I’m going to begin by addressing four unpleasant questions that novelists often get asked. These questions are apparently the price we have to pay for the pleasure of appearing in public. They’re maddening not just because we hear them so often but also because, with one exception, they’re difficult to answer and, therefore, very much worth asking.
The first of these perennial questions is: Who are your influences?
Sometimes the person asking this question merely wants some book recommendations, but all too often the question seems to be intended seriously. And part of what annoys me about it is that it’s always asked in the present tense: who are my influences? The fact is, at this point in my life, I’m mostly influenced by my own past writing. If I were still labouring in the shadow of, say, EM Forster, I would certainly be at pains to pretend that I wasn’t. According to Harold Bloom, whose clever theory of literary influence helped him make a career of distinguishing “weak” writers from “strong” writers, I wouldn’t even be conscious of the degree to which I was still labouring in EM Forster’s shadow. Only Harold Bloom would be fully conscious of that.
Direct influence makes sense only with very young writers, who, in the course of figuring out how to write, first try copying the styles and attitudes and methods of their favourite authors. I personally was very influenced, at the age of 21, by CS Lewis, Isaac Asimov, Louise Fitzhugh, Herbert Marcuse, PG Wodehouse, Karl Kraus, my then-fianceé, and The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. For a while, in my early 20s, I put a lot of effort into copying the sentence rhythms and comic dialogue of Don DeLillo; I was also very taken with the strenuously vivid and all-knowing prose of Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon. But to me these various “influences” seem not much more meaningful than the fact that, when I was 15, my favourite music group was the Moody Blues. A writer has to begin somewhere, but where exactly he or she begins is almost random.
It would be somewhat more meaningful to say that I was influenced by Franz Kafka. By this I mean that it was Kafka’s novel The Trial, as taught by the best literature professor I ever had, that opened my eyes to the greatness of what literature can do, and made me want to try to create some myself. Kafka’s brilliantly ambiguous rendering of Josef K, who is at once a sympathetic and unjustly persecuted Everyman and a self-pitying and guilt-denying criminal, was my portal to the possibilities of fiction as a vehicle of self-investigation: as a method of engagement with the difficulties and paradoxes of my own life. Kafka teaches us how to love ourselves even as we’re being merciless toward ourselves; how to remain humane in the face of the most awful truths about ourselves. The stories that recognise people as they really are – the books whose characters are at once sympathetic subjects and dubious objects – are the ones capable of reaching across cultures and generations. This is why we still read Kafka.
The bigger problem with the question about influences, however, is that it seems to presuppose that young writers are lumps of soft clay on which certain great writers, dead or living, have indelibly left their mark. And what maddens the writer trying to answer the question honestly is that almost everything a writer has ever read leaves some kind of mark. To list every writer I’ve learned something from would take me hours, and it still wouldn’t account for why some books matter to me so much more than other books: why, even now, when I’m working, I often think about The Brothers Karamazov and The Man Who Loved Children and never about Ulysses or To the Lighthouse. How did it happen that I did not learn anything from Joyce or Woolf, even though they’re both obviously “strong” writers?
The common understanding of influence, whether Harold Bloomian or more conventional, is far too linear and one-directional. When I write, I don’t feel like a craftsman influenced by earlier craftsmen who were themselves influenced by earlier craftsmen. I feel like a member of a single, large virtual community in which I have dynamic relationships with other members of the community, most of whom are no longer living. By means of what I write and how I write, I fight for my friends and I fight against my enemies. I want more readers to appreciate the glory of the 19th-century Russians; I’m indifferent to whether readers love James Joyce; and my work represents an active campaign against the values I dislike: sentimentality, weak narrative, overly lyrical prose, solipsism, self-indulgence, misogyny and other parochialisms, sterile game-playing, overt didacticism, moral simplicity, unnecessary difficulty, informational fetishes, and so on. Indeed, much of what might be called actual “influence” is negative: I don’t want to be like this writer or that writer.
