Andrew Gifford of the Santa Fe Writers Project joined Richard Currey in January 2003 for a conversation about the writing life: “musical” composition, the genetic need for stories, Currey’s “holistic” view of literature’and superstition.
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GIFFORD: There seems to be a long time between your books’several years. Can you talk about your process of composition?
CURREY: Any piece of writing tends to follow the dictates of a writer’s imagination, fueled by a composite of forces: memory and personal history, along with the small but persistent notions in the back of the mind. And then there are the larger contexts for story-making, like locale, period, and the general nature of the tale. It can take a while for all these factors to find their balance. But there’s often other more mundane factors at play. Like what else is going on in a writer’s life. What other work is at hand at any given time. What personal or family situations are in play. I remember the author Frank Conroy’s response when he was asked why so much time elapsed between two of his books’he said he’d ‘been out doing errands.’ I’ve always admired that answer: there can be a lot involved in the ‘errands’ of life.
GIFFORD: Some writers clearly need more time to create their books than others do, and it’s interesting to have insight into how different processes go into the making of books.
CURREY: I’ve talked before in other interviews about writing in what I call a ‘musical’ way’improvising into a story or a character. Not unlike a composer at the piano, starting from a basic idea and looking for the correct series of notes, but also the colorations and chording that’if the work is going well’can give a story its power, its echo.
GIFFORD: So you don’t outline or structure the piece beforehand?
CURREY: Sometimes I do. Or try to. But I’ve found, in my own work at least, that once I start a piece from notes or a rough outline that new ideas occur and characters suddenly decide they’re going to do or say something I hadn’t planned for them. So, more often than not, I don’t outline. This approach can be wonderful and surprising’or frustrating and quite slow. Or all of that at once.
GIFFORD: You’ve written topical nonfiction and journalism as well as your fiction. How do the two literary forms intersect’or do they?
CURREY: In a certain sense, writing is writing. I can be as swept away in creating a piece of nonfiction as I am working on a story or a novel. And the skills of a novelist are very useful in nonfiction, particularly building a storyline and pacing the piece. Of course, from a technical perspective, nonfiction has moved much closer to fiction over the last 20 years in its use of narrative, compelling stories, character, as well as often making the writer of the piece a very present and sometimes quite colorful character in the story’as opposed to simply being a reportorial observer.
GIFFORD: It’s been argued that ‘creative nonfiction’ is now our dominant literary form. That the novel is a weaker force in general.
CURREY: Apparently the ones making that argument haven’t been talking to Stephen King. But, yes, when we’ve got talents like Richard Rhodes and Terry Tempest Williams and Diane Ackerman and John McPhee at work, it might be easy to think that nonfiction has eclipsed fiction. But I think attempts to create either/or dichotomies in literature’or any art form, for that matter’are essentially spurious and empty. I love the work of many writers, all of whom write widely and variously, and are traditionally identified with a number of genres and styles. I draw inspiration and instruction from all of their work. It would never occur to me to say that any one is ‘better’ than all of their peers. It’s silly to compare, for example, Elmore Leonard and Joyce Carol Oates. Yet both are masters. Writing is far too complicated to fit on the head of any particular pin.
GIFFORD: So your literary philosophy is holistic?
CURREY: A nice way to put it. To further that, I might add that the entire fiction-nonfiction argument reflects a pervasive point about reading and writing: people want story. We all want story. It’s an organic need, wired into our blood. If you read much anthropology, it seems that after humans had taken care of food, shelter, and relative safety we went after art, and notably art involving some sort of narrative. We made pictures that told’or symbolized’stories. We made up stories about the stories. We acted out the stories. We sang the stories. We danced them. In the most fundamental sense, storytelling is primal, an ongoing attempt to explain ourselves and either find meaning in our lives, or create that meaning. And, of course, we entertain ourselves along the way.
GIFFORD: Do you think of yourself as an entertainer?
CURREY: Sure. Granted, the majority of my fiction is ‘serious,’ hinging on situations that are in no way laughing matters, but it’s useful to remember the roots of the word ‘entertainment.’ From the Middle English and the Old French’I looked this up once a few years ago’the derivative of ‘entertain’ meant ‘to maintain and hold together.’ So ‘entertainment’ was that which engaged, maintained interest, and, by ‘holding together,’ diverted, informed, interpreted, influenced’and from there you have it all, the gamut of human emotion. I’m reminded here of a remark made by William Kennedy about Faulkner, that, despite the sadness and darkness in much of Faulkner’s stories, his prose and his respect for his characters and their world offers a kind of exaltation. It is actually exaltation that we come away with after reading The Sound and the Fury or Light in August. The language and emotion carries us away ‘ and what could be more entertaining, more engaging than that? Shakespeare knew it: he packed theaters with plays wallowing in fear, deceit, violence, degradation, and insanity. And at the end of Macbeth or Hamlet or King Lear we sit stunned. And exalted.
GIFFORD: What do you make of the enormous interest in writing right now?
CURREY: I always wonder if interest in writing is any greater than it ever was’or we just know more about everything that’s going on these days. In any event, I have to think it’s a good thing. The plethora of how-to workshops and weekend screenplay retreats and writing-as-therapy programs speak to a number of useful purposes, not just improving the national ability to write better sentences. If out of this we get remarkable new poems, novels, plays, or movies, that’s obviously good. But if people also discover ways to balance their lives and be more at home in their skins and this wide and complicated world, that, too, is welcome.
GIFFORD: An obligatory question: what’s next for you?
CURREY: I’m excited about a stageplay I’m working on that is based, to some extent, on my book Crossing Over. The idea came out of discussions with Jim Petosa, who is artistic director of the Potomac Theatre Project and heads the theater program at Boston University. This will not be simply a direct adaptation but rather a theater piece inspired and fueled by the books. And I’m at work on a new novel. But I have a pact with my self: I don’t talk about fiction in the making.
CURREY: It’s more a case of keeping my inner sense of a book or story clean and sharp while it’s unfolding. I learned long ago that, for me at least, talking out a piece before it’s written dilutes its power and direction. But, then, that’s what superstition is, right? Understanding there are inner rhythms and unspoken rules that must be acknowledged even if they’re not understood.
Andrew Gifford is Director of the Santa Fe Writers Project.