Can you describe a typical writing day?
I don’t really have a typical writing day. I try and create a space for writing and try to clear the day of other things I have to do. I like to write longhand, so when I’m talking about working on the computer, that’s at a later stage. So it’s quite easy to find a quiet place—you can write anywhere if all you need is a notebook and a pen. Also, I tend to use two notebooks now, copying things from one page of a notebook to another, if the insertions and deletions become too thick. If I can keep that going for a few hours, then that’s a good day. I think a thousand words is a good number to do in a day. You have your writing days and your rewriting days, and there are days where things go more slowly than others.
You do sometimes feel like a bit of a fool if you’re spending all that time working on one sentence, but sometimes that’s what you have to do. I’ve introduced this new thing now into my working regime which is yet another notebook. I have this whole set of notebooks. There’s a notebook for the plan of the book. There’s the notebooks where I’m writing. Also, I now keep a writing diary. If you’re writing, and you come across some problem, some sentence doesn’t seem to be working and you can’t quite think why, and you stop and you think about it and you analyse the sentence, when you’ve reached your conclusion then you make a note in the diary about why it is this might not be working. To stop and break down a sentence or a bit of grammar in that way, I find very useful.
What do you struggle with and what comes easier to you, in terms of your writing process?
It is strange how the things that people sometimes respond most to are the things that were easiest to write. But also sometimes you can have a felicity in some particular kind of writing that is not necessarily to your advantage. I mean it comes easily, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. I find that there’s a great deal of dialogue in my books, and I would like there to be less. And I think generally speaking, there is too much dialogue in modern fiction. It’s often superfluous, and it gets away from the business of actual storytelling. I feel that I am gradually taking everything out of my books apart from the storytelling. I’ve become wary of lush topographical description, I’ve become wary of dialogue, I’m starting to wonder what comes next. Just action? You have narrative, you have reflection, you have dialogue—it’s pretty easy to break prose up into its constituent varieties. And I think narrative is not hard to write, but it’s very hard to write well. So I’d say I find it easy to write narrative badly, but hard to write it well.
How do the processes of writing journalism, novels, and short stories differ?
There’s a convergence between fiction and nonfiction as you go on, because when you start your piece of fiction, you can write absolutely anything. When you start a piece of journalism, you can’t, because the world’s already the way the world is. Whereas as you go on in your fiction, you’ve already set some parameters, and those parameters become tighter and tighter as you go on. You start as an architect and you end up as a builder, which is more what a journalist does. But there are so many different kinds of journalism. Most writers are journalists in some way or another. Most writers are not reporters, which is a slightly different kind of thing. It’s about how you are working with reality. It’s a difference between the true and the actual. Because there may be truths which you cannot actualize except by reassembling reality in another shape.
As someone you started writing at an early age, do you have any advice for young writers?
It’s a criticism of writers, especially young writers, that they are self-conscious. You know, when somebody says, ‘I found his writing very self-conscious,’ it’s usually in a pejorative sense. I know what they mean by that, but a more conscious way of writing is I think is actually necessary and beneficial. Think about what you are doing. This is sort of negative advice from my own experience, because I just went on and did it. And I did not think enough about it. And I should have allowed the writers that I admired to be my teachers in a way that I did not. Without losing the inspiration and the flow and the joy of it all—you can write under sustained inspiration for hours— when you look back on what you have done, be very critical and don’t think that just because you’ve done it, it’s done.
Your most recent novel, The Heart Broke In, encompassed so many different themes and characters. What was it like writing something so complex?
Well, it was difficult. You do have to take practical steps when you have a multi-perspective novel. For The People’s Act of Love, I made a grid. In that book, you have access to the points of view of different characters in turn, and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t skewing it one way or another towards a particular character, so I wanted to colour representation of how much time I’d spent with each one. But with The Heart Broke In, the grid was a lot more complicated. It was very useful. I couldn’t really have kept track of it otherwise. And at one point, I really thought, ‘James, you’ve screwed up here, it’s not possible that this can happen before that, but if that happens before that, then it doesn’t make sense!’ I got over it in the end.
The Heart Broke In is concerned with ideas of morality, where we get our sense of right and wrong in a post-religious world. What guides you in your life to make the right decision?
It was useful in the writing of that book to come to a deeper understanding of where we get our sense of right and wrong from. Some of the characters in the book come to feel that the nature of our sense of right and wrong is actually the needs of other people. It’s that context that drives us, and our virtue, or lack of it, is a reflection of how sensitive we are, and the kind of sacrifices that we’re prepared to make for other people, and the degree to which we can imagine what other people are experiencing. If you are alone in a moral universe, there is no moral universe.
Who are the artists who you most admire?
J. M. Coetzee is an inspiration in a number of ways. He’s a brilliant writer. I like his style very much, his spare, elusive style. You have a feeling that he’s not making any allowances for himself, that he still, in spite of everything, feels a great tenderness towards his characters. There is a great deal of compassion in Coetzee, no matter how incredibly cruel some of his writing can be. But also, he lives a model life of quiet and self-denial, in terms of what he eats, and he doesn’t drink. The third thing about Coetzee is his rigorous analysis of language. His style comes out of a very profound understanding on every level, linguistics, grammar, whatever, of the English language, of the meta-language. To work towards that kind of understanding is something that I intend to do.
I’m a huge admirer of Tolstoy, and I came to realize when I was writing The Heart Broke In what a complex and interesting writer he is, and how mysterious the processes at work in an apparently conventionally-written novel are. While reading Anna Karenina again, and thinking about this, I realized that the modernists in English literature got the wrong end of the stick. Language is already a surreal expressionist form. It doesn’t need to go to a further degree of distortion in order to make it look superficially like a literary Jackson Pollock. It’s already in the nature of language that it is only partly representational and partly symbolic, and partly some other mysterious thing which we haven’t quite grasped or articulated yet. Most of all, it is a means of expressing and storing time, which is its unique capability.