The situation is never static, of course. Reading and writing fiction is a form of active social engagement, of conversation and competition. Indeed – and I’ll say more about this later – it’s impossible for me to write a new novel without first finding new friends and enemies. To start writing The Corrections, I befriended Kenzaburo Oe, Paula Fox, Halldor Laxness, and Jane Smiley. With Freedom, I found new allies in Stendhal, Tolstoy, and Alice Munro. For a while, Philip Roth was my new bitter enemy, but lately, unexpectedly, he has become a friend as well. I still campaign against American Pastoral, but when I finally got around to reading Sabbath’s Theater its fearlessness and ferocity became an inspiration. It had been a long time since I’d felt as grateful to a writer as I did when reading the bit where Mickey Sabbath’s best friend catches him in the bathtub holding a picture of the friend’s adolescent daughter and a pair of her underpants, or the scene in which Sabbath finds a paper coffee cup in the pocket of his army jacket and decides to abase himself by begging for money in the subway. Roth may not want to have me as a friend, but I was happy, at those moments, to claim him as one of mine. I’m happy to hold up the savage hilarity of Sabbath’s Theater as a correction and reproach to the sentimentality of certain young American writers and not-so-young critics who seem to believe, in defiance of Kafka, that literature is about being nice.
The second perennial question is: What time of day do you work, and what do you write on?
This must seem, to the people who ask it, like the safest and politest of questions. I suspect that it’s the question people ask a writer when they can’t think of anything else to ask. And yet to me it’s disturbingly personal and invasive. It forces me to picture myself sitting down at my computer every morning at eight o’clock: to see objectively the person who, as he sits down at his computer in the morning, wants only to be a pure, invisible subjectivity. When I’m working, I don’t want anybody else in the room, including myself.
Question No. 3 is: 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?
This one always raises my blood pressure. Nobody ever answered it better than Nabokov did in his Paris Review interview, where he fingered EM Forster as the source of the myth about a novelist’s characters “taking over”, and claimed that, unlike Forster, who let his characters sail away on their passage to India, he himself worked his characters “like galley slaves”. The question obviously raised Nabokov’s blood pressure, too.
When a writer makes a claim like Forster’s, the best-case scenario is that he’s mistaken. More often, unfortunately, I catch a whiff of self-aggrandisement, as if the writer were trying to distance his work from the mechanistic plotting of genre novels. The writer would like us to believe that, unlike those hacks who can tell you in advance how their books are going to end, his imagination is so powerful, and his characters so real and vivid, that he has no control over them. The best case here, again, is that it isn’t true, because the notion presupposes a loss of authorial will, an abdication of intent. The novelist’s primary responsibility is to create meaning, and if you could somehow leave this job to your characters you would necessarily be avoiding it yourself.
But let’s assume, for charity’s sake, that the writer who claims to be the servant of his characters isn’t simply flattering himself. What might he actually mean? He probably means that, once a character has been fleshed out enough to begin to form a coherent whole, a kind of inevitability has been set in motion. He means, specifically, that the story he originally imagined for a character often turns out not to follow from the lineaments of the character he’s been able to create. I may abstractly imagine a character whom I intend to make a murderer of his girlfriend, only to discover, in the actual writing, that the character I’m able to make actually work on the page has too much compassion or self-awareness to be a murderer. The key phrase here is “work on the page”. As Flannery O’Connor famously said, the fiction writer does whatever she can get away with – “and nobody ever got away with much”. Once you start writing the book, as opposed to planning it, the universe of conceivable human types and behaviours shrinks drastically to the microcosm of human possibilities that you contain within yourself. A character dies on the page if you can’t hear his or her voice. In a very limited sense, I suppose, this amounts to “taking over” and “telling you” what the character will and won’t do. But the reason the character can’t do something is that you can’t. The task then becomes to figure out what the character can do – to try to stretch the narrative as far as possible, to be sure not to overlook exciting possibilities in yourself, while continuing to bend the narrative in the direction of meaning.
Which brings me to perennial question No. 4: Is your fiction autobiographical?
