Calvin Trillin, author of JACKSON, 1964, chats with Cara Cannella about his perceptions on race relations in America today. Learn about the book here:
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? Some writers set out to develop a complete road-map of the book, complete with a great deal of detail. I tend not to do this; instead, I mentally write the first paragraph and, on occasion, the last paragraph. With these two elements in place, all that remains is to write the bits in-between. The first sentence is very important. For me, that can set the whole tone of the book, and once I have the first sentence the task of writing proves relatively easy. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? Writers can be ritualistic, insisting on all sorts of conditions – where the desk should be and so on. I find that I am able to write wherever I happen to be, and will write in planes and on trains, in hotels or in restaurants. When I am writing at home, though, especially when I am beginning a book, I will use music to get me in the right mood. I have different pieces of music for different series: when I sit down to write my Isabel Dalhousie series I will often play a particular piece of Mozart – the trio “Soave sia il vento” from Cosi. This sets the scene, so to speak. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? When I was a university professor, I wrote a number of academic books with a senior colleague, Professor Ken Mason. Ken, who is now in his nineties, was at school in the UK a very long time ago, and told me about his English teacher when he was aged about twelve (well before the Second World War). This teacher was called Mr Robertson and Ken told me that he gave the boys (it was an all-boys school) the following piece of advice: Never use two words where one will do. I laughed at the story, but then I realized that the late Mr Robertson was right. Since then I have been careful to pare down descriptions and to avoid the excessive use of adjectives. Thank you, Mr Robertson! Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not? I am careful not to base fictional characters on real people whom I may meet. The reason for this is that real people may not have the chance to answer back. Some years ago there was an author in Edinburgh, where I live, who based an undesirable character on somebody who she thought had let her down. Everybody knew who it was she was talking about. I don’t think I would care to do that. However, I do put real people into my novels – under their own name and with their permission. I find that the readers like the fact that some of my characters are real people. I once promised the First Minister of Scotland a cameo role in one of my Scotland Street novels, but then I had to find something or him to do. I had him save Bertie, one of the characters in the series, from a runaway bus. The First Minister was extremely pleased. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you? I have been much influenced by W.H. Auden’s poetry, and in particular by his Collected Shorter Poems. Other books that have influenced me include the Malgudi novels of the great Indian writer, R.K. Narayan. I very much appreciate Jane Austen and her twentieth century reincarnation, Barbara Pym. Learn more about the book below:
The origin story of Shame and Wonder, as brief as I can make it: I was sitting at my desk, four years ago, when my phone rang. It was the writer John Jeremiah Sullivan calling. “This is going to sound weird,” he said, “but I did a reading in Texas last night, and I met a guy there. He handed me a copy of an essay he’d written. I think it might be good. Can I send it to you?” This happens a lot, when you’re an editor, people sending you “good” things to read, and the track record isn’t great. But the essay John sent me that day – five typewritten, hand-corrected pages from a guy in Dallas named David Searcy, who’d only started writing nonfiction in his late sixties – was unlike anything I’d read before. An hour later, I was on the phone with David Searcy. A month later, we had a book deal. Four years later, we have Shame and Wonder. But my love for this book goes beyond its unusual beginnings. I love it for the beauty and strangeness of David’s sentences: “I can remember being a child and being blank. Without opinion. Walking around like that. Complete like that. All fear and desire with not much in between. I think of it now as an experimental setup. Like a cloud chamber – where you’ve got this otherwise empty vessel filled with a sort of mist through which events, the passage of subatomic particles, leave evanescent trails.” I love it because of the feelings of deep longing he is able to conjure in, say, a pair of initials (“little heart-shaped memories of love”) carved into the trunk of an old tree or, even, the prizes at the bottom of cereal boxes. I love it, too, because it is funny. But maybe most special of all, in the end, was being a witness to David’s process, which is not exactly typical, and to be honest, probably not advisable. Below, how a David Searcy essay – this one, titled “How to Color the Grass” — comes to be: David writes on yellow legal pads, in long hand, with a ball point pen. Here’s what his first draft looks like. (Two ways to look at this, as an editor: Fascinating or stressful.) Here’s what his second or third draft looks like, i.e. when clarity begins to assert itself: And here’s what happens when he puts his pen down and commits to a final draft, which he commemorates via a Swiss-made Hermes 3000 typewriter, circa l959, with standard serif pica font. As David says, “It’s like typing on a Steinway – just the right mechanical resistance to make you mean what you say.” Finally, David also takes photos of the things he writes about, and several of these photos appear in the book. Think W.G. Sebald… if W.G. Sebald lived in Dallas… and drove a truck… and said things like “holy crap”… and spent a lot of time thinking about the venality of Scrooge McDuck. Though I love the title, the overall effect is: no shame, all wonder. Find out more about Shame and Wonder here:
Ever wonder what Penguin Random House employees are reading? We’re a bunch of professionally bookish people, so you can always count on us to have a book on hand… or thirty piled on our desks. Our Bookspotting feature shows off the range of readers behind the scenes at Penguin Random House. Sarah, in web design, is reading It Was Me All Along by Andie Mitchell Show us what you’re reading by using the #bookspotting hashtag!
Ever wonder what Penguin Random House employees are reading? We’re a bunch of professionally bookish people, so you can always count on us to have a book on hand… or thirty piled on our desks. Our Bookspotting feature shows off the range of readers behind the scenes at Penguin Random House. Kristen, Senior Director of Consumer Marketing is reading The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs. Show us what you’re reading by using the #bookspotting hashtag!