a very sustained process of reading

I think we erroneously give pride of place to the act of writing rather than the act of reading. People think you just read because you can understand the language, but a certain kind of reading is a very high-level intellectual process. I have such reverence for that kind of sensitive reading—it is not just absorbing things and identifying what’s wrong but a much deeper thing that I can see would be perfectly satisfying. Anyway, this separation is fairly recent: not long ago the great readers were the great writers, the great critics were the great novelists, the great poets were the great translators. People didn’t make these big distinctions about which one was more thrilling than the other. 

Writing for me is just a very sustained process of reading. The only difference is that writing a book might take three or four years, and I’m doing it. I never wrote a line until after I became an editor, and only then because I wanted to read something that I couldn’t find. That was the first book I wrote.


- Toni Morrison, on working with editor Robert Gotlieb, from Gotlieb's Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.


as an orange is final


Pati Hill: What did you first write? 

Truman Capote: Short stories. And my more unswerving ambitions still revolve around this form. When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium. 

Hill: What do you mean exactly by “control”? 

Capote: I mean maintaining a stylistic and emotional upper hand over your material. Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence— especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I don’t mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all. 

Hill: How does one arrive at short-story technique? 

Capote: Since each story presents its own technical problems, obviously one can’t generalize about them on a two-times-two-equals-four basis. Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right. 

Hill: Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique? 

Capote: Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. Even Joyce, our most extreme disregarder, was a superb craftsman; he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners. Too many writers seem to consider the writing of short stories as a kind of finger exercise. Well, in such cases, it is certainly only their fingers they are exercising.

- Truman Capote, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.


a touching faith


Bob has an uncanny knack for putting his finger on that one sentence, or that one paragraph, that somewhere in the back of your mind you knew wasn’t quite right but was close enough so that you decided to worry about it later. Then you forgot about it, or you convinced yourself that it was okay, because it was too much trouble to change. He always goes right to those places. It’s an instinct. He and I share a belief that if you take care of all the tiny problems in a piece, all that small attention will somehow make a big difference. Sometimes I think that’s just a touching faith of ours, and that, in fact, nobody ever notices whether, say, you use the same word twice in a paragraph. At other times, I’m convinced that the details are all that matter.

- Charles McGrath, on working with editor Robert Gotlieb, from Gotlieb's Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.


stand on our shit-hill and hope it will grow

In my early thirties I saw myself as a Hemingwayesque realist. My material: the time I'd spent working in the oil fields of Asia. I wrote story after story out of that material, and everything I wrote was minimal and strict and efficient and lifeless and humor-free, even though, in real life, I reflexively turned to humor at any difficult or important or awkward or beautiful moment.

I had chosen what to write, but I couldn't seem to make it live...

Having gone about as high up Hemingway Mountain as I could go, having realized that even at my best I could only ever hope to be an acolyte up there, resolving never again to commit the sin of being imitative, I stumbled back down into the valley and came upon a little shit-hill labeled "Saunders Mountain."

"Hmm," I thought. "It's so little. And it's a shit-hill."

Then again, that was my name on it.

This is a big moment for any artist (this moment of combined triumph and disappointment), when we have to decide whether to accept a work of art that we have to admit we weren't in control of as we made it and of which we are not entirely sure we approve. It is less, less than we wanted it to be, and yet it's more, too - it's small and a bit pathetic, judged against the work of the great masters, but there it is, all ours. 

What we do at that point, I think, is go over, sheepishly but boldly, and stand on our shit-hill, and hope it will grow.

And - to belabor this already questionable metaphor - what will make that shit-hill grow is our commitment to it, the extent to which we say, "Well, yes, this is a shit-hill, but it's my shit hill, so let me assume that if I continue to work in this mode that is mine, this hill will eventually stop being made of shit, and will grow, and from it, I will eventually be able to see (and encompass in my work) the whole of the world."

- George Saunders, from his essay "The Heart of the Story" in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.


tragedy doesn't exist any more

On the whole I do feel that comedy is the only form left. The reason why comedy looks so odd is that tragedy doesn't exist any more, it doesn't resonate - no one's going to believe in it any more. So comedy is having to take on all the real ills, the refugees from other genres. The original butts of comedy used to be buffoonery, pretension, pedantry, but now they have to include murder and child abuse, the decay of society. Dickens, a comic writer of another age, dealt with his villains by either tritely punishing them or improbably converting them. But the old schema no longer work. We know that evil isn't necessarily punished any more than good is necessarily rewarded. I think now we can deal with iniquity only be sneering and laughing it off the stage. It's all you can do because you know that in real life it's not going to be converted or punished, it will go on. There's a lovely bit of Nabokov in one of his lectures where he said: You do no punish the criminal in his armchair by having a conspirator tiptoe up behind him with a pistol; you punish him by watching that little finger of his probing in a profitable nostril. You watch him picking his nose, that's how you get your own back as a writer. You use ridicule, not an obsolete machinery of punishment and conversion because that just doesn't convince any more.


