Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My browsing life

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The author's library, temporarily unshelved

Note: I’m traveling for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared on May 16, 2013.

I’m grateful for a lot of things in life, but if there’s one blessing I could stand to appreciate more, it’s that owning a home full of books is still a socially acceptable form of hoarding. If I were addicted to buying kitten statues or cartons of discount detergent, I’d look a little crazy, but keeping more books around the house than I could ever possibly need just makes me look cultured and smart—or so I’d like to believe. I’ve bought maybe five to ten books a month since I was old enough to spend my own money, and the number has often been much higher: back in New York, when I lived only a short train ride from the Strand and its amazing dollar bin, I probably bought twice that amount, and occasionally even more. And I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that I love buying books for their own sake, and not necessarily because I intend to read most of them cover to cover. (It’s an urge that can only be satisfied with physical books, the older and dustier the better: after more than a year and a half, I don’t think I’ve bought more than ten books for my Kindle.)

Looking around my office now, I’d say I own about a thousand books. This a rough estimate, based on the assumption that I have fifty shelves with twenty books each, which almost certainly undercounts the true number. It also doesn’t include my wife’s two hundred books or so, which live in a separate room: even after close to four years of marriage, we still haven’t integrated our libraries, and we probably never will, given my own obsessive tendencies. The number used to be much larger, too. Before my move to Chicago, I forced myself to reduce my library to what I could fit in six large boxes, meaning that I donated or gave away something like five hundred books. How those six boxes multiplied to fill fifty shelves in less than four years is a mystery I haven’t been able to solve, although the fact that I’ve bought a hundred books a year in the meantime might be a clue. And while my acquisitive tendencies have been slightly reduced by the birth of our daughter—I just don’t have as much time to go to bookstores—it isn’t hard to foresee a future in which the house has been totally taken over by books, a prospect that fills me with delight, although my wife seems a little less enthusiastic.

The author's library

As for how many books I’ve read—well, that’s another question entirely. Even under the most generous assumptions, it’s unlikely that I’ve read more than a couple of thousand books in my adult life, and I obviously acquire books at a greater pace than I could ever hope to finish them. I’m reading all the time, but my browsing tendencies are evident here as well: at any given moment, I usually have one big literary novel I’m trying to finish, a paperback thriller, and four or five nonfiction books in various stages of completion. (These days, for instance, I’m halfway through Infinite Jest, The Fist of God, Inventors at Work, and the letters of Maxwell Perkins, and I’m still technically reading Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns and Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation.) Most of the books on my shelves have been read at least in part, and I take comfort in the fact that they’re always there to be browsed through again. I’ll often pull a random volume from the shelf and leaf through it for a few minutes to relax, and I try to make some quality time now and then for my eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The bottom line is that I’m clearly more of a browser than a reader, and I’m comfortable with this. You see it in every aspect of my life, from the small to the large: it’s possible that I became a novelist mostly as a way to rationalize my browsing. As a result, I’ve become very protective of it. Browsing is an art form, like loafing, that has been compromised by modern technology: it’s properly done in a comfortable chair, with a cup of coffee or something similar, with a book—or a stack of them—that has already passed through the hands of many other readers. Ideally, the book should be a little tattered or yellowed, which makes it seem happy for the attention, even if it’s never going to be read straight through. It requires a fine appreciation of opening a book to a middle and seeing where it takes you, or flirting a bit with a few tempting prospects before committing yourself to an after-dinner read. Above all, it demands a love of the arcane, the obscure, the obsolete, and the useless. And while it’s satisfying enough when done for only a minute or two, it expands to last a lifetime.

Written by nevalalee

May 5, 2015 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

May 5, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Writing for others, writing for yourself

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The author's desk

Note: I’m traveling for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared on May 14, 2013.

Writers are often asked if they write for themselves or for others. In some ways, it’s a meaningless question: most authors wouldn’t have chosen such an uncertain profession if they didn’t obtain personal satisfaction from the process itself, and it’s impossible for a published author to completely ignore the problem of what other people will think. (This can range from writing with a large popular audience in mind to trying to please a particular agent or editor.) Still, you can tell a lot about a writer from where he or she claims to fall on the spectrum. I’ve noted before that some authors write largely to express their own inner thoughts, while others, like me, use it as an excuse to explore the world and experience lives other than their own. And although one category shades imperceptibly into the other, I’d argue that these classifications are still meaningful, if only because they influence the small, specific, daily choices that an author makes about structuring the writing life.

In my case, I learned long ago that to the extent I write for myself, it’s because I enjoy the act of writing enough to want to do it every day. My reasons for being a writer are as selfish as they come: it’s the best use of my time I’ve ever found, and I’ve done everything I can to ensure that I do it as much as possible. Paradoxically, this has led me to focus on a kind of fiction that’s specifically geared toward the pleasure of other readers. It’s never a simple matter to make a living as a novelist, but I’ve concluded, rightly or wrongly, that it’s marginally easier when you’re writing for the mainstream than for a more literary audience: there’s a reason why most literary novelists also teach, which is a way of life that I’ve never found particularly appealing. I’ve also found that I enjoy myself more as a writer when I’m working on an interesting story problem than when I’m engaging in agonized self-exploration. As a result, after a few years when I wasn’t sure which course I wanted to take, I’ve found myself essentially working as a suspense novelist, which I still think was the right choice.

