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On Novels and Novelists

E. L. Doctorow, The Art of Fiction No. 94

Novelist E.L. Doctorow, who died recently, participated in this interview with George Plimpton that was published in the winter 1986 issue of The Paris Review.

Here’s a quotation from Doctorow that I particularly like:

One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to trust the act of writing. To put myself in the position of writing to find out what I was writing… . The inventions of the book come as discoveries. At a certain point, of course, you figure out what your premises are and what you’re doing. But certainly, with the beginnings of the work, you really don’t know what’s going to happen.

Read the interview to learn how the oral history movement influenced Doctorow’s presentation of the protagonist in World’s Fair, how staring at the wall of his study lead him to the topic of Ragtime, and how he feels about the sufferings of writers.

The interview was held in front of a live audience at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York City. This transcript ends with questions asked by members of the audience.

Portlander Ursula K. Le Guin is Breathing Fire to Save American Literature

For more than 50 years now, Le Guin has used incisive critical writing and visionary, psychologically rich fiction to challenge orthodox beliefs—about gender, politics, religion, art—and generally emerged victorious. Far from mellowing her, age has only deepened her willingness to angle after the biggest fish in the pond.

Taylor Clark piece for Portland Monthly magazine features Portland, OR, writer Ursula K. Le Guin, whom Taylor characterizes as “indisputably a Portland writer, perhaps the Portland writer.” Born in Berkeley, where she attended high school with Philip K. Dick, she moved to Portland with her husband in 1958 when he took a position at Portland State University. She wrote a lot while her children were small but without much success. But in the mid 1960s she began a career of publications that “radically broadened our conception of what science fiction could do.”

In works like her 1969 breakthrough novel The Left Hand of Darkness and the “great, transfixing masterpiece, 1974’s The Dispossessed,” Le Guin “relentlessly turned sci-fi’s trappings into innovative new avenues to plumb deeper human conflicts.” But she has written in many other genres as well: poetry, children’s books, mainstream fiction, criticism, translations, and essays.

Read the article to find out why, today, Le Guin’s main concern is the treatment of literature as a commodity rather than as a form of art.

The Strange, Unsettling Fiction of James Purdy

Unsparing, ambiguous, violent, and largely indifferent to the reader’s needs, Purdy’s fiction seems likely to remain an acquired taste. But it is a taste worth acquiring.

Writing in The New Yorker, Jon Michaud discusses the fiction of James Purdy (1914–2009). Here’s why Purdy’s fiction is an acquired taste:

In his novels and short fiction, possibility and potential are always compromised. There is neither transcendence nor transformation. His characters do not grow or develop; they dwindle and unravel. Purdy saw Hawthorne and Melville, “two other Calvinists,” as his literary antecedents, and it is not hard to interpret some of Purdy’s protagonists as latter-day incarnations of Billy Budd and Young Goodman Brown: guileless innocents abused by the world’s depraved sinners.

Nonetheless, publisher Liveright last year released a collection of Purdy’s short stories, and this year they are republishing three of his novels, including Eustace Chisholm [and the Works], which, according to Michaud, “is probably the peak of Purdy’s career, the book of his to read if you’re only going to read one.”

Jason Segel: Reading David Foster Wallace was ‘one of the best experiences of my life’

An interview with actor Jason Segel, who plays the late author David Foster Wallace in the movie “The End of the Tour.”

The film The End of the Tour is a dramatization of Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky’s five days spent with writer David Foster Wallace at the end of Wallace’s book tour promoting his novel Infinite Jest. Wallace, who struggled for many years with depression, took his own life at age 46.

When actor Jason Segel read the screenplay for the film, he thought he didn’t have a chance at getting the part. But director James Ponsoldt wanted an actor who could portray Wallace’s humor, and he found in Segel a “thoughtful actor who understood comedy.”

Segel then began his own tour of Wallace’s works. He watched the tapes of Lipsky’s interviews with Wallace and read Wallace’s essays. But for Wallace’s masterpiece, the tome Infinite Jest, Segel formed a book club:

“We did 100 pages a week,” Segel remembered, smiling. “It was one of the best experiences of my life.” The vast, experimental and thoroughly literary novel “is the most personal of [Wallace’s] works — he’s every one of the characters.” Segel described it as exploring themes of “pleasure, entertainment, achievement. It was David Foster Wallace trying to express a very fundamental crisis — we’ve been told that these things will satisfy us.”

“I hope the movie is an extension of the themes that he [Wallace] expressed,” Segel said. “It was approached with a lot of empathy and love.”

Lisbeth Salander is back: first plot details of The Girl in the Spider’s Web released

There’s good news for fans of Lisbeth Salander, the unstoppable hacker featured in the books known as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. With the blessing of Larsson’s family, and despite criticism from his long-time partner Eva Gabrielsson, Swedish writer David Lagercrantz has finished the partial fourth novel in the series left on Larsson’s laptop at the time of his sudden death.

Scheduled to be released on August 27, the book’s title is The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Recently the book’s Swedish publisher, MacLehose Press, released what it called “key details” in the novel’s plot. It would be unfair of me to steal  The Guardian’s thunder, so I’ll only quote here that the book features a “criminal conspiracy [that] will very soon bring terror to the snowbound streets of Stockholm, to the Millennium team – and to Blomkvist and Salander themselves.”

Click that link and read the (little) further description of the book whose storyline has been a carefully guarded secret.