other people’s books
I’m in the thick of it with The Magician’s Land.
The best description around of what it’s like to write a novel is Zadie Smith’s essay “That Crafty Feeling.” You can find bootleg copies of it on the Web, but if you want to read it you should really buy the book that it’s in.
Here’s a taste, from the section called “Middle-of-the-Novel Magical Thinking”:
By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post—I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping aid order Ambien online with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses. You sit down to write at 9am, you blink, the evening news is on and 4,000 words are written, more words than you wrote in three long months, a year ago.
It’s hard to stop quoting, it’s all so true.
But that’s just one phase of writing a novel. A good phase. There are worse ones.
One of the weird things about novel-writing is how different it is from what you’d think writing a novel is like, based on the experience of reading novels. When I read a novel the overwhelming impression I get is of how easy it must have been. I mean, come on, people: it’s obvious what comes next. It’s obvious what she would say in that situation — what else could she possibly have said? Sheezus. When you’re reading, writing doesn’t feel like writing, it feels more like transcribing.
Whereas: when you’re actually doing it, when you’re writing and you’re in the thick of it, it’s totally different. It’s like taking a drug, a relatively harmless hallucinogen, say, and discovering that you’ve been burned on the deal, and it’s been cut with some violently psychoactive shit. You ricochet from divine arrogance to crippling depression, from inspired certainty to total disintegrated confusion to listless boredom. It’s not obvious what happens next; in fact at every given moment you’re violently confronted by an infinite number of possibilities for what could happen next.
And strangely, despite their being infinite in number, every single one of these possibilities is wrong. The right possibility sits outside that infinite set, glaringly obvious to other people, but somehow unfindable by you, the writer.
Fortunately you won’t remember any of this later. Afterwards, when you’ve got the finished book in your hands, all you’ll be able to think is: “My goodness I’m clever!”
That and, “Let’s do that again!”
First, there’s an illustrator in Boston named Samuel Valentino. He’s into fantasy. Sometimes he illustrates the fantasy he’s into. He made this image of the Watcherwoman from The Magicians, striding through the clock-trees:
It’s really wonderful. He completely nailed that Pauline Baynes look — she did the original illustrations for the Narnia books. (Wouldn’t it be amazing if this and other Magicians-related art could someday be available in merch form? That is a thing that you may live to see.)
OK, one thing down. The other: this June Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is being reissued in a 10th anniversary edition. In honor of that, Neil will be appearing at the 92nd St. Y on June 21st. I will be appearing next to him, to ask him questions.
As everybody knows, Neil is an extraordinarily compelling public speaker. I mean, off the charts compelling. To make this event a success all I will really have to do is stay still, speak English and not burst into flames.
I don’t know if I can promise that. But I’ll do my best.
(If you have questions you want me to ask Neil, feel free to leave them in comments.)
It doesn’t surprise me that I’ve been so crap about posting, given this. I’m not happy about it. But I’m not surprised.
And even this will not be a true ‘post,’ in the sense that it adds any content to the ambient contentverse. It’s just a haphazard aggregation of pre-existing content. But right now it’s all I got.
— I spent last weekend in Georgia. I went to DragonCon, the sheer scale of which was stunning — just the raw acreage of exposed cosplayer flesh alone was awe-inspiring — and the Decatur Book Festival, a really lovely event — the people were truly wonderful, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been to a better-organized books festival. And I addressed an audience from the pulpit of a Baptist church, thereby fulfilling a childhood ambition:
I also smoked a cigarette, thereby ruining an adulthood ambition. At least I didn’t do them at the same time.
The cover story in Time this week is by me. It’s a profile of Jonathan Franzen, a novelist who is of great interest to me.
The Corrections was kind of a totem for me while I was writing The Magicians. It was a transitional love object, like a teddy bear — I didn’t like to write without my copy of it handy.
That and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I put one on one side of my desk, one on the other, and wrote The Magicians in the weird magneto-literary field they generated between them.
Franzen has a new novel coming out, his first since The Corrections, which was in 2001. (Weirdly it came out practically on September 11th.) It’s called Freedom. It’s good. Franzen writes in a close-third-person style that basically to me is the state of the goddamned art for literary prose.
— I’ll be at Comic-Con next week. The only places I will be easily findable will be at my panel, which is on Thursday morning at 10:30, and at a signing directly afterwards. At all other times both my position and my momentum will be uncertain. (Also, like Schrödinger’s cat, I will be both alive and dead.) But if you’re there and you spot me, say hi. I’ll have a small but non-zero number of Brakebills t-shirts to give away at the con. Mention this blog!
— In September I’ll be at the Decatur Book Festival in Georgia, and, that same weekend, in that same state, with a little bit of luck, I’ll be at DragonCon. (The Decatur Festival lists the title of my first novel as Wrap, which maybe wouldn’t have been a bad idea.)
— I have a gorgeous full-size blow-up of this Hoth travel poster on my wall, thanks to a generous fan:
I’m too short on sleep to work on my book and too wired to take a nap. So let us speak instead of Douglas Hofstadter.
In 1979 Hofstadter — a 34-year-old professor of computer science at Indiana University — published a book called Gödel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. If you haven’t read it — though if you’re reading this blog chances are not-bad that you have — it’s a playful, wildly interdisciplinary argument-slash-fantasia about three radical thinkers and how their work relates to the nature of human consciousness.
My sister was just old enough in 1979 (she was 14) to bring Gödel Escher Bach into our house and obliquely signal its importance to me and my brother by leaving it lying around and making strange coded-sounding references to it in conversation.
