An Interview with Richard North Patterson

by William H. Coles


Richard North Patterson Interview 6/8/2014

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson graduated college from Ohio Wesleyan University and law school from Case Western Reserve. He studied fiction with Jesse Hill Ford at the University of Alabama Birmingham. He’s been awarded the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Sixteen of his novels have been New York Times bestsellers. He was Assistant Attorney General for the State of Ohio, a trial attorney for the Securities & Exchange Commission and was the SEC’s liaison to the Watergate Special Prosecutor. He retired from the law profession in 1993 and turned to writing fiction fulltime.

June 8, 2014.

I’m in Martha’s Vineyard with Richard North Patterson, the internationally acclaimed novelist. Degree of Guilt, Eyes of a Child, Exile, The Spire are among the twenty plus novels he’s written.

WHC

I’d like to thank you Mr. Patterson for talking with Story in Literary Fiction.

RNP

Oh, absolutely. I think it’s wonderful when people take an interest in this misunderstood business.

WHC

Story in literary fiction is a website that is designed to provide learning resources for fiction writers. I appreciate your willingness to participate.

RNP

Happy to.

WHC

I’d like to ask you about your influences. You changed careers from lawyer to author. Who were the authors you admired? You’ve stated Tolstoy was one of your favorites.

RNP

Yes. But one doesn’t claim to be influenced by Tolstoy unless they have delusions of grandeur.

WHC

[laughing] I see.

RNP

I was inspired by Tolstoy. Allen Drury, who wrote Advice and Consent [1959], the Pulitzer Prize winning political novel, was an inspiration to me. He wrote, at least in that book, credible authentic fiction with convincing characters in a very complicated, treacherous, fascinating world . . . a world of presidential politics surrounding the confirmation of a Secretary of State. As I got on in writing, I took that as a model for some of the things I wanted to achieve. I wrote a book about social problems that portrayed broad social and political contexts like the death penalty, or the supreme court, but I also tried to give the characters an intimacy that engaged the reader in a reality. I did a lot of research to be sure it was authentic.

In terms of how I got started writing, [for] an example, which perhaps made me feel I could do it, I have to go back to Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer series) who wrote something like sixteen detective novels. McDonald was a very erudite man. The novels are psychologically sophisticated. As I looked at the Archer novels—I read about sixteen in a row without thinking I was going to write—I realized I assimilated some of what Macdonald did. He wrote a very clean sentence. He had a psychological interest in his characters. But there were two things that were really a help to an aspiring writer who had never written a novel before. He [Macdonald] wrote in the first person. That simplifies the narrative considerably. You’re always in the same person in the same voice and moving forward in time. So it’s very linear. And that’s the other thing; a mystery novel by its nature has a plot. You should know it has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s wonderful to surprise your readers but it’s a sin to surprise yourself. From Macdonald I learned the ending resonates back to the beginning, not only in coherence of narrative, but also in psychological consistency of characters. So you don’t have a character behaving randomly, you end up the novel so the reader can figure it out. That was really the jungle gym and gave me a purchase on the messy business of writing novels.

Obviously, I quit writing mysteries very soon and I’ve written novels with all sorts of points of view, in all sorts of different settings, and all sorts of different characters. But I would say, without the example of Macdonald and his novels, I don’t know that I would have ever written.

WHC

You’re admired for your research and I’m interested in that process. You’re unique and dedicated to that process. Yet, you write fiction (imaginative). How do you bring together the points of knowledge that you want to use, and how do you use them? In fiction, imagination allows you to create certain ideas to support story ideas and characterization; you’re carrying realism into the fiction area. Would you share your thoughts and could you tells us how we, as authors, can learn from your process?

RNP

First of all, I think that writing is like method acting. In order to do it well you have to believe in your characters and the world you’re inhabiting. So the way to do that, if you don’t know about a world, is to find out about it . . . until you really feel comfortable with it. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that I believe readers are sophisticated people and whether or not they know about the world you writing about, they know intuitively whether you do or not [know]. The third thing is that if you’re writing about something like the death penalty, it’s not just for kicks, you have a serious obligation to get it right and to inform the reader. I don’t mean to compare myself to Upton Sinclair or Emile Zola, but the idea of presenting a socially significant context realistically and responsibly was always important to me. One of my favorite examples of this—and there are all sorts—is that I wrote a novel Protect and Defend, which in a way was my homage to Advice and Consent. Protect and Defend involves a newly elected young president who nominates the first woman to be the chief Justice of the Supreme Court whose nomination is quickly ensnared by a very difficult abortion rights case that she can’t duck, one that involves issues of parental consent and so called partial-birth abortion, which is, of course, a misnomer. I had to do a number of things for that book: I interviewed women who had late term abortions; I talked to people who were experts in parental consent laws; I talked to prochoice people and prolife people . . .

