An Interview with Diane Setterfield: Part II

Copyright Guy Julier, 2014
Diane Setterfield: Portrait  Copyright Guy Julier, 2014

(This is the second and final part of my interview with Diane Setterfield. An introduction may be found in Part I).

Question 4: You said that, “Paragraphs are not self-contained things. This one has strings that attach it to other parts of the book.” Recognizing this, let’s balance some of that enormous joy, then, with some of that sinking feel we get as writers when we realize that all that care, all that love, all that attention to a given paragraph — such as that you just shared with us — now has to go. The story evolved and that fabulous bit of writing is now a weed. Can you share some of those experiences with us and maybe, just maybe, do you have a paragraph that you once wished you could share but no longer has a place to go? I feel like there should be a term of such material — something akin to orphans.

Orphans – that’s what I call the shoes that linger in my wardrobe when the outfits that went with them have given up the ghost.

I cut masses out of my writing and in general it’s not a painful experience. Loyalty to the story first and foremost is what matters. What aids the story is my friend, what doesn’t aid it my enemy. In the early and even middle stages of a book, it’s the big blunt tools you use: the hammer, the axe, the blowtorch. There’s even something to be relished, a secret exhilaration in making something, only to three-quarters destroy it once it’s made. There’s just no value in getting attached to sentences and paragraphs in the early stages. Often I tell myself that I’m not even writing the book, it’s just a mock up, to see what the book itself might look like. An early draft is one big experiment and everything is provisional.

There is real value in bad paragraphs and sentences. At best, writing the bad bits helps you see what the right bits will look like. The great pleasure of the first draft, is in being the opposite of precious. You can write sentences that are ungainly, plot developments that lack finesse, paragraphs that say the same thing three different ways… You can afford to write badly, because the only function of a first draft is to help figure out what the second draft is going to be. The advice I often remind myself of when I get too fussy about early drafts is this: to write a good novel, first write a bad one. It is wonderfully liberating.

But that’s not exactly what you are asking. You want to know about having to excise a good paragraph – I take that as meaning a paragraph from a later draft. In my experience it’s rare for a whole paragraph to be wrong. In drafts 2 and 3 writing gets layered, starts doing several things at once. For instance, this hypothetical good paragraph of yours might contain some action advancing the plot, something to indicate the passage of time, an element to denote the mood of a character, a detail that is the beginning of a thread whose significance will only become apparent later, a location that the novel will return to at some later point… In reality the chance that all these elements will prove to be unnecessary is so slight as to be negligible. And although one might be absolutely wrong, the section is likely to fall to pieces entirely if I delete the other elements along with the wrong bit. Then it’s a question of taking the paragraph to pieces, removing the unwanted bit and reconstructing it so that it works better.

Where I make large scale changes between early drafts, the things that get cut out often come back somewhere else. And if they don’t come back in that book, they might be the germ of a later one. There was a secondary character I cut after the first draft of The Thirteenth Tale, a solitary type with an obsession with punctuation. I have a feeling I might write about him in another book, some other time. He’s not one of your orphans – or if he is, he is sure to be adopted sooner or later.

Question 5: That is a very mature way of looking at your writing. Which makes me wonder why there are enough errant shoes in your wardrobe to warrant naming them.

Ah. Well, maturity in writing develops on a different timescale to wardrobe maturity. I’m still waiting for that.

Question 6: Looked at from the perspective of craft  — that is, the composition, the word choice, the joy of finding connections of one kind or another — your point is well taken about not becoming attached too early. But sometimes what appears in those paragraphs is more than an artistic flourish; It’s an idea. Maybe an interesting idea. Perhaps it is a potential thread for weaving the story together or else a way to make the story as a whole more connected and relevant to the lives of the readers. In what way, then, do you manage the emergence of new ideas as you’re writing, especially in the early phases when “what the book is about” is not entirely — or not at all — defined?

I don’t try to manage them at all in the first draft. In the early stages – and even the middle stages – I give them free rein. It makes things messy, of course, which I hate. But I let any and all ideas in on the first draft, and then once I have a first draft it’s usually clearer what the story wants and what it doesn’t. A lot of the best bits in my writing are the result of happy accident, so I take the line that being open to as many accidents as possible is a good thing. It’s also (I learned the hard way) a lot quicker than trying to work it all out in your head before you put pen to paper. Or finger to keyboard, more likely.

In short, I can only find out what I want and need to write by writing, so that’s what I do. After I’ve written, then the task of selection starts – and the book does that al by itself. It’s usually obvious what has to go. Through the tangle of wild and overgrown writing you can see form, structure, thematic directions, and they tell you what and where to prune.

Question 7: Bellman & Black is built using very short chapters. While a few are as long as ten pages or so, many others are two pages long. When I read books with short chapters, I am usually reading books that are either quite formulaic and assume the reader has ADD— and I tend to avoid these as they bore me — or else they are written by people who come from a screenwriting background and are trying to figure out why any chapter needs to be more than two or three paragraphs as a movie scene is never that “long.” In your case, you are neither writing something formulaic nor do you come from screen writing; you come from studying French literature. Tell me about the journey that lead to this distinct quality and form for the book.

It’s notoriously difficult to recreate the process of writing a novel retrospectively, and I honestly can’t remember very specifically how or why I arrived at the decision to do it that way. If it had been a difficult decision I would probably remember it more clearly, which suggests it was fairly obvious to me that this was the way to go. I imagine the form emerged naturally from the mass of early writing that I call draft one. With the benefit of hindsight it seems likely that some of the following factors were relevant to the decision:

  1. Pragmatism

In many instances the scenes are in length more or less what I might manage as a day’s work (though obviously they have been worked over again, more than once, so any finished scene represents more than a day’s work and some of them take many days’ work). So when I had a first draft, consisting of scenes written to no plan, my individual sections I played with to find the bones of my story will have been pieces of about this length.

  1. Time frame

I was covering a period of about forty years in 90 000 words and the unfolding of Bellman’s drama did not want to collapse neatly into a small number of lengthy sections. I think I felt that it mattered to give an impression of the whole of his life, and therefore to show scenes from many different periods.

  1. Pace

Bellman is an active man, always looking to the next big thing: his life is therefore constantly changing. The rapid succession of scenes mirrors – I believe – the rapid pace of his life.

  1. Psychology

Bellman’s attention is total, and when it moves on to something else, it is totally gone. He is the classic compartmentalised thinker. The structure of the book (which is so much the story of the inside of his mind) is equally compartmentalised. He doesn’t join up his thinking – and the narrative doesn’t join up his thinking for the benefit of the reader either. The reader has to join the dots and see where Bellman is failing to make the connections.

  1. Narrative uncertainty and the ghost story

Lengthy sequences can give an impression of stability and safe ground. Within a long sequence, the different elements inevitably relate to each other, and the longer the sequence, the more the opportunity the narrative has to suggest what that relationship is. Order, hierarchy, causality… narrative abounds in these. It’s as if, the longer you go on storytelling, the more explaining gets done.

Now explanation is something you have to manage very carefully in a ghost story (even if it’s a skewed ghost story like this one). Explain too much and you remove at a stroke all the mystery you are trying to create – a mystery by numbers is no mystery at all. Explain too little and you produce something which is so undermined by uncertainty that it fails the test of the satisfying read by failing to offer a sense of resolution, that quality of ‘finishedness’. This is a balance you have to get right, because you want a proper sense of an ending, but you also want the uncanny quality to linger in the reader’s mind afterwards. Successful ghost stories leave behind a beautifully unsettled feeling, and long sections tend – at least they would have, here – to stabilise.

Perhaps I’m saying the same thing in a different way by pointing out that looking into shards of a broken mirror is more unsettling than looking into an unbroken mirror. I wanted to exploit the broken edges. All these shards of life show aspects of William, but partially. There are gaps between. The scenes – many little fragments – fill each other out, complete each other, but also contradict each other. Like a mirror that falls and breaks on an uneven surface, you get different perspectives, odd angles, bits missing. It means the reader has to decide how to read the book: he can, if he wants, create a kind of mastic to hold them together in a way that makes them stable (‘Mr Black is the rook in human form’ or ‘Mr Black is the dark side of Bellman himself” or ‘the rook is the agent of death’). Some people only like mysteries that have answers. But it’s also possible to move between these notions, to borrow each interpretative stance provisionally, allowing the narrative to remain unstable, shifting, in flux. The broken mirror is in many ways more fascinating than the mended one. It seems that in the gaps between the scenes, the reader can have fun working out the equations and parallels and enjoy working out a theory, then relish the thrill of the next shard of mirror that undermines it all again.

For myself I prefer the broken mirror approach. That’s probably obvious, given that I broke the mirror myself. Why do I prefer it? Firstly because it gives the reader a more vigorous work out, and in my own reading that’s what I like. But mostly because at heart the mystery I am writing about here is death, and I think books should be honest. I don’t have the answers to the mystery of death, and it would seem presumptuous – as well as dishonestly reassuring – to make something up. The mirror is broken because it is.

  1. Influence of screen writing

I’m not a screen writer, that’s true, but it doesn’t mean I am not influenced by screen writing. For a long time I had a TV and now that I don’t, I still go to the cinema. Bellman & Black is very influenced by film I think. I was very conscious of the use of colour in it for instance, and I expect the short scene form comes partly from there as well.

Some of the above thoughts were conscious ones at the time of writing, others only occurred to me afterwards. Quite often you only know what it is you are doing after you have done it.

Question 8: You began and ended that last answer in a similar way. You explained that your answer is a product of a retrospective analysis rather than an account from memory. There does seem to be a rhetorical style among a group of successful writers who seem to dismiss this with a wave of the hand and adopt the identity of the insightful, deliberate, and self-aware writer. Have you noticed this? Does it rub you the wrong way too or am I being overly sensitive? After all, we’re story tellers and people want to hear stories. People aren’t necessarily interested in truth from us. Or are they?

I know what you mean, yes. Sometimes when I hear other authors describe how they came to write a book I feel quite dumbfounded. Other writers’ processes can seem so alien to me that I find it hard to believe the practices they describe actually result in a novel and not a recipe for a Victoria sponge cake or a maintenance manual for a rocket launcher. It’s an astonishment I enjoy though, rather than feeling sensitive about it. We’re all different, the novels we write are different, the processes are different. It stands to reason.

But I think what you are talking about is less the different practices that authors adopt, and more the stories we tell ourselves about our practice. ‘The story of the story’ perhaps, or even ‘The story of myself as a writer.’ It may well be that our practices are in fact more similar than we think, and it is just the way we choose to describe it that differs. After all, what I said in my last answer about knowing what I’ve done in a book only after I’ve done it is only half the truth. My work also comprises a hefty dose of labour that is insightful, deliberate and self aware. This is the aspect of the work that I need to do in order for the other stuff (the unconscious, the hard-to-remember-afterwards, the it-came-to me-but-I don’t-know-where-from) to slip in, between the gaps. My private shorthand for all that stuff is ‘the magic’*.

Some authors relish the sense of writing as a connection with something that is magically ‘other’. I really enjoy it when I discover aspects to my work that do not feel like something I have made an authorial decision about (even though in reality I may have – and forgotten). Writing is so very hard that if I believed I had to consciously plan and execute every element of a novel, I would end up so overwhelmed by the responsibility that I would get blocked. So my ability to sit down to writing day after day, even when it’s hard-going, is boosted by the harmless little story I tell myself that I’m collaborating with something mysterious and magical that casts fairy dust over the rather ordinary words that I string together.

It might be that my relish for the mystery of writing is the result of my having been an academic for so long. In the universities one reads and analyses according to well-tested theories, every statement is footnoted, every word you write might be picked up and scrutinised at a conference and you would be expected to defend it. All is consciously executed in that world (well, people pretend so, anyway). So to jump ship and come to creative writing was delightful. To relinquish that kind of executive control and enter into a different relationship with story was so exciting and pleasurable. Chance and accident and getting things wrong in a way that turns out to be right… All the unpredictability and the unknowability… Scary and wonderful, at once.