My brother and I subsequently read it and became infected with the GEB virus. It altered our intellectual DNA forever.
In fact I’d go so far as to suppose — how would you prove it? — that GEB reconfigured the brains of an entire generation of power nerds who are now grown up and doing interesting shit. As famous as it is I’m willing to bet its influence is still way underestimated. It’s the secret nerd bible of my generation.
Number of days it lasted: 18
Cities visited: 11
Xanax consumed: .25 mg. (That was the very first date, in LA. I’m done with Xanax. I’m dissociated from reality enough as it is. Maybe I should hold a giveaway for the rest of the bottle. Except that that’s probably a crime.)
Caffeine consumed: lots
Alcohol consumed: next question
I’m in Scottsdale, AZ for a reading tonight at Changing Hands bookstore. Come if you can. I don’t know anybody here, so I’m hoping the fans will turn out!
The only other time I’ve ever been in Arizona was to meet Stephenie Meyer. This was when the Twilight thing was already mental, but had not yet gone completely bugfuck.
She lives in a town called Cave Creek, outside Phoenix, in a modern-looking house with a giant TV in it that was surrounded by saguaro cacti. I liked her. She was obviously smart, but otherwise almost aggressively normal and down-to-earth. The strangest thing about her was that she’s never seen an R-rated movie. I didn’t even have a marital crisis while I was talking to her.
The other day the New Yorker announced its list of the twenty best writers under forty.
Lists like this are of course totally bogus. But I like them. They treat literature like it was some kind of damn dog race, which is demeaning to both literature and dog racing (which is pretty horrible to begin with). I think they’re a unique artifact of late-20th-century popular criticism — as crass and lame as earlier eras of human civilization were, I can’t imagine critics of an earlier era being crass and lame in quite this exact way. It’s like some horrible amalgamation of all our obsessions with youth and media and penis-length, given list form.
And yet: they get some basic information out there, albeit in a crude and distorted form. I think some writers are good and other writers less good. You think other writers are good or less good too. Here are their names. Now we know.
When the New Yorker announced their list, I read it and immediately was all, no way, this sucks. In fact I was all like that publicly, on Twitter. So I feel like I should add something to that. Mostly caveats.
I have a thing about popular/genre fiction and literary fiction. I think and write about the difference/non-difference between them, and the history of that difference, a lot. For reasons I’ve explained way better elsewhere (see those links above) I happen to think the collapse/confusion/obsolescence of that difference is the most interesting thing going on in contemporary fiction. It’s how we’re finally metabolizing/moving on from Modernism, which had a lot to do with inventing that difference in the first place, toward a kind of writing that is new and exciting and uniquely of its time. Which is the job of every culture ever. This is our avant-garde.
So I was disappointed but not surprised when there weren’t any genre writers on the New Yorker‘s list. It seemed typical of that institution’s blindness and ossified-ness, which is only matched by its breathtaking insight (honestly, who else would have been smart/strong enough to start sticking Daniyal Mueenuddin’s stuff in front of a mass audience? That kicks ass.) (Being born in 1963, he was way too old and crumbly for the list.)
Now two caveats to that: one, numerous people have argued that some of the writers on the list are in fact genre writers. Chris Adrian, for example, and Karen Russell. And Rivka Galchen. Those people are right. Or about Adrian and Galchen anyway. I’ve never read Karen Russell. #criticfail!
Two, nowhere here am I dissing the writers who happen to be on this list. There are some writers on there who I actually have read and, regardless of where they’re shelved, I think are not just excellent, but particularly excellent. They are: Gary Shteyngart, Rivka Galchen, Josh Ferris and Wells Tower (whose Viking story “Everything Ravaged Everything Burned” isn’t urban fantasy, but it’s cool in the same way that urban fantasy is cool).
Oh, and here’s another caveat: the New Yorker put your book, The Magicians, on their end-of-year best-of list last year. So where do you get off saying they don’t respect genre fiction?
Answer, I don’t know where I get off. How could I? I dine out on that whenever I can. The moral of this story being that magazines (and by extension people) are almost always smarter and more thoughtful than you (meaning me) initially think they are.
But I still think they should have had a few straight-ahead genre people on there. I don’t know how old Paolo Bacigalupi is, but he doesn’t look 40 to me.
p.s. I would never suggest that there should be a comparable 40-and-up writers list. But I do think there should be a list of writers who are exactly 40. I would have a shot at that one. Me and Kelly Link (b. 1969). And John Scalzi (also b. 1969). David Anthony Durham. David Mitchell. Huh. Actually it’s pretty competitive.
(This post was posted from the cafe at Malaprop’s in Asheville, NC, where I am reading in three short hours.)
Here’s a little-known fact about me: I met J.K. Rowling once. I wish it were a littler-known fact, but what can you do.
“Not blog about it” would be one answer. But since it’s out there I feel an urge to explain it. And also apologize for it. “The time I met J.K. Rowling” sounds like a great story, but it isn’t.
Here’s how it went down.
The year was 2005. We’d just about gutted out the two-year gap between Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince (my coping mechanism was to start writing The Magicians in 2004). In the weeks before the new book came out, Rowling’s American publisher, Scholastic, let it be known that she would give exactly one interview to one U.S. print publication.
Everybody put their bids in. For whatever reason, Time won. They sent me.
It wasn’t a fait accompli. You wouldn’t think it, but Time has some major-league Harry Potter fans on staff. Senior staff. They can rattle off trivia like they were Newt Scamander or some shit. But I was the books guy, and the most visibly nerdy staff member. So I went.
And there was another reason they sent me, which was that my marriage was falling apart.