Q&A with J. Mark Bertrand, Author, South Dakota
"I make up stories," which is probably easier to explain to nine-year-olds than to non-adolescents.
Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
JMB: It would be easier to explain to a child, I suspect. If I said, "I make up stories," a nine-year-old can accept that as a legitimate way of spending one's time without needing to know whether I've made the bestseller lists and, if not, how I manage to earn a living. I haven't and I don't—not by art, at any rate—so when I'm asked by non-interested non-adolescents about what I do, I typically fudge. A nine-year-old wouldn't require any cryptic obfuscations or backpedaling. I've never actually had to explain what I do to a nine-year-old, though, so this is only speculation.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
JMB: Strange as it sounds, I don't remember. I've been passing myself off as a writer since grade school, if not earlier. A fifth-grade teacher required weekly book reports from the class, and because I was more creative than disciplined, I started making up books of my own to report on instead of reading other peoples'. I was clever enough to steal author's names from the Weekly Reader and credit my work to them—and the teacher never seemed to question the sudden increase in violence and absence of character and plot that marked the transition. Maybe she was entertained. And I learned it was easier to make up your own books than to slog through someone else's.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
JMB: As an undergraduate, I was allowed to substitute a novel for the required critical thesis. The summer before my senior year, I stayed up all night every night writing the book—making up for it by sleeping through the days—and those long hours of solitude taught me how to be alone with my work. Writing a novel is like keeping a secret from the world and at the same time hoping it will get out.
Later, my first real writing teacher, Glenn Blake, gave me a metaphor that has never stopped teaching me. He said a sentence could be packed in such a way that, once read, it would explode and expand in the mind. Language could have beauty, yes, but it could also have force—and this force had the greatest impact when big thoughts could be compressed into succinct, pregnant phrases.
Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?
JMB: Bad advice is always the best. I've learned the most from being told what not to do, from studying bad examples. In writing, there is rarely just one way to solve a problem. Good examples can be imitated, but too much imitation leads to staleness. T. S. Eliot once wrote that, although they believe themselves to be individuals pursuing their own agendas, contemporary authors inevitably work as a group, pushing in the same direction. All those good examples are a way to tap into the spirit of the age, I suspect. Only in time do the real individuals emerge, and they turn out to have been bucking the trend. They're revolutionaries, or in the case of novelists, reactionaries, and I can't help thinking they were probably nurtured on bad examples, as focused on what they were determined not to be as they were on being.
Best advice? Be rigorously honest about the world. Write until you finish, and then edit. Revise. Write about what you love, even if no one pays to read it. When you write, don't bother about current trends or what's relevant or what's selling. Finish, and then worry about the business. Above all, finish.
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
JMB: Other books, I'm sorry to say. I keep reminding myself to go out and live, to store up a vast well of experience on which to draw, but then I start reading or watching a movie and I forget all that seize-the-day stuff. Recently, I've drawn more inspiration than I'd care to admit from television, too—especially the trend in series dramas to structure in a season-long arc. The need to balance story questions for the episode with those for the season closely parallels the relationship between chapters and novels (and might help explain why the best way to watch television these days is to wait until the show comes out on DVD, so you can watch it all at once).
When I'm actually telling a story, though, I find myself drawing more and more on the past, or at least my faulty recollection of it. There are episodes from my family history, for example, that seem to me like inscrutable little object lessons in the nature of reality, the kind of stories that need no interpretation but cry out for it all the same. I'm trying to capture a bit of that in my work. It helps that I misremember things as much as I do, because it ensures that no one can fault me after the fact for dragging the skeletons out of the closet. By the time I get the bones out into the light, no one recognizes them but me.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
JMB: I approach the problem of writing the way a chef prepares a dish. First, I have to see to get everything mise en place. I arrange characters and situations and places in my head, documenting them as necessary, so that I don't have to stop and invent them as I write. As a result, there are times when I'm physically writing, and other times when I'm just situating things in my mind—preparing my ingredients, so to speak. When it comes to the physical task, I start early and try to pause as little as possible. I don't set myself a time limit, because I intend to work as long as I profitably can. Ideally, I will become engrossed in the story and lose all sense of the outside world. My coffee will sit cold at my elbow, the music will have stopped playing hours ago, and when the trance breaks, I'll feel as if only a few minutes have passed.
This is another way of saying that the structure comes from the novel, not from the day.