WHC

. . . .and physicians?

RNP

. . . and physicians . . . but one of the trickier parts is writing about a president. Fortunately, at that time, I had a friend who was one [a president], George Bush senior, with whom I spoke. But one on my favorite research days was when I went back to Washington, it was ’98 or ’99, and I sat down with Bob Dole who was the majority leader.  In my research process, I’ll send the interviewee a list of questions which occur to me and an outline of the plot so I’m not wasting my time and they can think about the context.  My interview with Bob Dole was complex, but it boiled down to this. If you’re still majority leader, and a democratic president has nominated this prochoice judge, and you determine the path of right reason is to defeat her, how would you do it? He told me. And it was brilliant. He’s a nice guy.

WHC

Funny guy?

RNP

Very funny guy. Master of the senate. Among the things he told me was he’d consider filibustering this nomination. (Since he told me that, the filibuster had become routinely used in judicial appointments.) So I’m back in my hotel room in DC dictating notes from my interview with Senator Dole and the phone rings. A woman comes on and says, “This is the White House, the president can see you this evening. Do you have time to come over?” I said, “I imagine I have time for the president Clinton.” So I did. And I said to the President, “Well, Mr. President, if you were going to save this nomination, how would you do it?” He’s [Clinton] a genius. We’re off to the races. We were designing ads, we were picking out the issues to focus on, we were trading seats on commissions for senatorial votes. He brought out the Ruth Bader Ginsberg file and how he looked at that nomination. And it was brilliant. I walked out of the White House that evening, and thought  had the coolest job on the planet.   That kind of research is necessary for someone who is curious about all sorts of things–and I distilled all that was said and it’s all in the book. It’s at a level I could never have achieved without it [the interview]. It’s a striking example [of discovery].

WHC

A couple of more questions about background. I saw a speech you gave to a group of lawyers where you talked about how being a lawyer helped prepare you for a writing career. You listed a number of skills in litigation[i] and characteristics of lawyers[ii] that helped in the preparation as an author. I wanted you to comment on that because a lot of people are changing careers now, especially, as a population, we are living longer. I wondered from your own experience how our own careers and experiences might help us prepare for writing fiction. It’s a little abstract, but is there anything we can learn from your use of background?

RNP

Well, sure. Anyone who is successful is disciplined and they’ve figured out how to do their work well. And they take it seriously. They may not feel like doing the work on a particular day but they do it because that’s what you do. That’s a habit of mine that translates to writing. To me one of the worst mistakes is thinking of writing as a mysterious process that awaits inspiration when the moonlight is right and you’ll write something brilliant. To me, in truth, writing is work [and requires] showing up and respecting it. And realizing you have things to learn is important. Second sight is [also] important; I’m sure as a doctor you thought back in your experiences and tried to think of something better than what you did. I’ve know authors who wrote 80% good enough first drafts and didn’t take them any farther because they couldn’t accept criticism and sit down and do the work. So any of us who have done the work in one profession in order to succeed have the work ethic if we chose to apply it to writing.

The other thing of course is that we all have stories and if you think about the things we’ve learned about the people in our lives or pressure situations, while you may not be writing about those things exactly; the emotions, the lessons, do translate. So I think there are ways in which any profession can serve an art of writing.

The thing about being a lawyer, as I pointed out, was that I wrote a lot for America’s most tired and cynical audience–America’s judges and their law partners. I learned to write clearly and well, and not waste words. I realized my first word was not necessarily my best word. I learned about brevity. I learned that writing was a craft that required work. I also had to arrange a bunch of messy facts into coherent narrative, which is the art of plotting narrative into fiction. I had to know something about the psychology of my client, perhaps the jury, and even the judge. That’s the characterization part. People will tell you the damnedest things. And the courtroom is also the focus of some of our great social problems and there is always surprise lurking at hand. It is a very rich venue for fiction writing. I don’t know that being a dentist would have been quite as good.

WHC

That may be unfair.

