August 2006 interview with Jack Cui for the Seoul Korea Times
Dear Jack Cui:
I’m pleased to be able to answer these questions for your Seoul newspaper. They strike me as intelligent and probing and, as you can see, they caused me to go on at greater length than you can possibly use. I suggest, therefore, that you feel free to cut and edit what follows in whatever way you find suitable. All best, John
John L’Heureux Interview
Part A: Writing as a Career
1. You are a well-established novelist. What appealed to you about writing fiction in the first place? When and how did you get started?
I began writing poetry rather than fiction. As a young man I had always wanted to write, and I worked hard at finding an appropriate form for expressing myself, but with no real success. Then, when I was nearly twenty, I discovered I was able at last to sustain the tone and substance of a short lyric poem that depended completely on a single sensibility and a single point of view. My first three poems were published in rapid succession and after that, since I seemed able to do it, I wrote poetry exclusively. My first four published books were poetry—Quick As Dandelions, Rubrics for a Revolution, One Eye and a Measuring Rod, No Place for Hiding—although I would have preferred to write fiction. When I turned 30, I decided to spend three months trying to write a novel, just for the fun of doing it, and in that time I wrote a draft of what became my first novel, Tight White Collar. After I finished that first draft, I put it aside for some years, during which I found it quite easy to write short fiction. Many of these stories were published in Family Affairs in 1973 and since that time I have written both novels and short stories but no poetry at all.
2. Out of the thousands of ideas, images, etc, that you encounter in the course of a lifetime, how do you choose what becomes the basis for a novel? How does a novel “gather” for you?
That’s a wonderful question and I wish I could answer it, but of course I cannot. The “gathering” of a novel, as you nicely put it, remains a mysterious process even to the gatherer. At this point in my life—after some dozen novels—I’ve come to think that for me a novel depends on the collision of a character, an idea, and a set of circumstances. The novel, Having Everything, came to me first when I was contemplating our then President Clinton—a man who indeed had everything—but whose personal behavior seemed almost deliberately calculated to wreck his career. Several other things occurred to me around the same time: that this phenomenon of self-destruction can be found in many, many lives, that even in the greatest public servant there is always some fatal flaw, that ambition by itself seems to have within it the seeds of its own destruction (think of Coriolanus, think of Macbeth), that education and sophistication affect character less than we think, and then—on a perfectly practical level—it occurred to me that there might be an essential connection between one’s profession and the way in which one destroys oneself: as if a psychiatrist—who invades people’s minds—were instead to break into their houses. Once I’d reached this final, practical point, seemingly by accident, I had the start—the given—of my novel. Now this is a rational, indeed rationalized, way of thinking about creation, and so it’s true only in the most general sense. Still, it’s a way of thinking about how things come together to make a book. The mind cross-pollinates feelings and intuitions with concrete ideas and a fictional something is the result: a story or a novella or a novel.
3. Is there a “most pleasant” part of the process?
Yes, when I have reached that moment—usually around p. 70 or 80—when I’m convinced this thing will turn into a novel after all.
4. Flannery O’Connor said, “Anybody who has survived . . . etc.” How did your childhood give you the kind of information you needed to become a writer?
Even as a child I had the feeling of being an outsider, not really belonging to the pack. This made me a watcher and a performer from a very young age. It’s probably not a very healthy way to grow up but it did provide me with lots of material. And it’s interesting that Flannery O’Connor advises you that—if you want to learn to write—you must first learn to see.
5. Do you write because there is something you want the world to know? Or because there’s something you wish to know for yourself?
The latter. I always begin with questions—“what if a person like this were put in a position like that?”—and then I depend on my awareness of human character and human possibilities to direct the inquiry. I write to understand what I am dealing with, never to explain it.
6. In his letter to a fiction writer, Richard Bausch said . . . “ people continue writing because their work has become necessary.” What pushes you to do it again and again?
I think I try novels again and again because (1) this time I’ll do it better, (2) there is a whole new moral issue I wish to investigate, (3) the joy of invention—of making a good thing where before there was nothing—is a constant invitation to work. Also, what alternative is there for a writer except to write?
7. Material. What is yours and how would you identify it?
My material, I have come to think, is what happens when men and women are pushed to the edge of moral possibility. How do they act? React? What is in them that asserts itself in such a way as to make or unmake them as moral human beings? These are basically theological issues. For obvious reasons, my subject matter, my material, is not popular and—alas, alas—never can be. People don’t want to come home after a hard day’s work and examine the nature of their own and others’ moral fiber. But that’s what interests me and what seems most important to me.
8. What do you find yourself always going back to?
I hope I never go back to anything specific. I think I do continue to explore the freedom we exercise in choosing how to live. And there are infinite variations on the posing of this problem.
9. Some novelists say that writing novels teaches them something they needed to know. Is that true of you? What did each novel teach you?
