May 19, 2010 / 3:40 AM / 9 years ago

Book Talk: Author seeks the secret to writing a good novel

CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - Ever wanted to know the secret to writing a good novel? Peruvian-American novelist Daniel Alarcon set out to find the answer but ended up finding that the secret is that there really is no secret.

Alarcon, who has one novel and two books of stories to his name, interviewed 54 novelists, asking questions such as what do you look for in a novel, how much do you know about the plot before you start, and what makes characters compelling.

The result was “The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook,” released this month, with insights from authors such as Roddy Doyle, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rick Moody, Haruki Murakami, and George Pelecanos, Gary Shteyngart, and Colm Toibin.

The answers varied from Stephen King’s distinction between novels and short stories — “Novels are longer and have more shit in them” — to Toibin’s take on his characters — “They are just words.”

Alarcon spoke to Reuters about the book and his writing:

Q: How did the book come about?

A: “I was asked to edit the book and I jumped at the chance to talk to all these amazing novelists. I wanted to make sure the list was very international. I am in the middle of writing my second novel (his first “Lost City Radio” came out in 2007) and you get these incredible responses from this diverse and talented group of writers. Writing a novel is a struggle and it is nice to get advice.”

Q: What did you find most surprising in their replies?

A: “The surprising thing was also the most comforting, and that is that there is no one way to write a novel. Everyone had a different approach and a different idea about what a novel is. It is just a unique process. That was what I liked hearing, that these different authors gave me entirely contradictory answers.”

Q: Did you find anything in common with them all?

A: “One thing I found most exciting is how much everyone reads. I teach from time to time and I impress this on my students, the importance of reading before you write. Real novelists are reading voraciously and constantly and without pause. It does make me think that in some way writers are just very active readers.”

Q: Did all the novelists know they wanted to write from the outset?

A: “No, there were different responses. Rabih Alameddine, a Lebanese-American writer, started as a painter and transitioned from a visual language into a literary language. Alaa al Aswani, the Egyptian writer, began as a dentist. His is an incredible story. He told me that when he was getting started he was working six days a week as a dentist and writing two hours in the morning which shows his commitment.”

Q: What did you personally take away from this?

A: “An important lesson for me as a male writer was hearing women writers about the gender difference. A male writer would list distractions as football, DVDs or the baseball score but for women writers it was their family and children. The demands on women writers are different from the demands on men. For me as a young writer without kids it was important to think about.”

Q: Did you find any secret to writing novels?

A: “If there is a secret to writing books it is that there is no secret. We have to construct ways to talk about writing but there are no lessons here that can directly apply. When I sit down to write I still don’t know what is happening. If I sat and tried to apply what Roddy Doyle or Amy Tan said, I wouldn’t know how to do that. As writers we just do what we do.”

Q: You teach a bit but otherwise do you write full-time now?

A: “Pretty much. I write and do some journalism and translations. I also DJ for parties. A lot of writers are passionate about music and play in bands so I found that is not that unusual. There is an important conversation across the arts with all the technology now that needs to happen.”

Q: What can people expect from your second novel?

A: “Something very different from “Lost City Radio.” My second book of stories in a sense had to do with politics in Latin America, but I found politics is a bit of a depressing thing to write about. I am sort of obsessed by politics ... although I am not sure how much it benefits my life so I am writing a different kind of book.”

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Miral Fahmy

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