Don’t you think it’s interesting though when you hear an author talk about their writing in the way you describe – the insightful etc etc? It might be partial as an account of how writing happens, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. I’ve learned a lot that way. Some writers, by temperament, are going to be more interested in the self-aware stuff. And some writers are uneasy talking in public about ‘the magic’. After all, we get paid for what we do, and people might be less willing to fork out their £8.99 if we gave the impression that all we’d done to earn our (small) percentage of that was sit at a computer and take dictation from fairies, or the creative spirit, or the universal cultural imagination or whatever you like to call it.

Your last question (‘After all, we’re story tellers and people want to hear stories. People aren’t necessarily interested in truth from us. Or are they?’) leads in a new direction. To tell you the truth (whether you’re interested in it or not!) I am still puzzled at why readers want anything from us other than more books. But many do seem to enjoy being entertained by writers’ tales from the front line. Personally I think it’s time for doctors and hairdressers to step up to the line and start doing festivals and interviews too. They have some stories to tell, I bet. But readers – and this is fair enough – are fascinated by the same questions that make me a writer. Where do stories come from? People who love reading, that totally mysterious communication in solitude with a disembodied voice that speaks directly to their thoughts, want to know. And they think we know the answer. I don’t know the answer (not the real, deep answer), but I do enjoy wondering about it in public. Like all the best questions it doesn’t have an answer. You can only tell stories to suggest possible answers. And if it’s a good story then it’s bound to be true.

When I say ‘magic’, I don’t mean actual magic. I just mean all the rather ungraspable stuff that happens in writing, that remains just beyond the limit of your conscious mind. I don’t actually believe fairies or wizards are involved, or anything supernatural at all. I have to make this disclaimer because a few readers have taken me literally, and I don’t want to mislead anyone.

Question 9: One question about you, if you don’t mind. You changed your life, rather profoundly, in leaving the academy and committing yourself to being a novelist. Yes, the financial success of your first novel helped and all that, but this is also an identity change; A chance to transform yourself at an age when most people have to do exactly the opposite, which is accept (or at least come to terms with) what they have become. Can you please share with me a little of what it feels like to enter into this new world and new identity at this age, which is surely a different experience from those who “make it” in their 20s and never undergo this transformation.

Why does the word ‘transformation’ make me so uncomfortable? Is it because I feel so remarkably UNtransformed? I am profoundly – and some days disappointingly – the same person I was before. Maybe transformations just aren’t things that can be appreciated from the inside. After all, ‘ transform’ means to change the form or shape, not to change the substance of a thing, and shapes and forms are perceived more clearly from the outside.

Or is it the fairytale connotations that unnerve me? Because for every Cinderella (sweet natured girl in ragged dress gets magicked into a silk ball gown and dance slippers made of glass – unless it was squirrel fur; it’s a vexed question) there are two ugly sisters (proud, ambitious types in fashionable dresses, who get magicked into ugly statues, or are boiled in oil, or their eyes are pecked out). There should be a warning with transformations as there is with financial products: the value of your transformation may go up or down.

Staying with the fairytales, there’s the Happy Ever After difficulty too. The stories cop out when it comes to endings, in a way. They seem to tell us that once something’s happened and you’re transformed, that’s it, forever. I’m not convinced. Transformed, great – and then what? I want to know. Because transformation has its own momentum, sure, but it’s hardly enough to be permanent. Sooner or later it runs out, and then you’re back to you, your own abilities, your own energy, your own day after day decisions and actions. Logically, doesn’t Sleeping Beauty have to become the Wicked Mother (or Stepmother) one day? Other tales don’t go down the happy ever after route, but stick with the lucky character for long enough to see them get greedy with the golden goose, abuse the never-ending stockpot etc at which point they get transformed back. (I often remind myself about that fortune can change. My agent has a variant on it: You’re only as good as your last book….)

So let’s think instead about your more workaday word: change. I like that better.

Changing from being an academic to a writer and part time freelance teacher was brilliant in that it gave me back control of my timetable and thus restored my reading time. That was one of the best things I ever did for myself.  The downsides were 1) I was financially insecure* – that’s never comfortable but at least I had relevant experience: I’d done a self-funded PhD so I knew how to fortify myself with little money), and 2) at first I missed having the kind of status a proper job gives you – I didn’t realise in advance that I would care about that. I talked myself out of minding so much after a few months.

Later when I made the change to being a published author I was stunned. I like a quiet life and anonymity and for a while I didn’t get enough solitude. I found a balance though, where hanging out in bookshops with people who love reading as much as I do made up for being away from home so much. There is the danger – when you’ve been doing loads of publicity – of falling into the trap of believing in your own importance. The first time I came home from touring the US (and I don’t recall opening a single door for myself the entire month I was there), I remember sitting on the sofa in my own living room and thinking, What do I have to do to get a cup of tea, round here? The answer was Go into the kitchen and put the kettle on, you lazy author! But my fears that success might change my nature – that I might get turned into an ugly statue as a punishment for vanity, ambition and pride – have not yet materialised. (You better check with the people who know me though.)

What difference does age make? Perhaps the older you are, the more time you have had to look beyond the immediate attraction of the Cinderella story (normal girl in bad clothes gets riches and status and squirrel fur shoes, all thanks to a magic wand!) and absorb the warnings fairy stories also contain about transformation. Yet people never learn and others are born wise.

Mostly I’m glad I made the changes I did when I did. It couldn’t in any case have been otherwise. As long as I get to write all the books I want to write before my energy runs out. That’s the only reason I can think of for looking back and wishing I had dared earlier.

And I had no children. That makes all the difference when you are taking financial risks. I’ve met people who can’t take financial risks in order to make time to write their novel, and the other way is to sacrifice sleep to do it. Both ways are hard.

Question 10: Enough with the soft-ball questions. Let’s hit them hard and fast:

A. On a scale of 1 to 10 — 10 being the highest — how under-rated is the Oboe?

Damn you. I have no idea how to answer this.

B. What’s your favorite Rolling Stones song?

The Rolling Stones… it’s coming back to me now. They’re that obscure little band from about the same time as The Kinks, right? Now, The Kinks: You really got me, that’s a fab song.

C. What was your first reaction on learning that the former Vice President of the United States of America (Dick Cheney) shot someone in the face and what do you think that says about you?

But he didn’t. Did he? DID HE? Oh. I missed that.

D. Are you comfortable with the word blog yet or is that not going to happen?

 Ha! I can answer this: No, I’m not, and you’re right, it isn’t. But I will write one. Soon.

E. When the supermarket has a line for “10 items or less” and it’s obviously supposed to say “fewer” are you prepared to let that slide or does it drive you nuts?

There’s Tolstoy and there’s supermarkets and they do different things.

F. What perfect rebuttal to a bad review do you wish you could make but know you never will (except here and now)? 

Hey, I’m just finishing draft 1 of my new book here! What makes you think you can go putting thoughts about bad reviews in my head?

My sincere thanks to Diane for this conversation. If you’ve enjoyed your time with The Interview Spot, for God’s sake, tell someone.

An Interview with Diane Setterfield. Part I

I met Diane Setterfield at the Literature House in Oslo in 2013. I hadn’t been planning to meet her at all. I’d planned to meet her husband — Guy Julier — who is a professor of design. He and I knew each other from shared interests and events concerning the use of design in public policy. This was to be a chance for us catch up in person.

He asked if I wanted to have lunch and said it would be a nice opportunity to introduce me to his girlfriend/partner (there is still no good word for this and “the-one-with-whom-I’m-living-in-sin is charming but way too long to say). She is “also a writer” I was told.

“Sure, that sounds nice,” I said. And I meant it. I find it’s often nice to meet people who suffer from a shared affliction.

So we sat for some tea and chat. Diane, it turns out (though I suspect she was aware of this the whole time) is a New York Times number one bestselling author whose debut novel — The Thirteenth Tale — was published in 38 countries worldwide and has sold more than three million copies. It was also turned into a BBC miniseries.

Guy might have mentioned this.

Before becoming a novelist myself, or even allowing myself to use the term “writer,” I had this image of all great novelists regularly gathered together in a cosmic version of the Algonquin Round Table.

In my mind the living and dead mingled freely; neither genre, nor style nor geography was a deterrent to their community; and there was no rivalry or pettiness or vindictiveness. They’d share ideas and jokes and exchange witticisms and laments. They would bask in each other’s glow and drink cocktails that were invented in America back when alcohol was so illegal and bad that we needed to add stuff to it to make it palatable. Maybe even digestible.

Being a novelist, after all, was a membership to one of the most romantic clubs in the history of human civilization, wasn’t it? (the answer is yes). And didn’t it stand to reason that members would know one another? These people were surely connected as creatures who lived lives of the mind and created art and channeled wisdom and shared beauty and understood pain and perhaps, collectively, knew the secret of how to live if not the answer to life itself.

Oh what a place. Oh what a club.

If there is such a club, though, no one has invited me. If I am a member I can’t yet say I’ve noticed. I also haven’t received a card. Part of me feels that a card should be forthcoming because I’m old enough to remember both Communism and Blockbusters and they both issued cards (I had one from Blockbusters). If I’m now a member of this club at all it’s because I found an open window, slipped in during the dead of night, hid in a broom closet, and no one has come yet to usher me out — card or no card.

Though perhaps that isn’t exactly right. Once a novelist always a novelist, after all. Harper Lee only wrote one novel. So did J.D. Salinger. So did Emily Bronte. No one’s threatening to throw them out of the club. In fact, they’re in the main hall of the club house by the fire in the crunchy chairs. I can see them, though, from my seat in the closet. I’m almost close enough to hear them. But not quite.

This is not actually how it all works, though. There is (alas) no club and most of us haven’t heard of each other let alone read one another. There is no reason Diane and I should have known one another or read each others’ books — though, Diane being Diane, it turned out she did know I was a writer and had read my book and then she said something nice about it creating one of those awkward moments that the British create so well.

Meeting Diane, I learned, was like meeting a member to this imaginary club who had already walked down aisles and into rooms I hadn’t seen before. She loved reading books, discussing books, and also discussing the process of writing itself. Our first conversation, though rather brief, was interesting enough that I wanted it to continue. That is my criterion for an invitation to The Interview Spot. I later offered and she accepted and here we are, with a multi-part, expansive and fascinating interview that is not about the twists and turns of the story or anything else you can read elsewhere.

There’s no round table here, and no one hogging the good seats by the fire. So join me, again, for a relaxed and rich conversation here at The Interview Spot where the conversation goes on (and on, and on, and on …).

Derek B. Miller

Oslo, January 9, 2015

Hemsedal-diane S

Question 1: The cover of my version of Bellman & Black reads, Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story. I’d like to know how the phrase “a ghost story” appeared on the cover, and what conversations you might have had before it did — with others or yourself. 

In the early discussions with my UK publisher the story was spoken of as a ghost story, and although there were lengthy conversations about the jacket art I realise looking back that the use of the tag line A Ghost Story on the UK edition passed without much comment. A couple of years before, my publisher brought out Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, a superbly spooky Hallowe’en read, and I think they were keen to explore the idea of the ‘seasonal read’. Ghost stories are very well loved in the UK. England has a great history of ghost stories and the contemporary authors who inject new blood into this traditional genre are very popular – as well as Michelle Paver, I would mention Susan Hill and Jeremy Dyson – so I assume the labelling came about for commercial reasons as much as anything.

