Ramblings & ephemera

Shelby Foote on what comes first: character or plot

From Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, & William Kennedy’s interview of Shelby Foote in “The Art of Fiction No. 158” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

INTERVIEWER Which comes first, character or plot?

FOOTE Character comes first. I separate the mass of novels into good and bad. A good book could be described as one about a man who, in a situation, does such and such. A bad book is about a situation in which a man does such and such. In other words, plot ought to grow out of character. You don’t have to make up a plot. You have to have a person and place him in a situation and a plot starts happening.

Shelby Foote’s advice to young writers

From Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, & William Kennedy’s interview of Shelby Foote in “The Art of Fiction No. 158” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

INTERVIEWER What kind of advice would you give young writers?

FOOTE To read, and above all to reread. When you read, you get the great pleasure of discovering what happened. When you reread, you get the great pleasure of knowing where the author’s going and seeing how he goes about getting there—and that’s learning creative writing.

Shelby Foote on the poor writing by academic historians

From Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, & William Kennedy’s interview of Shelby Foote in “The Art of Fiction No. 158” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

Now it sounds as if I’m making an all-out attack against academic historians. I am making some attack on them for their lack of concern about learning how to write. It is as if they thought it an onerous waste of time, which they might better spend doing research rather than learning how to write. The result sometimes is a prose that’s so dismal that the footnotes are not an interruption but just a welcome relief.

Shelby Foote on how Faulkner one-upped Clark Gable

From Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, & William Kennedy’s interview of Shelby Foote in “The Art of Fiction No. 158” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

You’ve heard that thing about Faulkner and Clark Gable haven’t you? Howard Hawks was taking Faulkner out on a quail shoot and came by to pick him up a little before dawn to get to where they were going by first light. Clark Gable was in the car, and Faulkner in the backseat. As they rode along, Gable and Hawks got to talking. Gable said, You know, you’re a well-read man, Howard. I’ve always been meaning to do some reading. I never have really done it. What do you think I ought to read? And Hawks said, Why don’t you ask Bill back there. He’s a writer, and he’ll be able to tell you. Gable said, Do you write, Mr. Faulkner? Faulkner said, Yes, Mr. Gable. What do you do?

Richard Ford on how to deal with mythical narratives

From Bonnie Lyons’s interview of Richard Ford in “The Art of Fiction No. 147” (The Paris Review: Fall 1996, No. 140):

…when you start manipulating mythical narratives, whether you blunder into them or you do it by calculation, you’d better—to be in control of your book—reckon with their true potency and wide reference. They haven’t persisted all these years because they represent trivial human matters.

My favorite iPhone apps

Someone on a mailing list asked for a list of our favorite iPhone apps. Here’s what I said:

Reeder is the best RSS reader (tied to Google Reader, natch), bar none.

Articles presents Wikipedia beautifully.

Dropbox is an essential for the reasons Martin gave.

Echofon is a great Twitter app, especially since it syncs with its Mac desktop app.

Pano takes panoramic pix, ColorSplash allows you to make pix B&W & then selectively colorize them, & Camera+ has all sorts of goodies.

Rowmote Pro lets me control my Mac mini connected to my TV remotely.

Simplenote is a great note app that syncs with its website & JustNotes on my Mac.

1Password keeps passwords, account info, serial #’s, & sensitive notes encrypted & synced with the Mac version of the app using Dropbox.

Nightstand is a gorgeous alarm clock & more.

Amazon.com makes it too easy for me to spend $$$.

PhoneFlicks manages my Netflix queue.

And finally, even though it’s only been out for a day or two, Rage 3D is a killer shooter that looks freakin’ gorgeous.

Don DeLillo on how film has changed our society completely

From Adam Begley’s interview of Don DeLillo in “The Art of Fiction No. 135” (The Paris Review: Fall 1993, No. 128):

Film allows us to examine ourselves in ways earlier societies could not—examine ourselves, imitate ourselves, extend ourselves, reshape our reality. It permeates our lives, this double vision, and also detaches us, turns some of us into actors doing walk-throughs. In my work, film and television are often linked with disaster. Because this is one of the energies that charges the culture. TV has a sort of panting lust for bad news and calamity as long as it is visual. We’ve reached the point where things exist so they can be filmed and played and replayed.

Philip Larkin on why you write

From Robert Phillips’s interview of Philip Larkin in “The Art of Poetry No. 30” (The Paris Review: Summer 1982, No. 84):

The short answer is that you write because you have to. If you rationalize it, it seems as if you’ve seen this sight, felt this feeling, had this vision, and have got to find a combination of words that will preserve it by setting it off in other people. The duty is to the original experience. It doesn’t feel like self-expression, though it may look like it.

