BJ Hegedus chats with Marisa Silver about
Alone With You
Are you an eeker or a gusher? Do you have to go back and enlarge what you have first written or do you delete and tighten things up?
I love that distinction eeker vs. gusher! I am definitely an eeker. I work slowly and I attempt to work steadily. I try to write a certain number of pages every single day. But I rarely sit down and have any idea of what I'm going to do next. I feel like I'm always in a dark tunnel pawing my way forward, tripping, bashing my head it ain't pretty!
Do you have your stories figured out before you put pen to paper or do you let them work themselves out as you go along?
I never have stories worked out. I usually begin with a shred of a notion, some particular situation that interests me or a relationship that feels potent. My starting points are never concrete. It feels more as if I'm circling something, getting closer and closer each time I circle until I've focused the idea to a point where it feels like it's giving back to me (and hopefully the reader) some notion of what brought me to it. I feel pretty strongly that it is better for me never to know where I'm heading. If I know, then the work becomes burdened by the knowing, by the expectation of what it's supposed to be about. I think the surprises diminish and therefore the story never becomes airborne, never rises above a kind of plodding plain. If I don't know where I'm heading, the possibility exists for surprise and for that strange alchemy that makes something unexpected totally necessary.
When asked what he did to help himself get started on a story, Hemingway replied, " All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know."
Oh, boy. I don't know if there's any true sentence. I think truth is a really mutable thing. And one person's truth does not hold for another, and might not even hold for that person at another time. So, I guess I'm less interested in truth than in accuracy, emotionally accuracy.
What do you do to call the muse?
You have mentioned, in prior interviews, that it was the reading of a collection of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, as a child, that made you go from a being pretty much a non- reader to a devoted one. What other books have had a lasting effect on you and stand out in your mind? Why?
The list is vast. The stories of William Trevor are the high bar for me in terms of what a story can achieve. He takes seemingly small, fragmentary moments in seemingly ordinary lives and reveals the richness within. And his stories never fail to take me by surprise. What he reveals about human nature is always magnificent. I love Alice Munro as well. I love Philip Roth because he knows how to spin a great human story we think couldn't be farther from our lives but which turn out to be our lives. I love Graham Greene because he just knows how to spin a great story. The characters in Mme Bovary are pitch perfect the list goes on and on.
As a former filmmaker would you be able to hand off one of your stories to someone else to be made into a film? Ever have thoughts of doing so yourself?
I wouldn't want to do it myself because that might feel like living my life over and I want to move forward. But I'd be happy to hand it off to someone else and see how he or she would make cinema out of it. It would be fascinating to see that transformation, to see how much visual language could tell the story I told with words.
What advice do you have for writers starting out?
Read, read, read.
You have also mentioned in previous interviews that you know from the beginning whether a story is a novel or a short story. Has it ever been necessary to change course once you got started?
I've never had that experience. A story comes to me as something that feels contained and that needs to be told in thirty pages or it comes to me as something that has many tentacles which need to be explored, as something whose map is vast and which requires a great journey. It is always clear to me which is which.
Once your stories are written down and completed, do the characters linger in your head or do they peacefully allow you to move on?
Once I'm done, the characters live inside that story for me and do not linger. Often people have asked me if I want to continue working with a certain character but I have not yet had that desire. The characters exist, for me, in the plastic framework of the piece. They are functions of a larger story telling effort. They are not independent of the story that held them within its pages. They don't walk off the page and go somewhere else. Where would they go? They don't exist! It is, however, a great compliment when people express to me the desire to see more of a character. That means to me that the character really lived for the reader, that his or her desires and preoccupations were compelling.
Do you share works in progress with others or do you keep them to yourself?
I don't generally show unfinished work to people, or at least work I know is unfinished. I will show work to a few people when I feel I have gotten as far as I can go with something and I need a good read. It's hard for me to show something when I know it has problems, because generally, I'm the one who has to figure out the answer to the problem. I find mostly that other people can identify a problem but that their answers as to how to fix the problem are not usually the right answers for me. Unfortunately, I have to struggle and bang my head against the wall until I come up with an answer that feels right for me. Writing is a very private endeavor. This is both a great thing, and a hard thing when it means that the burden is on me to fix my own problems.
How disciplined are you? You mentioned already that you try to write a certain number of pages every day? Do you stick to that without fail or will you interrupt work for an unscheduled but suddenly desired ice cream cone?
I do write a number of pages a day but I don't make this number impossible to achieve. I want to feel successful at the end of each day. So, I make my goal do-able. And then I get my ice cream!
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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