Over a lot of years I had received a number of rejection slips for earlier manuscripts for short stories, and longer and longer stories. But when I had finished the first novel I had much hope for, The Butcher's Boy, I wrote to agents rather than publishers. I had an alphabetical list from
the Authors' Guild, and the one who replied positively was the late Lurton Blassingame. So whoever was in the A's, and the early B's rejected my book before he got it.
Have you ever thrown away a book you just couldn't make work?
I haven't actually thrown away a book I couldn't make work. I put them in a closet, where they gather dust. I would say that's happened about four times. Lots of dust in there by now.
Is it still exciting to publish a book after all this time?
It is still exciting to publish a book after all this time--thirty years or more. I get impatient to see what other people think of it--will they "get" it? (Some do, some don't). Will it sell well? (I suspect the differences over the years are probably not huge). It's always a bit of a gamble in many ways, but I still enjoy it.
Do you get ideas for new books all the time and you keep them written down, or does one come to mind when you need one?
I do get ideas for new books all the time. I sometimes, but don't usually, write them down. But I do keep them in mind until I find an idea that I think is worth laboring and fussing over for a year. Then I forget the others for a while.
Do you know how a book/series is going to end when you begin it?
I don't have entire story arcs mapped out, except in my mind after I've written the book. Then certain things about the next book in the series are established, and I have to live with them. I'm not a big outliner. What I've found is that when you write an outline it contains the best ideas you've had over a period of two or three days. When you don't write an outline, your book includes the best ideas that come to you over a much longer period, sometimes a year or more.
When I begin a book I know the general area of concern and I know who will be standing up at the end. I don't let myself make too many irrevocable decisions too early.
Why do you write?
I think telling stories is a basic human activity, related in some ways to dreaming, and in other ways to children's role-playing games. I think a writer "becomes" each of the people in the story, and mentally acts out their parts in it, just as an oral storyteller does. During that work period (or maybe play period, or dream period), he's definitely somewhere else, in the characters' world.
When I worked in television and got to see actors every day, I noticed that all of them want to do everything. They want to be the good guy, the bad guy, and the victim. They want to make people laugh, cry, fear, and think. I think writers want to do everything too. We're limited by
the short period of time we have to keep at it. I would like to write every kind of book I haven't written yet.
Is there anything about your writing career you'd change?
I don't think I'd change my writing career much. I haven't been one of the most popular, but I've done okay and sent my kids to good schools and driven cars that start when I turn the key. I've always given myself the freedom to write whatever I wanted, which is not true of friends of
mine who are wildly big sellers. My parents, who were teachers, said do what you like best, and there will be enough money. So far, we haven't missed any meals.
What do you like best about writing, and what do you like least?
I like being able to make a living with nothing but a piece of paper and a pen. What I like least is having to make a living with nothing but a piece of paper and a pen.
If you could have written any single work – novel, screenplay, stage play, poem, history, biography – that you most admire and adore, what would it be?
Any single work? I suppose I would have liked to write Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! which is probably the best meditation on storytelling that I've ever read. But to do it I'd have had to write everything else he wrote too--The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, Go Down, Moses. That's a lot to ask without earning it.
Anything you’ve always wanted to be asked about your writing but no one ever has?
There's nothing I've wanted asked but haven't been. People have always been better at questions than I've been at answers.
Thanks very much for your kindness and hospitality at the store. It was a real pleasure.