Just got the new issue of The Paris Review in the mail, and went straight to the first Art of Fiction Interview with Norman Rush, author of Whites and Mating:
INTERVIEWER: Do you have a philosophy about endings?
RUSH: … It’s a rare reader who doesn’t go to the novel looking for a kind of encouragement to live. No doubt this is because the novel is the rude pretender who stepped into the place of that long-reigning narrative, the religious bedtime story, which, before Darwin and Lyell and those guys, was the only narrative in town. As I write a novel, I’m aware that I’m struggling against the “obligation” to solace. But I want my books to reach only the conclusions that are implicit in the trajectories of their characters. As it happens, both Mating and Mortals have sad outcomes—but optimistic codas. So sue me.
A related question is, when should novels end? I must love big novels, because that’s what I’ve written. It takes a while before you begin to breathe the air the characters breathe. I also like long exchanges, because plots so often turn on nuances in the ways characters understand each other. In moments of madness, I’ve had the fantasy of simultaneously publishing my novels in two versions, Regular and Jumbo. In the book I’m working on now, though, I’m trying to keep everything shorter: shorter scenes, fewer plots, general brevity. But a shorter novel goes against some of my deepest instincts. Dostoyevsky died still intending to write another volume of The Brothers Karamazov. It’s like a knife in my heart that he didn’t.
INTERVIEWER: In your attic office you have a very strange desk with three separate workstations.
RUSH: I use three different typewriters at once, two Royals and one wide-carriage Underwood, all from 1955. I write the main narrative on one of the Royals, while reworking earlier sections on the other Royal, and generating fresh associations on the Underwood. That way, I’m inhabiting the novel in different stages without getting too far from the main stream. I’m not unaware that my system is ludicrous, and something like a prehistoric computer. Once I have twenty-five pages or so, I’ll then use the main Royal to retype the draft for [wife and first reader] Elsa. I do that on yellow sheets, what used to be called “second sheets” in the days of carbon paper—my ancient, beloved Sphinx Saxon Manila 33B. (I can’t get it anymore—if anyone has a stock, I’d be grateful.) Elsa marks anything she wants to discuss, and after that, the draft goes to a typist. We do the final edit together.
RUSH: Oh. Before I start a novel I make a dossier for each character, even minor ones. Life history, curriculum vitae, oddities of culture and taste and background, appearance, gait, voice: it all goes in there. These dossiers can grow quite extensive, and some get completely out of hand. I’ve had to train myself not to keep expanding them endlessly when I should be working on chapters. Even so, with the book I’m working on now I’ve almost driven myself mad, writing dossiers.
INTERVIEWER: How much from each dossier works its way into the novel?
RUSH: Often very little, directly. But absorbing that deep background gives me the sort of conviction about each character that allows me to write.
INTERVIEWER: Do you map your plots beforehand in a similar way?
RUSH: No, just the characters. But the characters write the plot. Their natures do.
Buy the issue here.
Note to the FTC overlords: This issue is from a subscription I paid for with my very own money.