“How do I write? Why do I write? What do I write? This is what I am writing: I am writing Mr. Potter. It begins this way; this is its first sentence: ‘Mr. Potter was my father, my father’s name was Mr. Potter.’ So much went into that one sentence; much happened before I settled on those eleven words.”
-Jamaica Kincaid, ‘Those Words That Echo… Echo… Echo Through Life’ (1999)
Two weeks ago, I went to a writer’s open forum hosted at the University of Hong Kong, titled ‘How, What and Why Do Writers Write? A Conversation between David Tang, Hannah Rothschild, Simon Winchester and Wilbur Smith’.
David Tang, CEO of Shanghai Tang and renowned Anglophile columnist, was the moderator for the event, and the three guests of honour were, as per the forum title, Hannah Rothschild, descendant of the famous Rothschild family and author of The Improbability of Love, her 2015 debut novel on love and mystery set against the backdrop of the London arts scene; Simon Winchester OBE, former Guardian journalist of Watergate expose fame and author of the verbosely (but SEO-savvily) titled Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers (the title itself should suffice as a synopsis); and Wilbur Smith, longstanding bestseller of thrillers steeped in South African history. Smith is a prolific author, having published 35 novels to date, all of which have proved tremendously successful with more than 120 million copies sold worldwide.
Despite my natural affinity for classical and literary fiction, I decided to check out what these non-fiction and bestselling authors had to say about their craft, inspiration and love for writing, and most importantly, to share it with all of you fiction/lit/writing/book-lovers out there. 🙂
point highlight worth mentioning – Being the daring soul that I am, I piped up at one point and asked the panel a question about the future of the printed novel vis-à-vis the rise of blogging and digital fiction (Question 5 in the transcript below), to which the moderator, David Tang, responded with a half-acerbic, half-facetious:
“Is this a serious question?!”
So much for my first attempt at rogue literary journalism…
WS: Wilbur Smith
HR: Hannah Rothschild
SW: Simon Winchester
DT [moderator]: David Tang
I want to ask about emotions, in particular, anger – does it motivate you to write, or must you be calm?
WS: Back in my pre-writing days as a young accountant, I was always angry because I knew that instead of being stuck in a cubicle I should be doing something else. You need the original urge to expand on paper, yes, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s an ‘emotional’ urge. For me, it was the urge to expand on my ideas, be it of courage or of all the good things in life. I just put them down on paper because I wanted to.
DT: Charles Pegg, whose advice you live by, once said that you should only write for yourself, and write on what you know best. Is this what guides your writing?
WS: Yes, he told me to write what comes naturally to me and be comfortable with being ‘different’ from everyone else. After all, no two people share the same thought processes, achievements or aspirations.
HR: I do get frustrated sometimes, especially in the final stages of writing a book. It’s like when you’ve reached the 9th month of pregnancy, and the feeling is so hot and uncomfortable you don’t mind how much the delivery hurts, you just want to get that baby out of you.
[Hannah then turns to the men on the panel and jokingly asks: “You know that feeling?”]
A middle-aged local reader asks:
Simon, given your background in journalism and experiences here in HK, do you think you’ll be able to write a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ of ‘Hong Kong in the past’ and ‘Hong Kong in the present’?
SW: Actually, that book already exists, and it’s written by Jan Morris, titled Hong Kong, published in 1997 (the year of the Handover).
Audience member: What about HK in the future, then?
SW: Well, that’d be three cities…
DT: Ha, but anyway, I don’t think you’d be able to write a Dickensian novel about Hong Kong, because heroes don’t exist in the city. Rather than trying to save the people around him, he’d probably kill you first.
Have you ever experienced writer’s block? How do you keep yourself disciplined to write?
WS: Honestly, I don’t know what a ‘writer’s block’ is because I’ve not experienced it myself. I think ‘writer’s block’ is just an excuse that some people use to not write, perhaps because they are frightened, or bored, or just shouldn’t be writing in the first place.