 - Martin Amis, in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel. As published in More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel. 


"The Junta of Happenstance" by Tolu Oloruntoba

Tolu Oloruntoba's debut poetry collection The Junta of Happenstance was published in May by Palimpsest Press. I'm thrilled to help bring the book a little more fully into the nearly-post-COVID world by having him read with me (and Dallas Hunt and Shaun Robinson) at the August "Strangers Summer Series" event (a free outdoor event, though advance registration is required). 

In a recent interview for Prism International, Tolu (rather delightfully) said:
A poem is never done. You either get it published or you keep editing it whenever you stumble on to it, until you die. I often replace words or edit small aspects of poems that have been published, when I have to read them publicly. There’s always something that could be said better, often because of the clarity that time away from the work builds. Having said this, I often sense I am done with the poem when I get a sigh-like feeling, a feeling like I have said all I could say at the time, as well as I could say it, while being faithful to what I had in mind.

Here's a poem from the book, "Co-exist", which was clearly long-edited but also contains that sigh-like feeling of accomplishment:

Co-exist - Tolu Oloruntoba

Africans never presume to count another’s children,
so we don’t know how many they had, the family
ours moved in with, each sidestepping the other.
Mostly. Avoidance was respect: night was their time,
the musical clan tapdancing ceiling boards to pipes,
and winching squeaks from plumbing, chorus stars
above, cosmic dust, pointilist, in sifted asbestos below.
You would go into their kitchen at night for water
and see their conspiracy scattering, snooker balls
struck by light, darting stragglers huffing for the pocket
hole. Easy, having nibbled their doors under ours,
thoroughfare through the house and gourmet gougings
of bread, each mousehole ornate. Losing their shyness,
we occasionally met at dusk, their whiskers tightrope
lances measuring the abyss of air on either side,
sifting our intention, teaching the resonance of mice:
while the world continues to build ours at the edge,
to wrench our microcosm from potential space.

That "sifted asbestos"!  Those "darting stragglers huffing for the pocket / hole"! Tolu's poetry is alive with sound, and so much more, as his press summarises nicely:
Personal, primordial, and pulsing with syncopated language, Tolu Oloruntoba’s poetic debut, The Junta of Happenstance, is a compendium of dis-ease. This includes disease in the traditional sense, as informed by the poet’s time as a physician, and dis-ease as a primer for family dysfunction, the (im)migrant experience, and urban / corporate anxiety. In the face of struggles against social injustice, Oloruntoba navigates the contemporary moment with empathy and intelligence, finding beauty in chaos, and strength in suffering. The Junta of Happenstance is an important and assured debut.

Do pick up a copy of the book, either online from the Palimpsest Press website, or from your local bookstore, or in person on Wednesday, April 11th from Tolu himself!


Tolu Oloruntoba is the author of the Anstruther Press chapbook Manubrium. His poetry has appeared in Pleiades, Columbia Journal, Entropy, and other publications, and his short fiction has appeared in translation in Dansk PEN Magazine. He founded Klorofyl, a magazine of literary and graphic art, and practiced medicine before his current work managing projects for health authorities in British Columbia. After a somewhat itinerant life in Nigeria and the United States, he emigrated to the Greater Vancouver Area, where he lives with his family.


the first steps are made

John Berger: ... we are today less familiar than most men and women in other centuries with this emotion of pity.

Eleanor Wachtel: Given that we probably live in a time when it's perhaps most called for, why?

Berger: I think that's very complicated and something that is changing. I think the banishment of that emotion - if one can call it that - which dominated perhaps two centuries of European thought, is now over. The problem with pity as it is something understood, is that, okay, so you feel pity, and that means, having felt pity, you can sit back and do nothing. So it becomes a kind of cop-out. But that's a defamation of the idea, not of the idea, but of the faculty, because it is a part of what constitutes human nature. It is maybe the first action of the imagination, and is something that is extremely basic to human nature. One sees it in all children, everywhere. Children identify with those around them, with animals, even with their toys, with the characters in their stories, completely. This is the first act of imagination, to at least make the steps towards getting into somebody else's skin. It is not achievable, of course; it would be very sentimental to say that. But the first steps are made. In my opinion this is where not only ethics begins but also art.


- John Berger, in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel. As published in More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel.