Tag Archives: novelist

The best way is always to stop ….

The best way is always to stop ….

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Graham Greene … the 500-a-day man

Graham Greene … the 500-a-day man

Graham Greene (1904-1991) was an English novelist and author regarded as one of the great writers of the 20th century. Combining literary acclaim with widespread popularity, Greene acquired a reputation early in his lifetime as a major writer, both of serious Catholic novels, and of thrillers. He was shortlisted, in 1967, for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Through 67 years of writings, which included over 25 novels, he explored the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world, often through a Catholic perspective. His most famous works include Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair which are regarded as “the gold standard” of the Catholic novel. Several works, such as The Confidential Agent, The Third Man, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, and The Human Factor, also show Greene’s avid interest in the workings and intrigues of international politics and espionage.

Greene became a well-travelled man and his travels led to him being recruited by MI6. He also met Pope Paul VI, Fidel Castro and was good friends with Charlie Chaplin. He died in 1991 at age 86 of leukaemia and was buried in Corseaux cemetery, Switzerland.

In his 1951 novel, The End of the Affair, Graham Greene described what was in fact his own method of working.

“Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene. Every now and then during the morning’s work I count what I have done and mark off the hundreds on my manuscript. No printer need make a careful cast-off of my work, for there on the front page is marked the figure — 83,764. When I was young not even a love affair would alter my schedule. A love affair had to begin after lunch, and however late I might be in getting to bed — as long as I slept in my own bed — I would read the morning’s work over and sleep on it. … So much of a novelist’s writing, as I have said, takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them.”

In the summer of 1950, Michael Korda, a lifelong friend of Greene and his editor at Simon & Schuster happened to witness Greene at work on The End of the Affair. That summer Korda vacationed with Greene and others aboard a yacht called Elsewhere off the coast of Antibes. Korda was sixteen at the time, Greene forty-five. Korda later described watching the famous writer at work during this cruise.

“An early riser, he appeared on deck at first light, found a seat in the shade of an awning, and took from his pocket a small black leather notebook and a black fountain pen, the top of which he unscrewed carefully. Slowly, word by word, without crossing out anything, and in neat, square handwriting, the letters so tiny and cramped that it looked as if he were attempting to write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, Graham wrote, over the next hour or so, exactly five hundred words. He counted each word according to some arcane system of his own, and then screwed the cap back onto his pen, stood up and stretched, and, turning to me, said, “That’s it, then. Shall we have breakfast?” I did not, of course, know that he was completing The End of the Affair, the controversial novel based on his own tormenting love affair, nor did I know that the manuscript would end, typically, with an exact word count (63,162) and the time he finished it (August 19th, 7:55 A.M., aboard Elsewhere).”

Greene’s self-discipline was such that, no matter what, he always stopped at five hundred words, even if it left him in the middle of a sentence. It was as if he brought to writing the precision of a watchmaker, or perhaps it was that in a life full of moral uncertainties and confusion he simply needed one area in which the rules, even if self-imposed, were absolute.

In 1953, Greene was interviewed by the Paris Review for their Art of Fction series. He was asked if he worked regular hours when writing his books.

“I used to; now I set myself a number of words. Five hundred, stepped up to seven fifty as the book gets on. I re-read the same day, again the next morning and again and again until the passage has got too far behind to matter to the bit that I am writing. Correct in type, final correction in proof.”

In 1939, with World War 2 fast approaching, Greene began to worry that he would die before he could complete what he was certain would be his greatest novel, The Power and the Glory, and that his wife and children would be left in poverty. So he set out to write another book at the same time, a thriller that he knew lacked artistry but would make him money, while he continued to grind away at his masterpiece. So he rented out a private studio and devoted his mornings to the thriller The Confidential Agent and his afternoons to The Power and the Glory. To manage the pressure of writing two books at once, he took Benzedrine tablets twice daily, one upon waking and the other at midday. As a result he was able to write two thousand words in the morning alone, as opposed to his usual five hundred. After only six weeks The Confidential Agent was completed and on its way to being published. The Power and the Glory took another four months

Greene did not keep up this productivity, or the drug use, throughout his career. As he got older, Greene found it harder to maintain his clockwork discipline. Twenty years after that summer aboard the Elsewhere, Greene gave an interview to a reporter from the New York Times. Greene was then 66.

