While developing writers hone their skills on shorts in preparation for the main event – the novel – old hand Howard is turning his back on full length work after a string of books, and returning to basics: the flash fiction he wrote in his youth.
And after twelve years of intensive and painstaking work that produced Back There, Time Travail, The Seventh Candidate and Good Americans Go To Paris When They Die, the decision to return to his short story roots wasn’t a hard one to make.
“No harder,” he says, “than deciding to hit the sack after running four marathons.”
Because, while some full-time authors churn out novels every few months, each of Howard’s takes three years of draining hard work and smoking midnight oil just to reach first draft.
New Yorker Howard, who’s lived in France for decades and taught American Literature at a prestigious Paris University, broke the news of his retirement from novel writing to his publishers just as his The Seventh Candidate is about to be released and with Good Americans Go To Paris When They Die slated for spring 2008.
“With things at last seeming to roll for me on the novels front,” he said, “they were surprised – in fact, my editor has even tried to talk me out of it. But my mind’s made up.
“I started to write novels when I retired a dozen years ago – before that other pressing things always got in the way – and now it’s time to concentrate on retirement and all the things that freedom has to offer. I work less intensely, less obsessively on short stories, and I have more time for other things like reading and photography and gardening with my wife.”
But while he’ll never give up writing, even Howard’s shorts are likely to be short-shorts; most of them under 500 words long – flash fiction – aiming to complete each piece of work within a week. He does plan some longer stories running to 5,000 words or more but foresees the same compositional difficulties as with novels.
Howard explained: I’m a desperately slow worker. The first draft of a novel is a big hurdle. I have a theory about that. My critical sense is probably more developed than my creative urge. Subconsciously I probably compare my projected first-draft efforts to the finished products of admired authors. I have no way of seeing their defective first drafts. If I could, the paralysis would lift.
“I suspect that this syndrome is common with writers and partly explains their frequent addiction to alcohol to combat that sort of inhibition. Among the Americans, the roster of alcoholic writers is impressive. But I’m too prudent a man to use alcohol as a dissolvent of writer’s block. That bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey in the photo that goes with this article shouldn’t lead you to false conclusions.”
During a working life surrounded by literature and talented, creative students, Howard put dreams of the novel aside to settle down to his first only when the day-job was behind him.
“Why a start so close to the end?” he said. “Laziness, I guess, other things to do that seemed more urgent. Maybe the sense of time past and passing.
“It’s not accidental, I think, that three of my novels are concerned with the passage of time and the attempt to capture and undo it – most obviously Time Travail with its machine-assisted evocations of America in the thirties and forties of the last century.
“Also (with that title) Back There, a memory of a vanished Paris and a vanished love. Finally Good Americans Go to Paris When They Die where the protagonists have the possibility of returning to their youth and repair damaged love.”
Intellectual input apart, a dedicated writer’s working schedule can be gruelling. Howard’s day begins with four o'clock insomnia when story ideas come to him … the very sentences, as though dictated, scenes acted out as in a half-waking dream.
But, even producing just four published novels in an intensive dozen years as a novelist, Howard made sure every book he started was finished and signed for publication before he downed tools. There are no dead manuscripts gathering dust in his attic.
He said: “Once I had the basic idea for a novel I stuck to it to the bitter end. The demolition operations occurred within the shifting framework of the novel. There were all those false starts and dead ends that were scrapped, things kept but radically revised. What was chucked out of any given novel amounted to another novel in terms of pages and effort.
“I envy novelists who come up with a book a year, regular as clockwork. It’s admirable to be able to work efficiently, to engineer a novel and construct it according to blueprint. My novels have a slow gestation, longer than an elephant’s (twenty-two months for the pachyderm, often twice that for one of my books).
“I work intuitively but am suspicious of intuition. I chip away, carve and polish myself dizzy and often end by chucking out the result, whole chapters, months of work. But I’m never completely directionless. I do know where I’m heading. I generally write the last chapter first, subject, of course, to constant revision.
“Revision is the key word. Some scenes I rework maybe thirty times. The constant danger of that process is the loss of spontaneity, the faint smell of sweat and midnight oil that’s given off. When that happens, I revise again to try to create an illusion of spontaneity (in writing everything is illusion, I think). I have to curb a natural tendency to lyric outbursts so part of the revision process consists in toning things down, using the indirect approach, understatement. Less is better than more.
“A reviewer recently called one of my novels ‘idiosyncratic.’ I take that as a compliment. I’m wary of trends and fashions, the possibly contagious sound of other writers’ voices. Maybe that’s why for the past few years I’ve largely limited my reading of fiction to French and German. I want the voice that comes through in my work to be my own voice.
“There’s another reason why I neglect reading fiction. I taught American Literature at a Paris University for twenty years and it had pernicious side effects. The perverse pleasure of dissection – close reading, structure, symbolism and all of that – replaced the spontaneous pleasure of reading for the sake of reading. But for emotional kicks I have music.
“Since retirement, I’ve read very little fiction, despite the ambitious reading list I drew up on the eve of the event: it included Proust’s multi-volumed hunt for lost time, Finnegan’s Wake, all of Balzac’s Human Comedy, etc.
“One reason is that I started to write seriously at about that time and the activity soon became obsessional. Since it takes me at least three years to write a novel, I felt I didn’t have time – in a long-term metaphysical sense – for anything else. In the process, I lost the habit of reading.
“But I used to be a compulsive reader, a citizen of Bookland – it was so much more real than the so-called real world about me.
“I discovered Joseph Conrad at fourteen and by sixteen had read all of his novels. I recall a subway ride, plunged in King Lear. I overshot my Manhattan station and emerged from Shakespeare in the depths of Brooklyn. Other authors come to mind: Jane Austin and Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, the Henry James of the marvelous novellas like The Altar of the Dead.
“A novel that no amount of analyzing and rereading ever harmed for me is Huck Finn. That invulnerability to time and repetition is rare. I remember how impressed I was by The Catcher in the Rye when it came out. Then, many years later, I had to teach it and discovered that all the magic had evaporated.
“Céline’s Voyage to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan made a terrific impact on me. I still recall the dazzling revelation of Borges when I read his five-page story, Funes the Memorious.
“Finally, as proof that I do occasionally read things other than Le Monde newspaper, I recently discovered the contemporary Italian author Mario Rigoni Stern. Hard to believe, but I wept reading his story How Thin You Are, Brother.”
Part Two wil be posted Tuesday 8th April