After finishing John Ashberry's Paris Review Interview, I debated which of the two Philips - Philip Larkin and Philip Roth - I should read next. I figured instead of another poet, I'll pick the author first. And what a pleasure this interview with Roth has been so far.
Here's the start!
Interviewer (Hermione Lee): How do you get started on a new book:And so on... lovely interview. Unfortunately, I just realized that the entire interview is not at the link above. (I am reading this in a book as I find it very tedious to read long articles/interviews online.) Parts of the interview are available here (p 162), thanks to Google Books, if you are really interested in some more excerpts.
Roth: Beginning a book is unpleasant. I'm entirely uncertain about the character and the predicament, and a character in his predicament is what I have to begin with. Worse than not knowing your subject is not knowing how to treat it, because that's finally everything. I type out beginnings and they're awful, more of an unconscious parody of my previous book than the breakaway from it that I want. I need something driving down the center of a book, a magnet to draw everything to it - that's what I look for during the first months of writing something new. I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there's a paragraph that's alive. Okay, I say to myself, that's your beginning, start there; that's the first paragraph of the book. I'll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I'll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn't come to more than one page, but if I'm lucky, that's the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play come the crises, turning against your material and hating the book.
I: How much of a book is in your mind before you start?
Roth: What matters most isn't there at all. I don't mean solutions to problems, I mean the problems themselves. You're looking, as you begin, for what's going to resist you. You're looking for trouble. Sometimes in the beginning uncertainty arises not because the writing is difficult, but because it isn't difficult enough. Fluency can be a sign that nothing is happening; fluency can actually be my signal to stop, while being the dark from sentence to sentence is what convinces me to go on.
I: Must you have a beginnig? Would you ever begin with an ending?
Roth: For all I know I am begininning with the ending. My page one can wind up a year later as page two hundred, if it's still even around.
I: What happens to those hundred or so pages that you have left over? Do you save them up?
Roth: I generally prefer never to see them again.
I: Does your reading affect what you write?
Roth: It's a way of keeping the circuits open. It's a way of thinking about my line of work while getting a little rest from the work at hand. It helps inasmuch as it fuels the overall obsession.