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Writers on

Six writers—Michael Dibdin, Bobbie Ann Mason, Peter Nichols, David L. Robbins, George Saunders and Susan Richards Shreve—answer the central question: Why write?

Michael Dibdin,
author of Thanksgiving

For me, at least, writing is never satisfying, because whatever you do is never as good as you feel it ought to be. Knowing when to stop is a matter of knowing when to give up. Someone said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. The same goes for novels, whether they're packaged for sales purposes as "literary" or "mystery." But Thanksgiving stretched me in a way I've never been stretched before, and it wasn't altogether pleasant. Reaching your limits as a writer is like reaching the top of a mountain where the air is thin: the sense of accomplishment is rewarding, and the view is great, but it's hard to breathe and you start to panic.


I think we're living in a "Silver Age," as regards all the arts. In other words, we're very accomplished, very knowing, and very ironical, but with a strong understreak of disgust at our essential shallowness and inability to cut to the quick. We live in a post-everything culture, and hate it. And since you get no marks for trying in art, only for succeeding, maybe it's a good time to be a mystery writer. Richard Strauss once said that while he may not have been a first-class composer, he was a first-rate second-class composer. Maybe that's all we can aspire to. Raymond Chandler went to his death with the job description "mystery writer;" now he's published by the Library of America.

Click here to read the complete WAG interview with Michael Dibdin.

Bobbie Ann Mason,
author of Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail

The stories take longer for me to write now. The early ones were bursts of inspiration, reckless plunges, followed by intense reworking and shaping. But as I learn more about stories, they get more difficult, harder to manage, less conducive to the reckless. I think as the sensibility deepens, the deeper are the possibilities that occur in the writing of the story. But that makes them harder to pull off. I don't mean precisely that the critical faculties get in the way; it's more like the imagination is biting off more than it can chew.


Usually, there is some little bit of something that sparks a story. Usually, it is the sound of something: a few words, maybe. It may not end up being in the story that evolves. It has to agitate my curiosity and resound in my mind—an image or sound that repeats and begs attention.

Click here to read the complete WAG interview with Bobbie Ann Mason.

Peter Nichols,
author of A Voyage for Madmen

I find the sea to be a perfect crucible. It's a place where people are stripped of all the pretence they normally use or rely on in life ashore, and without it, in that spare and elemental place, they find themselves face to face with who and what they really are. This happened to me, and it seems to happen to the people I write about, real or imaginary.

There are so many books I admire and love to read—Richard Ford's Independence Day, James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime—but I seem to be able to write only my own thing my own way. Although I'm writing some quite different fiction and nonfiction now, but it still feels unalterably mine, as in what I'm burdened with and must write....

Click here to read the complete WAG interview with Peter Nichols.

David L. Robbins,
author of The End of War

When I sit down to research a book and certainly to write a book—which is one word, one thought at a time—it's humbling. It mounts very slowly. I mean, you work your fingers down to the bone and your spirit down to a nub for a month and you've got forty pages. The temptation to walk away never goes away.


I don't allow myself the luxury of enjoying what I do. Because enjoying it would almost make it finite. At such point when writing becomes unenjoyable, I might stop doing it. So I really don't allow myself the luxury of determining whether I'm having fun. This is my destiny. It's what I do. I'm proud enough to say it's my gift. I'm not going to subject it to the minutiae of whether or not I enjoy it. It is profound to me. That goes so much deeper than enjoyment.

Click here to read the complete WAG interview with David L. Robbins.

George Saunders,
author of Pastoralia

We would all like to think that doing our best work will also benefit us in the physical world, but history is full of people who did amazing work and never got a break in life, and, conversely, people who did sucky work and lived like kings and died never knowing their work was bad. There are also, of course, those who did great work and lived like kings. And there are those most rare of birds, those who did great work, had the means to live like kings, but instead spent their time and energy benefiting other beings. So let us aspire to be part of the last class, cautious not to be part of the second class, and willing to be part of the first if necessary.

Click here to read the complete WAG interview with George Saunders.

Susan Richards Shreve,
author of Plum & Jaggers

I suppose I write because I love it. I think you write to make a connection. I think that is why you read, too, is to connect. It's the old E. M. Forster, 'only connect.' I'm never conscious of a reader when I'm writing, I'm really conscious of myself as my own reader. But when a book is out there, it gives me such enormous pleasure to feel that someone has not so much liked it, but gotten it. We all go through life feeling that nobody gets us; that teenage feeling that nobody understands you does continue. The sense of being understood and having an opportunity and creating a world that might be better understood is terrifically satisfying. Beyond which, it is pretty nice to wake up in the morning and say, "Well, this is what I wanted to do today," and do it.
There is no part of the process I don't like, except the publishing. The writing, the re-writing, the criticism—I really love it all.

One of the things about being a mother and a writer is that we have to be very economical about our time. And so a lot of work happens in our mind while we are doing other things. I remember when I watched [my son] Porter starting to write, I was appalled and embarrassed because it seemed to me that he was sitting at the desk all day. I never do it for more than two hours. And that's because he had the time to work all day. And I think that makes it—if I sat all day, and had a bad day, then I would hate writing.

Click here to read the complete WAG interview with Susan Richards Shreve.

Posted February 1, 2002




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