Listen Attentively

I listen attentively in bars and cafes, while standing in line at the checkout counter, noting particular pronunciations and the rhythms of regional speech, vivid turns of speech and the duller talk of everyday life. In Melbourne I paid money into the hand of a sidewalk poetry reciter to hear "The Spell of the Yukon," in London listened to a cabby's story of his psychopath brother in Paris, on a trans-Pacific flight heard from a New Zealand engineer the peculiarities of building a pipeline across New Guinea.


We Empathize, We Project

I don’t think that a writer who writes about loss (if I do) needs to have suffered loss himself. We can imagine loss. That’s the writer’s job. We empathize, we project, we make much of what might be small experience. Hemingway (as usual, full of wind) said “only write about what you know.” But that can’t mean you should only write about what you yourself have done or experienced. A rule like that pointlessly straps the imagination, confines one’s curiosity, one’s capacity to empathize. After all, a novel (if it chooses) can cause a reader to experience sensation, emotion, to recognize behavior that reader may never have seen before. The writer’ll have to be able to do that, too. Some subjects just cause what Katherine Anne Porter called a “commotion in the mind.” That commotion may or may not be a response to what we actually did on earth.


Tragedy Attracts Awards

I want them all to have happy endings although I do realize this is not true to life. But I get attached to my characters and I don't really want to do them in. And I think it is significant that the only book of mine that got a big literary award [the Pulitzer for Foreign Affairs] was the only one in which I've killed off a major character. Somehow tragedy attracts awards and comedy doesn't.


You Have No Refuge but Writing

My work is emotionally autobiographical. It has no relationship to the actual events of my life, but it reflects the emotional currents of my life. I try to work every day because you have no refuge but writing. When you’re going through a period of unhappiness, a broken love affair, the death of someone you love, or some other disorder in your life, then you have no refuge but writing.


Translation Is a Case of Negotiation

I have edited countless translations, translated two works myself, and have had my own novels translated into dozens of languages. And I’ve found that every translation is a case of negotiation. If you sell something to me and I buy it, we negotiate—you’ll lose something, I’ll lose something, but at the end we’re both more or less satisfied. In translation, style is not so much lexicon, which can be translated by the Web site Altavista, but rhythm. Researchers have run tests on the frequency of words in Manzoni’s The Betrothed, the masterpiece of nineteenth-century Italian literature. Manzoni had an absolutely poor vocabulary, devised no innovative metaphors, and used the adjective good a frightening amount of times. But his style is outstanding, pure and simple. To translate it, as with all great translations, you need to bring out the anima of his world, its breath, its precise tempo.


The Essentials Don't Change

I used to outline what I was going to do. I don’t do that so much anymore. It’s part of trying to loosen up the process and not know what’s happening. But I think I’m a linear person, and when I write I don’t write a quick draft and then go back. I don’t like to leave anything behind me, because I’m uncomfortable with it. I tend to write a scene many times over before going on. The last time I was really doing drafts was when I was working for George Lucas. Now, I will sometimes revise and make little changes, but the essentials don’t change. I take a lot of time and effort with the first draft, and I’d rather shoot that.


The Life of a Writer Is Absolute Hell

The life of a writer is absolute hell compared to the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn't go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him.… A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.


A Novel Is a Long and Complex Creation

A novel is a long and complex creation. The parts bear a mysterious and clouded relation to the whole. The pages turn, one after another, and it is a distinguishing aspect of the novel that, around the next corner, almost anything can happen. We hardly know which to treasure most: expectation confounded or satisfied. A new chapter is a psychological shift and the interesting dislocations afforded by a flashback make great demands on the imagination. In the older works we were often grateful for the relief, the relaxation, as if for a short nap, brought to us by a sudden shift to the sub-plot.


Women Talk Like Human Beings

A man once asked me…how I managed in my books to write such natural conversation between men when they were by themselves. Was I, by any chance, a member of a large, mixed family with a lot of male friends? I replied that, on the contrary, I was an only child and had practically never seen or spoken to any men of my own age till I was about twenty-five. "Well," said the man, "I shouldn't have expected a woman (meaning me) to have been able to make it so convincing." I replied that I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over. One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also.