In the past I have argued against the use of tag lines. This is largely on the basis that I like a clean cover and tag lines, slogans and those ghastly retailer stickers just make a book cover look busy. In an ideal world, a title, author’s name and image ought to be enough to give the potential reader an idea of what to expect. Perhaps it’s because Bellman & Black was to be published at Hallowe’en that I didn’t feel inclined to argue? It’s hard to remember in retrospect. What I do know is that the US proofs (or ARCs as they are known there) carried the tag A Ghost Story, but after early reader responses this was dropped from the retail edition because readers felt it led them to expect a more narrowly defined kind of ghost story than it is.

The difficulty with labels – any label, not only the ghost story label – is that defining a work too tightly can interfere with the reader’s individual discovery of the book. Some readers, big fans of the ghost story in a more narrowly defined form, were taken aback by the way that Bellman & Black diverges from tradition. Others found the ‘But is it a ghost story?’ journey an especially enjoyable part of the reading experience. These responses are very personal and hard to predict.

My own reading preference is always for those books that position themselves on the borders of genres. A book that is hard to define, that doesn’t fit easily into one category or another, is a book that will attract my attention. Writing Bellman & Black, I had in my mind the ghost story in many different guises, but also – and equally – folk tale, Nordic mythology, and the recurring theme of the devil’s bargain that existed in other genres before it became a standard of modern horror. So if Bellman & Black is a ghost story, it is not only a ghost story, but a tale that demonstrates the extent to which genres are not neatly bounded but overlap and trespass on each others territory.

It might be worth mentioning Germany in this context. When I was writing Bellman & Black I was warned that German readers taken as a whole dislike stories of the supernatural (I was told this by someone who has decades of professional experience of international publishing, so I accept it as true, even though those German readers I actually know deny having any such reservations!) Unlike The Thirteenth Tale, it was thought for a while that Bellman & Black might not find a German publisher. Once the book was complete and my German editor read it there was no difficulty whatsoever: my publisher felt that the book read perfectly well as a psychological drama. They were happy to publish it and it is being read in Germany with no tag line of any kind.

Question 2: Your U.S. publisher, Simon and Schuster, presents a fourteen minute audio interview with you on their website ( In listening to it I was interested to hear your challenges and struggles to craft the structure to your first novel, The Thirteenth Tale. You said (I’m paraphrasing) that the structure you were grappling with was so complicated it should have been your fourth or fifth novel, not your first, because you ‘really weren’t good enough yet.’ I’d like to linger on this notion because it’s interesting already and — unlike the rest of us — you have a Ph.D. in literature, and are therefore very well educated on the matter of structure. Why was the theory of literature you’d studied not a helpful guide in grappling with the practice of writing? Or was it?

Yes, I remember that interview. The challenges of the structure of The Thirteenth Tale were the double time frame and the fact of having two narrators. It was complicated further by the dense intricacy of the plot. My efforts to present the convolutions without confusion and to extract the maximum of tension and pleasure from the various mysteries and reveals gave me quite a headache and more than once I came close to giving up. (Perhaps it’s no surprise that my second book has a very linear narrative and rests so substantially on the shoulders of a single character. I did want to give myself a fresh writing experience.)

Your question about the relation between academic study of literature and the practice of writing is an interesting one. It is not unreasonable to assume that studying novels full time for ten years or so – and then teaching literature for a further half-decade – should be a good preparation for becoming a novelist. One studies medicine in order to practice it after all and engineering students tend to become engineers. Why should literature be any different? Yet it is. Perhaps the study of literature is more akin to botany than engineering: a PhD is all very well, but it hardly qualifies you to make a dahlia. Or maybe it’s like driving lessons: being able to reverse round corners is one thing, the ability to make an engine that goes is entirely another.

The difficulty is that a good many questions that bother the writer are of the nuts and bolts kind that readers needn’t ordinarily concern themselves with. I am constantly preoccupied with ‘how’ questions: how to squeeze this back story into the novel without slowing the pace, how to set up a psychological motivation for an act so that what transpires seems entirely natural at the time of reading, how to bury an innocuous-looking word in chapter three so that in the merest touch in chapter 28 will cause it retrospectively to explode in the reader’s mind, how to avoid a sense of repetition when the plot calls for two consecutive 2-person dialogues… So much of the work of writing is this unseen, backstage stuff. It takes 90% of the time and without it the stuff we study literature for (style, themes, that mysterious stuff called meaning) cannot exist. To be honest, I spend relatively little time thinking about the ‘content’ of the book. To use an analogy from the world of drama, a novelist must be as much set designer and lighting engineer as playwright. One must construct the stage so that the light will fall on it the right way, so the lines of vision will be clear (and impeded) in the way that best enhances the actions and events that take place on it. I write on a laptop, but if I think of manual tools, it is hammers and chisels that come to mind, not pens. Yet as a student this crafting of a story – its quality as a ‘made’ thing – is something I had no sense of. And I really enjoy it. Being able to join two scenes that seem on the surface of it not to relate, finding a way of smoothing over a bumpy sequence, these things give me enormous pleasure in the same way that my woodworking father enjoys a smooth running drawer, a finely dovetailed joint, a piece of furniture made with mahogany where it shows and unvarnished plain timber – but solid and neat – underneath. I write in a flat, but in my imagination I am in a shed, and it feels a very long way from the university seminar room.

And yet… the part of my university study that has become part of my every day writing tool kit is translation. For years alongside my French literature essays my week’s study included a passage of literature to be translated from French into English, and another from English into French. This close up study is what I now consider to be my apprenticeship as a writer. It made me pay close attention to how sentences are made. Also, my choice of structure for that first book was influenced by some of my reading at university (there is a ‘miss en abyme’ buried in it, a device I knew well since I wrote my PhD on it).  So in my desire to explain the craftedness of my work, I am – it is true – underplaying the role my university education played in helping me towards it. It’s just that all the clever stuff is nothing without the work of the maker.

Question 3: Let’s zoom-in close for a moment and actually look at those “how” questions. To do that, let’s do something a bit unusual and pause on a single paragraph and discuss the craftsmanship of it, if you’ll excuse the term. There is a lovely paragraph on page 14 of my hard cover version of Bellman & Black. I feel like the pacing, the tempo, the rhythm, the word choice, the selection of lyrics from hymns … it all came together. Here it is in its entirety. Talk us through it. Share some of that enormous pleasure you mentioned — the pleasure of creating something that leads to the pleasure of reading it (I hope it’s a paragraph you like too!):

Thankfully there was the choir, and thankfully the choir contained William Bellman. His tenor, effortless and clear, gave a compass bearing, according to which the individual voices found north and knew where they were going. It rallied, disciplined and provided a target to aim at. Its vibrations even managed to stimulate the eardrums of the hard of hearing, for the dull drone of the deaf was lifted by it into something almost musical. Although at ‘sorrow, fear and sin’ the congregation was bleating haphazardly, by ‘Hasten the joyful day’ it had agreed on a speed; it found its tune ‘when old things shall be done away’, and by the time it reached ‘eternal bliss’ in the last verse it was, thanks to William, as agreeable to the ear as any congregation can expect.

Yes, I like this passage too. What fun to take it to pieces and see how it was made! Strange that it takes so many more words to explain how it is constructed than the paragraph contains itself.

It opens with a ‘there was’ construction. Some people avoid ‘there was’ and ‘there is’ because they are a bit plodding and heavy. I like them for the same reasons. Sometimes something robust and a bit clunky is what you want – it gives a solid anchor. Later the paragraph gets complex so this solidity at the beginning is very welcome. It’s leavened, paradoxically, by the repetition of the word ‘thankfully’. Psychologists have proven that textual repetition, far from reinforcing understanding can actually switch the reader’s attention off, so you have to use it carefully. Here it strengthens the simplicity of the opening, plus I like it because it is echoed in a minor key at the end (‘thanks to William’) which gives the paragraph a pleasing circularity.

The second sentence might be somewhat bodged. I believe that in church singing the congregation follows the choir’s soprano, because it is usually the sopranos that sing the melody. Plainly, William can’t be a soprano. But I don’t think anyone would seriously take me to task on this: the tenor is loud, so I think I get away with it. Sentences 2 and 3 in effect say much the same thing, but it works because there is enough linguistic diversity to distract from the repetition. Sentence 2 is long, sentence 3 short. Sentence 2 contains adjectives (‘effortless and clear’) and an image (the compass) and the familiar register of ‘knew where they were going’. I like dead flat language like this. Like the ‘there was’ at the beginning, it is a kind of stepping stone, a place where the reader has a really firm foothold. You know where you are going with an expression like ‘You know where you are going.’ Sentence 3 is a nice percussive list of verbs: the d’s and p’s distinguish it nicely from the previous line, so you feel it is giving you something new, even though really it is only adding detail to what you already know.

Sentence 4 is nice, isn’t it? When I reread it with your question in mind I remembered very fondly the English teacher who first taught me to recognise consonance. The h’s of ‘hard of hearing’, the d’s of ‘dull drone of the deaf’ (together with the lazy vowels of that group of words: a typical British English speaker can say that bit almost without altering the position of his lips. The words produce the very drone they describe.) That is followed by the sibilant s’s of ‘something almost musical’ combining with more diverse and active vowel sounds that force the mouth to dance a bit, making a kind of music. This is what Anna Withers meant at Theale Green School all those years ago when she told us that form and content cannot be separated but are two aspects of the same thing.

Sentence 5 is perhaps the most obviously ‘crafted’ of the paragraph. I enjoyed chiselling and moulding my prose to accommodate the words of the Wesley hymn. There was pleasure in taking someone else’s words – with beauty and qualities all their own – and setting them in mine, like a goldsmith with diamonds, or a master craftsman inlaying one precious wood into another. You want the stone and the setting to be just right, and to ensure a pleasing and seamless finish. My congregation is bleating haphazardly, which is a reference to the previous paragraph where they were said to be ‘tuneless and disorganised as a herd of sheep on market day’. It’s a mill town, and these woolly references all do their bit to help build the world of the story. For the most part it was just a matter of carving my own linguistic material to hold the Wesley lyrics securely, but I was particularly satisfied with the way ‘eternal bliss’ placed itself: Wesley’s ‘eternal bliss’ is obviously actual eternal bliss; in my sentence it coincides with the choir hitting its peak, creating a blissful sound, and I was pleased with the neatness of that dovetailing: my choir singing Wesley’s hymn, embodying the eternal bliss of the lyrics in the momentary bliss of their voices.

The choice of hymn was not random. Looking through Wesley’s hymn lyrics, I was especially struck by this one. It is called O Come and Dwell in Me, and gives voice to a sentiment that is all but lost to our generation: that death might be a thing to be happily anticipated. William is a youngster here; later we are to see him grow into a man with a horror of dying and death, and I was pleased to be able to half-bury this irony in the passage. In his cheerful tenor he belts out the words, ‘Hasten the joyful day’ – the ‘joyful day’ being the day of one’s own death – but plainly he isn’t actually listening to the words. He’s just relishing the singing.

Paragraphs are not self-contained things. This one has strings that attach it to other parts of the book. What we see here is William’s striking talent in singing and his ability to lead. We learn on the next page that some people are critical of William for singing with similar gusto in public houses, but when we actually see this it is evidence of a very human and touching (also drunken) solidarity that his male friends extend to him when he is bereaved. Much later William sings all alone in his emporium at night. His loneliness then is apparent to the reader, but one suspects he only has a half-sense of it. Later still he is to sing a very intimate, halting duet with Lizzie the seamstress, when it appears he might be able to reconnect with humanity… So there is a thread of human voice, the different ways it implies social connection and disconnection, that lies mostly behind the fabric of the novel and appears on the surface here and on a few other occasion. I said strings, but I ought to have said threads or yarn: this kind of craft is called fairisle in knitting, and I think of it often when writing.

Next: An Interview with Diane Setterfield: Part II

An Interview with Thomas Enger

copyright Ingrid Basso
copyright Ingrid Basso

You were writing for 15 years before publishing your first novel. Tell me about some of your earliest writing.

