October 27, 2013

Exploring the wide, wide world of fiction writing

“How to Read a Novelist” by John Freeman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 372 pages, $15)

“How to Read a Novelist” by John Freeman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 372 pages, $15)

For those who enjoy contemporary literary fiction and want to learn more about the novelists who create it, this book is a wonderful resource.

Freeman, a book critic, former editor of Granta and onetime president of the National Book Critics Circle, has collected his interviews with 55 writers over the past dozen or so years. The breadth and diversity of his subjects are remarkable.

The writers he interviews come not only from the United States and England but also from around the world – Hungary, Japan, Libya, Germany, China, Kenya, Pakistan, Bolivia, Indonesia and elsewhere. They include the well-known –Morrison, Updike, Roth, Oates, DeLillo – and ones I’d never heard of: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Hisham Matar, Ayu Atami, Edmundo Paz Soldan.

In a personal, confessional introduction, “U and Me: The Hard Lessons of Idolizing John Updike,” Freeman writes about “the fallacy behind every interview or biographical sketch, to tether a writer’s life too literally to his work, or to insist that a novel function as a substitute for actually living through the mistakes a person must live through in order to learn how to properly, maybe even happily, survive.”

He notes the goal of his interviews: “to describe an encounter, to show to the reader what the writer revealed to me, at their own choosing, over an hour or two or three, sometimes more, of talk.”

Freeman writes that “true storytellers write … because they have to.” In choosing which interviews to include in this book, he chose those “who felt that sense of urgency and necessity and whose work was important, beautiful and enjoyable at the same time.”

The interviews vary in length and are different enough not to feel like filling in the blanks of a standard Q&A. Freeman includes a brief bio of each author and his or her significant works. While a few follow a Q&A format, the majority are summaries of conversations, with scattered quotes included.

Many of those quotes are insightful not only regarding the author but also the writing itself. David Foster Wallace comments on how fiction helps us “develop a sense of empathy for one another” and says that “the basic engine of narrative art is how it punctures those membranes a little.”

Ian McEwan agrees, adding that the novel form is “where it is supreme in giving us that sense of other minds.”

Toni Morrison talks about the importance of language, that it “has to have its own music.”

Don DeLillo, known for his prescient insights into “the dream waves of American life,” says: “That’s what in theory differentiates a writer from everyone else. You see and hear more clearly.”

And for those who wonder how much of a writer’s life is reflected in their fiction, Margaret Atwood admits, “You are your story to a great extent.”

“How to Read a Novelist” may not fulfill the promise of its title, but it certainly provides many insights into some of the greatest writers working today (plus a few that have already died). If you love reading novels, you should enjoy this book.

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