From The San Francisco Examiner
Q: Why do you write?
A: Currently I'm motivated by contractual deadlines, but this has not always been my good fortune. I know, because I've done it, that I'll keep making up stories even if no one is much interested in reading them. For me writing fiction is a way of thinking, ultimately a habit of mind. It's a conversation I'm having with myself, one that I hope will not end until the exact moment I do.
Q: What are you reading right now and why?
A: I've just finished Margaret Atwood's new collection of short fiction (to be published in September; I got a galley) entitled Moral Disorder. I read it because once I started I couldn't stop. I'm also reading a book of brief biographical essays about famous writers by the Spanish author Javier Marias titled Written Lives. It was recommended by a friend. I find it charming, intelligent, and satisfying in a number of ways, not the least of which is as good gossip. I'm also reading The Bhagavad-Gita because I never have, and as a yoga enthusiast, I thought I should.
Q: Since the book is about various artists and art forms, does that cause you to think about your own art form -- you prose and word structure -- ever more carefully?
A: I hope I always think carefully about my prose style. Writing about artists requires two sets of diction, one concrete, even banal, to describe the tedious business of making and marketing art, the other abstract and sublime, the vocabulary they use when they contemplate the ideal which they call Art.
Q: These stories are all thematically linked. How did the collection come about? Which story came first? And why not a novel?
A: The last story, "The Change" was written first, inspired by seeing various books about menopause that suggested a pretty scary metamorphosis. I wasn't thinking of a collection, just trying to write something after having finished a difficult novel. The next story was "His Blue Period," which is a story about envy, a subject that will never let you down. At that point I decided that the subject of the artist in the world, struggling with his peculiar demons, might yield some very interesting connections. I put the proposition to myself in this way: stories about how art ruins your life and saves your life. Once I came up with that I was on my way.
Why not a novel? I was interested in writing longer stories than I had before, partly because I was so enjoying reading them, particularly Alice Munro's stories and also a few of Chekhov's long ones, especially the one titled "The Duel." A long story can have real meat to chew upon, but still be a light meal. It's like chicken as opposed to roast beef.
Q: In "His Blue Period," you do a remarkable job of describing what makes a painting excellent, the colors and the technique. You do the same in "The Bower" for a performance of "Hamlet." What kind of research did you do into these other art forms? As an artisan yourself, did you already have a kind of head start?
A: I've always loved painting, though I can't draw very well and have no color sense to speak of. Composition mystifies me. I've taken a few courses, enough to convince me that I should stick to writing. Especially in undergraduate school I had many friends who were painters and a few who were theater majors. I go to plays whenever possible, and I'm working on a play adaptation of my novel Property right now. So I didn't have to do a lot of research, everything was ready to hand and if it wasn't I knew someone I could ask.
Q: In writing about the unfinished novel of the title, did you use a different approach, given that it's now your own art form?
A: I'm not sure I understand what you mean by an approach. I always try to go at it straightforward, head down. This was the easiest of the stories to write, because I know a great deal about how to write a novel and more than I could ever have wanted to know about the vicissitudes of publishing. As for the unfinished manuscript, I knew I didn't want to give the reader a sample of Rita's prose style. All you need to know is that it was so good it made Max, the successful writer she rejected on her way to oblivion, put down his pen and cover his face with his hands.
Q: The stories are written from both male and female perspectives. What do you do to get inside the male brain? Is it a bit like acting?
A: I don't find it difficult at all. I just imagine feeling a bit more entitled to everything, a little more competitive, quicker to anger, more easily duped. And when writing from the male point of view, I never, ever go on the defensive. Do you have a problem with that?
Q: Which of the characters here do you like best, would you want to spend time with or see a little bit of yourself in? Or, which do you admire?
A: I like all my characters, I find them enormously sympathetic. That said, I don't think I'd care to spend much time with any of them. For one thing, I already have and in a very personal way. For another, they are all struggling, for better or worse, to be artists, and for this reason, they often feel inadequate and depressed. I see a little of myself in all of them, which is a bit anxious making. However, thanks to them, I don't feel inadequate or depressed. I worked through all that, documenting their suffering for art's sake.
Q: What is your daily writing routine like? What is your workspace like?
A: Ideally I write for about four hours in the morning, from 8 to 12, with breaks for endless cups of tea. I write with a pen on loose leaf paper. In the afternoon or evening I put the pages onto the computer. I try to start at the beginning of a story or novel and write straight through without jumping ahead. My house is an old Victorian in a little town in New York and my study is an upstairs room at the back of the house. It has very corny wallpaper, two stuffed closets, several bookcases, two desks, a little phone table and piles of stuff all around. Recently I put in an old couch, so now it's perfect.
Q: How did the movie version of "Mary Reilly" affect your career, if at all?
A: Actually it had very little effect on my career. It was eight years in the making, by which time the novel had come and gone. It did have quite an effect on my daughter's career as the proceeds were used to put her through NYU.
Q: Is there any new book you'd recommend as a "summer reading" pick?
A: I believe Kazuo Ishiguro's latest, Never Let Me Go is in paperback now, and it might be a good choice. If you're feeling too hot, it will give you quite a chill.
Birthplace: Sedalia Missouri
Education: University of New Orleans, University of Massachusetts
Favorite song, piece of music: Impossible to choose. I'm very fond of Brahms quintets.
Biggest literary inspiration, author: Shakespeare
Biggest literary inspiration, book: Madame Bovary
Most memorable book from my childhood: Hans Christian Anderson's Fairy Tales
Book re-read most often: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James. Lately it's Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee.
If I could only retain one book on a desert island, it would be: One book! I demand two. The Complete Works of Shakespeare and my thesaurus. Then I could read and write. I'd never be bored.
Book I've read lately I'd recommend most: The Attack by Yasmina Khadra
Most meaningful line from any book or poem: An observation of Flaubert's in a letter to his mistress: "Style is an absolute way of seeing."