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Original Essays

It's in the Book

by Jim Fergus
  1. "Fergus (One Thousand White Women) makes unforgettable characters move against vivid landscapes in this laudable encore." Publishers Weekly
  2. The Wild Girl: The Notebooks of Ned Giles, 1932
    $37.25 New Hardcover add to wishlist

  3. One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
    $6.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "[A] long, brisk, charming first novel....impressive historical, terse, convincing, and affecting." Kirkus Reviews
Although I have certainly done a fair amount of it myself, in general I kind of disapprove of novelists blathering on about their work — their influences, inspirations, methods, ideas, intentions, work schedules... blah, blah, blah. It seems to me that this kind of deconstruction undermines the whole purpose of fiction, which is to create it's own stand-alone world, one requiring no further elaboration or explanation. And while I've always been interested in the artifice of art, I think the actual mechanics of the process are better left in the shadows, or at the very least to someone other than the author to attempt to illuminate — in the same way that we don't want the stage magician to reveal his tricks, or see the puppeteer working his strings. For this reason, I've always admired writers like B. Traven, who not only wrote under a pseudonym but also closely guarded the secret of his true identity. Of course, the man born Ret Marut in Germany had political reasons for fleeing to Mexico and changing his name. But the fact remains that to the world he released only his novels, and that was enough. That was plenty.

Indeed, the whole notion of novelists holding forth to the public about their lives and work, divulging information that was once largely the stuff of private letters to intimates, is a relatively recent phenomenon, and can be traced to the same cultural roots as our nation's insatiable appetite for true confessions, celebrity gossip, literary memoirs, and reality television. This is, after all, the age of full disclosure. And it's certainly not because we, as a nation, have become more honest, open, or intellectually curious; quite the contrary, if anything we've just grown lazier, and unequivocally nosier; we want everything laid bare, all the ugliest secrets and most banal details revealed. We don't want mystery, we want explanation, and it doesn't much matter if that explanation is inadequate, simplistic, even downright false. Yes, better a complete fabrication than no explanation at all. This represents, I believe, a collective national failure of imagination. How else to explain the fact that we elected George W. Bush president, not once, but twice. But now I digress into another area that should be avoided by novelists outside of their novels. In fact, I am increasingly of the opinion that novelists should just shut up and write their books. We are not only largely unequipped for the role of talking heads, but mostly unqualified for it as well. What we're good at (or, at least, supposed to be) is making stuff up.

Some years ago, I spent several days on the set of the film, A River Runs Through It for a piece I was writing for Outside magazine. The director, Robert Redford, told me about the several trips he had made to Chicago, first to secure the rights from the famously irascible author of the novella, Norman Maclean, and later to try to flesh out the story for his screenplay. Redford wanted some background information about the author's brother, Paul, the tragic hero of the piece, but every time he asked Maclean for further details, Maclean would only tap the cover of his collection with his forefinger and say, "It's in the book." When Redford pressed him further, the old man would tap the book harder, and repeat more insistently, "It's in the book." Even though, in fact, the information Redford was after wasn't in the book.

In our own time, I'm told that Cormac McCarthy refuses all interview requests, does not make public appearances, give readings, or participate in any of the promotional business of the book industry. He just writes his novels. Although I envy this artistic purity, he is, after all, Cormac McCarthy, and the rest of us aren't. The rest of us are out there pounding the streets, shamelessly hawking our wares, spilling our guts at the slightest provocation. Indeed, a recent piece in a national newsmagazine about the relatively new phenomenon of publishers sending authors out on "pre-sell" tours in order to meet booksellers, actually compared this novelist to a traveling salesman — the iconic Willy Loman, in fact. Hah! I don't take offense. It is the reality of our world, and certainly our country (and always has been), that art walks hand-in-hand with commerce. Most of us write our novels to be read, not to be put away in a trunk somewhere and discovered posthumously. That won't pay this month's electric bill. At the same time, my publisher (Hyperion) went to a lot of time, effort, and expense to publish my novel, and I'm hardly going to take the position that I'm too pure an artist to involve myself in the commercial or promotional aspects of the business.

Perhaps you've noticed by now that I've managed to write this entire essay without once mentioning my new novel, The Wild Girl: The Notebooks of Ned Giles, 1932. That is very poor marketing on my part, but honestly, I don't know what to say about it. Because, of course, everything I have to say is in the book. But maybe I'll see you out on the road on my author's tour, or maybe I'll meet with your reading club, which I frequently do, because I enjoy talking to readers. And, please, feel free to ask me anything you want, anything at all. If I don't have a good answer to your question, or for some reason, just don't want to answer it, I'll make something up. It's my job. spacer

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