I’m suspicious of any novelist who would honestly answer no to this question, and yet my strong temptation, when I’m asked it myself, is to answer no. Of the four questions, this is the one that always feels the most hostile. Maybe I’m just projecting that hostility, but I feel as if my powers of imagination are being challenged. As in: “Is this a true work of fiction, or just a thinly disguised account of your own life? And since there are only so many things that can happen to you in your life, you’re surely going to use up all of your autobiographical material soon – if, indeed, you haven’t used it up already! – and so you probably won’t be writing any more good books, will you? In fact, if your books are just thinly disguised autobiography, maybe they weren’t as interesting as we thought they were? Because, after all, what makes your life so much more interesting than anybody else’s? It’s not as interesting as Barack Obama’s life, is it? And also, for that matter, if your work is autobiographical, why didn’t you do the honest thing and write a non-fiction account of it? Why dress it up in lies? What kind of bad person are you, telling us lies to try to make your life seem more interesting and dramatic?” I hear all of these other questions in the question, and before long the very word “autobiographical” feels shameful to me.
My own strict understanding of an autobiographical novel is one in which the main character closely resembles the author and experiences many of the same scenes that the author experienced in real life. My impression is that A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, Villette, The Adventures of Augie March, and The Man Who Loved Children – all of them masterpieces – are substantially autobiographical in this regard. But most novels, interestingly, are not. My own novels are not. In 30 years, I don’t think I’ve published more than 20 or 30 pages of scenes drawn directly from real-life events that I participated in. I’ve tried to write a lot more pages than that, but these scenes rarely seem to work in a novel. They embarrass me, or they don’t seem interesting enough, or, most frequently, they don’t seem quite relevant to the story I’m trying to tell. Late in The Corrections, there’s a scene in which Denise Lambert – who resembles me to the extent of being a youngest child – tries to teach her demented father how to do some simple stretching exercises, and then has to deal with his having wet the bed. That actually happened to me, and I took a number of the details straight from my life. Some of what Chip Lambert experiences when he’s with his father in the hospital also happened to me. And I did write an entire short memoir, The Discomfort Zone, which consists almost entirely of scenes that I experienced first-hand. But that was non-fiction, and so I ought to be able to answer the perennial autobiography question with a resounding, unashamed NO. Or at least to answer, as my friend Elisabeth Robinson does, “Yes, seventeen per cent. Next question, please?”
The problem is that, in another sense, my fiction is extremely autobiographical, and, moreover, that I consider it my job as a writer to make it ever more so. My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life. This conception, again, I take from Kafka, who, although he was never transformed into an insect, and although he never had a piece of food (an apple from his family’s table!) lodged in his flesh and rotting there, devoted his whole life as a writer to describing his personal struggle with his family, with women, with his Jewish heritage, with moral law, with his Unconscious, with his sense of guilt, and with the modern world. Kafka’s work, which grows out of the night-time dreamworld in Kafka’s brain, is more autobiographical than any realistic retelling of his daytime experiences at the office or with his family or with a prostitute could have been. What is fiction, after all, if not a kind of purposeful dreaming? The writer works to create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning. And work like Kafka’s, which seems to proceed directly from dream, is therefore an exceptionally pure form of autobiography. There is an important paradox here that I would like to stress: the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life. The deeper the writer digs for meaning, the more the random particulars of the writer’s life become impediments to deliberate dreaming.
And this is why writing good fiction is almost never easy. The point at which fiction seems to become easy for a writer – and I’ll let everyone supply his or her own examples of this – is usually the point at which it’s no longer necessary to read that writer. There’s a truism, at least in the United States, that every person has one novel in him. In other words, one autobiographical novel. For people who write more than one, the truism can probably be amended to say: every person has one easy-to-write novel in him – one ready-made meaningful narrative. I’m obviously not talking here about writers of entertainments, not PG Wodehouse or Elmore Leonard, the pleasure of whose books is not diminished by their similarity to one another; we read them, indeed, for the reliable comforts of their familiar worlds. I’m talking about more complicated work, and it’s a prejudice of mine that literature cannot be a mere performance: that unless the writer is personally at risk – unless the book has been, in some way, for the writer, an adventure into the unknown; unless the writer has set himself or herself a personal problem not easily solved – it’s not worth reading. Or, for the writer, in my opinion, worth writing.
This seems to me all the more true in an age where there are so many other fun and inexpensive things a reader can do besides picking up a novel. As a writer, nowadays, you owe it to your readers to set yourself the most difficult challenge that you have some hope of being equal to. And if you do this, and you succeed in producing a reasonably good book, it means that the next time you try to write a book, you’re going to have dig even deeper and reach even farther, or else, again, it won’t be worth writing. And what this means, in practice, is that you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you already are already wrote the best book you could. There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself. Without, in other words, working on the story of your own life. Which is to say: your autobiography.