RNP

I dare say that I’m sure there may be dentists who write great fiction. But I happened to come along at a time when people had a lot of interest in the law.

WHC

You know, when we’re talking about the influence of professions, is there something farther than technique and perspective that authors need to identify with. I’m speaking particularly about morality, about attitudes, about metaphysical questions–who are we, why are we here, what makes us human? Is it helpful for authors to consider these mysteries?

RNP

Oh, I think those things are absolutely important to your point of view. They’re important to enrich the writing . . . and the characters. Who your characters are, what your characters want? What do your characters care about? What code, what expectations of themselves? What drives them? I think all of those things are very important. I write a lot about family. And I think a great deal about family. In some ways we’re always children for all our lives, and we’re the product of those things that change us, for good or ill I’m a parent. I’ve been a stepparent. You think a lot about how your actions affect other human beings in that context. So yes, I think questions about behavior, duty, morals, cause and effect, are all important. I would not hold myself out to be the moral-majority poster boy by any stretch, but I do consider these things.

WHC

I don’t mean to be too sentimental, but is the ability to love selflessly as a way of life also important?

RNP

I think that’s a major element in being a parent. And I think about that when I portray relationships in fiction. The thing I’ve always thought about as a parent is that my kids are not about me. They’re not [here] to realize my ambitions or reflect my version of glory on me. They’re people who are given to me in trust, kind of, by fate. The question is: how can I help them be the best version of themselves, the best and happiest version. That necessarily involves loving them independent of your own needs. And parents who fail to do that, fail as parents. And I think that’s an important aspect of love and I portray its presence and its absence, and the effect of that.

WHC

You mentioned in a talk that you were from Ohio. I know you were born in San Francisco but you have spent a good deal of time in Ohio. How do fiction authors take their settings and societies of their youth and make use of their experiences in specific cultures to write better, or to prevent mistakes [in storytelling]?

RNP

I’ll give you a for instance. I grew up in Bay Village, Ohio, which is a fairly provincial suburb of Cleveland, and there was one big thing that resonated there . . . it was whether Sam Sheppard did or did not kill his wife (depending on whom you believe). The way that resonated in that small town struck me and basically became the basis for my novel Silent Witness. So very definitely our environment affects what we express as fiction writing.

I’m fortunate enough to have lived in all sections of the country at one time or another in my life and that was actually very helpful. When I wrote The Spire it was an affectionate, fun–although the plot was a bit grim–evocation of Ohio Wesleyan brought forward to a time when I was writing hopefully for a younger demographic than I am [now]. It made me think back on those days a lot. Fondly, I would say, for the most part. I came back to Ohio Wesleyan to serve on the board for a number of years, gave the commencement speech there. So I have chosen to live other places–in part because I am a great sufferer from seasonal affective disorder so I’m always in pursuit of good weather–but I could say Ohio gave me such things as a legal education, and a better undergraduate education than I deserved at the time, that I have taken profitably into my career.

WHC

How do you see your fan base? is there a difference in the way man and women interpret your novels? And finally, how do you handle reviews? Do you read them or do you ignore them, and if you do read them, how do you gain information about how and why you want to write?

RNP

Let me back up to my fan base. I think there are more women than men that read fiction.

WHC

Or read in general.

RNP

I would guess the majority of my fans are women although I can’t prove that. I like to think I’m writing for an intelligent audience. A reader once told me that I made her think too much; I somehow couldn’t work up the feeling that I really should apologize for that. I am disappointed sometimes because of the way I’ve been marketed, which strikes me as a bit of reduction of what I actually do, and that people who read me because they know me are actually surprised by how much they like me because the description put forth in marketing the books is more generic and narrow than what I actually do. That’s a frustration. In terms of reviews, I read everyone I can get my hands on. I have generally been well treated but not uniformly so . . . no writer is. I am pleased by the good ones, I’m fatalistic about the bad ones . . .

WHC

That’s a good attitude, I would say.

RNP

. . . I don’t know that I learn too much from reviews that I don’t already know. I learn what people like, I learn what people don’t like sometimes. I can say “that’s interesting” or I can say “screw you,” I wasn’t setting out to write the kind of book you wanted me to write in the first place. I’ve won some awards, which is nice. I remember I was writing a novel and I went down to lunch and picked up the mail and there was TIME magazine and there was a pretty nasty review of The Final Judgment by someone who had given me a pretty good review before. It doesn’t make you feel great to read that your protagonist is a stick figure in drag . . .