“I hate sitting down to work. I’m plugging at a novel now which is not going easily. I’ve done about 65,000 words — there’s still another 20,000 to go. I don’t work for very long at a time — about an hour and a half. That’s all I can manage. One may come back in the evening after a good dinner, one’s had a good drink, one may add a few little bits and pieces. It gives one a sense of achievement. One’s done more than one’s thought.

There are certain writers who seem to write like one has diarrhea — men like Durrell for instance. Perhaps their bowels get looser and looser with age. I’m astonished at someone like Conrad who was able to write 12 hours on end — it’s superhuman, almost. It’s like a strain on the eyesight. I find that I have to know — even if I’m not writing it — where my character’s sitting, what his movements are. It’s this focusing, even though it’s not focusing on the page, that strains my eyes, as though I were watching something too close.

In the old days, at the beginning of a book, I’d set myself 500 words a day, but now I’d put the mark to about 300 words.
The reporter added, a little dubiously, “Did he mean that literally — a mark after every 300 words? Precisely. With an x he marks the first 300 words, 600x comes next, 900x after 900 words.”

He admitted that, where he once required five hundred words of himself each day, he was now setting the bar as low as two hundred words.

He was asked if he was “a nine-till-five man.” “No,” Greene replied. “Good heavens, I would say I was a nine-till-a-quarter-past-ten man.”

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John Cheever …

John Cheever …

John Cheever (1912-1982) was an American novelist and short story writer. He is sometimes called “the Chekhov of the suburbs”. His fiction is mostly set in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the Westchester suburbs, old New England villages based on various South Shore towns around Quincy, Massachusetts, where he was born, and Italy, especially Rome. He is now recognized as one of the most important short fiction writers of the 20th century. While Cheever is perhaps best remembered for his short stories (including “The Enormous Radio”, “Goodbye, My Brother”, “Th Five-Forty-Eight”, “The Country Husband”, and “The Swimmer”), he also wrote four novels, comprising The Wapshot Chronicle (National Book Award, 1958), The Wapshot Scandal (William Dean Howells Medal, 1965), Bullet Park (1969), Falconer (1977) and a novella Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982).

A compilation of his short stories, The Stories of John Cheever, won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a National Book Critics Circle Award, and its first paperback edition won a 1981 National Book Award.

“When I was younger I used to wake up at eight, work until noon, and then break, hollering with pleasure; then I’d go back to work through to five, get pissed, get laid, go to bed, and do the same thing again the next day.”

Born and raised in Quincy, Massachusetts he moved to Boston in 1932 and then on to New York. He got married in 1941 and enlisted in the Army in 1942. His first collection of short stories, The Way Some People Live, was published in 1943 to mixed reviews. After the war, Cheever moved his family to an apartment building at 400 East 59th Street, near Sutton Place, Manhattan.

During the late 1940s, John Cheever worked to an unconventional routine. In the morning he would put on his business suit, leave his apartment, and catch the lift downstairs with any commuters. Then, when they reached the ground floor, he would keep going, down to the basement, where he’d walk to his favourite storage room, strip down to his boxer shorts and spend the morning writing. At noon he put his suit back on and headed back upstairs. Lunch followed, then a leisurely afternoon.

He continued to write almost every morning for the rest of his life. As his career progressed, the writing sessions grew shorter and shorter, while cocktail hour became longer and longer. By the 1960s, his working day was usually over by 10:30 A.M.

In 1961 his family moved to a stately, stone-ended Dutch Colonal farmhouse in Ossining, on the east bank of the Hudson. He lived and wrote there until his death in 1982.

His daughter recalled where he chose to write …

“My father very purposefully never had a place to write, and he always wrote in the humblest place in the house. Sometimes, like when he was on the cover of Time,_ _he pretended he wrote in the room that we called the Boyfriend Room, because it was where my boyfriend stayed, off the kitchen. But he didn’t always write in the Boyfriend Room at all. He would take his typewriter all over. When my brother went to boarding school, he would work in his room, and when I went to college he would work in my room. I think he felt that if he settled, physically, as a writer, or if he prepared in any way for the ‘visit from the muse,’ it wouldn’t happen. At one point, famously, we were all home, so he pitched a tent on the lawn and wrote in the tent.”