A lot of people ask me how it started for me. The honest answer is: I don’t know. Or rather: I don’t recall specifically, I just know that it was a long time ago, and that it started somewhere around the age of 16-17-18.

One thing I do recall, however, was a school assignment where we were asked to write about a dream. Yeah, I know, very original. In any case, and for some strange reason, I had dreamt that I was playing a part in the Michael Jackson movie Moonwalker. I don’t remember anything about the movie now, except that big mouth banging up and down to the rhythm of ”Leave me alone,” and I don’t even recall what the heck I was doing in the movie in the first place. But I do remember, vividly, the feeling I experienced as I was retelling that story in writing. I was excited. My hand (these were in the days of the pencil) couldn’t write quickly enough. Maybe that’s where the first spark was ignited, I don’t know.

It took me a while to build the courage to write something outside school assignments, and I have to admit, it began rather childishly. This was long before the days of Facebook and e-mail, and while I was in the military service for about a year, I was trying to stay in touch with my best friend from school through letters. In those letters we wrote stories about each other in various humiliating circumstances that involved girls, all fictional of course, and yes, it contained a certain sexual content. In them I was always the Super Stallion Sex God, and my friend was forever getting the short end of the stick, and vice versa when he wrote me. Yes, it was lame, but God, that was fun. And yes, we’re still the best of friends, would you believe it.

But the serious writing started when I was about 20 years old. I had been thinking about trying for some time, but the kick in the butt (or in the groin, depending on how you look at it) came after this all-consuming relationship with my first true love ended in shatters (she cheated on me). I was heartbroken and depressed out of my mind, and for a long period of time I needed a reason to get out of bed. One day I just sat down, or up, and started writing.

In retrospect I made all the rookie mistakes you can possibly think of in that book. The story was about a woman in her forties living in New York with a husband that she would soon discover was keeping deadly secrets from her. My goal was first and foremost to see if I could finish the story, write something that consisted of 200 pages, not four — as we used to in school. But of course, I didn’t know anything about New York (I had never been there), and I wasn’t a woman in her forties either. Needless to say it was difficult even for me to believe what I was writing.

But I somehow managed to complete the task and goal I had set for myself, and even though my heart didn’t quite heal during that process, it made me realize how much I loved to write. I loved creating characters, plots, plot devices, twists, dramatic scenes, and I submitted the book to various publishers in Norway, and I even got a decent response from a few of them. So I knew that I wasn’t too far off. It encouraged me to continue writing.

In 1995 I moved to Stavanger, Norway, to study journalism, and there I made another attempt at writing a novel. It was about a man living in Stavanger (yeah, original) who got beat up while standing in a junk food line late one night and, by a stroke of bad luck, got paralyzed from the neck down. The book was mainly about his recovery, the journey from absolute devastation to a glimpse of hope for the future (some smart ass with a degree in psychology would probably submit that I might have been writing a little bit about my broken heart again), and, contrary to what the topic might suggest, I had a blast writing it. I tried to put as much humor into this unfortunate young man’s head as I could, as a way of dealing with the tragedy, and I think it worked pretty good. But, as one editor told me after reading it, if you want to know whether or not my main character finds that glimmer of hope or not, all you have to that is go to the last page, and there your answer would be. He was right, of course, even though, for me, it was the journey to that point that made the book, not its conclusion.

Anyway, and once again, the process of writing that book, however naive it was, made me realize even more how badly I wanted to become a writer. So I went about looking for more stories to tell, and when I moved back to Oslo another one came to mind. It was about a young boy who got kidnapped by a religious mad man, and it was, by far, the best thing I had written up until that point. I could tell. I submitted it once again to different publishers in Norway, and one of them (Cappelen Damm) thought it was really good. It just needed some rewriting.

I was hugely encouraged, of course, by such a response, and I tried very hard to get my head around how I needed to tell the story. Over the course of the next two and a half years I rewrote it four times, and each time I got the same reply. “Thomas, this is good, but…”

So I needed to put that story away for a while, I was just too exhausted. In the mean time I had gotten a job as a journalist, and I figured I needed to focus on that for a while.

The need to write something for myself, however, stayed with me, and when I got this idea for a young adult novel back in 2003, I decided to give it another go. At that point I hadn’t written anything for about two years, and it was like removing a lid from the top of a kettle that was boiling ferociously underneath. The pages just flew out of me, it was so much fun, and I realized how badly I had missed writing.

The story needed some rewriting as well, but I was confident that the story was so good that I just needed to keep on going, then eventually it would turn into a novel and my dream would come true. So firm was my belief that I actually quit my job in order to pursue that dream.

But, sadly, it didn’t amount to anything that time around either. I remember getting that e-mail (yes, we’re in the day and age of the e-mails now) from Aschehoug, one of the other big publishers in Norway, telling me that ”Thomas, this is really good, but it just isn’t good enough for us.”

I was heartbroken and deeply discouraged. Four novels. None of which had made it past the threshold into the wonderful world of literature. Not to mention the fact that I had given up my job in order to pursue this selfish dream of mine. By that time I had become a father. How was I going to support my kids now?

I applied for jobs, didn’t get them. The financial reserves I had saved up were rapidly vanishing. But, I guess, there really is something about that ”necessity is the mother of invention” proverb, because it was at that moment in time, when things really couldn’t be worse, the idea for this brand new character popped into my head and I instantly knew that this was such a strong character that I couldn’t let him be. I had to write him.

One of the reasons I actually did write him, despite being broke, was something the editor at Aschehoug said to me in that letter of rejection. She said: ”Thomas, I can tell that you can write. It’s just a matter of not stopping.”

So what I did, even though I didn’t have a job and a steady income, was to sit down and analyze what I had done wrong over those 15 years of trying, and I quickly learned three truths.

  1. I had written stories about people I didn’t know.
  2. They were set in cities I had never been to. And
  3. After I got my ideas, I had simply started writing, I hadn’t planned or outlined what I was going to write.

So I decided to write about someone I knew (me, although Henning Juul isn’t ALL me). I put him in a city I had lived in for many years (Oslo), and I spent quite a long time thinking about him and trying to figure out what his story was. Then I started to write.

And here we are. Five novels later.

Man am I glad I listened to that editor.


So, evidently, behind your calm Norwegian exterior there is clearly a tremendous reserve of good old-fashioned stubborn. What did you think of your own tenacity at the time? After all, it can lead a person to great success. However, it can lead to destruction and madness.  

I have always been quite competitive. From very early on when I was playing soccer we were always taught to fight till the bitter end, no matter what. I think that mentality has stayed with me ever since, and I have never been afraid of thinking big, of setting huge goals for myself. For instance, I’ve been working on a musical for about 15 years now, and it still isn’t finished. Talk about stubborn…

I knew it was going to be difficult to write a novel, let alone get it published, so it wasn’t something I really expected to happen, at least not early on. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted it and thought, with each submission, that this time it is going to work. I guess if you want something really bad, then you have to be willing to fight for it. It sounds simple, but there really isn’t any other way.

During those 15 years of trying there certainly were moments of doubt. I remember taking quite a few long, hard looks at myself in the mirror, thinking: Maybe this isn’t for you, Thomas. Maybe you just aren’t good enough.

I have to admit, I’ve always been drawn to the darkness a little bit. I’m probably most content when I’m feeling a little bit down, when I can succumb to melancholy and listen to sad music all day long. Even now I still get those moments. But I guess I wanted this so badly that I simply couldn’t let go of it. Besides, I knew that I was getting closer with each attempt, and it was with writing as it was when I was playing soccer. I knew I just had to practice more. A boxer once said: “If you get knocked down seven times, you get up eight.” I couldn’t agree more.

And now, after having accomplished my dream goal, what’s next you might ask. Well, the answer is simple. I want to write better novels. And finishing that damn musical of mine, of course…

Interesting phrase there, “it was with writing as it was when I was playing soccer.” What indicated real progress in soccer, and what indicated it in writing? 

Mainly that I was plucking away and practicing really hard, and then the results inevitably followed. In soccer it had a lot to do with aging and experience, just realizing what I needed to do in this or that situation, but I think this also applies to writing. You learn from your mistakes, you gain experience from trying, from getting feedback from your readers or your coaches, and if you are smart enough to listen to those who know better, or at least are supposed to, then you stand a better chance of reaching your goals. Wow, that sounded a lot like life coaching. Good to know I have something to fall back on.

Anyway, when it comes to writing you need something to write about before you can sit down and actually write. You have to live a little. You need to experience things such as love and loss, you need to go places in order to open your eyes to other ways of life, you need to read and read and read if you want to find out what makes a good book. And then you have to go back to the basics, which is practicing, trying to implement the bits and pieces you pick up along the way.

For me becoming a father played a huge part in the improvement of my writing, not only because I am writing about a man who has lost his child, but also because fatherhood, to say it a bit pompously, has provided me with a lot more clarity and attentiveness to all kinds of things around me.

Before I was chasing girls and having fun and playing soccer and trying to chase this other dream I had about becoming an author. I didn’t pay close attention to trees and forests and clouds and the tastes and the smells of everything. I see and feel a lot more than I used to, I am more focused on being a good father, a good husband and a good human being who is nice to his friends and the world around him. The things that really matter. And because of that I also think that I have become a better writer.

Let’s talk about that reading-to-writing relationship. Most writers say that they are also readers and you’re not the first to say that writers need to read. But readers are readers too, and that doesn’t make them writers. In fact, since entering the publishing universe myself I’ve met people — agents, editors, reviews, booksellers — who have already read more books than I probably ever will. As a writer, how did your experience of being a reader actually impact and affect your writing?

Once I understood, for real, that writing was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I started to read differently. I went about it a lot more analytically than I had done before, searching for clues and techniques, trying to figure out what my favorite authors did and what made their books so thrilling and intriguing. How they built their characters, how they built their stories, how they ended them (cliffhangers, no cliffhangers?) and so forth.

I did read books just for the fun of it as well, but even today I’m still searching for ways to improve my writing. So I read a lot to get inspired. And I still haven’t found the perfect way to go about writing a novel. I’m starting to believe there isn’t one, that it’s just a matter of finding the right way to write the novel you are currently writing.

What writing has inspired you? 

Oh, a lot, I don’t even know where to begin. As I write crime fiction I think I have to mention Henning Mankell as the one that really got me hooked into the genre back in the day. I remember reading a novel of his on the plane from London to Mexico City, and I didn’t want the plane to land. I’m not talking about the actual writing here, I don’t remember the prose as particularly brilliant, but the plot certainly was. Those cliffhangers. Oh, man.

As I grew older and got more and more preoccupied with the actual writing, searching for techniques and ways of building characters and stories, my focus shifted more towards non-Scandinavian authors such as John Irving, Dennis Lehane, Linwood Barclay, Harlan Coben – to name but a few. Nowadays I have found myself deeply impressed by Gillian Flynn and John Hart, but I’m also going searching for authors outside of the crime genre. I recently read a Kurt Vonnegut novel (my first), and I loved his prose. Sebastian Barry, who I met in Edinburgh, is also a brilliant storyteller. Neil Gaiman. Oh my God. I could go on and on. Hemingway. Per Petterson. Somebody please stop me.

Let’s turn back to something you mentioned earlier in passing, namely the musical you’ve been writing for fifteen years. Before getting into the details of that, I’d like you to introduce us to what role making music plays in your life.

First of all, music in itself is very important to me. I listen to music all the time, even when I’m writing. It’s such a big part of my DNA, and to be able to write a piece of music myself makes my connection to it even stronger. It’s just the greatest feeling in the world to listen to something I have written, especially if I’m liking it.