So how do you become the person who can write the book you need to write? I recognise that by talking about my own work, and telling a story of my progress from failure to success, I run the risk of seeming to congratulate myself or of seeming inordinately fascinated with myself. Not that it’s so strange or damning if a writer feels proud of his best work and spends a lot of time examining his own life. But does he also have to talk about it? For a long time, I would have answered no, and it may very well say something bad about my character that I’m now answering yes. But I’m going to talk about The Corrections anyway, and describe a few of the struggles I had to become its author. I will note in advance that much of the struggle consisted – as I think it always will for writers fully engaged with the problem of the novel – in overcoming shame, guilt, and depression. I’ll also note that I’ll be experiencing some fresh shame as I do this.
The first thing I had to do in the early 90s was get out of my marriage. Breaking the oath and the emotional bonds of loyalty is rarely an easy thing for anyone to do, and in my case it was particularly complicated by my having married another writer. I was dimly aware that we were too young and inexperienced to be making a lifetime vow of monogamy, but my literary ambition and my romantic idealism prevailed. We got married in the fall of 1982, when I had just turned 23, and we set about working as a team to produce literary masterworks. Our plan was to work side by side all our lives. It didn’t seem necessary to have a fallback plan, because my wife was a gifted and sophisticated New Yorker who seemed bound to succeed, probably long before I did, and I knew that I could always take care of myself. And so we both proceeded to write novels, and we were both surprised and disappointed when my wife couldn’t sell hers. When I did sell mine, in the fall of 1987, I felt simultaneously excited and very, very guilty.
There was nothing for us to do then but start running, to various towns and cities on two continents. Somehow, amid all the running, I managed to write and publish a second novel. The fact that I was having some success while my wife was struggling to write her own second novel I attributed to the general injustice and unfairness of the world. We were a team, after all – it was us against the world – and my job as a husband was to believe in my wife. And so, instead of taking pleasure in my accomplishments, I felt angry and bitter with the world. My second novel, Strong Motion, was an attempt to convey how it felt to be the two of us living in that bitter world. Looking back, although I’m still proud of that novel, I can now see the ways in which its ending was deformed by my wishful thinking about my marriage: by my loyalty. And it only made me feel guiltier that my wife didn’t see it this way herself. She once claimed, memorably, that I had stolen from her soul to write it. She also asked me, fairly enough, why my main female characters kept getting killed or severely wounded by gunfire.
Nineteen-ninety-three was the worst year of my life. My father was dying, my wife and I had run out of money, and we were both increasingly depressed. Hoping to get rich quick, I wrote a screenplay about a young couple, very much like the two of us, who start committing burglaries together, almost have affairs with other people, but end up blissfully united in a triumph of eternal love. By this point, even I could see that my work was being deformed by my loyalty to the marriage. But this didn’t stop me from plotting a new novel, The Corrections, in which a young midwestern man like myself goes to prison for 20 years for a murder committed by his wife.
Fortunately, before my wife and I ended up killing ourselves or somebody else, reality intervened. This reality took several forms. One was our undeniable inability to tolerate living together. Another was the handful of close literary friendships I finally made outside my marriage. A third form of reality, the most important of all, was our pressing need for money. Since Hollywood didn’t seem interested in a screenplay that reeked of Personal Issues (and that bore a fatally strong resemblance to Fun With Dick and Jane), I was forced to start doing journalism, and before long the New York Times assigned me to write a magazine piece about the parlous state of American fiction. While researching this piece, I got to know some of my old heroes, including Don DeLillo, and I became aware of belonging not just to the two-person team of me and my wife but to a much larger and still-vital community of readers and writers. To whom, as I discovered, crucially, I also had responsibilities and owed loyalty.