HR: I juggle two day jobs, one as Chair of the National Gallery and the other for my family business. As a result, I mostly write in the evening or during weekends. My problem is indeed with finding the time to write. It’s like finding time for a secret lover, when you have to quickly fit in a meeting with that person at a secluded coffee shop or a shady hotel – [interrupted by DT]
DT: Ah, so that’s how you do it, then?! [laughter]
SW: It usually takes me 1 year to do the research for a book project, after which the awareness of an imminent deadline kicks in, which is when I give myself 6 months to write the whole thing.
The schedule begins in March – and this is all going to sound fascistic, by the way, so brace yourselves: I get up at 5:30 am, make myself a cup of tea, then I read what I had written the day before until about 8 am. I’ll read the paper and have breakfast with my wife in the next hour, then come 9 am I’ll write non-stop till 4 pm.
At 4 I’ll stop, mainly because that’’s when the sun comes into my window, and I would go for a jog till 5 pm, then at 6 pm arrange the research material for next day’s writing. In the evening, I’ll forget about everything related to writing, and just enjoy dinner and watch movies with my family.
DT: We know that Simon lied, because he missed out lunch…
SW: No lunch – I’m serious, I don’t take lunch when I’m writing. Hunger actually motivates me to write.
A Comparative Literature student at HKU asks:
Can creative writing be ‘learnt’? And where can I get exposure for my creative writing pieces?
WS: I don’t know, because I never had to experience the unpleasantness that is an English Literature degree…
SW: I’m going to give you an answer that isn’t directly relevant to your question. Here’s some advice for anyone who wants to do journalism: you have to understand that all writing requires an act of will.
So if you want an idea for a book that could potentially sell well, what you should do is take a look at the map in the world, then find a place that contains seeds of a potential revolution – one that could become important in due time, but is currently not interesting enough to catch the eye of mainstream news reporters.
Go and set yourself up in the place, then start writing notes to foreign editors of major newspapers from all around the world. Tell them that you’re there, and if they want first-hand information about anything, you’re their first point of contact.
HR: I wouldn’t worry about writing what’s ‘in fashion’, because fashion changes all the time. If you want to write, then do just that – start writing.
Jen from Classic Jenisms asks (wooot!!):
Do you think that the future of writing lies in blogging, and that the long-length novel will gradually make way for shorter, digital forms of writing?
DT: Is that a serious question?
[Jen hollers from across the hall: “Yes, of course!!”]
HR: Well, there’s room for every kind of writing, I believe.
SW: If anything, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of the novel in recent years, and so this concern about the ‘Death of the Book’ has been massively overhyped. The fact that e-book sales have flattened, and that there are about 300 independent bookstores in the US alone should attest to this. There’s just a sort of romance about the materiality of text that you can’t get from scrolling or staring at a screen.
Some people also buy books as artworks, especially when it comes to deluxe editions. That’s not to say, however, that there are no intersections between print and digital publishing: as I’m sure we know, 50 Shades of Gray is the first ‘bloggified’ book that went on to become very successful – [here HR interrupts]
HR: – and it is a book that Simon and Wilbur have both read
[collective laughter from both the panel and the floor]
WS: Sure, the move to more digital forms of expression could be an interesting experiment, but for me, the main joy of reading is derived from seeing words printed in a real book.
(Jen’s note: 100% agreement on my front, hence my staunch aversion to Kindle and e-books in general)
Many famous writers suffered from depression or committed suicide; do you think that such extreme emotions are required for great writing?
DT: Well, in Virginia Woolf’s case, she killed herself because Richmond was so miserable (Richmond is a suburban town in London).
HR: I don’t think you have to be suicidal or a depressive to write…
SW: The person we’re thinking of is probably David Foster Wallace. But honestly, suicidal geniuses aren’t that common, nor is mental disorder as frequently seen in writers as you’d think. I mean, I can imagine that bad reviews could tip one over – Wilbur, you’re probably the better person to comment here…
(Jen’s note: Winchester obviously doesn’t quite know the distinction between clinical depression and the feeling of being upset, but anyway)
WS: Well, I’ve only ever had bad reviews from stupid people [laughter]. Most of my reviewers are quite lenient; the first one I ever got was from the LA Times, which consisted of 4 columns of absolute slating. I remember going to my South-African writer friend Stewart for sympathy, only to hear him burst out ‘wonderful!’ in elation. (His point being that any publicity is good publicity for a budding writer)
I’d like to ask about craft: is there a specific person or a set of guides to help you shape plot, narrative, dialogue, structure etc.?