After I quit my job back in 2008 I was going as much for my music as I was for my writing. I made contact with all kinds of people in the music business, sent them tapes, told them I could do scores for short films for free, just to get something to show for. But once I got published as an author my books kind of took control over me. I didn’t and couldn’t spend that much time making music when I all of a sudden had novels to write. That’s why I haven’t done that a lot over the last four-five years, but I do miss it. A lot.

I know it’s stupid of me to say this after five novels, since I don’t have a single album, radio hit or a score for a block buster movie to my name, but I actually think that I have a stronger talent for making music than writing novels. Music comes more naturally to me, it’s more instinct, whereas writing is more about the craft and putting in the hours; It takes so much more effort. I can easily write a musical theme in ten minutes, or at least have a draft for it. And who knows, maybe in time I will get to finish that musical of mine or get a phone call from Steven saying ”Hey, Thomas. John Williams isn’t available for me this time around. You up for it?”

In English we use the same term — writing — for composing a piece of music and composing a story in words. Do you use the same word in Norwegian? And what do you make of that?

Yes, we use the same word, and to me it always feels a bit wrong or strange to say that I’m writing music, because I’m not doing any physical writing, I am simply playing my piano and thereby creating music. So to me creating is a better word for composing music. The term ”writing music” is probably a relic from the olden days when composers really did write their notes and scores with a pencil. Nowadays it’s all computerized. And thank God for that, because I don’t know how to read notes. It’s like a foreign language to me. I just play and compose by ear.


What were some of your biggest fears as a writer that, in retrospect, were holding you back from growing?

To be honest I don’t think I had any fears per se, at least not fears that were holding me back. I think I grew with each book I tried to write, and I also think that still applies five novels in. Now it’s more a fear of repeating myself, of writing something people have read before or, if you will, the fear of not growing. But I don’t think that holds me back in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact. The fact that I’m aware of it and conscious about it makes me push myself even harder, so that I can grow.

Casting your mind ahead to the future after you finish the current series, which is coming to an end, tell me what growing as a writer will mean to you?

I’m on a little quest here. My goal is to become a better author with each novel I write, and I think and hope I have achieved that so far. To me it means that I’m becoming more and more aware of the tools I have at my disposal and how I can use them to tell the story as best I can. I am nowhere near finished when it comes to learning, which is fine. It’s a constant process, and I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect novel. But somewhere down the line I firmly believe that I will write something that will come damn close. Then I can die a happy man.

For the writer’s out there, can you be more specific? An example from my own writing — just to frame this — might help. My novels have generally been set over a period of a few days or few weeks at the most. I’m therefore interesting in exploring longer periods of time while maintaining dramatic tension. What’s on your list?

My series with Henning Juul is set over the course over one autumn, with a few glimpses into the past here and there, especially in the fifth and final installment. So to be able to write stories with a longer time span is definitely on my list as well.

I think I’m also going to write something that’s not crime fiction one day. I have a story in mind which is set in the Middle Ages, and while people die there as well, it’s not a crime mystery. So to be able to mix a historically-correct story with deep portraits of the people of that time is something I see as a great challenge and also an enormously time-consuming one. I hope I will be able to have the time and energy to explore that universe one day.

I have also written a few short stories over the last few years, and that is definitely something I would like to do more. It’s a great writing exercise. I have been commissioned to do two short stories for next year, and I would love to do a crime fiction short story compilation one day. Not to mention write a crime novel that consists of short stories, telling each character’s story and role in that novel in the form of a short story. That, I think, would be really cool.

I would love to do more books for children or young adults as well, and while I have a few ideas for the kids between the age of 12 and 18, I’m still waiting for the good stuff for the youngest ones to appear.

Enough banter. Here are the real questions:

Tell me three movies you’re embarrassed to admit that you like so much.

  1. Mamma Mia. It has such a good vibe to it. The scene where Meryl Streep is preparing her daughter on her wedding day almost tears me up every time. I guess I’m envisioning myself giving away my own daughter at some point in life – with all that implies. Pathetic, I know.
  1. Catwoman. For obvious reasons.
  1. Under Siege. I just love Steven Seagal. The scene where he, as an on board chef, beats the crap out of a bad guy in the kitchen, is just hilarious. “Nobody beats me in the kitchen”. Cracks me up every time. He’s also the best close encounter fighter in the movies. Not a single expression on his face even when he’s in grave danger.

Name one writer — living or dead — everyone says is brilliant but you simply cannot understand why. 

Paolo Coelho. Sorry, Mr. Coelho. I’m sure you’re a nice guy but I just don’t get you.

Tell us three young-adult stories (in English or Norwegian) you want people to know about and enjoy.

It’s impossible not to mention the Harry Potter series or the Hunger Games novels. Great stuff.

Here in Norway there is a beautiful story written by Marianne Kaurin which is called “Nærmere Høst.” In English it translates roughly into “Closer To Fall” or something like that. Magnificent story about Oslo in 1942 when the police one day knock on a Jewish family’s door and the 15 year old daughter, by chance, isn’t home. It’s a story about fear, sorrow and exhaustion, but also a story about love, courage and cohesion. A beautiful book.

Finally, what is the most annoying question you’re regularly asked as a crime writer and what’s the answer?

Ah, where should I begin…

Well, I think the question I get the most is “why is Scandinavian Crime Fiction so popular around the world these days?” The answer is: I don’t know. Except maybe … the books are good?

Next: An Interview with Thomas Enger

Thomas Enger is an international bestselling novelist. He is known for his crime fiction and — in his native Norway — for his young adult novel Den Onde Arven (published in Norwegian by Gyldendal Forlag, August 2013) for which he won the Uprisen prize, awarded for the best young adult novel in Norway as voted by the young readers themselves.

Thomas has been a journalist, a sports writer, a footballer, and a soldier. He is now a writer, composer, father and husband, with those earlier identities seemingly absorbed rather than abandoned. 

Thomas and I met at the bar of the Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel at Crimefest, 2012. We found plenty to discuss. Aside from our common present as writers living in Oslo, it turned out had we a significant commonality in our pasts as well — we had both written for 15 years before publishing a word of fiction.

Over a beer talked about writing, being writers, being fathers, living in Norway, and relationship between dramatic force in music and novel writing. 

Since Bristol we’ve met several times socially. The conversations we had impressed on me how much I’d like to interview him at The Interview Spot.

I asked and he agreed.

Our interview is being carried out in writing via email. As always, I ask the interviewees to read the final version and change what they like. 

Please join me here at the Interview Spot for my next conversation, this time with Thomas Enger. 

Derek B. Miller

An Interview with Joel Peckham: Part III Afterwards

Joel's sons, Cyrus and Darius, shortly before Cyrus was killed in an auto accident.
Joel’s sons, Cyrus and Darius, shortly before Cyrus was killed in an auto accident.

Question 16: There it is. It’s done. You’ve assembled the previously published essays and some new material into book form and it’s sitting on your computer as a depressingly small file. What did you do next?

Probably a million wrong things.  I’ve been a poet my entire writing career so what do I know.  I put together a cover letter, sent it to a few contests, sent queries to a few agents and sent some manuscripts to presses that were looking at unsolicited manuscripts.  It was all very scattershot. Sometimes I wonder if there wasn’t a part of me that didn’t want the book to come out, or if it did, if I really wanted anyone to read it.  I had a great deal of anxiety about putting that book out into the world.

Question 17: Eventually, though, a publisher did say “yes.” What happened and how did it feel?

I was driving my son to a baseball game.  He was pitching that night and I had just picked another player up who needed a ride.  I wasn’t expecting a call.  I had given up on the manuscript for the time being.  It had been a finalist for a couple of contests, but didn’t win them.   The few agencies I had sent it to had either not replied or turned me down.  I had forgotten I had even sent the manuscript to Academy Chicago.  And I had turned my attention to a collection of poems.

Anyway the call was from a Chicago number and I figured it was a telemarketer or something.  But I have a brother-in-law in Chicago so I answered just in case.  It was Jordan Miller calling to tell me he wanted the book and asking if it was still available. I almost drove the car off the road.  I didn’t even think about it. Just blurted out a bunch of thank you’s. It was pretty surreal. The next thing I knew I was trying to explain to a couple of 10-year olds that I had just placed a book.

They were very impressed.

Question 18: Describe the transition from that feeling of elation to the realization that all that intimate, challenging, and sometimes divisive material was now going to be “out there.” Did it happen before the book was actually published or afterwards?

I’d say the feelings of elation and trepidation came pretty much simultaneously.  I knew the book would anger some people.  And, honestly, I felt they had a perfect right to that anger.  There was also a good bit of embarrassment.  I reveal things about myself and my life that are very private and quite a bit that I am ashamed of.

I am naturally a shy person, believe it or not.  People tend to make me nervous and I let very few into my life or into my confidence.  It felt as if I had potentially opened the door to the entire world.  That was scary.  Then there was the prospect of promoting the book and doing readings.  There was a very large part of me that wanted nothing to do with that part of things at all. I am not a talented self-promoter.

Question 19: I understand that the book was published as “self-help.” What is the story behind that, and what are your feelings about it?

That was a decision made by the publisher who I believe was trying to tap into a market to take the book beyond literary circles.  At the time, the idea made sense to me. The problem is that the “grief and healing” market is absolutely flooded with self-published books and pop psychology readers that view grief as a process one can navigate by following a series of steps. And I think that most of those books are purchased by friends and family as tokens of concern for the aggrieved.  They are gifts passed on in the hope of bringing those who are suffering back into the world of the living, the “normal”.  I can’t imagine anyone buying my book for that purpose.

Resisting Elegy is a tough book–it offers no 12-step program, potential cure, or false hope. Which is to say that it is a work of literature and therefore more interested in telling the truth than in saving people.  Still,  I actually think it could help people in the way that literature can help us–by making us feel less alone..  Offering the truth to someone IS a gift in that respect but it doesn’t always feel like one.  And people have to be ready for it.  I should say that by “the truth” I mean the truth of my experience and the underlying truth that my experience implies–that grief is messy, intimate, individual, even beautiful at times and bound up in the psychology and history of the aggrieved and the relationships they had with those they’ve lost.

The largest cost of the “Self-help” tag was that it seemed to suppress reviews.  The book was never reviewed by publisher’s weekly or Kirkus for example.  And I really had to hustle to get it the attention it did get.  It got a beautiful review at Rain Taxi, for example, but I had to convince the editor that the book was indeed, literature, before he would even assign it to a reader.

I do think Academy Chicago did a beautiful job with the book and I’m very grateful to them for taking a chance on it.  It wasn’t like publishers or agents were bashing down the door to get it.  This book was a hard-sell and continues to be a hard-sell.  I can only hope that attention like this can help to bring the book to the attention of those who might appreciate it.

Question 20: I’ve been asked whether I think anyone will read my books in 100 years. And for me, and the answer is easy. “Yes, absolutely,” I say. They are always shocked as it seems to suggest a certain ego, but the fact is, I’m certain that my grand children or great grandchildren will read my books. I’m certain of this because, as family, it is part of their history and their identify. I could imagine you feeling that way about your book. It seems to me as though it will carry through time — hopefully for an ever-wider audience — but certainly for your family. With these thoughts in mind, do you have any hopes or aspirations for this book from a family perspective, given that, in the end, it is about you and your family?

This is a hard question for me to answer. I’m not much of a future-thinker. I try very hard to be in the moment I’m in and I don’t worry much about what my legacy will be–other than my hope that I do more good than harm as a father and husband and that both my wife and our son outlive me by many years. The book is it’s own thing and I hope it has a long life.

Though I’ve never encouraged it,  I believe that my son has already read it on his own. I saw a copy on his Ipad.  And he has dropped a comment here or there about how much he likes my writing.  I hope he feels the book is something worth passing on to his children and I hope it answers some questions for him. I hope he sees it as an act of love.