WHC

That would destroy me.

RNP

I’d had better moments. But you know what I did? I ate my sandwich; I closed TIME magazine; and I went back upstairs and just kept on writing. That’s what you do. About the business of being reviewed. Writing is a public act; hopefully people are reading and noticing what you do. And if you write to be read and noticed, you can’t complain when someone reads [your work] and doesn’t like you.

WHC

That’s pragmatic.

You’re often praised on your characterization and in your works it is easy to see your emphasis on human nature. And in the thriller genre, and mystery . . .

RNP

Well, I really resist “thriller suspense.” To me, I’m a novelist. There may be elements of suspense or whatever, I may write fiction with a narrative and a plot, but I try to infuse in my work the sense of any good novel, which is to say a sense of psychological realism, of character, of well rendered setting, of a narrative that makes sense, of subjects which are important in readers’ individual lives, but also of social importance. Frankly, the whole thing that drives me crazy is when people try to put me in a genre. Truth is I’ve written all sorts of things. I written geopolitical novels about the Israeli-Palestinian problems, about transnational terrorism by nonstate actors, about the abuse of human rights in Africa. I’ve written political novels at the presidential level. I’ve written about the death penalty; I’ve written courtroom dramas; I’ve written psychological novels. The one thing I haven’t tried to do is be funny. Although I think there is some humor in my novels, I haven’t tried to write a comic novel. The uphill battle, when you’re trying to write a number of different things, is you’re accused of being overly ambitious or incoherent. Publishers like it when you write the same basic book. And sometimes readers would too. So they like your last book that’s a courtroom drama but they don’t like your next book that is apsychological novel . . . and visa versa. I’ve had people tell me: “You should always write political novels.” “You should always write court room dramas.” You should always write this, you should always write that. Well, I would kill myself if I felt I was writing to a specification.

I honor those people who stick to one genre and one protagonist and I honor those who do well it well. Ross McDonald, whom I learned from, did it. This is not me.

WHC

Many people express admiration for your dialogue. What are the essentials of dialogue for you. You say clear and succinct for your prose in general. What makes successful dialogue for you?

RNP

I haven’t had to think about his much, Bill, as much as I have had to think about other aspects of writing because one thing from the first is I could write dialogue. I just could do it. So I haven’t had to think about it too much. I do tend to write about characters who are pretty smart and it helps in writing dialogue because they’re smart, frequently clever . . .

WHC

And you don’t have to rely on dialect . . .

RNP

No. And the other thing is to remember that dialogue is condensed speech. It is a distillation of how it is how people usually talk because if you listen to people talk, if you actually try to diagram these sentences, they’re distracted, there’s hhmm and ummm, hemming and hawing, dangling clauses and all the rest. What you do is capture the essence of how people talk. Distill it. So, I’ve never thought about this before—compared to the way we generally speak dialogue is sort of epigrammatic, and yet is recognizable speech. You don’t think this is the way people talk. But its coherence is important.

WHC

Do you think about exposition and dialogue? I ask that because I feel that exposition in dialogue sinks the opportunities for good dialogue. If you think about that? Do you revise to improve?

RNP

Well, I do try to develop exposition in dialogue but a monologue explaining ways that are back and forth. How people might actually learn from each other as opposed to some big concept. Because I agree that it doesn’t work. And it’s funny, I could have told you fifteen books ago how I do these things, but it’s hard for me to tell you now because it’s second nature to me. I haven’t written a line since Halloween of 2012, so it would be fun to try it. But I expect it would come back easily now.

WHC

Obviously you have a sense of rhythm in dialogue, which seems to me to an important aspect of dialogue. Do you read your dialogue out loud in revision? Or do you try to get your own response to dialogue read by others?

RNP

I rarely read aloud. But I can hear it as I write. There is this internal mechanism by which I hear what I am writing and whether it works or not. I don’t literally speak it aloud; it’s a voice in my head.

WHC

You’ve also said you outline a lot. I’d love to know the details of the outline and the process. All because it seems so important for fiction authors evolving plot and other aspects of fiction writing.

RNP

Well, if I had a book going now, what you would see on my desk seventy-five file folders divided into four sections. Those are the sets scenes or chapters from beginning to the end of my book. In those are the key elements of what I believe should be in every scene or chapter, and the research notes keyed to that chapter. I didn’t start doing it that way, but as I begin to do fiction that was more heavily researched and involved very complicated narrative on subjects that were not native to me but that I had learned about, I realized to control and distill the information and maintain the proper architecture of the book I had to do it that way. So, every morning I’d get up and there would be a file folder sitting in front of me that represent the work for that day and I would use that to write the scenes and chapters.