Once the hermetic seal on my marriage had been broken in these ways, things fell apart quickly. By the end of 1994, we each had our own apartment in New York and were finally leading the single lives we probably should have had in our 20s. This ought to have been fun and a liberation, but I was still feeling nightmarishly guilty. Loyalty, especially to family, is a foundational value for me. Loyalty unto death had always given meaning to my life. I suspect that people less encumbered by loyalty have an easier time being fiction writers, but all serious writers struggle, to some extent, at some point in their lives, with the conflicting demands of good art and good personhood. As long as I was married, I’d tried to avoid this conflict by remaining technically anti-autobiographical – there’s not a single scene drawn from life in either of my first two novels – and by constructing plots that were preoccupied with intellectual and social concerns.
When I went back to writing The Corrections, in the mid-90s, I was still working with an absurdly over-complicated plot that I’d developed while trying to work safely within my loyalty. I had many reasons to want to write a Big Social Novel, but probably the most important was my wish to be all intellect, all worldly expertise, so as to avoid the messy business of my private life. I tried for another year or two to keep writing that Big Social Novel, but eventually it became apparent, from the less and less deniable falseness of the pages, that I would have to become a different kind of writer to produce another novel. In other words, a different kind of person.
The first thing that had to go was the novel’s main character, a man in his mid-30s named Andy Aberant. He’d been a fixture of the story from the very beginning, when I’d imagined him in jail for a murder his wife had committed, and he’d since undergone numerous metamorphoses, finally ending up as a lawyer for the United States government, investigating cases of insider stock trading. I’d written about him in third person and then, at great length, and with absolutely no success, in first person. Along the way, I’d taken several long, enjoyable vacations from Andy Aberant in order to write about two other characters, Enid and Alfred Lambert, who’d appeared out of nowhere and were not unlike my parents. The chapters about them had poured out of me quickly and – compared with the torture of trying to write about Andy Aberant – effortlessly. Since Andy wasn’t the Lamberts’ son and, for complicated plot reasons, couldn’t be their son, I was now trying to invent even more complicated ways to tie his story to theirs.
Although it’s obvious to me now that Andy didn’t belong in the book, it was anything but obvious at the time. I’d spent a number of really bad years of marriage becoming intimately and encyclopedically acquainted with depression and guilt, and since Andy Aberant was defined by his depression and guilt (especially regarding women, and especially regarding women’s biological clocks), it seemed unthinkable not to make use of my hard-won knowledge and keep him in the book. The only problem was – as I wrote again and again in my novel notes – I couldn’t see the humour in him. He was creepy and self-conscious and remote and depressing. Almost every day, for seven months, I struggled to write some Andy pages that I liked. Then, in my notes, for another two months, I wrestled with whether or not to give him the boot. What exactly I was thinking and feeling during all these months is no more accessible to me now than the misery of the flu is after I’ve recovered from it. I only know that what finally gave me the resolve to lose him was 1. sheer exhaustion, 2. a general lifting of my depression, and 3. a sudden easing of my guilt about my wife. I still felt plenty guilty, but I’d achieved enough distance from her to see that I was not to blame for everything. And I had lately fallen for a woman who was slightly older, which, ridiculous though it may sound, made me feel less villainous for having left my wife childless in her late 30s. My new friend came out from California and spent a week with me in New York, and at the end of that extremely happy week I was ready to recognise that Andy Aberant had no place in the book. I drew a little tombstone for him in my notes and gave him an epitaph from Faust II: “Den können wir erlösen.” I honestly don’t think I understood what I meant then in saying, “Him we can redeem.” But it makes sense to me now.
With Andy gone, I was left with the Lamberts and their three grown children, who’d been haunting the novel’s margins all along. To become writable, the story had to undergo many further contractions and subtractions, and it took me a full year to overcome the shame I felt about the strangeness of my personal history – to learn to embrace the strangeness, rather than try to hide it.
Much of this shame became concentrated in the character of Chip Lambert. In the last days of my marriage, I’d had a brief relationship with a young woman I’d met when I was teaching. It was a very awkward and unsatisfactory relationship, a relationship that I now literally writhed with shame to think about, and for some reason it seemed necessary to incorporate it into Chip’s story. To make his situation plausible, I kept trying to invent a back story for him that bore some resemblance to my own, but I couldn’t stop hating my own innocence. I was haunted by the ghost of Andy Aberant, haunted also by two early novels of Ian McEwan, The Innocent and The Comfort of Strangers, both of which were so powerfully icky that I’d wanted to take a hot shower after reading them. They were my prime example of what I didn’t want to write but couldn’t seem to help writing.