My hope for the book is that it finds the people who need it. If only a couple of hundred people ever read it, but it moves those people, makes a difference in their lives, allows them to feel a bit more connected to their worlds, brings those worlds just a little bit more alive for them, then maybe that’s enough.  There is something astonishing to me about how my book reached you, how it moved you.  That was incredibly gratifying. I’m lucky to have written a few words that might make a difference in a few lives.  That’s not a bad legacy.

• End •

An Interview with Joel Peckham. Part II: The Writing

Part II: The writing

QUESTION 8: The first word of the first essay is “But.” Your first sentence starts “But there are stories that don’t have beginnings …” This is directly opposite to the way a more well-known book — The Bible — begins, namely with “In the beginning …” which does seem a more traditional way to start. Tell me about this sentence and why you started this way.

It’s hard to remember clearly but I think I was attempting to leap into the middle at that point because I couldn’t think of how to begin and I wasn’t even sure where the beginning was.  What better way to begin in the middle of things than to start with But?

It felt to me as if I were starting the essay in the middle of a conversation. Almost in the middle of answering a question.  The entire book feels to me an attempt to catch the mind working though impossible questions, impossible problems. It wasn’t as if I wrote two pages and then cut them.  The first sentence I wrote down was the one in my head in that moment.  And that felt right. I’m sure there was a part of me that was reacting to that wonderful beginning to the bible.

The word, “But” is the first word to every rebellion. I imagine that it was the first word on the lips of Job after God’s angry retort.  I think it is the word that makes us most human most free and also, the horrible little pests that we can often be. It also makes us beautiful.  Without that word, that questioning, that contradiction, we can’t grow, we can’t change.  It’s very powerful little word.  I was also teaching Freytag’s triangle in a literature class and something in me was kind of irked by that way of looking at stories.  What true stories are actually shaped like that?  Sure, it seems to work, seems to fit. . . But.

Question 9: This feels related to your earlier point about having written in self-defense; to survive. The “But” feels like a response to an accusation that hadn’t actually been made yet except … I suppose … by you.

Yes.  That’s true enough.  I think feelings of guilt and desire for redemption motivate much of the interior dialogue in the book.  I felt responsible for not only the deaths of my wife and son and the state of my marriage before the accident.

I felt frustrated by my almost instinctive need to start justifying my actions and feelings.  I was also angry at Susie for disappearing before we could resolve anything.  I also felt guilty for having these irrational feelings.  Looking back, I was probably deliberately provoking a response.  When I finally did have a few people openly angry with me, my response was a mixture of outrage and relief.

Question 10: I’ve been to Jordan and many other countries in the region, and your descriptions — of the towns, of the land, of the feeling of being in the cities — not only struck me as good descriptions but in many cases beautiful and poetic ones. Can you explain your thoughts on the use of beauty in this book, especially considering this is non-fiction and about something horrible?

I wonder if something can truly be beautiful, be appreciated as beautiful without the possibility of loss, terror, danger.  Beauty always contains the terror of its loss and of the pain it could potentially inflict.  At the same time, an appreciation for it might be redemptive.  I think of a passage from Victor Frankl’s MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING:

“One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!”

This is observed from inside the horror of a concentration camp. Whatever is valuable about humanity might be found in this short paragraph.  Beauty reminds us of life’s value. Our ability to appreciate it, which is our ability to love each other and our world, give us purpose.

Question 11: Speaking of Frankl, you began your book with two quotes, one of them from Man’s Search for Meaning.The quote is:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he tales up is cross, gives him ample opportunity —even under the most difficult curcumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified, unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation, he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. (Victor Frankl)

Had you read Frankl before the accident or did you come to him afterwards?

I think Man’s Search for Meaning might be the most important book I’ve ever read. I’d had the book on my shelf for years, carried with me from Vermont to Texas to Nebraska to Michigan to New Hampshire.  I think it might have been loaned to me by a friend at Middlebury college when I was an undergraduate.  So technically it’s not even my book.  That friend is a rabbi in Colorado now.  I think he’d forgive me for taking it.

I’m sure I glanced at it once or twice.  There must have been a reason I held onto it.  Must have been a reason it made it through each haphazard selection process that moving required.  The holocaust had held a dark fascination for me since I’d been exposed to it in social studies as an adolescent in Sharon Massachusetts, a small, mostly jewish community on the border of Rhode Island.  Learning about it within that community gave the experience more immediacy and I think, a certain surreality. I was horrified and awestruck by how inhuman people could become, how evil.

I’m still stunned by man’s incredible capacity for hate and cruelty but that’s not what made the book important to me when I finally began reading it in the fall of 2004.  It was a few months after the accident and I was in a dark, lonely place.  In pain, on lots of medication, trying to father a child, feeling overwhelmed and cursed by God.  Then I started reading Frankl and what moved me was the strength–the almost unconscious, instinctive, WILL to live that I uncovered there.  I would never compare my experience to the catastrophic loss, degradation, and cruelty suffered by the people in those camps, but I was stunned that even there, in those, terrible circumstances, so much determination to hang on to one’s humanity.  In particular, his insistence on love, moved me beyond description

I could have used 20 quotes from that book.  Here’s another:

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

Question 12: Let’s pull back from your book of essays for the moment and broaden the conversation to your writing more generally. How do you know whether you’re improving the material or simply changing it?

I don’t know that any of us know until we know.

I’m working on an essay right now on chronic pain called “The Shattering”.  I can’t stop tinkering with it. In it I’m trying to get at the reasons for why it is so difficult to communicate the experience of pain and how that difficulty to express it creates problems– in treatment, in finding adequate psychological support, in interacting with people on a daily basis.  The work is comprised of an interlocking series of memories that serve as launching points for an exploration of the psychological, emotional, and social experience of pain.  It’s very non-linear and the order is dependent on the progression of ideas, not a narrative arc.  And since there is more than one question at play here, it is not only difficult to cling to a controlling idea, it is difficult to keep an eye on a destination for the essay.

When there are many answers, there is no answer. So it’s a little like building a puzzle.  You create these puzzle pieces and you have to make choices about which ones fit together and why.  And when you have pieces that don’t fit–do you reshape them to fit? do you exclude them? do you change the position of the piece and make another piece that can connect it to the body of the entire picture?  Do you just make a new piece that fits better? Do you change the picture to fit the piece? All of these choices are valid approaches and there is little to guide you either than your writing instincts and a little trial and error.

I’m pretty dogged in pursuing a project until I think I’ve completed it to my satisfaction.  And I’ll sometimes revise a piece for several years before I’m happy with it.  In the end I want to create something that I would want to read.  It needs to be coherent, artful, and moving.  So I mostly rely on that ideal reader to keep (me) in check.  And the ideal reader is basically me at my most lazy and distracted.  It’s the me that doesn’t have much time to read and maybe even resents the effort.  The me that sits back and says to the author–“O.K.  Show me something.”  If I can get that guy to pay attention, I’ve got something.

But sometimes I lose sight of him.  Sometimes all the revision leads to a bunch of equally unsatisfying versions of the same project.  That’s when I look for help.  I’m not a big believer in showing my work to a bunch of people until I’m done with it, but I’m very lucky to have two excellent readers in my home: my wife, Rachael, who is a fantastic writer and teacher of writing, and my son, Darius, 13 but already showing signs of great talent and skill as a reader and writer.

Having a reader who knows your work and will hold you to the standards of your best writing is a real blessing. When I’ve gotten myself truly good and lost, they provide a compass and can sketch me a map in the dirt to help me find my way out.  Most of the time, I know when I’ve got something that’s good.  When I don’t know for sure, if I have doubts, I know it isn’t good enough.

Question 13: There are many ways to approach the formation of a story: a character, an idea, a political anger, a passion. In your case, it started with events that you wanted to turn into words; emotions to contend with; and a philosophy of — for want of a better term — survival. All of this needed to land someplace and ultimately take the form of a story. Let’s discuss the process of starting from such a place and creating something that a total stranger might come to understand.

Since I was the main character–or at least one of the main characters–a significant part of the decision-making process was already decided.  I had a main character I knew and cared about. And I had a vague idea of (a) premise–what if a man who lost his wife and son in a car accident were to try to tell the truth about his grief?  What if that grief was bound up in guilt over a failing marriage? What compelled me about this story was that the antagonist in such a scenario was so complex and variant.  Anything that got in the way of my leading a healthy–relatively happy–life with my son was antagonistic to the goal of survival and perhaps even healing.

That was a long list–my in-laws, who wanted so badly to stay in the past and were adamant in their desire to grieve forever, those who seemed to need for me to remain in a constant state of grief as a means of holding onto their memory of Susie, my own fears of how my version of the truth might be received, etc.

That premise, and that main character, though, caused problems.  For one, I didn’t like that character very much at that point and I worried about how a reader might respond to an honest portrayal. Also, I think that, structurally, my decision to continually tell the story from different moments of insight was a barrier.  By choosing a non-linear storytelling approach, I worried that I might be pushing the reader away.  But the story I was telling was never just the accident.  It was the aftermath. I  wanted to tell the story of how that memory, that event, was processed in my life. How I came to terms with it and came to understand what that event meant for me.

I was also struck by how a true story about grief might not be what anyone wanted to hear and I worried about how to overcome that barrier. I think the main thing for me was being very careful to construct myself as a character, to explore my back story, my character development, the sources of conflict, my very human–and sometimes embarrassing failures.  What I wanted to do was humanize the bereaved, to make the reader really see themselves in that position by having that reader confront the narrator’s entire experience, to implicate the reader so thoroughly that it would be nearly impossible to separate him or herself from the story.  That meant really concentrating on constructing vivid and compelling scenes that place the reader in the middle of the experience.  And I think it meant continually examining the truthfulness of my own interior monologue as it landed on the page.  I needed to explore how I was reacting to those moments–in the moment and in the re-experiencing them through the telling.

Question 14: The way you describe this process sounds a lot like the kind of process that could have leant itself to a memoir or book — not a collection of essays. Given the clarity of purpose here, and your approach, and the obvious wealth of material, did it ever occur to you to pull back from essays as forms and instead look at them all as though they might form a single story? 

Well,  I didn’t begin writing this with the intent of writing a book.  When I wrote Satellites(the first essay and first chapter in the book), I didn’t have any plan at all.  I was just trying to get something on the page to get it out of my head.  To say the things  that were building up at the back of my brain.  I was half afraid if I didn’t, I’d stand up in church one day and shout it as testimony like some crazed Old Testament prophet.  I thought I’d write one short nonfiction piece and be done with it.  It just didn’t work out that way.

I also couldn’t see an arc to it at that point. Straight memoir, or an autobiographical novel, is I think, one of the most difficult genres to write well because you are trying to apply the rules and strategies of fiction to characters that can’t really be controlled. They are out there, in the world, making free choices of their own free will. There’s no beginning, middle or end.  It’s just middle.

I love Tobias Wolfe’s This Boy’s Life but I don’t think I could have written that kind of book then.  Maybe in retrospect.  Maybe years from now when I can look back on it and have a better understanding of how things shook out and why.  But even then, I fear that I might simplify things just to tell a clean story, that I might superimpose a journey motif on it and make myself into some kind of archetypal hero. I’m no hero. Just a man struggling to get from point A to point C, falling back to point B and starting over again.

Also, I’m a born talker, but not great storyteller.  My thoughts run in all directions at once–as focused as a golden retriever chasing squirrels. That associative leaping works a little better in a collection of essays than in a traditional narrative.

I do think about telling this story another way sometimes, though.  Turning it into a novel or a play or screenplay.  But right now, that kind of writing feels like something done by people from another dimension.  I write what have to write in the way that I have to write it.  It’s the best I can do.