WHC

And you outlined the scenes individually too?

RNP

Yes.

And so I might write well or less well that day. But I never get up and wonder what am I going to do now because I know. In a way it demystifies the process for me. I don’t know any other writer who does it that extensively. That is sort of linear. I do leave myself room for surprise and I’ll change things around. But when you’re writing about something as complicated as the Israeli-Palestinian problem in a very long novel based on a hundred or more interviews, you have to find a way to make that material work as fiction. To me it requires a high degree of organization.

WHC

So, if story is a series if interrelated scenes, outlining helps you interrelate those scenes?

RNP

Oh, absolutely. What is the relationship between scenes? I think the architecture of a novel is terribly important. I think getting the architecture right is as important as the writing itself. I’ll give you a for instance. I generally don’t criticize my fellow authors in print but I think Tom Wolff can take it. He’s a greatly talented writer and very successful, so if you ever use this I doubt it will hurt his feelings . . . he’ll probably simply recognize the truth. When I read “Bonfire” Bonfire of the Vanities, which I love 80% of, the whole thing turned to Cliff notes in the last 20%. The novel became thin, the behavior of the characters became unbelievable, and you sensed the desperation of a cornered man [the author] who hadn’t thought out his ending, trying to figure out a way to end this book. I read A Man in Full, the same thing, Charlotte Simmons, the same thing. I later learned that my perception of his process was exactly right. He didn’t know how he was going to end his novels and three months before publication, he was still trying to figure out how to do it. Well, here is a brilliantly talented writer with a great story going with all sorts of social realism and all sorts of atmosphere and he hasn’t done the one thing that is necessary—take the story from beginning to end. Don’t slight any part of the process!

WHC

In that vein, do you outline motivations, emotional arcs, psychological movement for your characters?

RNP

Even in Eden in Winter, which is my novel coming out in mid July this year [2014], involved very intense interviews with psychiatrists about all sorts of aspects of characters, two principally, a man and a woman who have a very complicated, very fraught romantic attachment to each other, and part of it involves that she was formerly the lover of his, we assume, father. That’s not only Freudian, it’s Oedipal. I spent hours and hours talking to my psychiatrist friends about how this works and about how their childhoods [the characters’] affected them, how they would react in this and that situation. Fabulously rewarding.

WHC

That’s what you mean by “drilling down”?

RNP

Well, I have scenes of psychotherapy in this book where a pretty tough-minded dialogue between protagonist and psychotherapist. If that’s been done in fiction, I haven’t seen it. To me it was one of the rewarding aspects of the book, and one of the more successful.

WHC

Fiction writers in general deal with show and tell, narrative development, and in scene creation. You seem to have two goals in writing, an entertainment goal first. But you also have an “inform” goal. And to be able to inform in fiction requires a fair amount of narrative. Do you think about this? I would submit you’ve been successful at informing through narrative and entertaining through scene. How do you balance these two things?

RNP

Again, it’s very hard for me to distill what I now do as second nature. Obviously, at some point in my career, I did think about these things quite explicitly. I just ceased to have to . . . you know . . . the horse knows the way. Let’s discuss a Supreme Court nomination—how to get it through, or how to drop it. A lot of explaining it can be done in the normal course of depicting conversations between people who are trying to accomplish one thing or another. They talk about what they’re up to and how to accomplish it and it comes across as what would actually happen as opposed to someone giving a speech about all this stuff. I mean, using dialogue between and among characters, as opposed to endless speech or interminable paragraphs just telling the reader something, is the better way to go I wish I could explain it more clearly that that. I used to understand and now I sort of do it.

WHC

Is that a lot of writing or is time progressing? [The “sort of do it.”]

RNP

No. It’s a lot of writing. I don’t know that I could teach fiction now. I probably could have fifteen years ago when I had to think about what I was doing. But now I just know what to do, I don’t think about it.

WHC

My sense is you could teach fiction. I wouldn’t put yourself down.

In the outline, do you pay attention strictly to a timeline? Particularly in placing flashbacks.

RNP

Oh, yes. I use a lot of flashbacks.

WHC

You do that naturally. You don’t lay down a timeline with beginning and end and then place flashbacks?