John Cheever and the family’s golden retriever, Maisie, on the porch of his Ossining, New York, house, October 6, 1979. By Paul Hoseifros/The New York Times/Redux.

George Eliot …

George Eliot …

Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880); alternatively “Mary Ann” or “Marian”), known by her pen name George Eliot, was an English novelist, poet, journalist, translator and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. She is the author of seven novels, including Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss(1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1871–72), and Daniel Deronda (1876), most of which are set in provincial England and known for their realism and psychological insight.

She was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. In 1850 she moved to London with the intent of becoming a writer. She took a job at a left-wing journal The Westminster Review, and became its assistant editor in 1851, a position she held until 1854. While continuing to contribute pieces to the Westminster Review, Evans resolved to become a novelist. She also adopted a nom-de-plume, the one for which she would become known: George Eliot. 

She used a male pen name, she said, to ensure that her works would be taken seriously. Female authors were published under their own names during Eliot’s life, but she wanted to escape the stereotype of women’s writing only lighthearted romances. She also wished to have her fiction judged separately from her already extensive and widely known work as an editor and critic. 

George Eliot’s writing desk

In 1857, when she was 37, “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton”, the first of the Scenes of Clerical Life, was published in Blackwood’s Magazine and, along with the other Scenes, it was well received (it was published in book form early in 1858). Her first complete novel, published in 1859, was Adam Bede; it was an instant success, but it prompted intense interest in who this new author might be. 

Few people knew of George Eliot’s true identity – although Charles Dickens, leading author of the day, detected that “no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman.”

Her portable writing desk

In the end, the real George Eliot stepped forward and admitted she was the author. After the success of Adam Bede, Eliot continued to write popular novels for the next fifteen years. 

George Eliot Fellowship

Oliver Goldsmith …

Oliver Goldsmith …

Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) was an Irish novelist, playwright and poet, who is best known for his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), his pastoral poem The Deserted Village (1770), and his plays The Good-Natur’d Man (1768) and She Stoops to Conquer (1771, first performed in 1773). He is also thought to have written the classic children’s tale The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765).

Portrait of Oliver Goldsmith by William Hogarth

Elizabeth Jane Howard …

Elizabeth Jane Howard 

Elizabeth Jane Howard in her Bungay home in 2008. Photo: Andy Darnell

Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923 ~ 2014) was an English novelist.

She married ornithologist and conservationist Sir Peter Scott when she was aged just 19 and later married novelist Kingsley Amis. A former Vogue model and actress, she also had relationships with a long list of famous men including Cecil Day-Lewis, Laurie Lee and Kenneth Tynan.

With first husband Sir Peter Scott

In 1951, she won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for her first novel, The Beautiful Visit (1950). Six further novels followed, before she embarked on her best known work, The Cazalet Chronicle (published in 5 volumes), a family saga about the ways in which English life changed during the war years, particularly for women. This was adapted for both TV and radio.

Elizabeth Jane Howard in 1965 with husband Kingsley Amis.

In 2008, aged 85, she was interviewed by the Guardian for their Writers Rooms series.

I moved into this room 20 years ago and spent the first five years fighting desks that weren’t right in some way. Eventually I had this one made – right size, filing cabinets and drawers in the right place – and it’s made such a difference. I write on an Apple Mac, but still can’t help thinking of technology as something of an enemy. I’m much fonder of things like the meat skewer paper knife given to me by my old and beloved agent AD Peters. He sent them to all his clients, but I’m probably one of the last to still use it.

My chair is one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen. But it is comfortable and moves around. I’ve long looked for a graceful chair that was any use and did once try one of those Swedish designs where you half kneel. But all that happened was my knees got exhausted and I couldn’t stop thinking “I am in this extraordinary chair” when I should have been concentrating on writing.

I work from about 10 in the morning to 1.30. I used to have another stint in the late afternoon, but I’m now 85 and one session a day seems enough. I’m not a quick writer, but I don’t have to rewrite much. Anything writers ever say about writing can only apply to them, as you have to find your own way of doing things. And it’s a strange business. Years ago Kingsley [Amis] and I tried to write a section of each other’s novel. He’d usually write quite quickly with lots of laughing at his own jokes. I’d write slowly and would bite my nails a lot. But when we swapped over, I started laughing and he started biting his nails.