Two things that people said to me that year stand out in particular. One was said by my mother, on the last afternoon I spent with her, when we knew she was going to die soon. I wanted to reassure her that, strange though my life might look to her, I was still going to be OK after she was gone. Late in the afternoon she nodded and said, in a kind of vague summation: “Well, you’re an eccentric.” This was, partly, her best effort to recognise and forgive who I was. But the statement was mainly, in its almost dismissive tone, her way of saying that it finally didn’t matter to her what kind of person I was. That what mattered most to her now was her own life, which was about to end. And this was one of her last gifts to me: the implicit instruction not to worry so much about what she, or anybody else, might think of me. To be myself, as she, in her dying, was being herself.
The other really helpful comment came from my friend David Means. “You don’t write through shame,” he said, “you write around it.” I still couldn’t tell you exactly what David meant by these contrasting prepositions, but it was immediately clear to me that those two early McEwan novels were examples of somebody writing through shame, and that my task, with Chip Lambert, was to find some way to to isolate and quarantine shame as an object, ideally as an object of comedy, rather than letting it permeate and poison every sentence.
I’d like to conclude by saying more about my problem with loyalty, which persisted even after I’d escaped from my marriage. The problem arose particularly in the writing of the chapter about Gary Lambert, who bore a certain superficial resemblance to my oldest brother. There was, for example, Gary’s project of assembling an album of his favourite family photographs: my brother was involved with a project like that himself. And since my brother is the most sensitive and sentimental person in my family, I didn’t see how I could use details from his life without hurting him and jeopardising our good relations. I felt afraid of his anger, guilty about laughing at real-life details that weren’t funny to him, disloyal to be airing private family matters in a public narrative, and all-around morally dubious to be appropriating, for my own professional purposes, the private life of a non-writer. These were all reasons I’d resisted “autobiographical” fiction in the past. And yet the details were too meaningful not to use, and it wasn’t as if I’d ever concealed from my family that I was a writer listening carefully to everything they said. So I went around and around and finally ended up discussing the matter with a wise older friend of mine. To my surprise, she became angry with me and reproached me for my narcissism. She said, “Do you think your brother’s life revolves around you? Do you think he’s not an adult with a life of his own, full of things more important than you are? Do you think you’re so powerful that something you write in a novel is going to harm him?”
All loyalties, both in writing and elsewhere, are meaningful only when they’re tested. Being loyal to yourself as a writer is most difficult when you’re just starting out – when being a writer hasn’t yet given you enough of a public return to justify your loyalty to it. The benefits of being on good terms with your friends and family are obvious and concrete; the benefits of writing about them are still largely speculative. There comes a point, though, when the benefits begin to equalise. And the question then becomes: am I willing to risk alienating somebody I love in order to continue becoming the writer I need to be? For a long time, in my marriage, my answer to this was no. Even today there are relationships so important to me that I’m at pains to write around them, rather than through them. But what I’ve learned is that there’s potential value, not only for your writing but also for your relationships, in taking autobiographical risks: that you may, in fact, be doing your brother or your mother or your best friend a favour by giving them the opportunity to rise to the occasion of being written about – by trusting them to love the whole you, including the writer part. What turns out to matter most is that you write as truthfully as possible. If you really love the person whose material you’re writing about, the writing has to reflect that love. There’s still always a risk that the person won’t be able to see the love, and that your relationship may suffer, but you’ve done what all writers finally reach the point of having to do, which is to be loyal to themselves.
I’m happy to report, in closing, that my brother and I are now on better terms than ever. When I was about to send him an advance copy of The Corrections, I told him, on the phone, that he might hate the book and might even hate me. His reply, for which I remain deeply grateful, was “Hating you is not an option”. The next time I heard from him, after he’d read the book, he began by saying, “Hello, Jon. It’s your brother – Gary.” He has since gone on, when talking to his friends about the book, to make no secret of the resemblance. He has his own life, with its own trials and satisfactions, and having a writer for a brother is just another piece of his own story. We love each other dearly.