By Janet Somerville
Each of the panelists, Cynthia Flood, Helen Humphreys and Meg Wolitzer, began with a short reading from their recent books. Wolitzer read from an 1981 section of The Interestings, when New York City “looked like an episode of Kojak.” Flood read from “To Be Queen,” one of her stories in Red Girl Rat Boy, in which the 40-year-old narrator looks back to his childhood. Humphreys read from the beginning of Nocturne, a memoir in the form of a letter to her pianist brother, Martin, who died of pancreatic cancer, noting that “stopping a life is harder than it seems” and “we are lucky if what we devote ourselves to can give us some comfort in the end.”
Host and moderator Susan G. Cole opened up the conversation by asking what drew each to their form. Humphreys explained, “I actually was writing a letter to my brother after he died. I was being driven by grief. There was no room for the writer mind to take over. The only change I made to the manuscript was to structure it in 45 segments, one for every year Martin was alive.”
Flood, whose book is short fiction, noted, “I like being in a space that has a margin to it. My ideal process is to write two or three stories at a time.” And, Wolitzer admitted, “I love the fact that novels let you know what happens to characters. I’m affected by the sweep of time as in Michael Apted’s compelling Up Series of docs.”
Wolitzer continued that she likes to write from an idea. In the case of The Interestings, what happens to talent over time? Do people’s lives become diminished? “If I’m just writing about character, it feels small to me.” On writing so convincingly about adolescence, she said, “When you come of age, you remember everything. It’s a time of firsts that remains vivid.”
Humphreys, a veteran novelist and dedicated researcher, could not read or write fiction for a year after her brother died. She began writing her way through her grief because “if writing can’t speak to the hardest things, then what’s it for?”
Considering the role of envy in her novel, Wolitzer said, “There’s this other kind of envy you feel for people you love. The ego is a moose head that juts out into the room. [My character] Jules, for example, can’t let go of her need to feel special and negotiate her place in the world.” Flood noted, “I like the process of embedding information, but it may not be unpacked the first time around.”
All three offered advice on the craft. Humphreys writes the entire first draft as quickly as she can; Flood writes as continually as possible; Wolitzer warns against self-censorship in early drafting and suggests, “Write the first 80 pages, even though they will be very different from the fantasy of what you intend.”
Do, as Freud said, “listen with evenly hovering attention” and, as Updike insisted, “submit to the spell of the story.” Sage, practiced advice from writers dedicated to entrancing their readers.
Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.