Monday, November 30, 2009

What We Leave Out

There is a bit of writerly advice one hears now and then that claims an author must know every little thing about one’s characters, even those details that don’t reach the page. I have always found this advice suspect, so I was gratified recently to read a Wall Street Journal Q&A with Cormac McCarthy, which was pegged to the release of the movie version of his novel The Road.

An unanswered question hovers over this elegiac story of a father and son, struggling to remain human at the end of the world. The question is simply: what happened to the world as we knew it? Nuclear winter? Man-made environmental disaster? Meteor?

McCarthy’s answer: “A lot of people ask me. I don’t have an opinion…. [It] could be anything…. It is not really important.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter what happened to create this particular story world — not, that is, in relation to the purpose of the story. Read on one level, this is a refreshing admission by a confident writer. On another level, it suggests that readers often ask the wrong questions. In this case — though the author has our curiosity up — the proximate cause of the characters’ predicament is not relevant because they didn’t personally cause the disaster. Yes, they must live in the consequences, because that disaster is the crucible that tests their relationships and their very humanity. But the detail of what caused the end of the world is a distraction that McCarthy won't indulge.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Stories of My Life (Part I)

Two years ago, having sold our business and moved with my family to a new town, I decided to turn my attention to writing fiction.

I was 45 years old and I'm sure many people thought I had lost my mind. Unless they'd known me in college or earlier, they hadn't seen any fiction from me. They may have known me as an editor, an entrepreneur, or even an occasional non-fiction writer, but not as a teller of stories created from whole cloth. Yet the truth is that I've always considered myself a writer of fiction. Chance -- the novelist's best friend and worst enemy -- simply carried me off in other directions.

Ah, chance. In high school I had a great interest in science fiction. The first complete story I can recall writing then was about a couple of guys flying a spaceship in the office of a giant. They see wonders. The giant sees a bug. Splat! End of story.