Rebecca Makkai over at the Ploughshares blog surveyed writers about questions they’re always asked with a view towards suggesting more compelling alternatives, and it’s true that these questions are evergreens. I think at my readings I was asked all but two of them: how come your book sucks, and how do you find time to mother your children. I hope there’s no need to explain the omission of the latter question, but after thinking things over I’ve worked out three possible explanations for the omission of the question “how come your book sucks”: no one thought it sucked (I hope), no one was rude enough to ask it (possible), or no one could ask about its suckiness because no one had read it (admittedly most likely).
So, just in case the subject comes up again… (It might. I’ve recently started letting people know that I’m available to chat with book clubs. Contact information on my About Page. Just saying…) …I thought I’d answer the most common questions here and now, just to encourage movement to virgin territory.
Is that character (Hal, Jodie, Reverend Arledge, Ruth) based on someone you know?
No. I’ve never met these people. And honestly, even whey I write characters based on people I’ve met, turning them into fiction changes them. In the end, they’re no more real than Jay Gatsby, Humbert Humbert, or Alice.
How autobiographical is Dismantle the Sun?
Not particularly. I got most of the autobiographical stuff out in another long story. I’ve never lived in an architectural monstrosity. I’ve never been married to a terminal cancer patient, and I’ve never had an affair with one of her friends at her insistence. Those are just the deeds in the first chapter that I’ve never done. The book contains many others.
What was the editing process like?
Pleasant. There was a lot of sending manuscripts back and forth. On the whole, it was satisfying in a way that’s surely of interest only to those involved.
How did you get the idea for this story?
If you listen to the Q&A from this reading you’ll hear details, but basically I had to write ten outlines for Charles Johnson’s MFA workshop. Five had to be based on John Gardner exercises. Five could be my own. Charles liked the outline I wrote based on Gardner’s Aristotelian reversal exercise, so I decided to write the first chapter to see if I thought it was going anywhere. The chapter didn’t play all that well in workshop, but when I told the class where the book was going and described the reversal to them, I heard a “Wooo” and knew then that I had something good, if I didn’t fuck it up.
Shorter version: it was a class assignment.
How long did it take to write this?
Depends on how it’s counted. It was twelve years from inception to publication, but the work wasn’t steady.
Where do you get your ideas?
From the demon elves who live in my ears. They won’t talk to you, though. They’re shy.
What is your writing routine? Do you compose on the computer?
No. Clay tablets are the only way to go. My editors hate them and they’re murder to ship, but some things should be done the old fashioned way.