Pros: Great light reading; shows you the range of writing habits and beliefs
Cons: This book probably won’t change your life, although it is fun to read
Rating: 4 out of 5
First published 5/27/2003
Review copy courtesy of Writer’s Digest Books/F&W Publications
In preparation for their book, “Novel Voices: 17 award-winning novelists on how to write, edit, and get published,” Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais spoke with, wrote with, and interviewed a good handful of well-known award-winning writers. The sub-title might give you the impression this is an instructional book. It isn’t, except in passing. There are no in-depth essays on third person point of view or finding an agent. Instead, it’s a very personal look into the lives of some successful writers, and a few tidbits of their advice.
These writers are: Richard Bausch, Charles Baxter, Carrie Brown, Andre Dubus, Stuart Dybek, Richard Ford, Ernest J. Gaines, William H. Gass, Tim Gautreaux, Siri Hustvedt, Ha Jin, Charles Johnson, Valerie Martin, Elizabeth McCracken, Antonya Nelson, Ann Patchett, Melanie Rae Thon. The first thing you’re likely to notice is that you won’t find any hard-core genre authors on the list. You may also notice that, thankfully, it isn’t simply a list of white males (not that I have anything against white males, but they aren’t the only writers out there, and it’s nice to see that acknowledged with more than just a token female or a single non-caucasian writer).
Each entry starts out with a brief bio of the author including a list of their books (both story collections and novels). So if any of the authors intrigue you, you’ll have an easy time finding their work. The book uses a very informal tone. Interview questions address everything from themes in the authors’ work (it’s clear the editors of this book are actually familiar with the authors’ work!) to the authors’ work habits, sources of inspiration, career choices, and so on. The book gets pretty personal, with one author even mentioning having discovered her father’s pornography collection as a child. I often felt as though I was sitting in a living room or nice restaurant with each author, calmly chatting as though we’d known each other for years.
Many of the authors’ tips lend at least as much insight into the authors’ lives and psyches as they lend into the creative process in general. I think the best thing you can learn from this book is that each and every writer does things a little differently, with one writer swearing by methods that another writer believes to be ridiculous. Once you’ve explored the vastly different ways in which such successful authors write, it becomes much clearer that you simply can’t define the creative process, producing one set of instructions that works for all writers. Since budding writers have a distressing tendency to assume that whatever technique or instruction they’ve read or heard is the way things must be done, this is a very valuable thing to learn.
This is the sort of book a writer might read on a long train ride, or in those calm evening hours when you just want to relax a bit. It’s also a book that fans of these authors might read, whether or not they have any interest in writing, simply because it can be fascinating to find out how your favorite writers work.
I have no complaints about this book. I enjoyed it, it intrigued me, and it made me want to sit down and write–which is always a good sign. The only thing that made it less than perfect for me is the fact that I’m more interested in a somewhat different selection of writers. For someone who reads the work of these seventeen authors, this is a fantastic book.