16 November 2009

Writing Advice from Cormac McCarthy

The Wall Street Journal just ran an excellent interview with the seldom-interviewed Cormac McCarthy, and I thought this advice was particularly sound:
WSJ: The last five years have seemed very productive for you. Have there been fallow periods in your writing?

CM: I don't think there's any rich period or fallow period. That's just a perception you get from what's published. Your busiest day might be watching some ants carrying bread crumbs. Someone asked Flannery O'Connor why she wrote, and she said, "Because I was good at it." And I think that's the right answer. If you're good at something it's very hard not to do it. In talking to older people who've had good lives, inevitably half of them will say, "The most significant thing in my life is that I've been extraordinarily lucky." And when you hear that you know you're hearing the truth. It doesn't diminish their talent or industry. You can have all that and fail.

I was struck, too, by this:
CM: I'm not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.
Oh, Cormac! Aspire! I've spent up to six years on a single story! The possibilities for suicidal ideation as an obsessive short story writer are vastly greater than those of an obsessive novelist -- imagine years spent on twenty pages rather than hundreds! And then the struggle to just get, say, 5 cents a word for that story, if you can get paid at all! Cormac, baby, stop being such a wuss!

It's also clear that Mr. McCarthy has never encountered Big Fat Fantasy:
WSJ: Does this issue of length apply to books, too? Is a 1,000-page book somehow too much?

CM: For modern readers, yeah. People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you're going to write something like "The Brothers Karamazov" or "Moby-Dick," go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don't care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.

The interview is long and fascinating, well worth the time to read it.

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