SW: There are 2 cardinal principles when it comes to writing non-fiction: first, make sure that your idea is solid and interesting; second, make sure your structure is intact. It may sound surprising, but good structure is actually even more important than style, or so-called ‘good writing’, because your priority is to make sure that your message is getting across to readers.
As for a specific guide, I’d say that David Owen’s Seven Ages: Poetry for a Lifetime is always a go-to reference for good structure.
My mentor, Jan Morris, gave me 3 pieces of advice after I took her advice, quit my job at the African oil company, and took up a stint with the Newscastle Journal:
(1) Never lose your sense of wonder
(2) Don’t ever bother with writing in shorthand
(3) Find an established writer as a mentor, send him/her your manuscript, and kindly have them annotate it – this is what will slowly turn you into a writer.
What about narrative? Do you imagine your ending before you even start writing the book? Or does the flow of the story always come organically?
WS: For me, writing a story is like driving a car; I start knowing only that I’m moving towards something, and then I let the sense of story and characters guide me through. I usually surprise myself by the time I reach the ending.
HR: I’d probably have a vague idea about how it’s all going to end, but I wouldn’t know right from the get-go how to get there. I’m easily bored; you know how Jane Austen used to draw the most minute diagrams and maps for her characters before getting down to write? That sort of thing would just bore me to death.
A young girl with a super cute voice asks:
How do you find things that you want to write about?
WS: Well, what you do is look around you and spot interesting things you know about. Then, you study them, think about them for a period of time, then start writing about them. The story, once you have the idea in mind usually flows naturally.
HR: I have a shoe box in which I keep interesting snippets from newspapers and magazines. Every time I read anything interesting from them, I cut it out and put it into the box. Whenever I need inspiration, I look into it, and usually the result is whatever comes out in my writing.
SW: It’s in the unexpected, random moments of reading that I usually find my inspiration. I remember once coming across a footnote in a book I was reading in the bathtub, called Chasing the Sun by Richard Cohen. The footnote read ‘Readers of the book will be familiar with the story of an American lunatic murdered…’, and there it was – the light bulb inspiration for the plot of my new book.
What genres do you read?
SW: I read anything I can get my hands on. I like reading about interesting places that I would like to visit someday. I’m a prolific reader, and what I read always filters through into my mind and stays there until I need it again. I believe that you can’t write a book unless you know about life, and you don’t know about life until you’ve heard others explain it to you.
DT to HR: Hannah, what are you reading now?
HR: Well, I guess I’ll be reading Simon and Wilbur’s books very soon. [appreciative laughter] On reading for inspiration to write, I remember once asking Tom Stoppard, the playwright, about his manic reading habits. He subscribes to about 30 different magazines per month, and these magazines are of a diverse range in topics, from science to business to literature. I asked him over dinner one night on how many ideas he gets from this, and his answer was: “NOT ONE. But I’m hoping.”
SW: There’s one book above all other books which I highly recommend to anyone who wants ideas, and that’s Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. Every aspect of human life is explained in this work – it’s an extraordinary book that anyone who wants to write should read.
Is autobiography a better expression of one’s life than biography?
SW: For someone like Jan Morris, whose life has been so extraordinary, I definitely think it deserves a biography.
HR: My natural inclination would be to have control over my own story. So I’d probably prefer autobiography.
WS: I’ve enjoyed my life, but it hasn’t been anything near ‘extraordinary’. I mean, I’ve been married four times, but these are private things that I’d prefer to keep to myself.
Do you re-read books? What is your one desert island book?
SW: Georg Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual and the Oxford English Dictionary
HR: Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop [SW: I’d take that as well if the OED doesn’t count!] I actually don’t re-read a lot of books, but I find that I always go back to the classics, because they mean something different every time you revisit them.
WS: John Steinbeck. Always.