Questions For The Author

Author Jonathan Franzen, in the essay “On Autobiographical Fiction,” part of his 2012 collection Farther Away, writes that whenever a novelist gives a public talk or reading, he or she is invariably asked four “unpleasant questions.” They are, he writes “apparently the price we have to pay for the pleasure of appearing in public.”

The four questions are:

1) Who are your influences?

2) What time of day do you work, and what do you write on?

3) I read an interview with an author who says that at a certain point in writing a novel, the characters “take over” and tell him what to do. Does this happen to you, too?

4) Is your fiction autobiographical?

I’ve been to a few readings/book signings over the years (not my own … but with real authors), and I can verify that yes, these four questions or close approximations are usually asked. And I can see why an author wouldn’t like them, particularly when repeated night after night.

But I’m going to confess that at one time or another, I probably would have asked the same questions, had I gotten up the nerve to stand up and ask something. I’ll go even further to say that the one that authors probably find the most banal is the question I’m most interested in. That would be No 2, about the author’s working hours and habits. Of the four questions, Franzen gave the least amount of space—one paragraph—to dispatch that one, although his answer does include one of the best lines I’ve ever read about the work of writing:

When I’m working, I don’t want anybody else in the room, including myself.

OK, I don’t really care what time an author works, and I don’t care if he writes longhand which word processor he uses (although years ago, I was fascinated by the choice-of-word-processor questions). But what I’m curious about is the process of writing: how the author can get himself into the frame of mind in which he can create characters and stories out of nothing. Because I’ve dabbled in that a little bit myself once or twice over the years, and man, is it tough. When one is leading a real-world life, it’s hard to imagine being able to create fictional lives.

So there must be some secret to it, and we wannabes have to show up at all the readings to try and get the authors to give it up.

As for the time-of-day question, I think this author probably has the right idea. She jumps in to writing the first thing in the morning, after only breakfast and coffee, and without letting any newspapers, television or Internet to get between her and the words. I’ve not read any of Roxana Robinson’s fiction, but I think I’ll give her a try this year.

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