Thursday, June 21, 2012

1/2 Dozen for Christopher Beha

I met Christopher Beha in a hotel lobby in New Orleans which sounds more exciting than explaining that we were at a booksellers convention  doing bookish things. My husband, Dave, Beha, and I shuffled around the World War II Museum for a while, looking at gas masks. (What kind of picture does this paint of the life of writers? I mean, what would Tennessee Williams think?) In any case, Beha has a new novel out with Tinhouse -- a press I deeply admire -- and it's one I've been looking forward to -- WHAT HAPPENED TO SOPHIE WILDER. (You've probably already read Beha's work ... Harpers, The New York Times, that memoir on reading the entire 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics Library?)  

And now here's a 1/2 dozen:

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

If I didn’t love to write, I don’t think I would do it. I’m under no illusions that the world is waiting for my work, and there are certainly better ways to make a living. That doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult or frustrating sometimes, but the satisfaction that comes when I’ve figured something out, solved a problem in the work, or achieved some kind of insight, is essential to my general wellbeing, and I know that it’s the hard work and frustration that allow for that satisfaction. Writing is my chief way of situating myself in the world, and so I tend to feel lost when I’m not doing it. It isn’t something I can just not do without there being consequences. It would be melodramatic to place it on the level of eating or breathing, but I can honestly say that most of the time the question of whether or not to write doesn’t really come up for me. I just do it.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

I don’t know if this is a tip, in the sense that I’m not sure how much it is within the writer’s control, but I will make explicit what I’ve been implying above: in the current literary environment, you’re unlikely to get much encouragement from the outside world, so you need to take pleasure in the doing of the work itself.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

I write a fair amount of criticism myself, which makes it easier to remember that a review is just one person’s response to your work. Naturally, you’d like that response to be thoughtful and well considered. As a fellow book reviewer, I get annoyed by lazy reviews that get basic plot points wrong, that seem not to reflect even a carefully reading of—let alone a serious engagement with—the work. Sadly, such reviews are surprisingly common, even in established critical outlets. They offend my sense of professional pride, and they annoy me even when—perhaps especially when—they praise the work. Praise of that sort is less than empty. Beyond that, reviews don’t really do much for me one way or the other. It’s just not why I’m writing in the first place. In the face of both positive and negative reviews, I remember how critics treated someone like Melville, say, or William Gaddis. It makes the negative reviews sting less, but it also puts the positive reviews into proper perspective, since even the most glowing review will not make me place my work beside Moby Dick or The Recognitions. I do like getting emails and notes from readers who are moved by my work.
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

I don’t really draw a distinction between my writing life and the rest of my life, which seems to offer a kind of balance, though the people who are forced to share that life with me might disagree.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

To be perfectly honest, I’m not really sure what people mean when they refer to a place as a “character,” which carries with it the implication that setting is inherently less important than characters and so when place is very important it must be something more than “just” a setting. But place is definitely important to me. My new novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, is set mostly in New York City, where I grew up and where I continue to live, as is the book I’m working on now. In both cases New York is not just incidentally the setting for the story but an important part of the meaning of the books.

What's your worst writerly habit?

I tend to complicate things. This sounds like I’m actually trying to pay myself a stealth compliment, but I’m not. There is a difference between complexity and complication. The world is a complex place, and good fiction reflects that fact, but it does so in the most elegant way possible, which usually means the simplest way possible. My goal in writing is to be as simple as I can without being reductive, to reflect and pay tribute to the complexity inherent in the world without creating my own needless complications. I often find myself creating complications that don’t add to the richness of the work. Instead they just make it less elegant. When I’m struggling with a problem in the plot, when something I’m trying to do just doesn’t seem to be working, I generally find the best answer is the simplest one. Sometimes it’s really a matter of just removing the problem entirely.

CHRISTOPHER R. BEHA is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The London Review of Books, The Believer, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He is the author of a memoir, The Whole Five Feet, and the co-editor, with Joyce Carol Oates, of the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. His first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, will be published in the spring by Tin House Books.

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