Question 15: Writing all this must have been exhausting under the best of circumstances. But you were also dealing with a job, with your own grief, that of others, a relationship with a woman, parenting your son, and your physical recovery from the accident which was physically painful. As a novelist myself, this seems almost supernatural or stubborn belief. One writer to another: How did you pull it off? 

Writing isn’t exhausting.  Living is exhausting.

I actually have more trouble writing now at a time when things in my life are very good.  I’m remarried. Darius is doing wonderfully.  I was just offered a new job as an Assistant Professor of Regional Literature and Creative Writing at Marshall University in the same department with my wife, Rachael–who is a fantastic writer herself. I’m a happy man. One would think that the words would just come. But there are so many distractions.

I could have approached what happened to me, not only as a tragedy but as a massive distraction and disruption of my creative life. And if I had tried to avoid it or write about other things, I might have stopped writing altogether.  But once I decided to engage with it, to make the only thing I could think about the subject of my art, the writing became a means of managing, of compartmentalizing.  That two hours a day (usually in the middle of the night or the earliest hours of the morning) were completely mine.

And devoting that time to writing about the accident and its aftermath allowed me to be better focused on the parenting and teaching and physical therapy. I tell my students that writer’s block is not the result of laziness or fear but avoidance. What you are writing about and what you are thinking about most of the time need to be in sync with one another. If you are trying to write about one thing while preoccupied with another, you will never get anything worthwhile on the page.  In a sense I was always writing–nearly every second of the day.  It was an incredibly fruitful period artistically.

I want to say one more thing about this.  I’m not superhuman or supernatural or super-anything.  I did what I had to do to live and I was determined that if I was going to live, I was going to try to live well. That meant taking care of my son, allowing myself to fall in love and to pursue love.  It meant getting myself walking and swimming and running again.  And it meant writing.

If you had asked me before the accident what would happen to me if my wife and one of my children were to die in an accident, I would have told you that I would have spent the rest of my life in the corner of a padded cell.  But I didn’t.  I’m grateful for that.  We look about us and we see people overcoming unbelievable things every day.  It’s almost terrifying how resilient a species we are.  And it’s beautiful. And lucky.


Q: Most overrated rock band?


Q. What one movie do you love that no one else seems to?

How to Steal a Million with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole

Q. What do kids get away with these days that you never could?

They actually get away with much less than I did. Most parents these days are better at espionage than the CIA.

Q. If you could be one fictional pet, who would it be?

Scooby Doo.

Q. A funny book you want people to read?

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff

Q. What is the most useless thing, as a college teacher, you are required to do?

Attend full faculty meetings before earning tenure.

Q. What is the most undervalued skill of a literature professor?

Using literature to help people to develop and nurture an inner-life.

Q. Why, in this day and age, should anyone bother to read a novel?

Nothing moves you, stays with you, haunts you, like a good story told well.

Part III: Afterwards, is still coming up …

An Interview with Joel Peckham. Part I: The Approach

Joel hugging Darius, and his wife Susan hugging Cyrus the morning of the accident that took the lives of Susan and Cyrus
Joel hugging Darius, and his wife Susan hugging Cyrus the morning of the accident that took the lives of Susan and Cyrus

An Interview with Joel Peckham.
Part I: The Approach

May 3, 2014

In 2004, Joel Peckham — father, husband, scholar, poet and writer — was in Jordan with his family on a Fulbright scholarship. They traveled to Aqaba in the south and were on the way back up north in the van of someone they didn’t know well. It was dark and late. The driver did not notice the sand truck in the middle of the road and the van crashed into it killing Joel’s young son, Cyrus, and his wife Susan. He and his youngest son, Darius, survived.

The book, Resisting Elegy: On Grief and Recovery, is a product of Joel’s relationship with this tragedy and the effort of writing about in the years that followed. It is structured as a series of essays that each look into that experience independently — and before it, and after it — but it is also a collection that works together as a whole to create something of distinct value and coherence. 

I was deeply moved by the book, by the exquisite writing that I found there, and by the tragedy that was the origin of it. It is a book to be held close as part of a permanent collection for those of us who wonder what is real in the world and how it might be expressed in words. It is a book of powerful honesty, pain, and integrity. It is rare that people who experience suffering this deeply have both the skills and willingness to express that pain in writing and to a general public. This is a book that is not philosophically aloof but richly descriptive, lyrical, and humane. Its lessons, if any, come from genuine reflection and their expression not from the appropriation of existing answers and their imposition to circumstance. It is a book we need.

It was completely by chance that I came across it. After publishing my first novel an old friend from summer camp (we’re going back a solid 30 years ago or more) got in touch. He said he’d read my book and then we corresponded for a while. He mentioned that he was in touch with another fellow camper who had also written a book and do I remember Joel Peckham? Vaguely, I said. I sort of remember throwing a pencil at him and feeling bad about it when I was ten.

I bought the book and read it. I did not read it in one sitting. It is the antithesis of a book that is “unputdownable” (which is not a word). It is a book that must be put down to be appreciated as with anything rich and subtle. When I was finished, I decided I wanted to contact Joel for an interview.

The desire to reach out to him, though, was mixed with some trepidation. Perhaps if the book had received a wider readership and been as well known as it deserves to be I might not have written him. I would have been self-conscious of chasing a fawning crowd which is not something I like doing. Also, if more years had passed from the time of publication I might also have begged off the contact. I wondered if he might have already relegated the essays to the past. Sometimes we need to say things but we don’t need to hear them echoed back. Maybe a conversation would only open a wound. So I was on the fence about sending a letter. 

In trying to create some grounding on which to make a decision, the boy’s camp connection faded to nothing. Thirty years wasn’t simply “a long time,” it was all time. It was a universe that could not be traversed and possibly more than one. There was no obvious reason to write or not write other than the fundamental fact that I wanted to. 

A few facts affected my decision. I learned that the book is not well known. As of today it is number 1,602,303 and dropping on Amazon’s best seller list: The bump from the single copy I bought now starting to fade. Also, the time that had passed since publication was not too long if I am any judge. Two years after publication is nothing for a writer: our relationship to our creations is more appropriately measured in geologic time. Also, I became angry enough at the book’s obscurity that I was willing to risk any personal rejection I might receive from Joel.

So … I did. I wrote him. And as it happened I was not rejected by Joel. He insisted — and continues to insist — he is glad I wrote him.

Sometimes (read: often), when a novelist comes across someone who writes better than he does there is a dash of envy (if envy is served in dashes). In this case, though, I felt relief. I was reminded of a scene from the movie Contact based on a story by Carl Sagan. Jody Foster’s character, who is a scientist and then astronaut, becomes the first human to look out the window and see sights no one else has ever seen. She cries as she speaks into her recorder and says, “No words. No words. They should have sent a poet.”

This time they did.

This interview is divided into three parts. I call them The Approach, The Writing, and The Release. Part I was conducted by correspondence over several weeks in April, 2014. The questions were not known to Joel in advance. The answers have been edited into the form presented here. My thanks to him for the conversation and for being the first author interviewed by me at The Interview Spot. 

Apparently, it is my destiny to throw pencils at Joel Peckham.

Derek B. Miller


QUESTION 1: There was a period of time between the death of your wife and your son and your first efforts to begin writing about those events (and those that preceded them). Could you help me understand something of that journey from event to written expression of that event? For the moment, I want to understand the choice or impulse to even want to, let alone try. 

There was a time after the accident when I couldn’t write at all.  Part of that was that I was on a lot of narcotics and in a great deal of pain from nerve damage and from a very lengthy operation to reconstruct my hip.  That was distracting enough.  I was also overwhelmed with grief and guilt.  I felt responsible for the accident and for the state of my marriage before the accident.  It tortured me that Susie died unhappy.  We were struggling, and it was a home full of anger and resentment.

Of course, nearly everyone I had ever known was calling me with condolences–and in nearly every conversation, I’d listen with gritted teeth as people told me what a perfect couple Susie and I had been, how tragic it was that the world had been robbed of such a great mind and beautiful spirit.  I didn’t know what to say. I felt trapped in the silence, forced to listen as people tried to comfort me while unintentionally rooting around in open wounds.

It also angered me that many of these people–who really didn’t know much about me or my marriage–seemed to forget to even mention Cyrus in their condolences.  Susie was a great writer, a wonderful teacher, and an important presence in the lives of those who knew her, even a little bit.  And their grief was centered on her, not my son.  That brings up feelings of anger, even now–even though I’ve come to understand it better.  That anger made writing difficult as well.  I’ve always tried to suppress anger and had never written from that place.

There was also an issue of genre.  I had always been a poet–which wouldn’t be a problem if my approach to that genre was confessional.  My approach to the truth was always “slant” as Emily Dickinson would have said.  I don’t write difficult poems, but the connection between the speaker and the subject was once removed.  The point of view was that of the observer and what you learned about me in a poem, if anything, was through what I chose to examine and how. As a poet, I imagine my approach is not dissimilar to that  of a novelist that way.  I did try to write a few poems, lying in bed propped up with pillows and  a new laptop my father had purchased for me, resting on my lap, but I just couldn’t  get my mind to focus on anything intently enough.  Every line seemed to lead everywhere and nowhere at once.  I couldn’t get the riot in my head to quiet down.  I couldn’t select what was most important and I couldn’t get my thoughts to tighten and crystalize they way they usually did.  So I started writing prose, more as a way of just writing it out–knocking it out of my system so that I could move on.  I also thought it was good way to overcome and deal with the anger and frustration I felt from the silence that seemed to surround me.

I didn’t plan to publish.  I was writing in self-defense, somehow.  Writing to survive.  I thought I’d just clean out my system by writing one angry, defiant essay and leave it at that.  But one essay lead to another and I found that my own psychology was more complex than I thought.  It became interesting to me (I’d never considered myself a compelling subject until then) and then I started to recognize that I had some insight, that I might actually have something to say that might matter, that might be important.  I also found that prose came much more easily to me than I had anticipated.  Sending the essays out and letting them appear in journals was risky but I felt that at the very least, being honest about my life and my grief would draw a line in the sand.  “Read this,” I thought “and if you still want to call me afterwards, be my guest.”

And the first essay, “Satellites,” appeared in a place well-established enough in the literary world that it was certain to garner the attention of other writers who knew me and my family.  Even after acceptance, I had to restrain myself for many months, from pulling the essay from the journal.  And not just because I worried about what I had said.  My feelings were so chaotic and were constantly changing.  So that essay and that chapter is really a snapshot of a moment in time.  As such, I worried that it wasn’t fair, or truthful.  I wanted to fix it, revise it.  Make it kinder and gentler.  I resisted those impulses, partially because I didn’t want to revisit the work–it was painful–and partially because I wanted the essay raw–a true reflection of that moment.  When it appeared, I held my breath, waiting for the angry emails and phone-calls.  There were a few.  I lost a few friends who felt that I had betrayed Susan’s memory by exposing our private lives.  But most people seemed supportive. Some, even grateful.  And over the next couple of years, I found that I had more to say.  Instead of writing an essay and revising it when my feelings changed, I worked though the changes I experienced through writing.  Instead of a revision, I’d start again.  From that new beginning.  I never set out to write a book, I just eventually realized that I had finished one.

That’s an extremely long answer.  Obviously I’ve had some time to think about it and have come up with a million justifications for writing and publishing a book that I sometimes worry has hurt as many people as it might have helped.  But here’s a simpler answer that is also true:

If you are a writer, you write.  If you try to write about something other than what your mind is constantly chewing on, you will fall into profound writer’s block.  The deaths of Cyrus and Susan were all I could think about, so I had to write about what happened or stop being a writer. I wasn’t ready–am still not ready–to stop.

