Writing Tips from Thomas Mallon, author of Finale
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!
After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?
Given the nature of historical fiction, the first thing I do is a lot of research. And that usually begins with reading old newspapers. Thanks to digitization, that’s much easier to do than it once was. Alas, also thanks to digitization, we’re creating far fewer new newspapers than before.
Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?
I started to write a political novel (about the impeachment of a president) when I was thirteen or fourteen. By the time I got halfway through college, writing had become my serious ambition, but my own timidity drew me toward teaching and, for a while, the publication of constrained little pieces in academic journals. The best thing that happened to me early on, at the beginning of the 1980s, was becoming a semi-regular contributor to William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review. The 800-word book reviews I wrote for the magazine usually earned me about $150 or $200; more importantly, they forced my writing toward a greater concision and liveliness, a more personal, honest voice. All of that helped me to write A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries (1984), an unexpected success (my picture in Time magazine!) that gave me the real beginnings of my career.
Describe your writing style in five words or less.
Fact-filled, parenthetical; judgmental; amused.
Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not?
A historical novelist really has to use real-life figures in his work. A couple of times I’ve included, under their own names, people I’ve actually known: E. Howard Hunt in Watergate, and my late friend Christopher Hitchens in Finale. And yes, I’ve also refracted and disguised and renamed real people in some of my other novels. I mention Mary McCarthy below; she appears as the writer Elizabeth Wheatley in my novel Aurora 7. And Bandbox (2004), my comedy about the magazine business, is really a roman à clef that sprang from my time at Condé Nast. A writer’s whole life and acquaintance are always a part of his material. In fact, I would go so far as to say that no character in a novel has ever been made from whole cloth.
What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound effect on you?
At about ten or eleven I was a great devotee of Howard Pyle’s novel about knighthood, Men of Iron, although my real pleasure-reading in elementary school came from one publisher’s American-biography series. Every one of these books was, I seem to remember, 192 pages long, whether the subject was George Washington or Molly Pitcher.
During junior high school I got caught up in the great excitement over the publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Buying hardback books was beyond my allowance, and I couldn’t wait for a public library copy, so I secured the book (was it for fifteen cents a day?) from the little “rental library” on the main street of my town. When my ninth-grade English teacher saw me with an early copy, she was jealous.
Mary McCarthy’s volume of essays, On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946-1961, is the book that really made me want to become a writer. I read it in 1971, at college, and the book’s combination of literary criticism, political essays, memoir and travel writing suggested the whole range of genres I might try myself. I read all of McCarthy’s fiction, too. She became the subject of my undergraduate thesis, then later a friend and mentor. To this day I aspire to the clarity and force of her style, even though my own is nothing like hers.