I still find writing hard and anxious work, and have had a tremendous battle with smoking that has reached the point where I don’t smoke except when I write. The next stage is to face up to whether I can write and not smoke. We’ll see. But you might have noticed that there’s still an ashtray on the bookshelf within reach of my chair.

She lived in Bungay, Suffolk, and was appointed CBE in 2000. Her autobiography, Slipstream, was published in 2002. She died, aged 90, at home on 2 January 2014.

Biography by Artemis Cooper

 

Deborah Levy … Shedworker

Deborah Levy … Shedworker

Deborah Levy (born 1959) is a British playwright, novelist, and poet. She wrote and published her first novel Beautiful Mutants, in 1986. Her second novel, Swallowing Geography, was published in 1993 by Jonathan Cape, while her third, Billy and Girl, was published in 1996 by Bloomsbury. Swimming Home was published in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 among other awards. Levy published a short story collection, Black Vodka in 2013. Her novel Hot Milk was published in 2016 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016.

She was interviewed by the Guardian in October 2016 for their My Writing Day series.

“Some years ago, when my marriage was on the rocks, we sold the family house and I ended up living in a small flat. I wrote wherever I could and became accustomed to what Elena Ferrantehas described as being happy and unhappy at the same time. Except, in my case, it was more like being happy and extremely miserable at the same time. This was a strange emotional climate to live in – like blazing sunshine with an icy wind. Perhaps it resembled living in Scandinavia, but without the delicious herrings and crispbreads.

So then my friend, Celia, who is in her early 80s – she’s an actor and book-seller – came to the rescue. “You need a study,” she said. I had to admit she was right. She pointed towards the shed at the back of her garden. It was where her husband, the late, great, beloved poet Adrian Mitchell sometimes wrote, and it was built under an apple tree. I have rented it from her ever since. It’s freezing in winter and sweltering in summer, but I have grown to love my writing shed in every season. I have a writing desk, a few bookshelves, lamps, heaters, my desktop Mac computer, a writing chair, which I have covered with a sheepskin fleece for extra warmth—and there are also a few cobwebs and spiders.

Most days I cycle to the shed at 8am after I have seen my daughter off to school. To avoid starting work, I sometimes stop for coffee at a nearby cafe. I am very fond of the morose Italian waiter, and always ask him: “How are you today?” He stops to think about this, and always replies: “I don’t know.” As far as I’m concerned, his answer is an example of magnificent writing. It sets me up for the day.

When I begin writing a novel, I usually know where I want to get to, I just don’t know how to get there. I plan a route and follow my directions. Sometimes this works well. Yet, it’s when I detour from the map and get lost that the writing starts to open its eyes. In case you think I like getting lost, I should tell you that I resist it with all my will. This is always a futile battle. Eventually I surrender to the unknown route, write for a few hours and take a look at the new view.

My current writing mantra is a quote by EM Forster: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” This applies to the life of a novel as well as any other kind of life. Come to think of it, the life that is waiting for us might be worse than the life we have planned.

This is such a terrifying thought that I’m going to nip across the garden and make tea in Celia’s kitchen. If I can find the sweet, shy house cat, I will try and persuade her to sit on my lap in the shed. This cat knows that I adore her, so she takes advantage of my love and begs for snacks. Yes, procrastination is part of the writing day and I do enjoy browsing Celia’s vast collection of books.

Now I’m back in the shed (one mug of tea, no cat) and I’m looking at some of my journals, written years ago. To my surprise, I find that I have scribbled down ideas and thoughts on some of the themes I am writing about now. As far as I’m concerned, the writing life is mostly about stamina and the desire to give my complete attention to language. And I don’t just mean literary language. I am never indifferent to the way someone might say “goodbye” or “oh my God” or “I don’t know”. To get to the finishing line requires the writing to become more interesting than everyday life. This is not as easy as it sounds, because I have never found everyday life boring.

At the end of the day, I read through whatever I have written and figure out the various problems I will need to solve in the morning. After I’ve locked up the shed, I cycle home to tell my children all about the way Celia’s cat grooms her paws.

Deborah Levy’s website