Kurt Vonnegut

In other words, I write books I hope other readers will enjoy, but only because that’s the mode of writing that makes me happiest. (It’s also possible that my skills are better suited for popular fiction than for literary fiction, which demands reserves of patience, verging on masochism, that I’m not sure I possess.) And although I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience firsthand, I suspect that many of the choices of emphasis a writer makes—of style, plot, subject matter—arise less from purely artistic considerations than from the subjective experience of the writing life. When you devote six or more hours of each day to writing, not to mention much of your time when you’re away from your desk, you start to think very carefully about what kinds of thoughts you want to carry around in your head. Some writers get enormous satisfaction from obsessively polishing the same handful of sentences; others from cracking tough characters and making them live on the page; and still others from capturing inexpressible elements of their own experience. These are the ones who often seem to be writing for themselves, but no more so, I’d argue, than those who appear to write primarily for others.

I should note that I’m not talking about writing exclusively with an eye to the market, which is an approach that rarely pays off: in a profession in which a writer has little control over anything except how he spends his time, it’s unwise to waste that freedom in pursuing something so elusive as commercial success, which in any case is out of our hands. It’s more a question of getting more pleasure in standing temporarily outside one’s own head than in plunging into it more deeply. When done with the proper diligence and care, writing for others becomes a particularly satisfying way of writing for yourself: it gives you something like a pure confrontation with craft, as well as a way of becoming someone else—a character, an idea, an ideal reader—for a short time. Kurt Vonnegut, in his eight rules for writing fiction, says to aspiring writers: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” That’s a good rule for writers of all kinds to follow, and it’s all the more useful when you realize that the first stranger you need to please is yourself.

Written by nevalalee

May 4, 2015 at 9:00 am

Posted in Writing

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Quote of the Day

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Niklaus Wirth

A good designer must rely on experience; on precise, logical thinking; and on pedantic exactness. No magic will do.

Niklaus Wirth

Written by nevalalee

May 4, 2015 at 7:30 am

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The pieces of a puzzle

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Walter Pater

It has been said, and repeated, that [Walter] Pater composed his best sentences without any relation to a context, and wrote them down on little squares of paper, ready to stick them in at appropriate and effective places. This is nonsense; it is quite true that he used such squares of paper, but it was for a very different purpose. He read with a box of these squares beside him, jotting down on each, very roughly, anything in his author which struck his fancy, either giving an entire quotation, or indicating a reference, or noting a disposition. He did not begin, I think, any serious critical work without surrounding himself by dozens of these little loose notes…

These papers would be placed about him, like pieces in a puzzle, and when the right moment came the proper square would serve as a monitor or as a guide.

Edmund Gosse, “Walter Pater: A Portrait”

Written by nevalalee

May 3, 2015 at 7:30 am

“Art is a theory about the way the world looks…”

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Self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh

In a way, art is a theory about the way the world looks to human beings. It’s abundantly obvious that one doesn’t know the world around us in detail. What artists have accomplished is realizing that there’s only a small amount of stuff that’s important, and then seeing what it was. So they can do some of my research for me. When you look at early stuff of Van Gogh there are zillions of details that are put into it, there’s always an immense amount of information in his paintings. It obviously occurred to him, what is the irreducible amount of this stuff that you have to put in. Or you can study the horizons in Dutch ink drawings from around 1600, with tiny trees and cows that look very real. If you look closely, the trees have sort of leafy boundaries, but it doesn’t work if that’s all it is—there are also, sticking in it, little pieces of twiglike stuff. There’s a definite interplay between the softer textures and the things with more definite lines. Somehow the combination gives the correct proportion. With Ruysdael and Turner, if you look at the way they construct complicated water, it is clearly done in an iterative way. There’s some level of stuff, and then stuff painted on top of that, and then corrections to that…

I truly do want to know how to describe clouds. But to say there’s a piece over here with that much density, and next to it a piece with this much density—to accumulate that much detailed information, I think is wrong. It’s certainly not how a human being perceives those things, and it’s not how an artist perceives them.

Mitchell Feigenbaum, quoted by James Gleick in Chaos

Written by nevalalee

May 2, 2015 at 7:30 am

Stories old and new

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Beware of the kappa, or kawataro!

I’m pleased to announce that Analog Science Fiction and Fact has picked up my novelette “Stonebrood,” which looks like it should appear in print later this year. It’s my first new piece there in some time, and it’s a good one—which might seem like an odd statement for its author to make. In fact, I’ve noticed a Star Trek-style pattern of quality in my recent stories, with decent efforts (“Ernesto,” “The Whale God”) alternating with works that feel maybe a little weaker in retrospect (“The Voices,” “Cryptids”). “Stonebrood,” fortunately, comes on the upswing, and it’s probably the closest thing to a “classic” story of mine I’ve published in quite a while: it’s plotty, dark, and set against the kind of backdrop I like, in this case a coal seam fire raging underground in central Pennsylvania. I hope you all enjoy it.

If there’s one story that feels like the embodiment of what I do best, within my admittedly narrow range, it’s “Kawataro,” which first appeared in Analog in June 2011. As it happens, I’ll be reading from it tonight at an event sponsored by the Chicago Writers Conference, where I’ll be appearing along with Nami Mun, Vu Tran, and my wife Wailin Wong. I chose “Kawataro” in part because of its Asian themes—the reading is timed to coincide with Asian Pacific Heritage Month—and because, frankly, it may be the strongest story I’ve ever written, or at least the one that I tend to revisit the most. I’ve only got ten minutes at the podium, so I won’t be able to get through it all, but I’ve posted the entire story here. If you’ve never read it, please check it out: I went over it the other day, and I’d say it holds up pretty well. (I’ve also described its origins in detail.) And if you’re in Chicago this evening, I’d love to see you there.

Written by nevalalee

May 1, 2015 at 8:44 am


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