Crazy Fascinating Interview with Bob Shacochis

Like August Wilson and his plays, Shacochis is a novel-a-decade kind of writer. The reviews are saying his latest is well worth the wait. I haven’t read The Woman Who Lost Her Soul yet but I certainly will, especially having heard him read from it a couple weeks ago at the local reading series.

The LA Review of Books recently published an epic-length email interview about the epic. Here is one of my favorite bits:

Q: Could you say something about how the book’s structure evolved? Every time I think you’ve pushed a scene as far as it can possibly go — you find a way to push it one step farther. In the process more layers of character are revealed. How deliberate is this?

A: The explanation for the structure is a bit dramatic — perhaps psychodramatic would be the more accurate description. The novel is divided into five interior books, and as I was closing in on the finish of Book One, I had to confront — for genuine medical reasons — the likelihood that I was about to die. Accepting that outcome, I decided to create a sense of closure around the denouement of Book One. Even though the narrative closure is misleading and downright false, Book One could still be published autonomously should I indeed croak. That sword of impending death was still hanging over me by the time I wrote Books Two and Three. If I died, Grove Atlantic would still be able to publish my unfinished work as finished. One novella — Croatia — and two small novels. By the time I was working on Books Four and Five, the medical crisis had passed, and I had every reason to believe I wasn’t dying quite yet, which means I was free to go ahead and write those last two books without fretting that they needed to close in a way that was a full stop, narratively speaking. That’s the simple explanation for why the book is structured the way it is. I was looking at eternity, trying to hedge my bets.

Whoa.

Margaret Atwood & Hope

…if you don’t value people you don’t wish to communicate with them. And any writing is a form of communication, just as any writing is a form of hope.

Because think of what you’re hoping for: you’re hoping, number one, that you’ll finish whatever it is you’re writing; number two, that it will be comprehensible; number three, that your message will somehow reach another human being; number four, that they will open that bottle that’s washed up on the shore, and they will take out the message, and they will be able to read it; and number five, that they will be able to comprehend it and derive meaning from it. And that’s a pretty long list of hopes.

This quote comes from the end of an interview Margaret Atwood gave with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s show, BOOKWORM. For most of the interview, they talked about her latest book, Maddaddam, the third of a trilogy.

If you are a writer and unfamiliar with this show, I highly recommend you start downloading the podcasts. You can listen to the whole interview here.

Some thoughts:

Atwood’s words remind me of what I’ve started to call the “Stevie Wonder Principle:” It’s not a religion, people. It’s a relationship.  Writing can become, quite fast, a religion.  We have our ceremonies (prizes, readings, book signings), and rituals (turning off the internet, staring at a blank page and staying put until something comes, listening to podcasts of author interviews), and there are several denominations (or genres and poetry schools). We have our leaders whose approval we might, if we’re not careful, depend on too much.

Nonetheless, like what Atwood says here, it’s important to go back to the very core of why we do what we do: to communicate with people.  Once we start to sacrifice the “relationship” for “religion,” our writing becomes self-indulgent, mean, without any sort of redemption, hard to stomach, and, you know, corrupted by the same thing that corrupts all religions: greed.

All of that aside, it was nice to hear that Margaret Atwood express a need for hope in order to write what she writes, despite the fact that in the hierarchy of writers, she’s probably pretty close to the Vatican. Writing is always a process, no matter who we are or what we’ve written.