Philip Larkin on modernism

From Robert Phillips’s interview of Philip Larkin in “The Art of Poetry No. 30” (The Paris Review: Summer 1982, No. 84):

It seems to me undeniable that up to this century literature used language in the way we all use it, painting represented what anyone with normal vision sees, and music was an affair of nice noises rather than nasty ones. The innovation of “modernism” in the arts consisted of doing the opposite. I don’t know why, I’m not a historian. You have to distinguish between things that seemed odd when they were new but are now quite familiar, such as Ibsen and Wagner, and things that seemed crazy when they were new and seem crazy now, like Finnegans Wake and Picasso.

Philip Larkin on achieving happiness

From Robert Phillips’s interview of Philip Larkin in “The Art of Poetry No. 30” (The Paris Review: Summer 1982, No. 84):

INTERVIEWER Do you feel happiness is unlikely in this world?

LARKIN Well, I think if you’re in good health, and have enough money, and nothing is bothering you in the foreseeable future, that’s as much as you can hope for. But “happiness,” in the sense of a continuous emotional orgasm, no. If only because you know that you are going to die, and the people you love are going to die.

Philip Larkin on how Charlie Parker ruined jazz

From Robert Phillips’s interview of Philip Larkin in “The Art of Poetry No. 30” (The Paris Review: Summer 1982, No. 84):

Charlie Parker wrecked jazz by—or so they tell me—using the chromatic rather than the diatonic scale. The diatonic scale is what you use if you want to write a national anthem, or a love song, or a lullaby. The chromatic scale is what you use to give the effect of drinking a quinine martini and having an enema simultaneously. If I sound heated on this, it’s because I love jazz, the jazz of Armstrong and Bechet and Ellington and Bessie Smith and Beiderbecke. To have it all destroyed by a paranoiac drug addict made me furious.

Tom Stoppard on the advantages of being famous

From Shusha Guppy’s interview of Tom Stoppard in “The Art of Theater No. 7” (The Paris Review: Winter 1988, No. 109):

INTERVIEWER Now that you are [famous], do you still feel excited by it, or do you think it isn’t that important?

STOPPARD Oh, I like it. The advantages are psychological, social, and material. The first because I don’t have to worry about who I am—I am the man who has written these plays. The social advantages appeal to half of me because there are two of me: the recluse and the fan. And the fan in me is still thrilled to meet people I admire. As for the material side, I like having some money. The best way to gauge wealth is to consider the amount of money that you can spend thoughtlessly—a casual purchase which simply doesn’t register. The really rich can do it in Cartier’s; I’m quite happy if I can do it in a good bookshop or a good restaurant.

Ray Bradbury on what you know & how to write

From Sam Weller’s interview of Ray Bradbury in “The Art of Fiction No. 203” (The Paris Review: Spring 2010, No. 192):

I learned this early on. Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are. 

INTERVIEWER After you’ve made your list of nouns, where do you go from there? 

BRADBURY I begin to write little pensées about the nouns. It’s prose poetry. It’s evocative. It tries to be metaphorical. Saint-John Perse published several huge volumes of this type of poetry on beautiful paper with lovely type. His books of poetry had titles like Rains, Snows, Winds, Seamarks. I could never afford to buy his books because they must have cost twenty or thirty dollars—and this was about fifty years ago. But he influenced me because I read him in the bookstore and I started to write short, descriptive paragraphs, two hundred words each, and in them I began to examine my nouns. Then I’d bring some characters on to talk about that noun and that place, and all of a sudden I had a story going. I used to do the same thing with photographs that I’d rip out of glossy magazines. I’d take the photographs and I’d write little prose poems about them.

Ray Bradbury on science fiction

From Sam Weller’s interview of Ray Bradbury in “The Art of Fiction No. 203” (The Paris Review: Spring 2010, No. 192):

Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.

I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual. 

Ray Bradbury on his 3 rules to live by

From Sam Weller’s interview of Ray Bradbury in “The Art of Fiction No. 203” (The Paris Review: Spring 2010, No. 192):

I have three rules to live by. One, get your work done. If that doesn’t work, shut up and drink your gin. And when all else fails, run like hell!

Ray Bradbury on writing in the morning

From Sam Weller’s interview of Ray Bradbury in “The Art of Fiction No. 203” (The Paris Review: Spring 2010, No. 192):

I write all the time. I get up every morning not knowing what I’m going to do. I usually have a perception around dawn when I wake up. I have what I call the theater of morning inside my head, all these voices talking to me. When they come up with a good metaphor, then I jump out of bed and trap them before they’re gone. That’s the whole secret: to do things that excite you. Also, I always have taken naps. That way, I have two mornings! 

Ray Bradbury on an encounter that changed his life

From Sam Weller’s interview of Ray Bradbury in “The Art of Fiction No. 203” (The Paris Review: Spring 2010, No. 192):

Circuses and carnivals were always passing through Illinois during my childhood and I was in love with their mystery. One autumn weekend in 1932, when I was twelve years old, the Dill Brothers Combined Shows came to town. One of the performers was Mr. Electrico. He sat in an electric chair. A stagehand pulled a switch and he was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end.