If that’s true, it’s something I’ve never thought about. At the end of a novel, I never feel I’ve learned anything particular. I do feel that I have struggled hard to understand something essentially mysterious; that is, accepting the fact that major issues in life remain a mystery, I have tried to shed light on that mystery and gradually intensify the light and tighten its circumference until, at the end, the reader feels NOT “now I understand” but the contrary: “this very point of light is what truly matters and this is what we will never understand.” I’m sorry if this sounds willfully obscurantist. But I come back over and over to the fact that none of us really comprehends love or hate or desire or the terror of being truly alone. And love, hate, and desire are endlessly fascinating. Aloneness is something else.
10. F. Scott Fitzgerald said there must be a “peasant in every novelist.”
I think what Fitzgerald meant was that the writer must approach human life with reverence and with his head and feet bare. When you become too grand to deal with even petty emotions, you’re too grand to be a fiction writer. The writer, at his best, does not judge right or wrong so much as simply present what is true. I wonder what Fitzgerald considered to be the “peasant” in himself?
11. Has the process changed for you over the years?
Yes, it has. I am more willing now to proceed into uncharted emotional and psychological territory, trusting that my instincts will see me through. I worry less about creating a palpable world and more about creating a palpable, engaging, difficult, contradictory character under the pressures of his existence. I find I still write with too much compression, coldness, and intensity. Some things never change.
12. How do you think about your work in the world? What does being a successful novelist mean?
Well, I never think of my work as out there in the world except when somebody writes me a note saying that what I’ve written has mattered to them. Surprisingly, this happens often enough to be quite encouraging. As you know, I’m not rich or famous, but I don’t consider either money or fame as necessary to success. My success, if I have any, lies in having written a lot of books and having been lucky enough to have them published. I have a small audience of intelligent, committed readers who care about the things I care about and write about. Since my work is relentlessly theological, I find it amazing that anyone at all cares about it and I’m grateful that they do.
Part B: Concrete Writing
1. Do you know the shape of a novel before you begin it?
I think that the shape of the novel is the one thing I do know from the start: that is to say, I don’t begin writing until I have the shape of the book in mind. I knew, for instance, that The Shrine at Altamira would be in four long sections, with the burning of the child halfway through and the redemptive nightmare as the natural culmination of the novel. And in The Miracle, I sensed even before I began writing that the miracle must occur at the beginning of the book, leaving me a couple hundred pages to explore its consequences in the lives of ordinary people who have no time or explanation for miracles. Some novels, like An Honorable Profession, which is 600 pages in manuscript, I knew would need short chapters to allow me to explore the lives of a great number of characters by moving with ease and economy from one group to another. And in my two comic novels—The Clang Birds and Handmaid of Desire—I knew that a light touch and swift movement were absolutely essential to the structure. This sense of form may be the result of my having written poetry for so long, since the form of a poem is as much as part of its life as the language itself. For me, the same is true of the novels I write.
2. Plot, how do you define and develop it?
I don’t think at all about plot. I begin with an initial situation that is full of potential conflict and I just let all those conflicts work themselves out. As they do, the plot itself unfolds. Naturally I run into obstacles along the way; resolving those conflicts serves to make the plot seem tighter and the events inevitable.
3. Your use of first-person omniscient breaks a fundamental rule of fiction. How do you know you can get away with it?
I’ve never written in first-person omniscient. I most often write in third-person omniscient that allows me to move in so close to individual characters that although I’m actually writing in third person, it seems limited to the specific character’s point of view. I find that this way I get the sweep and authority of omniscience and simultaneously the immediacy and conviction of first person. Muriel Spark works this way, as does Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates and many others, including a lot of young writers in my workshops.
4. How do you choose point of view?
More than most writers, I stick with third-omniscient and third-limited point of view. I almost never write in the first person, though I have done so. (“Maria Luz Buenvida,” for instance.) First person is very limiting to a writer; you can’t get into other people’s hearts and minds; it does, however, possess an authority and immediacy that are unarguable. I’ve always thought that a first person account by Judas Iscariot could make interesting reading, but the gimmicky nature of the enterprise has kept me from trying it.
5. How do characters “grow” in your mind?
I find that a character grows on the page rather than in my mind. When you reach that pleasant moment when a character does or says something totally unexpected but which strikes you as absolutely right, you’ve probably got the start of a fully-rounded character. (By fully-rounded I mean to imply only that he can carry the burden of my thought without being thought of as embodying it.) I feel more secure about characters’ credibility—especially if they’re basically good—once I’ve given them something ugly that I find in myself. This keeps characters honest and keeps me from becoming too fond of them.
6. How do you create separate time frames? Do you go back and forth as you write about the future and the past.
No, I never move back and forth. I begin at the start and work steadily forward until the end. Sometimes I have to go back to a chapter to put something in, but the writing itself proceeds from first to last page. I’ve heard of people who write scenes that will happen later in the book, but I can’t imagine how they keep the reader’s (and writer’s) sense of discovery alive in cases like that. Even in a book like Jessica Fayer, a study in the perdurance of personality throughout a woman’s long life—the book covers seventy years—I wrote from page one through to the end.
