not allowing myself to have expectations of what the book would be or listen to anyone else’s expectations. Then, sorry, [that’s] the answer to the second question.

The answer to the first, what did I learn about writing?

I guess that’s sort of the answer: I learned that if you can find access to this latent expressivity that’s within you, or you wouldn’t have become a writer, you have a chance at least of saying what you want to say. And what amazes me about this – which I’ll try to describe in a way that’s not self-congratulatory, since I’m sure there’s a lot wrong with the book or all books – it’s like trusting your voice and hoping that if you write what you really feel, you won’t be unmasked as a jerk. It’ll emerge that what you have to say is useful to people and interesting and smart and sensitive and empathic and all those things that one wishes for from writing. So you’re taking a chance, and it’s a calculated risk. But, for example, in my book at some point – I can’t remember where along the line – I decided to put in these footnotes. And people really enjoy the footnotes, which are digressive, jokey at times, foolish, but, as one of my friends said, “I can hear your voice.” And that takes some of the pressure off the fact that there was a lot to absorb in the book. And I just felt like the reader needed a break sometimes, and I needed a break, and it was fun! It was really fun writing.

But remember that it’s also about revising it 17 times. When I say write what you want, you don’t just sit there and dash it off in a light-hearted mode. I mean, you labor and labor and labor and labor. So it’s spontaneous, but it’s spontaneous revision. You didn’t ask this question, but the amount of revision required to produce a good piece of writing is astonishing. And numerous people have said it’s all invisible. The reader simply doesn’t know that you’ve done this. In a novel, you’ve gone over literally every word – and I picked this number, not entirely at random – 17 times. And when you are doing that you’ve made some sort of literary vow, a stringent literary vow, that that’s how it’s going to be. And if you read a great piece of writing, you know that that’s happened.

—Gabriel Packard is the author of The Painted Ocean: A Novel published by Corsair, an imprint of Little, Brown.