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Chaotic Conditions: Writing a Novel on a Tour Bus

April 17, 2010

If what the fiction writers say is true, writing a novel is most often a demanding endeavor. Novelists agree on not only the immense spiritual and intellectual effort which one exerts in writing a good book; they also concur on the difficulties common to the strictly practical side of their trade.

First of all, there’s the staggering chunk of time needed to see a novel through to completion. Dostoevsky spent two years penning The Brothers Karamozov. Fitzgerald toiled away for three on The Great Gatsby. For these, and most other fiction writers, finding the time to compose is an art in itself. Faulkner stole away to his desk in the evenings after his family had gone to bed, hunkering down in a special, out-of-the-way room of his house, where he kept a small bed for those nights when typing kept him up toward dawn.

But finding writing time is only one half of the novelist’s dilemma. There is also, as Faulkner’s story suggests, the problem of finding a place where the writing can get done with minimal distractions. Hemingway insisted on having a sparsely furnished room with only a desk, a chair and a typewriter– anything else might draw his attention away from the task at hand. Proust did his writing in a cork-lined room where his concentration might not be broken by a disturbance from his housemates.


Nick Cave, the Australian songwriter turned novelist, has managed to complete his second piece of fiction under working conditions that would likely have proved impossible for the aforementioned writers. The Death of Bunny Munro, the story of a sordid character whom Cave calls “a monster we [men] recognize ourselves in,” was written while on tour with his rock band The Bad Seeds. In a recent interview with Steve Paulson of To the Best of Our Knowledge, Cave sets out to explode this idea, held up as common knowledge among most novelists and rock n’ rollers alike, that good writing is best done in uninterrupted solitude:

The kind of wisdom in rock n’ roll is that you can’t do anything creative on tour. You can do the show in the evening, and the rest of the time you’re a kind of vegetable that’s sort of chaperoned from place to place, and city to city, and then you go and do [another] show. I wondered if that was actually true…and I started writing this novel on the bus– on the tour bus– under unbelievably chaotic conditions. It was an amazing way to write, actually. It made that tour very different from any other tour I’d been on before.


As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame

April 2, 2010

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.


Í say móre: the just man justices;

Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—

Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

-Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Living into things

March 29, 2010

G.M. Hopkins c. Hopkins Quarterly

[Hopkins] has got this absolutely fresh imagination. I didn’t know this for a long time, but he was a very unhappy man. He suffered a great deal, was virtually ignored by his peers. So he worked a lot in isolation. But out of that poverty of relationship, he was paying attention to where words come from and how they work. He’s an original– he really is. And the enormous attention he gave to how language works– this doesn’t just pop out of him, he was paying attention to this all the time, listening, hearing. And, of course, it was all prayer. He wasn’t describing things, he was living into them. And the rhythms, and surprising metaphors, and line breaks, it’s just marvelous, I think.

-Eugene Peterson, in conversation with Ken Myers.

I like simple pop songs with no real message

March 24, 2010

A lot of people call your music one of the first albums of power pop. What does that expression mean to you?

Alex Chilton c.

Alex Chilton: Um, I don’t know, really. To me, our band was more like the mid sixties British invasion music. You  know, it was three minute pop songs that were unpretentious and basically about love and being a teenager and having a good time. [Music], once it entered the psychadelic era there in the sixties, I became less interested in it. I like simple pop songs with no real message– just about feeling good and being happy.

Are you ever on the oldies circuit?

AC: Yeah, I played a gig with the beach boys a couple of weeks ago. That was thrilling. I got to even sing “Surfin’ U.S.A.” with them. It was the greatest thrill of my career.

So what’s it like for you on the oldies circuit?

AC: I enjoy meeting all these bands that I’ve heard of for so long. Like, I played some gigs with ? from ? and the Mysterians. He’s a lot of fun. It’s interesting to be hanging around hotel lobbies with ? and that sort of stuff.

In the summertimes, it seems like people offer me some gigs with sixties bands. It’s fun to do now and then.

So what do you play?

AC: It’s pretty strictly Box Tops material that’s called for. Usually it’s a five song set. So it’s kind of easy money. You get up and play five or six tunes at a county fair in Iowa or North Dakota or something. It’s kicky, you know. What can I say?

-Alex Chilton, in an 1991 interview with Terry Gross. Chilton, who found chart success in the late sixties with the Memphis band The Box Tops before forming Big Star, died last Wednesday in New Orleans at age 59.

The complexion of wealth

March 13, 2010

“A few of the men, perhaps fifteen, ranging from twenty-five to forty years of age, scattered among the dancers or standing talking at doorways, were distinguished from the rest by a family look, whatever the differences in their ages, dress or features.

“Their suits, better made, seemed to be of a richer material, and their hair, drawn back in curls at the temples, given luster by finer pomades. They had the complexion of wealth, that white complexion which enhances the translucency of porcelains, the sheen of satin, the finish of beautiful furniture, and which keeps up its health by means of a discreet diet of exquisite foods. Their necks turned in comfort above low cravats; their long side-whiskers fell to their turned-back collars; they wiped their lips with handkerchiefs embroiders with large monograms, from which drifted a pleasant fragrance. Those who were beginning to age had a youthful air, while there was an element of maturity upon the faces of the younger ones. In their indifferent glances was the serenity of passions daily gratified; and through their agreeable manners penetrated the particular brutality communicated by domination in faily unexacting matters where force is employed and in which vanity takes pleasure: the handling of blooded horses and the society of abandoned women.”

-Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, chapter 8

Why have a murder?

March 11, 2010

P.D. James, the author of the dystopian novel The Children of Men, first published in 1992, is also well known in her native England for a series of detective novels. Beginning with Cover Her Face, published in 1962, this series follows the casework of Adam Dalgliesh, a New Scotland Yard investigator. For her characters and settings, James draws on her experience working for the Home Office, the U.K.’s federal security sector.

James c. Random House

Though James’s work has been compared to the popular crime fiction of Agatha Christie, many critics have been quick to note some key differences. It is often argued that James’s later novels have a moral complexity, a stylistic beauty and a richness of setting that are unusual in the genre. [James] creates a thickly-realized social world” said literary critic Ralph C. Wood in an interview with Ken Myers. “Thus you feel like you’re entering a nineteenth century novel by Dickens or George Eliot or, above all, Jane Austen.”

James’s service in the Home Office gives an indication of why she chose to focus her writing talents on crime fiction, a genre that most literary scholars consider to be minor. In an interview with Ken Myers, James talks about her decision to center the action of her novels on murders:

“People often say, ‘Why have a murder? Why can’t you have some other crime?’ But I suppose murder packs such a terrific emotional punch. It is unique. It is the one crime for which we can never make reparation. And I think a book that is centered on just a burglary, or a theft, although it could be interesting in its own right, really wouldn’t satisfy people who enjoy murder mysteries. And I think they enjoy them for other psychological reasons, too. It’s a very reassuring fiction. It is reassuring to begin with– this underlying assumption that human life is sacred. And that even if a life is not well lived, or if someone is unpleasant or wicked, and his death would be highly convenient to many people, nevertheless, human beings have no right to take human life. And if they do, all the resources of the police and the state will be brought to bear to try and solve this crime. Now in an age where there’s a great deal of violence, and often it’s casual violence, and irrational violence, this is a very comforting belief.”

there is only one thing that all poetry must do

March 5, 2010

“Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe. Poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct– it may express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening.”

-W.H. Auden, from his Inaugural Lecture, upon accepting the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry, 6/11/1956