Here’s a thoughtful piece from retired Washington Post literary editor Bob Thompson. In “Writing about Writers” he recounts having to interview Joan Didion about her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking – three days after her daughter Quintana’s memorial service. “What was I supposed to do?” he writes. “Ask her how she felt?” He also remembers trying to talk to Phillip Roth about his writing, on the author’s strict condition that the interviewer not ask him any questions about his personal life – when his is a life mined for fiction more overtly than most writers.
The writers festival circuit in Australia runs from late May through mid-September. This year I’m working towards participating in a couple of them by chairing sessions, moderating panel discussions and so forth. Thompson’s exhortation to ask writers about writing – about their experience of writing this particular book (the one they’re spruiking) and how it differed from what they had written before – seems like a reliable rule of thumb to follow, whatever the venue. Without this ‘Didion Rule’, as he calls it, we’re in danger of falling back on the tired tropes of book-related story-telling: writer overcomes struggle to enjoy success with latest book, novelty in book marketing, or the size of a writer’s advance.
On that last one, I’m always irritated when I come across news items about writers’ advances. They usually present figures which seem to be large, outside of any context of the complex business environment in which those advances are made. Following this logic, such items should appear in the business section of newspapers. There’s hardly ever an explanation of how advances work, or often don’t work, and the pluses/minuses for authors of accepting such advances. What rights has the author signed away, knowingly or not, for example, in return for an up-front sum? Then there’s the underlying assumption of intrinsic worth attached to a “large” advance for a book, when in the music industry the opposite seems to be the case. How many times do you read of some singer-songwriter who produces a record for $1,000 or thereabouts in their cousin’s garage, and it becomes – in another reporting trope – “an overnight sensation”? For me the story of the path to publication is always the most interesting, as there seem to be as many variations as there are books in the world.