RNP

No. I just know where a flashback belongs. I think about it a lot. And I’ll move things around.

WHC

A flashback can stop story progress in many ways.

RNP

It absolutely can. One of my books (No Safe Place, a political novel) intersperses whole chinks of current narrative with whole chunks (four sections) of his past-life childhood I bring it forth to the present until they merge. At that point you understand the whys and everything he’s dealing with. At the point they come together, there is a dramatic confluence. So that actually works. You have to have a fair amount of confidence to do that, which I don’t lack. But it worked wonderfully well.

WHC

But you did outline this basically in the initial stages of the story?

RNP

Absolutely. That was the plan. To write the novel with that form and that structure was always the plan.

WHC

If I could impose on you to just go along with me for a while, I’d like to see how you’d develop a current political situation into a story. I’d like to see your thoughts about outlining it before you would start writing. I’m thinking about Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier who has been living (imprisoned) with the Taliban for five years and who Obama has traded five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo for his freedom. It’s an interesting story with a lot of deep societal questions, it seems to me.

How would you approach it? Gee. I’ll go from Bowe’s point of view? Or would you go from the president’s? Would you chose a third person narrator and use multiple points of view? And what are the essentials that you would find interesting to bring the societal issues out in your work?

RNP

Well, in real life I’d think about longer than the thirty seconds I’ve been given . . .

WHC

I’ve been a little unfair.

RNP

. . . off the top, I’d start with Bergdahl under investigation of being court marshaled, which dealt with whether he was derelict in his duties and the whole disappearance, and then go back in time as a prism for his account and the account of other people and the protagonist is in one way or another charged with defending him. And so you’ve got the protagonist’s needs, goals, but you also have his/her mission, interviewing lots of people, and coming to some sense of how and why it all happened. That would be a way of doing it. And probably effective. One of the questions is: who is this guy? What kind of soldier was he? Why did he disappear? What is our obligation to him, and how does it change depending on whether he was a deserter, gone walkabout, a good soldier . . . all of that. I can understand the resentment of people who felt lives were lost looking for him.

Eden In Winter

WHC

His comrades.

RNP

Yes. As an ironic aside, in Eden in Winter there is a section where the protagonist is ensnarled in his own family drama in Martha’s Vineyard but has another life as a CIA special operator and has to go back to Afghanistan and in that section his mission becomes an attempt to follow up a lead about Bergdahl’s whereabouts. And then based on the assumption he might be in a particular village, to attempt to go in there and extract him if he is. I won’t say more about it but I’ve been interested to see the real Bergdorf surface. Because there were periodic efforts to find out where he was, I talked to a special ops guy about that very thing.

WHC

How would you bring in the president’s attitudes and how could you make that dramatic without assessing blame or making judgments? Was it a political move or a humanitarian move?

RNP

I think what you do is you have very complicated contentions/arguments within the inner circle of the White House, including the presidency, about everything. The ethical, moral aspects. I mean he’s talking to his political advisors, he’s talking to military folks, he’s talking to people about the consequences of letting five Talibans go. He’s going to be aware that if this thing goes wrong in some way or another, [it could be disastrous]. You have the parents. I think you could make that all pretty interesting. I’m not sure I would have produced mom and dad in the Rose Garden, I will say that.

WHC

That was not a good choice. We don’t need time to get a perspective on that.

Thanks. Very helpful to see your view as an author. You’ve presented so many situations so well.

In wrapping up, I’d like to have your view as to the future of story. I’m assuming we both agree that story is an essential aspect of human learning and that story has been transitioning from prehistoric man to Homer through middle ages with troubadours to contemporary mass production of stories in TV, film, sports. The importance of fiction in expressing important concepts about society and what it means to be human is shrinking. The fiction writer writes away to become a significant literary figure by writing meaningful stories with little chance of ever being read. What is happening to traditional publishing? How will the internet play for writers in the future to get their work out? Will fiction, particularly literary, prose gain prominence through the Internet? And if so, how can we as authors take advantage of it?

RNP

Well, I tend to be a pessimist and a skeptic, so I will cop to that right away. It doesn’t mean I’m right, it means I have a point of view. Off the top, I think gatekeepers are actually good. I don’t mean every good novel gets published. Karl Malantes wrote Viet Nam novel Matterhorn that nobody touched for thirty years and finally some small press picked it up and The Atlantic picked it up and it’s easily the best novel of the Viet Nam war I’ve ever read. So that’s a case where the gatekeepers fail, although once the book was in print, thank God, reviewers did it a service by expressing their admiration of it.