My process seems to be changing constantly. I've written fast and I've written slow. I've worked from extensive research and planning, and I've worked from scratch. Until I find the best approach, I will keep tinkering away.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
JMB: I gave up my typewriter for a laptop as soon as that was practical and never looked back. As much as I like pen and ink, I've only ever been able to compose with a flashing cursor before me. Unlike typewriters and pens, though, I find it hard to form an emotional bond with a laptop. They're like replacements on the front lines, bound to be shot up and replaced before long, so it's best not to get too close. I'm fanatical about the Macintosh, but will gladly trade my current MacBook in for a smaller, faster one when the opportunity presents itself. It's a tool I rely on, but I'd replace it tomorrow without a qualm. Some things I would not part with so easily.
These days, for example, I swear by Scrivener, an inexpensive bit of organizational software for writers that allows you to keep track of the various bits of a project as it progresses, then export the finished product into a word processor for tweaking. Never one for filling up 3"X5" note cards, I find myself filling reams of virtual note cards and doing all sorts of organization in the software that I'd never waste paper on. Scrivener has wiped the sneer off my face when it comes to writing software.
While I could never write fiction with pen and paper, I rely on Moleskine notebooks for recording ideas and working them out. When they first re-appeared on the market six or seven years ago, I figured something so good would never last and bought up every notebook I could find. Now they're plentiful and have spawned a host of imitators, but I'm still holding onto my stockpile just in case. I try to keep one handy, along with a pocket-sized pen.
It's not a tool exactly, but one thing I've come to rely on is my inspiration board. My wife's board provoked jealousy, and since my walls were undecorated, I figured I should create one of my own. Now it's covered in layers of junk—magazine clippings, cartoons, illustrations, a Vespa brochure, fabric swatches, submission guidelines and more. It doesn't have anything to do with my work. In fact, when I post something project-oriented, I soon take it down. Instead, the board is like a window I can gaze through when my mind idles.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
JMB: There's a novel I've never finished, a money pit of a project that gets more ambitious and unmanageable every time I go back to it. The scope is epic. It touches on the ideas that fascinate me most, the places I'd most like to inhabit, the events I'd most like to witness. Over time, it has become a map of my identity, and I don't have nearly enough talent to work it out on paper. I love it. As frustrating as it has been over the years (and it's been with me for eleven and counting), nothing has given me more pleasure. It would be my masterpiece, if only I could pull it off.
Everything else I do exists in the shadow of this book, and because of it I feel I have permission to risk and fail in my other work. My shortcomings aren't as frustrating, because they're not spoiling stepping-stone novels, not my magnum opus. My work life takes on an eschatological shape, the hope of far-off fulfillment drawing strength from today's seemingly inconsequential steps. If I had a more grandiose temperament, an ambition like this might destroy me, but as it is, I can take pleasure in whatever idea I invest effort in, knowing I'm capable of conceiving much more magnificent things, only I can't pull them off just yet. If this project didn't exist, I suppose I'd need to invent it. Fortunately, it's all too real.
Comment: How do you plan your work?
JMB: I begin with a false start or two, just to test the water, and that gives me a better sense of what's in store. Then I start pondering structure. What is this story going to look like when it's finished? Instead of a typical three- or five-act structure, I like to come up with a shape that corresponds to the story somehow. Obviously, I won't know the actual shape until I've finished, but it helps to begin with a sense of scale.
To work out details of plot and character, I talk to myself aloud. Often, these mental exercises take the shape of post-publication interviews, with some imaginary literary critic asking me to elaborate on this significant trait or that evocative setting. It's a useful daydream, something I've been doing for as long as I can remember—and no doubt a sign of egomania, too.
Typically, I only do enough planning to get myself well and truly started, and then I improvise as needed. This would be a terrible way to tailor a suit, but I find it's a good way to write. It might be easier to work out the pattern in advance and then cut the fabric to bit, but the results—at least in fiction—tend to bear out the process by which they were achieved. Writing to a formula, whether it is your own or one common to the genre, imparts a certain stiffness to the outcome, whereas the looser approach leaves just enough play in the fabric that the story looks good in motion and not just when fitted to a mannequin.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
JMB: Writing demands sacrifice, especially when you have to balance it with other work to make ends meet, so it tends to connect to other aspects of life the way jumper cables do to a car battery. Clamp the ends to another car and you have energy; clamp them to yourself and it's torture. The trick, I suppose, is to see life as a phenomenon that enriches work, rather than one that robs time from it, but I can't pretend to have mastered that bit. When the writing goes badly, I tend to resent the rest of life for taking me away from it, and when it goes well, everything is right with the world and I'm happy to venture out.
I'd like to "be a writer" in every aspect of life, because I see it more as a way of being than a profession, but that's a difficult goal to realize when the most important, most vivid part of life is the secret life no one but the reader partakes in.