Question 2: One of this book’s defining and essential aspects is your confessional approach. I’d like to further understand how you came to a consistent and measured voice in expressing yourself. By consistent I mean that your essays don’t only follow one another but they share commonalities in voice the way chapters in a novel need to maintain a voice; If the chapters don’t maintain this voice the book lacks integrity. And by measured I mean you seem to reveal or explore your thoughts and feelings to a consistent extent throughout the book. No one piece seems disproportional to the others, or somehow set apart. That is a lot of “craft” to achieve in “one angry thought.” 

To answer with absolute honesty–I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

Having been exposed to very little creative nonfiction before trying to write it myself, I was flying blind.  I’d read E.B. White and Joan Didion.  I’d read Tobias Wolfe.  But I had zero training in the personal essay or memoir as a discipline and had yet to be exposed to fantastic authors like Eula Biss or Rebecca Skloot.  I really only had a small toolbox at my disposal, so decisions about form were simplified.

And I learned to use those tools well. I actually tried to write each essay completely differently from the one that preceded it and was very concerned with trying to tell the story without repeating it each time.  I had this idea of a kind of cubist representation, showing a different side of the subject each time.  As for voice,  I’m sort of blessed to have a strong one in this genre.  I come from a family of talkers.  My father, in particular had this presence about him and I think much of it came from the way he was able to convey a sense of absolute authority that derived from a ferocious honesty.  You always believed that he believed what he was saying.  And he had a strong cadence, a rhythm.  It’s always in my head when I write.  And my mother was a ballet dancer, so I learned to appreciate not only music, but a sense of how it can be embodied.

As for balance I question myself more than my father–and leave room for that on the page.  The result, I think, is that my confusion, my frustration, my effort to try to get to a place of conviction, comes off as genuine.  From a technical standpoint, a structural standpoint, pace and rhythm come down to a need to make sure my thinking on the page derives from a solid place–a scene–so that the reader feels as if he or she is contemplating the same landscape that I am.  I don’t want the reader overhearing my thoughts or simply passively listening to them.  I want the reader thinking with me, processing with me–at times agreeing, at times coming to his or her own conclusions.  Meanwhile, I try to maintain a sense of forward movement by never getting too far away from the underlying question the piece is trying to answer or the thrust of the narrative which is really the psychological development and progress of the speaker through experience.  So the analysis, the commentary, the exposition–is its own kind of story and has its own kind of thrust.

QUESTION 3: You said “comes off as genuine,” but when reading your reply I was almost certain you were going to use the word “sincere.” Because it was sincerity — with yourself, with your subject matter, and I think with the reader — that came across powerfully to me. It reminds me of a nice point by Oscar Wilde who said that “all bad poetry is sincere”. There is a sincerity, I think, that comes from diving in and flying blind which can make for powerful reading. And yes, I know I mixed my metaphor but I’m keeping it anyway. 

Wilde is right of course.  And wrong.

I avoided using the word “sincere” for some of the same reasons he suggests.  Sincerity can have a self-congratulatory quality about it and an unintellectual one.  I think Wilde distrusts the idea that a complex mind can be a sincere one.  For him, sincerity reflects a purity of purpose and complexity is always impure.  So is the truth.  But a genuine or authentic, even brave, pursuit of a truth–especially one’s own, can have a sincerity to it–as long as it is unflinching. And as long as that pursuit never trumps the need to create something artful. Wilde can be guilty of falling into the moral ambivalence of pure aesthetics.  A beautifully made object has its value, but I prefer to be engaged with the struggle at the heart of artistic expression.  Faulkner said once that all good writing is about the human heart struggling.  Wilde forgets that sometimes.  And that’s a limitation I never want to risk.  I’d rather risk sincerity–damn the consequences.

I think what we’re talking about has a lot to do with balance.

I feel the same way about sentiment.  Good writing should be imbued with sentiment.  But it shouldn’t ever be sentimental.  It should engage us emotionally and even morally but never push to MAKE us more emotional or moral.  It should engage us in the struggle.

Question 4:  Even if you didn’t know much about the essay form before you chose it, you weren’t ignorant of it, and you’re deep in its traditions in terms of form and structure. Once you finished Satellites — the first essay — you stuck with it. Why? What was working?

The form of the essay is attractive to me.  But I do think it took me a while to find it.  Most forms of writing follow a show don’t tell aesthetic value.  Its the most basic and useful of the dictums given young writers in the classroom. For me, the essay form allows the author room for scene and for extensive commentary.  There is more room to think on the page.  I didn’t have the luxury or the curse of certitude.  I still don’t.  I wrote each essay as I was experiencing it, quite literally in the middle of things with all the confusion and bafflement that this implies.  I needed to think my way through the experience.  Often, when writing, I assumed that this expository material would end up being cut in the final revisions.  But when I went to do so, I found that this thinking was essential, was part of the story.  I liked it.  I also like the word essay or essai essayez–to try, to attempt.  That was all I was doing, trying to write something impossible to write.  I thought of it as a worthy attempt but I had no pretension that it would be anything more than that–an attempt to understand what was happening to me.

Question 5: Part of the intimacy experienced for me, in reading your book, was being witness to that evolving understanding that you were achieving apropos the events and your relationship to them. I am very glad you kept that material because I think it’s the center of what you created. I say events rather than refer only to the accident because you introduce us to many events. To events in your marriage; events in your relationship with your in-laws; to your surviving son Darius; to other mourners; to those who looked to you to mourn for them; to support groups that did not work for you, and more. In the attempt to express and understand these events, there was clearly a moment when you became aware of an audience outside yourself for what you were writing. The writing moved from being exploratory and therapeutic (however painful it was) to also being a performance in front of others. Tell me about that transformation and what it did to you and — if you know — the writing.

I think the first couple of chapters in the book are relatively insular.  They are intimate in the way that a punch in the face is intimate. I was writing from a place of defiance.  Writing as an act of self-preservation.  A few events made me more conscious of an audience.

I started getting a great deal of unsought feedback after the essay, “Satellites” was published.  People responded to it very emotionally.  There was anger, sorrow, and a good deal of gratitude.  I’d get phone calls and emails from people who had tracked me down simply to yell at me or cry with me or thank me.  I wanted no part of any of it.  I got to the point where I didn’t answer my phone unless I recognized the number.  I also had started attending group therapy for parents who had lost children and found that even they seemed to be listening closely, watching closely.  And I started teaching again at a boarding school in New Hampshire.  So I was back up in front of a classroom, leaning on canes or crutches, sweating from pain and narcotics, with twenty very curious teenagers staring up at me.  It may be that I imagined this attention or that I’m a narcissist, but I definitely felt the gaze.  So I became acutely aware of the performative aspect of, not only the writing, but every aspect of a life that felt increasingly public.  It could be confusing at times and I often resented it. That audience awareness definitely changed something in the writing.

I think the first piece of writing I did that was truly audience-aware in an intimate way was “The Neverland.” Somewhere near the end of that essay, my relationship to the reader changes. I felt myself truly engaging with a sympathetic listener, feeling a bond with and a responsibility to that listener.  My son, Darius is very much the center of that essay and as my attention was drawn to him, I felt the defensiveness and anger ebb.  My emotional position started to shift toward tenderness.  The last few pages of that piece contain some of the best writing I’ve ever done.  It manages to be raw and honest and vulnerable.  And I think I reach a lyrical place there that I’m always trying to get back to now.  It is a key moment in the book. In that moment, my son became a representation of my audience.  That was scary and beautiful.

Question 6: I’m glad you mentioned Neverland. It was after reading that piece that I knew I wanted to get in touch with you. Most people reading this interview will not have read your book yet. Would you mind describing that piece to us, please? I’m not asking you to parse it apart, but simply give us an overview and induction to what you did. In my view, for whatever it’s worth, it deserves a place in the Best American Essays series.

That piece is a little hard to describe.  Basically it’s an examination of the cultural expectations that we have for the aggrieved and what responsibilities they seem to have to those around them.  The occasion for the essay was an email sent by an old friend who was not happy about many of the decisions I was making regarding how I was safeguarding my wife’s legacy, how I was bringing up our child, and how I was treating my in-laws.  I snapped, told the friend to never bother me again and blocked her email.  It was an angry, petulant response and it was one I couldn’t take back.  In survival mode, you don’t really worry about the collateral damage that can be caused by an impulsive or instinctive reaction.

Most of the essay is an exploration of that anger–its source in my frustration that simply trying to live and bring up my son in a healthy environment more focused on the future than the past was an offense to some people.  I was also pretty sensitive because I was already in a new relationship and was dealing with my own feelings of guilt about that.  Structurally, the essay uses J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan as a reference point.  My son and I would listen to that book on cds as we drove down from New Hampshire to visit his maternal grandparents in New Jersey.  Barrie’s Peter Pan is dark and sometimes frightening, but it is very wise about the psychology of children.

As the essay progresses, it weaves his insights in with my own and gradually, the essay moves in tone from anger, to regret to a kind of peace with my life and my decisions.  It also changes focus and, as I mentioned, audience.  It stops being about my friend and ultimately becomes a meditation on parenting–on what we can do for children and what they do for us in our shared sorrow. It’s about how protecting his childhood and moving forward while never ignoring or forgetting what’s happened to us can bring us to a place of joy.  Thanks for the kind comment.  I’m very proud of that work–as much for how it is written as for what it manages to say.  May you someday judge all literary contests

QUESTION  7: Is there a difference between candor and honesty?

For me, candor implies a kind of frankness that comes with security.  Someone shows candor because he or she either has nothing to hide or nothing to lose by telling the truth.  I think it also requires a great deal of confidence that what one is saying IS true and that one won’t be hurt by it.

Honesty is more connected to the dangers and elusive qualities of Truth and comes from a much more vulnerable and complex place.  Nonfiction writers struggle to be truthful because that is part of the contract with the reader–I will tell the truth to the best of my ability and I will relentlessly seek that truth out for both of us.

But there are so many barriers to someone who seeks to be honest.

First of all, there is the problem of memory.  Every nonfiction writer must struggle with its unreliability. One can be completely convinced that something happened in a certain way and be completely wrong.  In that case there is no intent to lie–one is being “honest” about one’s misperceptions. But it still breaks the contract.

We can also be very dishonest with ourselves, convincing ourselves of a misperception through both conscious and unconscious acts of projection, avoidance, and suppression.  The result is an honest dishonesty.

Often the truth is complicated and multifaceted.  So we end up simplifying it an attempt to communicate.  This is inherently dishonest, but also somewhat necessary to artistic expression.

Which leads us to the problem of art which is always an act of deciding what gets left in or left out of the frame.  Good writers make choices, deciding what to include and exclude.  For a nonfiction writer, this is an ethical act because any act of exclusion is a lie of omission.  At the same time, you simply can’t and shouldn’t ever put everything you remember in a piece of writing.  So you select.  But the process of selection can skew the facts, the tone, and the reception of the material.  One can also lie by misleading.

There are also the limits of maturity and even skill. Sometimes I have encountered the problem that I just can’t seem to write about a particular memory very well.  I get caught up in justifying my actions, or give in to sentimentality or rage or a desire to protect those I love.  Like many writers, I have my limits.  I’d like to be able to write humor better and I’ve never written very well about sex. It’s not just about telling the truth.  It’s about creating something artful–that might matter, might last.

Finally there are all the very human failings that prevent all of us from telling the entire truth.  Most of these have to do with fear–a fear that we will not be understood, that we might tell the heart’s truth only to be rejected, ridiculed, abandoned and abused.  The truth may set you free, but rarely in the world.  More often we are punished when we reveal ourselves too completely.

So honesty is a risk.  And it has consequences.  No one should try to write nonfiction without first coming to terms with that.

For me, I try to be honest with my reader when there is a place I can’t go or when I’m unsure of what I remember.  I try to be frank about my limitations.  And I continue to work to overcome them. That has to be enough.

This ends Part I of our interview. You will find Part II: The Writing here at The Interview Spot in the next few weeks.