The idea seems to be that the Internet makes publishing more democratic, that you don’t need a publisher; you don’t need anything; that you can just put your memoir out about how mom killed your pet gerbil and ruined your life on, and somebody is going to read that.

How do we know what is good? And given that a lot of crap is published anyhow by traditional publishing, think about all the stuff that is eliminated that is really awful. I tend to think the notion of the internet is a democratizing force for fiction generally means that there will be more wasted time unless ways are determined to indicate why a reader wants to this book rather than six others. I read reviews. That’s how i generally chose what to read unless it’s recommended by a friend whom I thrust. And the review [pool] is shrinking so there is a lot less than there was when I had my first bestseller twenty years ago when I had great reviews all over. That was a great help.

Second of all, I’m as prone to “Kindling” things as anyone else because I can take a Kindle on an airplane, “kindle” when I work out on a treadmill. But Kindle is a disadvantage to writers because we make about a quarter on those of what we make on a hardcover sale. More and more fiction is “kindled” and that just makes it harder for writers to make a living.

I think both of us were born in the most fortunate sweet spot in history to be in–an American in the post war era when we were predominate, we had a rising economy, a rising middle class, and we had to take on some of the serious social deficits in the 90’s. [That was] when I hit my real success [in] the golden age of publishing. Publishers were paying writers a lot of money, there were a lot of review media, there was a lot of channels for publishing books. Those have shrunk. And publishers are threatened. They’re telling writers to go to Twitter camp and do their own PR. If you are Tweeting, you’re not writing, you’re just putting out a lot of crap about the sandwich you had that day.

I went to a dinner party with a friend of mine, who is a very distinguished novelist and with whom I share a common point of view about a lot of things, somebody asked if we tweeted and emailed fans and my friend said: “For twenty-five bucks you get my book, you don’t get a relationship with me.”

You can either be emailing somebody or Tweeting somebody or you can be writing your fiction. What you ought to be doing is spending time with your family. I don’t think it’s the job of a fiction writer to become a carnival barker. I have answered every piece of fan mail I’ve ever gotten, except from the obviously insane. If a reader went to the trouble of writing me a letter and sending it to the publisher, they deserve an acknowledgement and a reaction.

WHC

That’s admirable.

RNP

But I will not put my email out for public consumption so people can email me every random thought they ever have. I’d be spending all my life doing it. Life is short. Writing time is precious. So is time with friends and family. I do not want to spend time saying “Look at me, look at me.”

WHC

We, I mean the people who run the website with me, handle this by hiring people to run Facebook and Twitter. And recently Linkedin and Goodreads.

RNP

Well, that is a necessary tool. I can say pretty confidently I’ve written my last book. Here is another thing about the Internet and video games. Thirty-six years ago now, I took a course from a prominent southern writier. Fifteen of us were selected from two hundred manuscripts. One of things he had us do was read the first thirty pagers of Madame Bovary in which Flaubert describes the village brick by brick and the characters and he (the southern writer] said “It’s a wonderful piece of writing but for a modern audience, you’re going to have to do that in about three paragraphs.” His point was that the attention span and patience of the modern reader is very different than in Flaubert’s time. How much more so now hat our kids are thinking in very short bursts and flitting from this to that on the internet. I don’t think any of that argues well for the art of fiction as I understand it.

WHC

The stayability and longevity of a writer’s work is in question. The whole thing about flash fiction and getting Twitterish in writing is a huge change. I’m not ready to make the compromise for brevity and slang over quality and I hope there are many authors who feel the same. I still love to read the opening to Anna Karenina for example. That’s not condensed. I hope that will continue to be valued.

RNP

War and Peace is possibly one of the greatest novels every written. I gave it to my daughter and she loved.

WHC

I’d like to thank you for your participation and your contribution. It’s been an enjoyable and informing session.

Endnotes


[i] Fiction techniques enhanced by experience in litigation (RNP).
investigation research
narrative
characterization and psychology
writing clear compelling prose
settings
moral and ethical complexity
social crucible

[ii] Characteristics of lawyers that are preparation for good fiction (RNP).
curious
open to arguments and new information
intellectually honest
devoted to decency and the rule of law
protecting rights
serve in the interests of society (while society existing to serve us)


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