The next day, I had to go the funeral of one of my favorite uncles. Driving back from the graveyard with my family, I looked down the hill toward the shoreline of Lake Michigan and I saw the tents and the flags of the carnival and I said to my father, Stop the car. He said, What do you mean? And I said, I have to get out. My father was furious with me. He expected me to stay with the family to mourn, but I got out of the car anyway and I ran down the hill toward the carnival.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I was running away from death, wasn’t I? I was running toward life. And there was Mr. Electrico sitting on the platform out in front of the carnival and I didn’t know what to say. I was scared of making a fool of myself. I had a magic trick in my pocket, one of those little ball-and-vase tricks—a little container that had a ball in it that you make disappear and reappear—and I got that out and asked, Can you show me how to do this? It was the right thing to do. It made a contact. He knew he was talking to a young magician. He took it, showed me how to do it, gave it back to me, then he looked at my face and said, Would you like to meet those people in that tent over there? Those strange people? And I said, Yes sir, I would. So he led me over there and he hit the tent with his cane and said, Clean up your language! Clean up your language! He took me in, and the first person I met was the illustrated man. Isn’t that wonderful? The Illustrated Man! He called himself the tattooed man, but I changed his name later for my book. I also met the strong man, the fat lady, the trapeze people, the dwarf, and the skeleton. They all became characters.

Mr. Electrico was a beautiful man, see, because he knew that he had a little weird kid there who was twelve years old and wanted lots of things. We walked along the shore of Lake Michigan and he treated me like a grown-up. I talked my big philosophies and he talked his little ones. Then we went out and sat on the dunes near the lake and all of a sudden he leaned over and said, I’m glad you’re back in my life. I said, What do you mean? I don’t know you. He said, You were my best friend outside of Paris in 1918. You were wounded in the Ardennes and you died in my arms there. I’m glad you’re back in the world. You have a different face, a different name, but the soul shining out of your face is the same as my friend. Welcome back.

Now why did he say that? Explain that to me, why? Maybe he had a dead son, maybe he had no sons, maybe he was lonely, maybe he was an ironical jokester. Who knows? It could be that he saw the intensity with which I live. Every once in a while at a book signing I see young boys and girls who are so full of fire that it shines out of their face and you pay more attention to that. Maybe that’s what attracted him.

When I left the carnival that day I stood by the carousel and I watched the horses running around and around to the music of “Beautiful Ohio,” and I cried. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I knew something important had happened to me that day because of Mr. Electrico. I felt changed. He gave me importance, immortality, a mystical gift. My life was turned around completely. It makes me cold all over to think about it, but I went home and within days I started to write. I’ve never stopped.

Seventy-seven years ago, and I’ve remembered it perfectly. I went back and saw him that night. He sat in the chair with his sword, they pulled the switch, and his hair stood up. He reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from the sword. When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, “Live forever.” And I decided to.

Ray Bradbury on Edgar Rice Burroughs

From Sam Weller’s interview of Ray Bradbury in “The Art of Fiction No. 203” (The Paris Review: Spring 2010, No. 192):

But as it turns out—and I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly—[Edgar Rice] Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world.

INTERVIEWER Why do you think that?

BRADBURY By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs. I was once at Caltech with a whole bunch of scientists and they all admitted it. Two leading astronomers—one from Cornell, the other from Caltech—came out and said, Yeah, that’s why we became astronomers. We wanted to see Mars more closely.

Richard Wilbur on Edgar Allan Poe

From Helen McCloy Ellison, Ellesa Clay High, & Peter A. Stitt’s interview of Richard Wilbur in “The Art of Poetry No. 22” (The Paris Review: Winter 1977, No. 72):

INTERVIEWER That was one of your criticisms of Poe’s poetry, wasn’t it, that it wasn’t grounded enough in the concrete.

WILBUR Yes. He is hurrying away from it as fast as he can go. He has to mention it in order to destroy it! Otherwise, you’d see nothing but the smoke. He will say “seas,” and then will add, “without a shore,” and make it impossible for you to think of any sea that you ever heard of.

Richard Wilbur on the advantages of being a poet

From Helen McCloy Ellison, Ellesa Clay High, & Peter A. Stitt’s interview of Richard Wilbur in “The Art of Poetry No. 22” (The Paris Review: Winter 1977, No. 72):

INTERVIEWER Are there what one could call advantages to being a poet?

WILBUR Well, one is allowed enormous license in behavior, one is forgiven everything, one can look as one likes, and one can travel around the country reading the same poems over and over; whereas if a scholar or critic wanted to travel around the country he’d have to write a number of fresh lectures, you see. You get to see a lot of the country on the same old material this way, and I like that.