7. Do you ever experience writer’s block? Or do you ever have to break the whole book down and come at it in a completely different way?
I’ve never had writer’s block, thank God, though of course it’s always difficult to write well; in fact, it’s difficult to write at all. As for breaking a book down, yes, I have done that with a book called Lies. It took me five years to write, and perhaps for that reason, I’ve kept it, despite my dislike for it. In fact, when my dislike was merely disappointment, I sold it to Godine Press, who reneged on the contract, and later sold it for a good bit of money to Viking along with A Woman Run Mad, a book they decided to publish first. As I wrote more books, they published those and Lies was put on indefinite hold. After Shrine when I was obliged to leave Viking, I left with the manuscript still unpublished and I was very glad of that. It lies today in the Stanford library among my papers, but I may yet decide to destroy it before my death. Only my wife’s insistence that I not do so has kept me from pitching it out. I suspect every writer has such an aborted attempt among his papers.
8. Can you talk about the gap between the novel as imagined and as actually written?
I know what you mean, but the only difference I find is that in my imagination the novels are a glowing possibility and, once written, they are generally less satisfying products of a great deal of work and hope. Except in a few instances—The Shrine at Altamira, for one—the magic aura surrounding them has disappeared for me.
9. How do you approach revision?
I write two pages a day, Saturday and Sunday excepted. That is to say, I try to turn out two completely finished pages. I spend several hours at the computer making those 600 words as trenchant and as truthful as I can. Like all writers who work this way, I move forward two pages and move back one, with sometimes a spurt of several pages at a single try. After a couple months, I take a break of a week or so, a break usually imposed upon me by the business of getting through life. Most of my revision consists of adding things that I’ve left out in my desire not to bore or exhaust my reader’s patience. This is certainly not an efficient way to work, but it’s the way I began and I still find I can’t leave behind me a sentence I know I can improve upon. (This is true only of fiction writing; it’s not true of letters, interviews, or emails.) Once I have finished a book—and it takes me a long time—the revision process usually takes no more than a few weeks. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve learned to settle for one page a day . . . or even an acceptable paragraph.
Part C: Teaching and Training Novelists
1. In the past years you have taught at Harvard, Georgetown, Tufts, and Stanford. Is it difficult for you both to teach and write? How does teaching feed your own process? What is the upside of teaching writing?
Many years ago I taught at Harvard, Georgetown, and Tufts for brief periods. Bur for the past 31 years—since 1973–I’ve taught here at Stanford. As you know, the Stanford Writing Program is, with Iowa, one of the pre-eminent writing programs in the country. At any one time we have only ten fiction writers in the program and they are very experienced, very advanced young people whose average age is about 33 or so. Teaching them is a matter of asking questions about their intentions and suggesting ways of dealing with those intentions. It’s the easiest kind of teaching because they are eager for only one thing: to become the best writers they can be.
Over the years teaching has sharpened my ability to talk about how fiction “works” and when it “works” more or less effectively. Teaching doesn’t feed my process; on the contrary, it uses up the same kind of energy I need for writing, hence I never write fiction except during the breaks from teaching. Fortunately Stanford gives me nearly 30 weeks per year for writing and so I do manage to keep on.
The upside of writing programs is seeing good writers become very good indeed, and often more commercially successful than any of us who teach in the program.
2. What are the attributes of the novelist? How do you define talent? What should one have to be a writer?
I don’t know how to answer this. It’s certain that all the good novelists I know have a great ability to see and to feel, they are not afraid of hard work or failure or indifference, and they keep on with their work even when things go very badly. They are not egomaniacs, but they are very daring and very willing to take risks. They live relatively quiet and private lives. They are often neurotic and not usually as nice as one could wish. I include myself in this description.
3. Can novel writing be taught?
No. Neither can painting, sculpture, or ballet. But all artists study and what they study is craft. Craft can be taught in a workshop. And if, as a student, you bring genius to the workshop, you’re well ahead of the game.
4. What would you say to a student who asked you if he had talent?
I’d say I don’t know. Then I’d go on to indicate what I thought about his abilities as I’ve perceived them and what I think he might do to help them grow. Incidentally, this is a question that people with genuine talent never ask. Part of the writer’s talent, I think, is the ability to go on working without the assurance that he or she is the real thing. We can draw on our insecurities for the energy to write.
5. How do you help students discover their best material?
Usually in private conversation I work around to what engages them most deeply, what issues in their writing haunt them in their lives as well, what makes them proud and what makes them ashamed . . . insofar as this is pertinent to their writing, of course. Most students recognize their strongest material when they get to a place in their writing where they want to hold back honest feeling and present instead something that seems to them more socially acceptable.
In fact, the issue rarely arises as a question. Mostly I just emphasize how well they write about certain topics. With the right material, a honed sense of craft, and a fund of natural talent, they are bound to succeed . . . by which I mean merely that they will write well, an accomplishment that often has nothing to do with fame, fortune, or praise in the New York Times.